The Chef’s Library: Favourite Cookbooks from the World’s Great Kitchens by Jenny Linford

Chefs library

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re an addict like me. Nights spent trawling the internet, searching for the next fix. Days spent waiting for a new delivery. Hiding the cost of our compulsion from loved ones. And everyday the cookbook collection grows and grows. So this isn’t so much a review of The Chef’s Library, a book about cookbooks, more of a dire warning.

Respected food writer Jenny Linford wants to put temptation in your path. Why else would she ask over 70 chefs from around the world, including Thomas Keller, Massimo Bottura and Angela Hartnett for their favourite cookery volumes? Why compile a diverse list of influential cookbooks? Why put together a handy reference of global, historical and specialist books on food?

However, if you do posses a modicum of self control, this is the perfect book for anyone who wants to build their own culinary reference library.  Alongside modern must-haves like Too Many Chiefs Only One Indian by Sat Bains and Noma by Rene Redzepi, readers will also discover enduring works by notable food writers including Elizabeth David, Anne del Conte and Jane Grigson.

But even the most ardent gastronomic bibliophile is sure to discover gaps in their collection. Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston has unearthed The Unrivalled Cook-Book and Housekeepers Guide by Mrs. Washington, a book of Southern American cooking from 1886, and Simon Rogan has chosen Herbs, Spices and Flavourings by Tom Stobart from 1970 that combines history and botany with cooking tips.

The Chef’s Library has its shortcomings. Chef’s contributions are limited to a few short quotes per  choice and there are a number of duplications including three separate entries for Great Chefs of France by Anthony Blake and Quentin Crewe and two for Marco’s White Heat. Linford’s selection of Influential Cookbooks not only replicates some of the chefs own picks (The French Laundry Cookbook, Origin by Ben Shewry and another review of White Heat) but also includes some eyebrow raising selections such as Tom Kerridge’s Best Ever Dishes and Social Suppers by Jason Atherton, both great books, but even the authors probably wouldn’t claim them to be influential.

The Chef’s Library will no doubt fuel a late night sip and click online spending sessions but it will at least be expanding your gastronomic horizons as it depletes your bank balance. Perhaps the next edition should come complete with lock and key.

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: International
Suitable for: Reference
Cookbook Review rating: 3 stars

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The Chef’s Library: Favorite Cookbooks from the World’s Great Kitchens
Jenny Linford
£25, Abrams

Chiltern Firehouse: The Cookbook by Andre Balazs and Nuno Mendes

Chiltern Firehouse

Chiltern Firehouse opened in Marylebone in early 2014 in a blaze of publicity and quickly became the hottest restaurant in the city (that’s enough bad puns for one review). Despite rave reviews (the Guardian’s Marina O’Loughlin said ‘the menu is touched with genius’) there was more media interest in which famous names owner and hotelier Andre Balazs (of Chateau Marmont, Hollywood fame) could attract than the dishes coming out of the open kitchen headed up by cult chef Nuno Mendes. This beautifully produced book, filled with thrilling recipes will help redress the balance.

If you’ve followed Lisbon-born Mendes’s career in the UK over the last decade from the molecular gastronomy-era Bacchus in Hoxton, through the influential Loft Project pop up to the critically acclaimed Viajante in Bethnal green, his appointment as head chef of an upscale American-style brasserie might have seemed leftfield. But reading the book’s frustratingly short autobiographical section (it comes to a sudden halt when Mendes arrives in London in 2004), you learn that the chef has worked not just for Ferran Adria and Jean George Vongerichten but at Wolfgang Puck’s big, busy Postrio in San Francisco and Mark Miller’s groundbreaking Southwestern cuisine restaurant Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, making him almost uniquely suited to the job.

He pays tribute to his mentors with dishes such as ‘Firehouse Caesar’, based on Miller’s recipe but with added crispy chicken skin, and a take on Puck’s herb gnocchi served with morels, peas, Parmesan cream and edible flowers. But mostly this is undiluted Mendes, filtering his Portuguese  heritage and travels to Spain, North and South America and Asia through his own very distinctive gastronomic lens in signature dishes such as the infamous crab doughnuts and visually arresting barley and oat risotto with courgettes, artichokes, spinach and herbs.

