Asking a chef about his or her favorite cookbook a bit like asking for a glimpse into their soul. A beloved book is like foundational DNA, serving as a support system for the years of accrued knowledge to follow.
A cookbook presents a complete culinary universe to dive into, study, and assimilate. Each underline, each note scribbled in the margins, every dogeared page marking a favorite recipe or head note, helps a chef unlock inspiration, new ways of seeing, and — perhaps most crucial — sets him or her on an evolutionary path to a unique personal style.
A few months back, Sean Brock '00, '14 Hon. posted his own first edition of “Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook,” a legendarily rare 1969 book of recipes, poems and earthy aphorisms from the eponymous owner of Little Kitchen, a 12-seat speakeasy in Alphabet City serving fried chicken, black-eyed peas and other soul-food classics. (The Little Kitchen closed abruptly in 1998, and Princess Pamela herself vanished with it, seemingly without a trace.)
Taking inspiration from his collection, we asked for a range of favorites from chef-alums and JWU faculty:
SEAN BROCK '00, '14 Hon., Husk/McCradys/Minero:
VICTORIA YOUNG '16, Owner, Fountain & Co. Craft Ice Cream: “My copy of Brooks Headley’s ‘Fancy Desserts’ looks as punk-rock as its contents — torn cover, ear-marked pages, scribbles everywhere. Inside, brilliant writing, ‘guest appearances,’ and silly photos intertwine with bizarre flavors, precise formulas, and even a little humor. I open it at least once a week as a reminder to not take things so seriously; to be more playful with ingredients and techniques; and to smash a waffle cone to pieces every once in a while.”
LAUREN V. HAAS '14, JWU Providence’s International Baking & Pastry Institute: “I came across ‘Mes Confitures: The Jams and Jellies of Christine Ferber’ shortly after scoring my first job in pastry. I had heard of the book from one of my mentors. He mentioned Ferber with admiration, noting that even the most distinguished chefs in France revered her.
“The book introduced me to new ingredients, such as Mirabelle plums and black currants, and also to a new way of thinking, essentially ‘farm-to-table’ before ‘farm-to-table’ was trendy. Ferber captured the season and my imagination with jams such as ‘Two Kinds of Apricots with Vanilla and Gewürztraminer,’ and ‘Old Bachelor’s Jam with Wild Blackberries.’ I was hooked and 20 years later I still love this book.”
TJ DELLE DONNE '04, '07 MAT, JWU Providence Assistant Dean of Culinary Relations & Special Projects: “In the late 90s and early 2000s when I was in school, ‘The French Laundry’ was like the bible to us. It was contemporary yet classic, and it featured incredible pictures and recipes that were tried-and-true yet motivational.
“Outside of trying to infuse oils with everything I could find, the chapter I’ll never forget is the one titled ‘The Importance of Staff Meal,’ which talked about how Chef Thomas Keller’s mentor Roland Henin challenged him to be passionate about what Chef Keller calls ‘the low cook position’ in the kitchen hierarchy. (Treating your staff the right way matters, every day.)
“Soon afterwards I found my own crucial mentor and my career forever changed. Nothing brings people together better than a meal, and to love food is to love preparing it — whether it’s at the pass or for the staff meal. Flavors and technique matter, but the reaction food gives others is, ultimately, what means the most.”
JAMES MARK '08, North/North Bakery: “My favorite book is actually a set of two books: ‘Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking’ and ‘Beyond Nose to Tail: Omnivorous Recipes for the Adventurous Cook.’ They were published 8 years apart; I have them in their original out-of-print hardcover editions. They are so special to me for a few reasons — they represent a particular time in my life (my first co-op for JWU I spent in North Wales for a little under nine months, and I have a real soft spot for British cooking) and I love the format (they are small books, maybe 10" x6", with no real glamour shots and only a few, goofy photos).
“The most important thing to me, however, is the way it is written. The recipes are written in a casual, comforting way that defies what ‘traditional’ has to be. Think inexact measurements, descriptions of process that go beyond ‘normal’ food adjectives, and tone that feels like Fergus is standing next to you, holding your hand as you advance through the recipe. The influence of the book was focused, but in many ways tremendous — you can see it in Peter Meehan’s writing in the Momofuku and Frankie’s Sputino books, in the original Aud Pied Cochon and Joe Beef books, as well as in Brooks Headly’s modern classic ‘Fancy Desserts.’ It is all over Lucky Peach — basically any book or publication that established modern ‘cool’ food writing owes something to Fergus, whether they realize it or not.”
The recipes are written in a casual, comforting way that defies what ‘traditional’ has to be.”
MICHAEL MAKUCH '03, '05 MAT, JWU Providence Culinary Arts Department Chair, “The experience of preparing and consuming a meal can temporarily transport you to another time and place. Cookbooks serve as window to that domain, a vista that provides a glimpse into the almost magical world of gastronomy.
“Upon reflection, one of the most influential cookbooks that inspired me to become a chef was ‘La Technique: An Illustrated Guide to the Fundamental Techniques of Cooking’ by Jacques Pépin.
“This book was originally part of my Dad’s library and it offered a step-by-step instruction on fundamental cooking techniques, and more importantly for me a glimpse into the world of culinary arts. This book is a timeless reminder to all contemporary culinary artists that in order to build upon the craft we must first lay a strong foundation.”
MARK LADNER '90, '14 Hon., Pasta Flyer: