Now can feel like the most wonderful time of the year for cookbooks. New titles gleam like jewels on bookstore display tables, promising to make us better bakers, help us use up our CSA share, and get dinner on the table every night, among other aspirations. Let’s be real, though: Not all new titles are the best ones and plenty of glossy releases can disappoint when put to the cooking test.
So how to choose when shopping for gifts? Who would want to give anything less than reliable, delicious recipes?
To get a list of tried and true cookbooks, we turned to some of New York’s best chefs for their all-time favorite titles. They have something for everyone on your list, so how about throwing in an evening for two at one of their restaurants? Dinner and a solid book might just win you the holidays.
For the curious Italophile
The Oxford Companion to Italian Food by Gillian Riley
Jess Shadbolt, chef, King
18 King St.
I’ve read The Oxford Companion to Italian Food by Gillian Riley cover to cover more than once. It was given to me by my old head chef at London’s River Café, Joseph Trivelli. He taught me pretty much everything and especially how to consider an ingredient. I can still remember how he slices a tomato or pods a fava bean; he has a tender touch.
When I left the restaurant to come to New York he gave me this book. It’s a straightforward dictionary of Italian ingredients and regions, but what’s so special is that it’s ingredient-led, like he is. The book has the odd recipe in there (in a top line way, with not a lot of detail) but also gives an historical account of ingredients, the country and its art—a real 360-degree [overview] of Italy’s food and culture. This book is often where I start when a new ingredient arrives at our door, just to have an idea of what it could become. It has no bells and whistles to it, but it takes a real in-depth approach and contains so much knowledge.
For the romantic Francophile
Lulu’s Provençal Table by Richard Olney
Clare de Boer, chef, King
18 King St.
This book has everything Jess and I want in life: We both fantasize that one day we’ll have a great wine estate in the South of France and cook over an open fire, drinking liters of rosé. This book is hedonistic. It’s like an erotic novel that captures the pure essence of Provence, and you almost feel like a participant in the seasonal cycle of the Domaine. Lulu is an incredible lady: She’s the Grande Dame of Domaine Tempier winery. She really resisted recipes, never used them herself, and did things so precisely and worked with the ingredients. Richard Olney being one of the greatest food writers of all time is an added bonus.
When I need to “get out,” I can read this and feel like I’m on holiday. The recipes are mouthwateringly delicious, and I love the short introductions to the recipes; it’s all so evocative, it takes you right there.
For the novice who wants to learn to cook Japanese food
Washoku by Elizabeth Andoh
Emily Yuen, chef, Bessou
5 Bleecker St.
My favorite cookbook at the moment is Washoku by Elizabeth Andoh. For those who are new to Japanese cooking and want to learn, it’s definitely my go-to recommendation. She shows a wide breadth of Japanese home-style cooking and makes it accessible to everyone. I feel like I am being taken to Japan with her and learning about the culture along with the recipes, so I find this especially helpful for new cooks. I love how before every recipe she has a little explanation about the technique, ingredient or Japanese term. I always find myself returning to this cookbook for inspiration, or simply if I need a very solid recipe.
For the cook seeking fundamental inspiration
The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters
Ali LaRaia, chef, The Sosta
186 Mott St.
The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters was a life-changing book for me. I’d just moved to San Francisco and my mom sent me a care package from home and The Art of Simple Food was in it. I immediately read it cover to cover. It doesn’t read like a cookbook; even the way she writes her recipes is engrossing. (I use that method when I write my own recipes now.)
She talks about uncomplicated food and the focus on ingredients. Living in SF and going to the farmers markets, it all resonated, especially in finding my own culinary perspective. I consider that time the start of my culinary career, the beginning of my adulthood culinary exploration. I began to understand, on a serious level, the importance of ingredients and what good food means to me. Alice’s pantry staples list helped me build my first kitchen in college, and they’re still my pantry staples: capers, anchovies, good vinegars and oils, always having onion and garlic on hand. You should be able to build anything because you have such a solid pantry, and I still believe in that and preach it to everyone I know.
For the serious baker
Breaking Breads by Uri Scheft
Lissadell Cohen-Serrins, chef, Dizengoff
75 9th Ave., inside Chelsea Market
Breaking Breads by Uri Scheft is a transformative piece of cooking literature. This book speaks to me with the high attention to detail found in Uri’s utterly authentic recipes. This is not a book that skimps on anything. You will make these recipes over and over again and the product will be something out of the bakery itself. The book is genuine, shows huge respect for the art of baking and is truly meant for every cook around the world.
