The line cook chronicles…. Cookbooks.
I have loved cookbooks as long as I can remember. Actually I love books of any kind, my mother instilled a love of reading from a very early age. I knew how to read around the time I went to kindergarden. I think the first cookbook I ever bought was Marcella Hazan Simple Italian. I grew up in a predominantly Italian American neighborhood and always loved that style of cooking. It was super informative, and I read it like you would read a novel. It was paperback, with no pictures and I found it fascinating. There were classic things like bolognese, but also things I had never heard of , like baugna cauda.
Once I started going to cooking school I was a full blown cookbook nerd. I started school at 8:00am, left around 2:00pm, started my line cook job at 3:30. I remember that commute time was spent pouring over cookbooks or magazines like Gourmet. I was fucking mesmerized by some of the restaurant reviews in Gourmet. The food sounded so different and cooler then anything I had ever experienced.
At that time there weren’t a lot of chef written cookbooks, a few, but not like there are today. I would stop at the bookstore before work to see if there were any new books, usually daily. I remember browsing the aisles as usual when I saw Daniel Boulud’s cookbook. Fucking wow. Cooking with Daniel Boulud, which I think now might be out of print. The pictures in that book blew my young mind. I had never seen food like that before. Food so elegant and refined, so clean, so French. I loved that book. Problem was I was broke as a joke so I couldn’t afford to buy it. Every day I would go to the bookstore and read that book and devour the pictures, every day. I would write down the French words I didn’t know and look them up.
I remember a few years later Bobby Flay came out with Bold American Food, and I lost my motherfucking mind. So many bright colors, so many different flavors! To a young cook those pictures were insane, you could tell he used squirt bottles, something at the time not a whole lot of people did, some of the cooks and chefs thought it was stupid and said so when I mentioned how much I liked that book. I didn’t really care then and care even less now. It opened my mind to a lot of different things.
But THE cookbook of the day was The French Laundry Cookbook, that book changed the game for me. When I opened it and saw those pictures my head exploded into tiny bits. This was one serious dude. I carried it with me everywhere. Everyone at work had it and we talked about it every chance we got. We cooked things out of that book and passed it off as ours. Yes we did. We didn’t give a shit either. We would tweak one ingredient so it wasn’t exactly the same but let’s be honest we totally copied his work. It was a phase. We soon moved on, but for awhile that book was everything.
Now I have so many cookbooks that I don’t have space for them. Its funny but I buy them and look at the pictures, usually the pictures are more inspiring than text. I will skim the recipe to get an idea at what the chef is doing but that’s about it. I have done this so many times that I have made an effort to buy and read older cookbooks that don’t have pictures. Lately I have been going back to books I read awhile ago, but have more meaning to me now that I’m older. Books by Jim Harrison, MFK Fisher, Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, and Calvin Trillin. Their writing has a much deeper meaning for me as I approach middle age. Having lived life a little, many of their stories are much more profound to me now than as a young cook.
The other thing is, I fucking hate recipes. I mean I fucking HATE them. When people ask me for recipes I cringe. There’s nothing wrong with them, I see their need. But I have spent my whole life training my palette, tasting everything, many many times. It’s how I was taught, I learned how to replicate dishes by tasting them over and over. In most kitchens I’ve worked they just give you an ingredient list and a basic formula and you’re off. If you’re lucky another cook or chef will show you how things are done but usually this doesn’t happen until you totally fuck the recipe up so bad the chef tastes it and loses his shit. To be honest the idea of having to follow a recipe exactly is painful to me and a big reason I don’t like pastry work where exactness is more important. It just feels restrictive, maybe its just me. I think this is why the idea of actually writing a cookbook seems so painful to me. All that recipe testing , measuring everything umpteen times, no thanks.
Every time I have felt cynical or pessimistic about the restaurant business, when life just leaves you uninspired, the first thing I do to get myself out of it is to pick up a cookbook, usually a new one, and it really helps. It almost always makes me want to get in the kitchen and try new things. I thought about giving my collection away or selling some of them, I have three copies of French Laundry cookbook! But in the end I just can’t bring myself to do it. I have a bookcase in my restaurant and during some difficult times I came in early and looked at cookbooks, before anyone else got there. They always remind me of why I do what I do, I love this business, (and hate it but that’s a story for another day). Thank God for cookbooks.