Friday, 24 August 2012

Cooking the Books

    As I sit in the late night dark of my office; lit only by monitor’s harsh glow, I am stumped.  How, by Marco’s unruly mane or Gordon’s furrowed brow can I even attempt to condense my vast collection of cookbooks into ten that stand above all others?  Those most worn would indicate the most use.  Those like new might have found a place of high esteem, a desire to keep their superior photos in top form or to cement their coffee table status.  However sliced; this list will be in no way definitive, but you can be sure they’ll all be worth a purchase.
    What of cookbooks?  Why is it that a nation not known for its home cooking often finds the culinary arts topping the bestseller charts?  A large part of the answer may be found in the very question.  The popularity of chefs/cooks/celebrities and their glossy offspring are at the very forefront of current British culture and everyone has to have the latest Jamie, Hugh, Gordon or Nigella.  The zippy MTV style programs that often pre-empt the books certainly aid the process along.  Sex sells and riding the rails of just how the lighting hits Nigella as she pours silken chocolate sauce whilst grazing an expectant digit, or the barely contained overload of testosterone a la Ramsey all hit their intended marks.  Whether you fancy the unfussy bish bosh blah of Jamie or the impossible to attain idyllic prose of Hugh, there is a package for everyone to buy.  Every personality type and lifestyle aspiration can find its corresponding chef patron.  I would love to see the great names of this culinary golden age put out books when they have something new to offer, not just linked to a TV program or biannual contractual obligations.  And for the love of foie gras, make sure the recipes work!  
    Don’t take this as cynicism.  I revel in a lot of what’s on show, but I dare say my chef filters are slightly more attuned than the layperson.  I suppose cookbooks are a lot like knives; you only use a few good ones, funny how all the rest stack up over time.  And let’s not forget, I’d bloody love to do one myself!  
And now, in no particular order...ten of my favs.  

Nose to Tail Eating
Fergus Henderson

The importance of this book and its corresponding London restaurant St. John cannot be overestimated.  The seismic shift that occurred within the culinary world due to this Spartan tome still reverberates every time a chef puts roast bone marrow with parsley salad centre stage.  Fergus Henderson reminded everyone it was time for a return to primacy.  Heavy on offal, big on gp’s and wonderfully unique photography; Nose to Tail Eating and to a lesser extent its successor, Beyond Nose to Tail, will stand all tests of time as faffy trends come and go.

Michel Roux & Martin Brigdale

A classic. Simple, clear, practical...but what really lifts this book to the top is Brigdale’s masterful photography.  I would go so far as to say that he inspired M&S for that advertising campaign.  Bright, bold and sensual photos inspiring the reader to make the food.  A must have for home and professional cook alike.  An abridged saucier’s handbook.  One can rarely go wrong with a Roux involved.

Week in Week Out
Simon Hopkinson

One of the most used books from my shelf.  A collection of Simon’s work from The Independent Saturday magazine; it goes a lot in saying I am not a fan of Jason Lowe’s food photography, yet I still turn to this book again and again.  That’s how good are the recipes.  I love putting my presentations on Simon's preparations and I deeply respect the effort he puts into ensuring the recipes work and how his cap is so oft doffed to those that have inspired his path.  

White Heat
Marco Pierre White

A book that broke the mould.  The enfant terrible at the cresting of his powers.  Perfectly chronicled in Marco soundbites and Bob Carlos Clarke’s stark canonizing of the man.  Partly to blame for the martyr game us chefs play that is only now starting to wane under the glaring lights of human rights and health and safety.  Difficult reading the recipes; but the ravioli, the lamb en crepinette, the peach Melba version.  Wonderful.
‘At the end of the day it’s just food, isn’t it?  Just food.’  

Keep it Simple
Alastair Little

An old faithful full of love and great recipes.  Add superb photography and stunning illustrations to secure its position.  Hailing from 1997,  Alastair’s food was being called ‘modern British’ and yet bears no resemblance to the molecular jazz or cookie cut out Michelin presentations we witness today.  An interesting footnote into how labelling and pigeonholing creates confusion.  Just eat! 

Thai Food
David Thompson

A bible.  If you own only one book on Thai food, this is your purchase.  A definitive compilation of meticulous research elevated to reference status.  A culinary masterpiece of culture, history and of course, recipes.  Many of Thompson’s dishes have become my ‘go to’ favourites for entertaining or buffets.

The French Laundry
Thomas Keller & Michael Ruhlman

The French Laundry restaurant is a culinary benchmark recorded forever in this sacred book.  A flawless must have made marvelous by the great technician and zen monk of cookery, Thomas Keller, the masterful food writer Michael Ruhlman and ground breaking photographer Deborah Jones.  The detail, format and sheer style of this and Keller’s proceeding books set him apart from the tight pack at the top.  This book presents one with some of the very best food devised, in such a way that much can be recreated with success in the home kitchen by a savvy cook.  Buy it now.

Nico Ladenis

The first cookbook I ever bought.  My gateway into learning about top chefs and restaurants.  For me, paying heed to trends and culinary politics started with opening this book.  Through it I began a journey of discovery to all the big names and set me off on a cookbook obsession.  I still use the red pepper coulis recipe and I still find the story of Nico Ladenis fascinating.  A beautiful book.  

Au Pied de Cochon
Martin Picard

Cooking as it should be.  Fun, primal, big flavoured and big boned.  A humorous and thorough romp through this stripped back, unpretentious, all embracing Montreal restaurant.  A Canadian St. John with less somber, more fanfare.  Not all the recipes or presentations are to my taste, but it is a unique and joyous shout from the shelf.

Formulas for Flavour
John Campbell

If your forward is scribed by Heston Blumenthal, you must be doing something right.  This is a beautifully shot, technical yet approachable journey through the creative mind of John Campbell, former head chef of The Vineyard at Stockcross.  Incredibly informative and precise, this is a book for an experienced cook wishing to dabble in Michelin territory.  The rabbit saddle recipe is one of my all time favourites.

So, there you have it.  Interestingly, I have chosen seven of the ten from English chefs.  This cannot just be due to these shores becoming my adopted home.  Britain is at the very forefront of global culinary endeavours.  It continues to incorporate foreign- in particular Asian/Oriental cuisines, expanding beyond its own simple past and shrugging off the intimidation of supposed French superiority.  Long may the golden age of British cooking reign and choose your cookbooks wisely!

An edited version of this article can be found in Devon Life September edition 2012
All pictures have been shamefully robbed off the net excluding yours truly and the Nico cover.


  1. Thanks for the extra informative post about these chefs. I can not say anything about them they are simple genius.

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