For the spice-obsessed
Crazy Water Pickled Lemons by Diana Henry
Melia Marden, chef, The Smile
26 Bond St.
My mom gave me Diana Henry’s Crazy Water Pickled Lemons years ago and it’s an extension of the way I learned to cook from her—the North African and Mediterranean flavors she loves that I grew up with, highlighted in a beautifully visual and personal way.
When I first got it, I read the whole thing cover to cover and put a Post-It on everything I wanted to make, which was nearly the whole book. So many of the early recipes at the Smile were inspired by this cookbook—reading it was like having a friend guide me through their food journey, collecting recipes and flavors along the way that became seamlessly part of my stable of home cooking.
Henry’s recipe writing style pulls off the trick of being casual and conversational but precise and clear enough that everything I’ve made has turned out really well. She always explains why you’re meant to do things a certain way, rather than just tell you what to do, which is something I tried to emulate in my own cookbook. I’m almost hesitant to give this to people as a gift since it’s like revealing the secret to all my cooking!
For the beginning baker
Breads from LaBrea Bakery by Nancy Silverton
Melissa Weller, head baker, Walnut Street Café, Philadelphia, PA; formerly master baker and co-owner, Sadelle’s
463 W Broadway
I got the book through a mail-order cookbook club in 1996, and it’s my favorite resource for learning how to bake sourdough bread at home. I was intrigued with making sourdough starter using the natural yeasts found on the skins of grapes, but I didn’t get further than growing the starter for a week before I put the book away. I pulled the book out again in 2005 and I decided to make every recipe in it. My starter was stubborn and didn’t raise the bread that I mixed so I purchased starter online and went to work making the breads in the book between my pastry shifts at Babbo. I learned so much from doing this—the recipes and instructions for maintaining my starter were such an invaluable learning experience that I recommend this book to any beginning baker who wants to learn how to make sourdough bread at home.
For the Central American food lover
Mi Cocina by Armando Scannone
Adriana Urbina, chef, Tepuy
Published 30 years ago, this is one of the most important cookbooks in Venezuela because it defines what authentic Venezuelan cuisine is. “El Libro Rojo” has become the culinary bible for everyone that wants to understand and learn about traditional Venezuelan cuisine. The book is very technical and the recipes are very accurate, but reading it is never boring for me. My family, and especially my dad, used this book as a reference for all their creations in the kitchen, and reading El Libro Rojo brings back so many beautiful memories of when I was growing up.
For the next Food Network star
White Heat by Marco Pierre White
Claire Welle, chef, Otway
930 Fulton St., Brooklyn
Long hours in the kitchen means any reading is done late at night, after service is done, pouring over cookbooks and trying to soak up all the ideas and passion from someone else’s food. White Heat, Marco Pierre White’s cookbook, has always transfixed me. It’s concentrated energy and creativity, right there on the page. He gave everything he had to food and his kitchen and believed that if you don’t give all to this industry, then don’t bother being a cook. This book has been a benchmark for me and will continue to motivate and inspire.
For the culinary school student
On the Line by Eric Ripert and Christine Muhlke
Adrienne Cheatham, private chef, formerly chef de cuisine, Red Rooster
I gave this book to every member of my family for Christmas a few years ago. Working in a kitchen classic French kitchen with the true brigade system, it was illustrative of how the formal kitchen systems works and helped my family understand that environment.
There are classic cookbooks that are mainstays for me as a chef—books that break down food from a chef’s perspective, books on the science of cooking—but this book really breaks down the kitchen. Even if you work in a smaller kitchen that’s less formal, On the Line explains the managerial perspective, which is equally important in the restaurant.
For the artist in the kitchen
Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras
Melissa Rodriguez, executive chef, Del Posto
85 10th Ave.
The book I routinely turn to for inspiration is Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras. When I was a young cook, it was a coveted book and I didn’t have a copy. I was in Paris a couple of years ago and found a first edition in English. It’s beautiful and vibrant. It’s the sort of book I’ll turn to when I’m in a bad mood and need a pick-me-up. I use it less for recipes and more for visual inspiration. It just makes me feel good.