My favorite cookbooks come from restaurants. Based on the menus of well-known establishments or the experience of an industry professional, they seem to have the right blend of creativity and practicality.
The recipes are tempered in the crucible of a busy restaurant kitchen where hundreds of meals are served in a few hours. They have to be delicious and original, yet streamlined enough to keep production moving.
Of course, I rely on the standard texts for basic recipes. Who couldn’t live without cookbooks like Fannie Farmer, The Joy of Cooking, Betty Crocker, Julia Child’s game-changing Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. We also have a shelf of single topic books: soup, braising, baking, casseroles, desserts and more. But the restaurant books take pride of place.
The longest serving restaurant cookbook in the collection, published in 1970, is Splendid Fare by Albert Stockli. Stockli was the opening chef at the celebrated Four Seasons restaurant in New York and then the chef/owner of the world-famous Stonehenge Inn in Ridgefield. Our well-thumbed, ingredient-spattered copy is still the source for family favorites including quiche, chocolate mousse, and classic chicken tarragon.
The virtue of restaurant cookbooks was reinforced after a recent visit to the Chez Panisse Cafe in Berkeley, CA. I wrote to the restaurant asking for the recipe for their memorable Lindsey’s Almond Cake. Mary Jo Thoresen, the current pastry chef, got back to me to say that Lindsey had retired, but the recipe was in her book, Chez Panisse Desserts, by Lindsey Remolif Shere.
Amazon rushed me a copy, and I dug right in. The recipe turned out to be pretty straightforward and the cake turned out to be pretty delicious. Not quite the same as it was at the restaurant, but it never is, is it? Published in 1985, the book is a treasury of sweets from this innovative restaurant.
Not all restaurant cookbooks boil down recipes to their cooking-line essence. The French Laundry Cookbook, by Thomas Keller, is full of intricate recipes from the kitchen of what many consider to be the best restaurant in America. Straddling the line between classic techniques and modern cuisine, the recipes are only useful to accomplished cooks with plenty of time. But it’s wonderful to read and marvel at the creativity and effort that goes into food at this level.
Keller’s Ad Hoc At Home, on the other hand, is from a much more every day sort of restaurant, famous for its fried chicken. The book is full of diagrams and photos in addition to the recipes, helping uncertain cooks to achieve spectacular results. Our copy falls open to the regularly-used roast chicken page.
Our shelf of restaurant cookbooks is pretty eclectic, the result of dining experiences, impulse purchases, and (I’m embarrassed to say) TV shows.
There are a number of books by Jacques Pepin. The Connecticut resident is a classically trained cooking legend as well as a prolific author. We got hooked on the Cooking with Claudine show where he cooked straightforward but delicious recipes with his sometimes feisty daughter, Claudine. Buying the companion cookbook was a must. The recipes are practical, quick, and tasty.
One of the more entertaining books is Julia and Jacques, Cooking at Home where the French cuisine evangelist and the French trained chef offer variations on classics as well as comments on their respective approaches to the same recipe.
Ina Garten is another lifestyle cooking author who came out of the commercial kitchen. Her recipes, particularly in the first few books based on her Barefoot Contessa store, are creative winners well within the reach of weekend cooks.
There’s a copy of Martha Stewart’s first book, Entertaining, from when she was a caterer in Westport. We have Paula Deen’s Kitchen Classics from a visit to her restaurant, The Lady and Sons, in Savannah, GA. In The New England Kitchen, Jeremy Sewall does a good job of updating New England food as it is served in his highly-praised Boston restaurants.
New restaurant cookbooks are scarce these days. There used to be a couple of glossy ones every year at Christmas, but the challenging economics of the publishing business have changed all that.
Still, I keep my eye out. I love to read the chef’s ideas first hand.