Recipes ricochet around the globe, from a Louisiana inspired Cajun Quail to Chinese-style lobster XO noodles and a Portuguese-Japanese fusion of grilled octopus with aubergine, daikon and mushrooms; a disparate-sounding collection but one unified by balanced and considered flavours, casual yet elegant presentation and simple good taste.

No attempt is made to hide the fact that Chiltern Firehouse is a glamorous destination; there’s an excellent chapter on the cocktails served in the fashionable bar and the many full page shots of the chic front of house team could have been ripped from the pages of Vogue. Yet there is true substance beyond all that style, enough to inspire and excite any experienced chef looking to expand their culinary horizons.

Cuisine: American/Portuguese
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

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Chiltern Firehouse
Andre Balazs and Nuno Mendes
£30, Preface

Junk Food Japan: Addictive Food from Kurobuta by Scott Hallsworth

Junk food japan

Former Nobu head chef Scott Hallsworth drops more f-bombs than a Martin Scorsese movie character.  The four-page biographical introduction piles on the profanity with more than two dozen swear words; there’s a chapter entitled ‘Sushi’s F**ked-Up Friends’ and recipe introductions are littered with bad language.

Hallworth’s two Kurobuta restaurants in London are billed on their website as ‘Rock’n’Roll Izakaya’ (the Japanese version of a gastropub) and the Western Australia-born chef makes no secret of his unfulfilled musical ambitions. But his indie-rock swagger comes across on the page as more Kevin the Teenager than Nick Cave and falls short of the effortless cool of The Meatliquor Chronicles by Yianni Papoutsis and Scott Collins, a book (and restaurant) that Junk Food Japan owes a spiritual debt to.

But tune out the four-letter white noise and plenty of exciting, modern and iconoclastic east-meets-west ideas emerge. Hallsworth explains that the term Junk Food Japan began as a menu category that included tuna sashimi pizza (the recipe is included in the book) and then developed into the ‘no-nonsense, almost playful way of creating dishes’.

Although the book contains dishes that resemble fast food including fried chicken and hot wings, they’re refined versions that belie the ‘junk food’ tag, so the chicken is poached in master stock before being fried in a shichimi (Japanese seven spice power) coating and the hot wings are barbecued in a spicy  sauce made with gochujang, sake and white (the list of specialist suppliers at the back of the book is useful for tracking down the more obscure Japanese ingredients Hallsworth uses).

The traditions of Japanese cuisine that can appear daunting and limiting to neophytes are for the most part swept aside making Junk Food Japan an approachable introduction to a complex subject. Nigiri, the oval sushi rice pillows that are usually topped with raw fish are here finished with thin slices of dashi-poached veal and anchovy mayonnaise and pickled cucumber sushi rolls are topped with a Wagyu slider, chicken liver parfait and yuzu marmalade sauce to create a sort of Japanese version of Tournedos Rossini.

Dishes range from straightforward one pot wonders like marbou dofu (spicy minced pork and tofu) to the more technically challenging sushi creations, offering chefs of all levels something to get their teeth into. While I could have done without the potty mouthed posturing, Junk Food Japan is lively, informative and full of enticing recipes. It’s a great book, I swear.

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: Japanese
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review rating: 3 stars

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Junk Food Japan: Addictive Food from Kurobuta
Scott Hallsworth
£26 Absolute Press

Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook

Gotham

You may be forgiven for thinking that the Gotham Bar and Grill was Bruce Wayne’s favourite place for steak. In fact, it’s a very successful restaurant in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Alfred Portale has been it’s chef for well over three decades, during which time he has won the coveted New York Times award of 3 stars. Every successful restaurant must have at least one cookery book to display in it’s lobby and sell to wide eyed tourists, and the Gotham is no exception .

The Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook is more than a souvenir for the travelling gastronome however. The book, with it’s 200 recipes and numerous sidebars containing information on techniques and ingredients provides a complete introduction to modern restaurant food.

The book is beautifully presented on high quality paper, with colour photographs throughout. All the food for the illustrations was prepared by Portale himself . Colour is also put to good use within the text, giving the book a distinctive and lively look.

Portale has an impeccable C V, with time spent working for Troisgros and Guerard. Unusually, he also studied flower arranging which has obviously had an influence on his style of presentation. His signature “Seafood Salad” would not look out of place on your mantelpiece.

