Do have cookbooks in your house? Do you use ‘em, and if so, how do you do that? Weird questions? I don’t think so, really – it’s a thing that maybe we should discuss more. It’s an opportunity for me to share some love I don’t think I’ve really every fleshed out before.
First off, have you read any cookbooks, cover to cover, page burner style? If not, I suggest you’ve not yet found the great ones – James Beard’s American Cookery, Claudia Rosen’s Book of Jewish Food, Marcela Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Grace Young’s Breath of a Wok, Diana Kennedy’s Essential Cuisines of Mexico, Rick Bayless’ Authentic Mexican, Shizuoka Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking, Fuchsia Dunlop’s Food of Sichuan, Lihn Nguyen’s Lemongrass Ginger & Mint, Claudia Rosen’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden’s The Food of Spain, Georgia Friedman’s Cooking South of the Clouds, Grace Young’s Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, Jeffrey Weiss’ Charcuteria, Carolyn Phillips’ All Under Heaven, Toni Tipton-Martin’s Jubilee, Felicia Campbell’s Food of Oman. Every single book in that list will captivate you – They’re meant to be consumed like the amazing cuisines and techniques they lovingly describe.
Others are more for reference, like Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, Page & Dornenberg’s Flavor Bible, Shirley Corriher’s Bakewise, Russell Van Kraayenburg’s Making Dough, Kenji Alt-Lopez’s The Food Lab, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, Josh & Jessica Applestone’s Butchers Guide to Well Raised Meat, Ruhlman’s Ratios, Ruhlman and Polson’s Charcuterie, Larousse Gastronomique, The Escoffier Cookbook – These provide a solid grounding in the science, technique, and history behind what we do in the kitchen – you’ll go back to those again and again over the years.
Celebrity cookbooks are, by and large coffee table stuff meant to impress and delight the eye, though there are notable exceptions. I should clarify that the pablum put out by TV or social media created people who’ve never worked a shift in a kitchen in their lives, and who generally couldn’t cook their way out of a paper bag on their own are not even considered herein – those folks and their output should be roundly ignored.
Stuff written by and with chefs who really can cook is another matter. While the books they offer tend to be part of their brand as much as anything, don’t discount the fact that most of those folks have put in their time and got where they got because they know their stuff. Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook was written with Ruhlman, so it’s done well without a doubt, and that Chef wants to share what he knows and loves. Bourdain was by his own admission a journeyman Chef, but he was CIA trained and steeped in French country food, and his Les Halles cookbook is a joy. Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin book is stunningly good, and his 32 Yokes memoir is a delight.
Memoirs from real Chefs are wonderful genre. If you’ve never read Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’ s raucous tell all that brought him to fame, you must do so. Bill Bruford’s Heat, Amy Thielen’s Give a Girl a Knife, Bob Spitz’ Dearie, Anya Von Bremsen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, M. F. K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating, James Beards Delights and Prejudices, Jacque Pepin’s The Apprentice, Jonathan Gold’s Counter Intelligence, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood Bones and Butter, and Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat, just to name a very few – There are stunning gems in this genre, and delightful tales.
Anyway, those cookbooks you got – I asked, ‘what do you do with them?’ It’s a serious question to wrap up this ramble. If, gods forbid, you’re just copying a recipe now and again, you’re frankly wasting the true magic of this genre. In a nutshell, that magic is this – If you read a cookbook, really read it – study it, work with, take some notes about what you really liked – let’s say one of Grace Young’s stellar offerings, like Breath of a Wok, then you’ll reap some of the passion and energy she put into that work. More to the point, one day out of the blue, you’ll think ‘I’m gonna do a stir fry,’ and before you know it, you’ll be pulling the core ingredients for that – veggies, herbs, sauce ingredients, without much of a thought. When that happens, then you’re getting what you should out of that wonderful book – and somewhere, a Chef-Author smiles.