People ask me what cookbooks I recommend and there are really one two because for almost everything I now go to the Internet. There are so many food websites that it is impossible to distill it down to a simple favorites list, and on YouTube there are videos for every technique imagineable that are more valuable than anything written attempting to explain it.
I have a good collection of cookbooks on my shelf and I do find myself paging through them on occasion. Some are obscure, like Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. David, British, was a contemporary of Julia Child who traveled the world and returned to Britain after World War II only to be dismayed by the bad food and poor cooking traditions. Her books on French and Italian foods are substantial in every regard, but not my favorites because they reflect food traditions and ingredients of the 1960s.
There are other books on my shelf that are contemporary and revealing in expected ways, like Thomas Keller’s French Laundry book. There is no finer example of food literature that connects love for food with the creative process, traditions and respect for what nature provides us than this book. I enjoyed reading this just for the opportunity to get into Keller’s head.
I also have an outstanding book on sauces, simply called Modern Sauces, that I picked up as part of my pursuit to become more comfortable as a saucier. I use this book quite often and consider it a staple book, but not a replacement for the Internet and that is the problem with cookbooks today. There are quite a few books on sous vide cooking but I find the resources available on the internet to be far more comprehensive and interesting.
There are two cookbooks that I would pull off the shelf and jealously guard from removal. The first is The Professional Chef by the Culinary Institute. At 1,200 pages, this is a monster that has rightly been called the bible for chefs. There is no techique, ingredient, preparation or tool not covered here and going through the pages is a master course in cooking, only surpassed by actual experience in the kitchen. This book is a must-have in every serious kitchen.
Everything about The Professional Chef is highlight worthy. The photography is thorough and detailed, the descriptions are easy to follow, and the explanations about what is happening to the ingredients as they are combined is comprehensive. Techniques are explained in detail and traditional techniques benefit from modern tools rather than the tired approach of “make 500 omelettes before using a nonstick pan” that traditionalists often take.
The second book I would take with me is a relatively recent one from someone who has a long history as a cookbook author, The Essential Pépin by Jacques Pépin. I recall reading an interview with his book editor who recalled how challenging it was to publish this book because Pépin compiled all 700 recipes himself. That succinctly captures the man who is one of the greatest living chefs today, a workhorse.
Pépin is special for me because it was watching him on PBS, before dedicated food channels and the celebration of everything deep-fried, that lit the fire in me to cook. His exhaustive repoitoire was only surpassed by how easy he made everything look. It is important to highlight there are two kinds of easy when it comes to cooking. The first is easy because the professional or prosumer chef has done it enough to perfect it and they make it look easy, the second is the chef who makes everything look achievable in addition to easy. The latter is Pépin and that along with his storytelling ability is what I love about him.
My wife and I met him in Bloomingdale’s a few years ago, he was taping promotional video for this book and stained his clothes and was in need of replacements. There he was in Bloomingdale’s standing in line in front of us with a pair of chinos and a shirt. I introduced myself and told him how impactful his cooking show was for me. I will never forget how generous with his time he was and sincerely nice a person he was, a rare case of the personality you see on television matching the real man.
Pépin’s Essential book is a masterpiece in every respect, from the recipes to the back stories he tells on each. Like Keller’s book, I learned about the chef as much as the food, and thoroughly enjoy reading it today as much as when I got it. A cookbook has to be about more than just the food.
It is hard to imagine a scenario where cookbooks will resurge and I wouldn’t recomend someone buy a cookbook when the vast corpus of content available in digital form is what it is, but there are a few exceptions. I have highlighted several and what interests me about these cookbooks is that they explain why something is the way it is as much as how to prepare the thing. That reason is why I absolutely love Cooks Illustrated, they are an objective source for what is best but also how it works, but even here the digital version has surpassed the print. Just last year I let my print subscription lapse in order to subscribe to the digital version, which is updated daily and has full access via search to the content archive. My print versions have not been opened in months.