Being in food, cookbooks are a big part of my reading material. I’m one of those that reads them like novels, leafing through them for inspiration for recipes, ideas, and just to relax. Although I rarely cook recipes verbatim from cookbooks I read, whenever Im developing a new menu I spend time with the great ones for inspiration.
The River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
I love Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. There, I said it, and I won’t apologize. Not only is he a great chef, but he uses his fame to shape the world according to his vision. His use of back-to-basic recipes, paired with traditional farming and whole food cooking techniques, feels genuine, and I respect that. Moreover, he has a positive attitude about simple, environmentally friendly dishes, unlike so many innovators. And, his books have great pictures, to boot.
Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon
This is not a “cool” book, by any means. I remember the first time my mom pulled it out. I leafed through it, noticing such delicacies as “cabbage water” (basically, cabbage left to rot in salted water), sauerkraut (also, if you think about it, decayed cabbage) and more liver recipes than I could count. Honestly, I was a bit grossed out. The book conveys the lessons of an 18th century dentist who traveled around the world and noticed a relationship between traditional food culture and healthy teeth, but I wasn’t convinced.
This was back in the day when pasta was at the top of the food pyramid, and eating steak made you fat. Since then, offal has become gourmet and anything fermented is tinged with a certain aura. Oh, how things change. Soaking grains, eating unprocessed foods, fermenting veggies: these have all become a part of my life, and I have this one weird book (and my mom) to thank.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
I can sense the collective eye roll when this book is mentioned, not least because it isn’t really a cookbook. But to be totally honest, The Omnivore’s Dilemma transformed my relationship with food. Knowing where your food comes from is par for the course these days, but if we think back to the dark days of the mid-2000s, that really wasn’t the case. Because of this book, I moved to California from Boston with the goal of making a documentary about urban farming. When I realized that there were ten others making the same film, I decided to go my own way, and that led me to where I am now. So yes, it definitely changed my life.
Flavors of Home by Margit Roos-Collins
Some might call this a guidebook; I call it a cookbook. Focused on the wild edibles of the San Francisco Bay Area, Margit Roos-Collins’ Flavors of Home is chock full of recipes featuring the best plants and seaweeds as ingredients—on top of that, it tells you how to cook them. It was the first foraging book I ever read and it sparked my whole career.
After retreating from bookshelves in the 1970s (I still haven’t returned the copy I “borrowed” from the library eight years ago), Flavors of Home is now back in print! I got to write the foreword for the new edition, which was possibly the proudest moment of my life. If you live in the Bay Area, you really need to grab a copy.
Momofuku by David Chang
Okay, here’s my hipster selection. Who doesn’t love David Chang these days? I adore this book. The recipes are wonderful, but what most impressed me when I read it for the first time was Chang’s ability to stick to his vision, no matter what, and to challenge conventional ways of preparing and thinking about food. I think it’s all too common in the food industry for people to remain inside the lines of their training. To our benefit, Chang is one who doesn’t live between those lines.