Which chef cookbooks really work for home cooks?
This holiday season has seen an amazing collection of restaurant cookbooks, the big gorgeous photo-driven catalogs that seem designed primarily to document what is after all our most fleeting art form – cooking.
But pretty as they are to look at, most of these are not actually intended to be cooked from. Granted, there are certainly hardy hobbyists out there who are saving up for a Thermomix to go next to their sous-vide circulator, but they are the exceptions.
So which books do people really cook from? Which chefs do the best job of teaching you all of those little, vital techniques and tips they have learned over years of practice? Which books make it so that you can -- in your own kitchen -- come pretty close to replicating what they create in their restaurants?
I put the question to my Facebook friends and got a wide range of responses. One thing that became very clear was that I needed to be more specific in my question.
First of all, a “chef” is not someone who is a good cook or a good recipe writer – it is someone who runs a restaurant. Julia Child may have had a television show called “The French Chef,” but she was not one and never claimed to be.
Nor was I asking about people who had once been chefs and later became writers. For example, my old friend Deborah Madison qualifies as a chef writer for her “Greens Cookbook,” which was based on her San Francisco restaurant, but not for her epic “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone,” though it may be an even better book.
To make my task even harder, I arbitrarily narrowed my list to only a dozen -- meaning I had to make some tough choices and leave off some really good books.
“The Zuni Café Cookbook” by Judy Rodgers – Am I being sentimental when I think of this as my favorite restaurant cookbook ever? Maybe, but it certainly belongs in the conversation. The late San Francisco chef (she died last week) painstakingly explains every step of almost every one of her classic dishes. It is an education as much as a recipe collection.
“Happy in the Kitchen” by Michel Richard – From another old friend, I think this is a sadly overlooked book. Richard is one of the most creative cooks around, a guy who can take everyday ingredients and see something in them none of the rest of us can. And in this book, he shows you how to work that magic.
“Authentic Mexican” by Rick Bayless – This was a tough choice, not because it’s not a great book, but because it’s not strictly a restaurant cookbook. In the end, I figured since it represents the food served at Bayless’ Frontera Grill, I’d include it. It’s also one of the best and most useful introductions to Mexican street food you’ll find.
“Bouchon” by Thomas Keller – Keller puts the same attention to detail in producing his cookbooks as he does almost everything else. The photography is terrific, the writing is evocative and, mirabile dictu, the recipes are surefire. Also recommended, “Ad Hoc at Home,” “Bouchon Bakery” and – for you deep-end divers – “The French Laundry.”
“Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen” – An oldie but goodie. There had been restaurant cookbooks before, but this was the book that turned them into a marketing category. Cajun cooking seems largely to have faded from the popular conscience, but if you ever want to know what it was all about, this is the place to learn. And the food is delicious.
“Chez Panisse Desserts” by Lindsey Remolif Shere – Toss in Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse Fruits,” “Chez Panisse Vegetables” and “Chez Panisse Café Cookbook” and you’ve got a really good collection for anyone interested in learning to cook in the California manner. These are the books that I turn to for inspiration more than any other and they almost never disappoint.
“Simply French” by Joël Robuchon and Patricia Wells – Cutting-edge (for the ‘80s) French cuisine interpreted for the masses. This is one of the rare books that promises three-star cuisine and actually delivers. Granted, the constructions are not what you would have found at Jamin, but the complexity of flavors and finish are amazing. This is one of those “Hey, look at what I made” cookbooks.
“Simple to Spectacular” by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman – What a great concept: Take a simple combination of ingredients and let a really talented chef explain how to combine them in dishes ranging from everyday (well, everyday by Vongerichten’s standards) to exalted. This is a book that teaches you how to think about food, and the recipes really work.
“Plenty” by Yotam Ottolenghi – This is a carnival ride of a cookbook. Ottolenghi uses commonplace ingredients and basic techniques but turns out delicious food that is almost shocking in its novelty. I think I’ve given at least a half-dozen copies to friends, who have all come back converted.
“Daniel Boulud's Cafe Boulud Cookbook” by Daniel Boulud and Dorie Greenspan – This is a pretty demanding collection of recipes – Boulud doesn’t dumb things down for the home cook – but if you are willing to pay attention to detail and take the necessary care, you’ll cook in ways you may never have imagined.
“Greens Cookbook” by Deborah Madison – Remember when vegetarian cuisine meant beige nut loaf? You don’t? Thank Deborah Madison for that. At Greens, she created dishes that were certainly vegetarian but did not compromise on flavor or beauty. And in this book she offers recipes that will show you how to do the same.
“Sunday Suppers at Lucques” by Suzanne Goin with Teri Gelber – If you wanted to show a visiting space alien how Southern Californians were entertaining each other in the 2000s, you would only need to open this book. The food is composed but casual, vividly flavored but comforting, and full of the kinds of dishes you just can’t wait to cook for your friends.
Want more choices? Here is a sampling of other books that just missed the cut: Nancy Silverton and Carolyn Carreno “The Mozza Cookbook,” April Bloomfield “A Girl and Her Pig,” Ana Sortun “Spice,” David Chang “Momofuku,” Eric Ripert “A Return to Cooking,” Paul Bertolli “Cooking by Hand,” Ozcan Ozan “Sultan’s Kitchen,” Carlo Middione "The Food of Southern Italy," and Claudia Fleming “The Last Course.”