Books for Cooks

January 21st, 2010

OK, so you want to get serious about cooking, and the online recipe sites just aren’t cutting it any more?  Here’s some reading material.

Books for Cooks

Kitchen Confidential

This book more than any other really got me interested to learn more about food and cooking.  It’s not a cookbook, but a memoir of a professional chef working in a busy kitchen.  The book gets quite raunchy at times, which is just delightful.  Bourdain is making a TV show and traveling the world now, but this book details his rougher earlier years.  It’s not just interesting but also incredibly entertaining and well written.  Brutally honest:

“Most diners believe that their sublime sliver of seared foie gras, topped with an ethereal buckwheat blini and a drizzle of piquant huckleberry sauce, was created by a culinary artist of the highest order, a sensitive, highly refined executive chef. The truth is more brutal. More likely, writes Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, that elegant three-star concoction is the collaborative effort of a team of “wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths,” in all likelihood pierced or tattooed and incapable of uttering a sentence without an expletive or a foreign phrase.”

But Bourdain’s book isn’t all about the ruffians behind our entrees at the local restaurant.  What comes through all of his experiences and thoughts about working in a commercial kitchen is, at the end of the day, a real love of food which is very inspiring.

It’s About the Food

Moving on to the actual cooking.  Much of what the world likes to eat originated in the kitchens of the poor.  There is perhaps no greater source of innovation than necessity.  When only tough, fatty pieces of meat and average, at best, vegetables were available, people worked extra hard to find ways to make them delicious.  Many of these “peasant” dishes are now being refined into haute cuisine.  The French in particular have mastered ways to turn just about any ingredient into something.  French cooking is an excellent place to start learning about food and how the basics work.  That’s why I’ve chosen three French-based cookbooks for this post.

There are many recipes online at sites like epicurious and allrecipes.  And that’s fine, just fine.  However, I have found that if you want to learn how to really cook, you should turn to old fashioned printed paper cookbooks.  A well written cookbook isn’t about recipes.  It’s about knowledge, experience, inspiration and instruction; the pages of a good cookbook teach you about food rather than simply listing out ingredients and steps to follow.  I want to share some of the books that really inspired me and continue to do so.

Above all, these books will change you from a business man, a housewife or a college kid who can cook into someone who is a cook.  You will think like a cook.  You will shop like a cook.  You will eat like a cook.

Books for Cooks

Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Oh, Julia.  Her timeless classic tome and introduction to French cooking.  I don’t need to say much about this book.  It’s the place to start.  One thing I love about this book is that, rather than just listing out the steps, it teaches you how things work.  Make the Hollandaise sauce in a pot over a low flame with a whisk and you will begin to understand some of what real cooking means.  This is the place to learn traditional French cooking, and Julia made it accessible and understandable to Americans before it was cool.  Julia had a head start on everybody.  We’re talking 1961 here, when we were all still eating canned vegetables and meatloaf.  Now everybody wants to be a real cook.  And a lot of it is Julia’s work.

Books for Cooks

Les Halles Cookbook

Now that you’ve learned the basics from Julia, how about a look at the recipes used at a real, busy French bistro in New York?  Written by the author of Kitchen Confidential in the same direct, honest and sometimes offensive language.  I like the conversational and entertaining tone of the recipes.   Bourdain writes as if he’s giving you advice on your first day at a busy kitchen.  Well written and entertaining chapters on prep, equipment and mise en place (setting up the cooking environment).  Plus the hardcover version is wrapped in what feels like butcher’s paper, ready to be smeared and soaked with food, which is a plus.

Just please, if you try his recipe for Aioli, don’t add half the oil to the egg mixture before blending.  It doesn’t work.  Every other recipe, brilliant.

Books for Cooks

The French Laundry Cookbook

This is the existential, heavy, heady stuff.  This is the cookbook you pour through page by page, taking in the gigantic heavenly photos and the notes from Keller.  Many of the recipes may be beyond what you will ever do in life.  If there is one chef out there today that everyone agrees really knows his stuff, it’s got to be Thomas Keller.  Keller’s book is based on the food served at his restaurant in California, which has a months-long waiting list and prices upwards of $300/person.  I’ve not dined there yet myself, but I’ve read it’s worth every penny.  I have cooked from The French Laundry Cookbook, however, and I’m a believer.  The recipes here are wonderful and, frankly, often difficult to master and/or find proper ingredients for.

You’ve got to hit these recipes right.  Keller is obsessive about fresh, high quality ingredients in season.  He takes great care to select and prepare things in his unique ways.  This book will take you to the next level, but you’ve got to be willing to put in the work.  Can’t stand the thought of making your own stock or picking out fresh herbs?  The thought of simmering something for 7 hours upsets you?  Won’t go looking for some hard-to-find vegetable or cut of meat?  Don’t bother picking this book up.  But you should.  You really should.  Keller is the antithesis to Rachel Ray’s 30 minute meals.  And that’s a very good thing.

If you get this far, there is no turning back.  You are never going to look at food the same way again.  You’ll spend most of your weekends making stock and doing deep prep, and you’ll love every minute of it.  Your family will eat well, and more importantly they will eat real.

P.S. – a side note: Americans really need to learn to eat.  Why are we so afraid of food?  Tough cuts of meat, blood, guts and raw foods are the roots of food.  If we could just wake up and look around at the world, we’d see that we are living in a bubble.  We eat the beef tenderloin, the salmon filet and the boneless chicken breast and throw 80% of the animal away; all while we talk about saving resources and going “green.”

Books for Cooks
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“How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”
~ Julia Child