By Pete Goffe-Wood.
I’ve always been wary of chefs who say they don’t read cookbooks. How do you continue to educate yourself without reading; how do you expand your own consciousness and repertoire if not through reading?
I don’t mean that chefs should just thumb through pages and hi-jack ideas – well-written cookbooks can be inspirational, informative, hilarious and bloody helpful at times. You don’t have to follow the recipes religiously nor keep strictly to the ingredients listed – these are merely guidelines. Let your own creative juices run riot!
When I first started working in London, Dan Evans, my head chef at the time, asked me a question that ultimately changed how I viewed my craft. He simply asked, “Who are you reading?”. Upon finding out that I wasn’t “reading” anyone in particular, he issued me a long look of scorn followed by an even longer list of writers and told me that would get me started.
Dan’s reading list not only got me started, it got me addicted, and it can be quite an expensive habit. I now look for books wherever I travel and there is nothing quite as satisfying as unearthing a treasure in a second-hand book shop or market stall. I began collecting the Time Life Good Cook series, one of the most informative and detailed cookbook series ever written, that is now, alas, out of print.
It took me over 10 years to hunt down all 30 volumes, and I always used to carry a list of the outstanding editions in my wallet in case I discovered one somewhere. As beautiful as the series is I think I was more obsessed with finding the books rather than reading them and when I triumphantly uncovered the final volume it was a bit anti-climactic as my 10 year quest was now over. I prefer most of the older writers (most of whom were the ones that Dan jotted down), the likes of Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, and Marcella Hazan, whose writings were not just anthologies of recipes but insightful and engaging commentary on modern life.
These days chefs and restaurants churn out book after book and it’s become like the mutual masturbation society, food porn with loads of glossy pictures but no insight, no whys and wherefores.
I’m as interested in where the recipes originate from as in the recipe itself, sometimes more so!
A classic example is my go-to lemon tart recipe. (It’s a recipe that most chefs will recognise as it is very widely used.)
The basics are:
Juice and zest of 5 lemons
The idea is that you mix all of the ingredients together and leave overnight before straining and pouring into a blind baked pastry shell.
This recipe I gleaned from one of the kitchens I worked in London and it comes from Marco Pierre White’s ground-breaking book, White Heat. It turns out that he got the recipe while working at La Gavroche under Albert Roux. Here is a 40 year-old lemon tart recipe that thousands of chefs have used. This is what I want from cookbooks – not just measures and method.
Here, in alphabetical order, are my 10 most treasured and well used books. Some contain recipes I’ve relied on for years and some are just inspirational reading.
Bouchon by Thomas Keller
Although Thomas Keller is more famous for his fine dining restaurant The French Laundry, it is his bistro classics from Bouchon Bistro that appeal to me, thanks to their simplicity and honesty. The recipes are very ingredients and process driven, and Keller’s kitchen staples are the backbone of any good kitchen. These are recipes that all chefs and aspiring home cooks would do well to learn.
Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery by Jane Grigson
If you’ve ever fancied making your own sausages, curing your own meats or simply want to make a rustic pate or terrine, there is only one book and this is it. From simple Toulouse hand-chopped pork sausages, to salting and curing your own hams for Christmas, this is definitely the enthusiast’s handbook.
Chez Panisse Cooking by Paul Bertolli with Alice Waters
Alice Waters, restaurateur and chef, shaped a whole generation’s perception of the role of regional and seasonal produce. These recipes are from her eponymous restaurant in Berkeley, California, where she has offered a simple, daily changing four-course set menu since 1972. Only the finest wines are available and all of the ingredients are either grown on her own farm or are reared, grown or produced within the valley that surrounds.
Cutting Edge, A Cook’s Californian Inspiration by Richard Whittington
The passion and humour with which this book is written is what inspired me to begin writing. Anyone with the gumption to refer to commercially produced mayonnaise as “having the consistency of genital lubricant” is alright by me. Brian Mi Sui’s mind-blowing artwork perfectly completes this awesome volume.
Keep it Simple by Alastair Little and Richard Whittington
A groundbreaking chef and cutting edge food writer collaborate on this inspiring work that is a homage to simplicity and fine ingredients. I had the good fortune to work with both of them in London and cooked the food for the launch of this book.
Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson
With a reverence for ingredients and simplicity, Hopkinson’s recipes have infiltrated most modern kitchens. There is an old school charm about his writing and his recipes will be come stalwarts in your own culinary arsenal.
Serve it Forth by M.F.K. Fisher
This is definitely one of the most delightful reads you’ll come across: Fisher’s ascorbic wit and scathing rebuke of any “uncivilised” table of kitchen practices make for engaging reading. This book contains my all-time favourite food quote:
“And above all, friends should posses the rare gift of sitting. They should be able, no, eager to sit for hours – three, four, six – over a meal of soup and wine and cheese, as well as one of twenty fabulous courses.
Then with good friends of such attributes, and good food on the table, and good wine in the pitcher, we may well ask, When shall we live if not now?”
Stars Desserts by Emily Luchetti
This is my dessert bible, whether you’re looking for basic pancake batter of the three layered chocolate cake that could bring back the dead – anything from biscuits to brioche and beyond. I have a more savoury palate and so I’m always struggling to come up with yummy dessert ideas – this book is all I’ve ever needed. [Ed’s note – Stars was the name of an iconic San Francisco restaurant run by Jeremiah Tower, the subject of a Netflix documentary called The Last Magnificent]
Summer Cooking by Elizabeth David
This amazing book was written in the 60s and is still relevant today. At that time it revolutionised cooking in Great Britain and dragged a nation kicking and screaming out of a post WW2 ration mentality, introducing British households and restaurants to a Mediterranean style of cooking, the influence of which is still felt today. David is one of the greatest and most influential food writers of modern times. This is my favourite of her numerous books and the recipes celebrate everything we know and love about summer.
White Heat by Macro Pierre White
The original “bad boy” of the kitchen, probably the first celebrity chef, long before it even became a label and not because of any television appearances or such malarkey, but because his was the hottest restaurant in London: at the time he was the youngest chef ever to achieve a Michelin star and the first English chef ever to achieve two at one establishment. His restaurant Harveys on Wandsworth Common was where every model, movie producer, rock star or tycoon wanted to dine and see if this precocious talent would boil over and throw some celebrity out on the street. It was known as one of the hardest kitchens to work in but was producing the most cutting edge cuisine in London at the time. This book and the moody photos taken by Carlos Clarke helped to launch to the very first culinary “rock star”. [Ed’s last note – Yes, this restaurant name apparently did not contain an apostrophe, so perhaps referred to a collection of people called Harvey. It was also allegedly where White reduced Gordon Ramsay to a “blubbering wreck”]
As an 11th book I’ve included my new favourite as it embodies everything I want in a book, it even says so on the cover – “a book about cooking” and Higgs delivers, in spades. He takes us on a very emotional journey, one that is not full of bravado and sabre-rattling about all his achievements and awards, of which he has earned many; but rather an honest and endearing journey through his highs and lows where he pays tribute along the way to all that have either mentored him, stood by him or worked under him in order for him to achieve the various life successes that he has. Of course the food is beautiful but so is the rest of this book as Higgs bears his soul and extends an intimate invitation to share his journey. Don’t make the mistake of hoping someone will buy you a copy for Christmas – it will be sold out by then. Treat yourself and buy it immediately, you wont be sorry.