If the pages of an old book smell so good, would the pages of old cookbooks smell better? In a world fascinated by food and the practitioners of the culinary art, from au courant cooking shows to the fortunes of a Michelin genius, cookbooks retain an old-fashioned allure. But what do the master chefs prefer? Old leather-bound tomes with recipes and their histories or shiny new ones with pictures magnified to show every exquisite plating and culinary technique? Do they prefer scrolling through online text or do they enjoy the rustle of pages?
Other than the best ingredients and the sharpest tools, a chef worth his salt is also immersed in the literature of his art: the most popular books are the eponymous works by Michelin-starred chefs and the cookbooks of famous restaurants. Asian chefs are in vogue, particularly Japanese ones, thanks to their masterful plating and presentation techniques.
A few chefs, like good parents, refrain from playing favourites, while others can name their favourite book faster than they can garnish a plate. For instance, Manisha Bhasin, senior executive chef, ITC Hotels, demurs when asked to choose one cookbook over others. “It depends on what kind of menu or project I’m working on. If I have to prepare an Oriental menu, I look to masters such as Nobu (Nobu: The Cookbook) and Masaharu Morimoto (Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking). If I’m doing an ayurvedic menu, I do a lot of online research and go through ancient texts to reference ingredients and dishes. It’s possibly easier for specialist chefs to have a particular cookbook of choice, but I still doubt it,” she says.
This is true enough. Chef Vikram Khatri of Guppy by Ai has books by every chef from Charlie Trotter to Tetsuya Wakuda to Nobu Matsuhisa; not that he limits himself to Japanese cuisine only. “It’s really interesting to read about cooking techniques from around the world, and see the commonality between them. For instance, smoked salmon is called gravlax in Scandinavia and shiozake in Japan, but the dish is essentially the same.”
Can the iPad on the kitchen counter ever overshadow the convenience of flipping the pages of a cookbook? Khatri admits that electronic versions of cooking manuals and books help a chef channel inspiration from many corners of the world but he takes great pride in his cookbook collection, which includes works by the Japanese masters and French chefs such as Joël Robuchon. He’s not the only one. Sujan Sarkar, head chef at Olive Bar and Kitchen, and partner at Ek Bar, loves collecting hard-bound cookbooks, eschewing e-books entirely.
Khatri keeps his library mobile. “I carry most of my books in my car. I can flip through for a quick reference or seek inspiration anytime,” he says. He also enjoys giving his books (not all, banish the thought) to younger chefs who he thinks have potential. Among the books he has gifted are a first-edition of Nobu: The Cookbook and The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller, which is vital for hotel management.
Chef Sabyasachi Gorai’s favourite cookbook is The Cooking Sessions with Charlie Trotter, and not just because the legendary British chef signed and gifted him the book. It was 2009 and Gorai had met Trotter for the first time in London, where both chefs were participating in a culinary workshop. “The book opened my mind to all the possibilities of food that I had never considered before. At the time, Indian chefs loved playing around with imported ingredients. We were particular about our larders being stocked with the most exotic commodities. On reading Charlie’s book, I realised that it doesn’t matter whether I make a melanzana parmigiana with an imported eggplant or a baingan from the neighborhood thelawala. What matters is the quality of the ingredients and the technique,” says Gorai. The book itself is based on the iconic show by the name, which was set to a jazz music motif and showed Trotter preparing dishes using fresh, seasonal produce.
Food knows no borders and apparently neither does its subject matter. Ask chef Manish Mehrotra, whose celebrated Indian Accent is opening its second outpost in New York this month. The chef, who recently came out with the Indian Accent Cookbook, swears by Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus, which is arranged in the same manner as Roget’s. “Every chef and culinary student should have a copy of this book. It’s essential to the professional cook and kitchen as it contains flavour pairings of ingredients from around the world,” he says.
Similarly, Sarkar’s bible is Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young’s Modernist Cuisine, a five-volume compendium. Sarkar, who picked up his copies in London, when the book was launched three years ago, says, “Earlier everyone quoted from the Larousse Gastronomique, now it’s Modernist Cuisine. It’s vital in the modern kitchen, never mind which cuisine you’re doing, whether European or Indian. It starts from the basics and then progresses to the more technical stuff. One of my favourite tutorials from the book is how to make edible film, basically transparent wrappers which you can eat. It shows you how to make it, step by step, through stunning visuals.”
Chef Shamsul Wahid of Smoke House Deli’s go-to book is Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. “Though not a recipe book, it explains the science used in the kitchen. As chefs, we need to know why we do what we do while cooking; every ingredient reacts differently to various cooking methods and the book shows you how to play around with flavours, textures and presentation,” he says.