I admit two things up front: first, I’m old school, and I’m tempted to list the first several books written by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin and let it go at that, having fulfilled my obligation to you, and spoken the truth all at the same time.
Second, lists like this are subjective. Line up ten chefs and ask for their lists and you will get many, many variations on the theme. And, while opinions, all would be just as valid.
This list was in some ways easy for me. A few are important touchstones – cookbooks that got me started and to which I return to this day. Others because I think every good cook should have them for right now, and for the future.
That said, I give you:
1) La Technique, An Illustrated Guide to the Fundamental Techniques of Cooking by Jacques Pepin. Published 1976 by Quadrangle. I love this book. When I find myself asking “how do I do that?”, this is the book I grab first. From Lesson One: Position du Couteau (Holding the Knife), and preparing Black Truffle Flowers, to how to make the most incredible gravlax, this is the best step-by-step, black and white photo-laced cookbook available. I think of it as a 470 page culinary school.
2) The Way To Cook, by Julia Child. Published in 1989 by Alfred A. Knopf. Name someone you consider to be a good cook and chances are he or she has at least one cookbook by this incredible woman. As French as Jacques is, Julia is 100% American, taking the same basic French culinary lessons and showing us what to do with them. The section on how to correctly prepare the perfect hard boiled egg alone is worth the price of this book.
3) Cookwise, The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking, by Shirley O. Corriher, Published 1997, William Morrow and Company. When the question on your mind is “What the heck…?”, this is the book you want. Shirley is a one of the best-known food scientists today, and a regular on Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” TV show on Food Network. Her art is taking the mystery out of cooking, and she’s very, very good at her art.
4) The Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum Published 1988 by William Morrow and Company. If you have only one book on cakes, let it be this one. For the cook who has no “feel for flour” (raising my hand here) to the accomplished baker, The Cake Bible takes you through the world of cakes, from the mandatory “you gotta have this stuff to get started” section and basic butter cakes, through more applications of chocolate than even the most intense chocolate fan can imagine, and dozens of variations of everything. Even if you don’t bake all that many cakes, this should be on your bookshelf.
5) The Joslin Diabetes Great Chefs Cook Healthy Cookbook, by Frances Towner Giedt and Bonnie Sanders Polin 2003, Published by Simon and Schuster. I include this on the list for two very important reasons: first, it’s a terrific collection of recipes from some of the best known, most talented chefs on the planet today. Second, because diabetes is the coming affliction for most Americans, the price we’ll pay tomorrow for the way we eat today. This cookbook will help you survive and continue to enjoy good cooking.
That’s the list. Did I leave out your favorites? No doubt (as I type this, my squeeze is questioning my sanity for not including “The Joy of Cooking”). But I encourage you to start with these, learn from them and go from there. Cooking isn’t magic, but the lessons found in these books will help you make it look like magic.
And by all means, let me know what your favorite cookbooks might be.
La Technique pic, courtesy Amazon.con
Way To Cook pic, courtesy bphouse.com
Cookwise pic, courtesy the culinarycafe.com
The Cake Bible pic, courtesy Amazon.com
Joslin pic, courtesy joslin.org
Kent McDonald is a Certified Personal Chef, living and working in Phoenix, AZ. All Rights Reserves (c) 2009