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What Can We Learn From Cookbooks?

Long Bistro ApronMany say that looking at cookbooks nowadays is like looking at food porn.  People buy cookbooks not because of its content, but because of those pictures of food–all table-top beautiful.  It can’t be because of the recipes, because you can get those from the web.  It has been a long-standing question then–do cookbook readers actually learn anything from it? You’ll be surprised, but a lot of celebrated chefs say yes.

Renowned chef Matthias Merges, who was Chef de Cuisine at Charlie Trotter’s for 14 years, claims he started to read cookbooks when he was eight years old.  His first read was the Time-life “Foods of the World,” and the series unlocked a whole new world to him and his brother.    Inspired by what he read in the book, they put on their aprons and planned an elaborate dinner to surprise their parents on their anniversary by preparing sukiyaki, or Japanese hot pot.  If he never opened the book, he would never have known about the Japanese dish.

He later read the other volumes, and discovered how to cure meat and fish.  He learned that curry is not just a bottled spice with a “curry” label – it’s so much more than that.  He gathered that it is a complex blend of spices – there’s a whole lot more to the turmeric, cumin and coriander that we know.  Curry could also be a stew, and has different variations depending on the country.  All this he learned from a cookbook.

The captivating illustrations in cookbooks provide its visual beauty, and is proof that people eat with their eyes first.  But way beyond cookbooks is great learnings.  It provides tips from experts that you wouldn’t discover in the internet, or through classroom lectures.  Many renowned and distinguished chefs can attest that cookbooks have enlightened them, one way or the other, about several cooking processes that allowed them to develop their own mark in their own kitchen.

Jason Hammel, now owner of Lula Café at the Logan Square in Chicago shares that he was educated on the right way to blanch a green vegetable through Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook.  He learned that there’s more to blanching as a way to preserve the crispiness and tenderness of vegetables.  “Your green veggie will be brighter and greener if you make use of a big pot with a lot of hot water when you blanch it.”  He also learned about the value of pre-seasoning, or salting ahead of time in Judy Rodgers’ Zuni Café Cookbook.

Jimmy Bannos, a restaurateur whose family has been in the restaurant business for generations, says a cookbook altered his life.  He got Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen cookbook and concocted several dishes which became instant hits to his diners.  It was there in the book where he learned the art of layering spices, caramelizing onions and peppers, and making all those flavors work in harmony with each other.   He learned about balancing heat with sweetness in Bobby Flay’s Bold American Food.  The book taught him not to cook fish for too long, emphasizing that it’s better to cook it less than overdo it because it can still cook itself a little en route to the table. An overcooked fish is dry.

Celebrated chef Paul Virant still remembers how he was familiarized with spring garlic in Paul Bertolli’s Chez Panisse Cooking when he was in his twenties.  His concept of garlic as plain garlic was revolutionized when he learned of its many stages.

Needless to say, cookbooks are not just “lookbooks,” as most say they are-they aren’t just there for the feasting of the eyes or mere recipes.  They are a great source of information, too, as they also tackle a lot of other cooking matters.  It gives immeasurable enlightenment on cooking techniques, varied national and ethnic cuisines, special tips on special diets, even some insights about the basic food groups.   Cookbooks that are authored by celebrated chefs in their best chef aprons are even more distinctive and special, as it gives you a glimpse of the chef’s cooking style, and the many reasons why he was able to climb his way to the top of the game.

All these can be researched from the internet, they say.  Not necessarily, most chefs would counter.  The website could easily vanish, for one.  The book form is there for the long haul – you can include it as part of your collection, display it in your library, and pass it on to the next generation.