For the average home cook, leafing through a cookbook is a way to get ideas for dinner and indulge in some serious food porn. However, professional chefs see them as inspiration for defining and refining their own culinary philosophies. In honor of National Cookbook Month, here four chefs share the cookbooks that changed their lives.
Julia Sullivan of Henrietta Red, Nashville, Tennessee
“The one that had the biggest impact on me was Judy Rodgers’ The Zuni Café Cookbook. It’s such a comprehensive book in the sense that it really dives deep into technique. It’s really a textbook. It’s not a cookbook for the faint of heart. It’s a cookbook for chefs. It demonstrates how she cooked seasonally and product-driven, Cali-style cuisine. Each dish has so few ingredients, yet they all come together beautifully. She taught me that if you rely on really good ingredients and solid technique, you don’t need much else. Also, I worked at Per Se for a couple of years, and I love Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook. You see how he can be tongue in cheek and have fun, even though there’s seriousness and finesse. He inspired a sense of inventiveness and playfulness.”
Make a reservation at Henrietta Red.
Hamilton Johnson of Honeysuckle, Washington, D.C.
“I started reading Charlie Trotter’s four cookbooks – Seafood, Meat & Game, Desserts, and Vegetables – while I was in culinary school at Johnson & Wales. I focused on them instead of what I was supposed to be reading for class. My teachers weren’t too happy about that. I loved that he came up with all sorts of crazy combinations and used interesting ingredients. I remember him using barnacles on a dish and featuring so many different cuts of meat. There was a lot of emphasis on textures and the need for different variations. Trotter drove home [that] you need to think outside the box and push the limits. Never be too scared to try something.”
Make a reservation at Honeysuckle.
Anthony Lamas of Seviche, Louisville, Kentucky
“When I graduated from high school in 1987, I moved to San Diego. There I met Jeff Tunks – who now owns restaurants such as PassionFish in Bethesda, Maryland, and TenPenh in Tysons, Virginia, – at Loews Coronado Bay Resort. He took me under his wing, so I always helped out when his chef friends came by to do guest dinners. I did one with Jean-Louis Palladin, who gave me his cookbook, Jean Louis: Cooking with the Seasons. This was before farm-to-table became trendy. He really challenged American chefs to source locally. It made an especially profound impact because I could hang out with him and work with him. He was so passionate and intense. That was the first cookbook that said something to me. It was like listening to a Beatles album for the first time. I still have my autographed copy from 25 years ago.”
Make a reservation at Seviche.
Joe Palma, formerly of Bourbon Steak, Washington, D.C.
“The easy answer is Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook. My parents gave it to me while I was in high school and working for Boulder Creek Dining Company on the side, but I was still planning on going to school to be an investment banker. It was one of the first times that American food – albeit very French influenced – looked so sexy. It wasn’t a full break from the past, but it was the next step in the evolution. More recently, David Kinch’s Manresa: An Edible Reflection did a nice job using molecular gastronomy elements, while still hewing to naturalist traditions to enhance and focus dishes, while providing different textures. You see a lot of people doing an amalgam of 20 other chefs, but his food is very much his.”
Make a reservation at Bourbon Steak.
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Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell.
Photo credits: Michelle C. Roberts Photography (Hamilton Johnson); Greg Powers (Joe Palma); Andrew Thomas Lee (Julia Sullivan).