Step by step photographic guides are included to demonstrate how these more complex presentations can be achieved. Alternative family style options are also included for those not disposed to attempt elaborate arrangements of food on plates.

Portales obvious passion for food and meticulous attention to detail is communicated throughout the book, despite being ghost written by Andrew Freidman. The extent of this passion is revealed when the reader is informed that about twenty different recipes for curry were tested before settling on the one finally included in the book.

Being an American publication, recipes refer to measurements in terms of cup”, and ingredients such as cilantro and fingerling potatoes. However, this does not prevent the book being highly desirable and very usable for Europeans, albeit with a little patience and care.

As well as the special occasion recipes, the book includes some excellent everyday dishes with a whole section dedicated to soups, snacks and sandwiches. The dessert section is comprehensive with “Warm Chocolate Cake with Toasted Almond Ice Cream” being particularly appealing.

The Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook will be of interested to those of us who enjoy reading collections of recipes as much as the latest Harry Potter. It constitutes a very good introduction to readers beginning to explore and develop their culinary skills, as well as providing lots to excite accomplished cooks wanting to serve something a little bit different at their next dinner party. A recommended purchase.

Cuisine: American
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

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Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook
Alfred Portale
$45 Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group

El Celler de Can Roca by Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca

El Celler de can Roca

Xanthan gum. Kuzu thickening agent. Calcium gluconolactate. Is your mouth watering yet? No, me neither. Reading the recipes in this hefty, lavishly produced volume about the world famous three Michelin starred restaurant in Girona, Spain, you can’t help but think of the ingredients on the back of a packet of Haribo.

This is the English translation of a book originally published in Spanish in 2013. In those four years, food trends have moved on from the gels, spheres, soils and foams beloved of molecular gastronomy that litter the pages of this book to a far more naturalistic approach. In their measured world of rotovals and sous vide cooking, the Roca brothers (head chef Joan, pastry chef Jordi and sommelier Josep) are so far removed from the wild heat of an open flame that they risk leaving themselves out in the cold.

Nevertheless, there is plenty here to amuse cooks of the progressive persuasion in search of inspiration. A ‘vienetta’ made from black truffle and white asparagus ice cream is a hoot, while Artichoke Flower, built from artichoke petal crisps and served with foie gras soup is a visually stunning creation. Convoluted dishes with grand titles like ‘The World’ (a selection of five snacks inspired by the brothers’ travels to Mexico, Peru, Morocco, Korea and the Lebanon) are broken down into bite-sized recipes for each element which are often quite straightforward and can be cherry picked by those not wanting to replicate Roca plates verbatim.

The 90 recipes included take up less than half the book’s generous 480 pages which leaves plenty of space for a detailed history of the thirty year-old restaurant, a report on a day in the life of El Cellar written by noted Catalan author Josep Maria Fonalleras, and articles on things like the restaurant’s interior design and its wine cellar. A chapter on sauces is particularly revealing – who knew that the ‘sexual tissues’ of sea urchins make good thickeners? But whether or not you find meditations on concepts like ‘techno-emotional cuisine’, ‘transversal creation’ and ‘chromatism’ edifying will depend on how much of a proponent of modernist, avant garde cuisine you are.

Beautifully designed and photographed, El Cellar de Can Roca is unquestionably a desirable object. Fans of books by Ferran Adria and Nathan Myhrvold will lap it up; those of a more classical bent may find the whole thing just too pretentious to swallow.

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: Spanish
Suitable for: Professional chefs
Cookbook Review rating: 3 stars

Buy this book 
El Celler de Can Roca
Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca
£30 Grub Street

Modern Baker by Melissa Sharp

Modern Baker

Prior to the recent ‘clean eating’ backlash, the subtitle of this book might have been ‘A Healthy Way to Bake’. Instead, scorn poured on the nutritional claims made by the likes of the Hemsley Sisters and ‘Deliciously’ Ella Mills by a BBC documentary earlier this year may have prompted the publishers to take a more circumspect approach. A disclaimer at the front of the book reads ‘health claims made have been researched and do not state fact but indicate that this is what research suggests’ which some might think is having your nutritional cake and eating it.

Melissa Sharp’s big idea is ‘gut health’, fuelling microbes in our intestines with fibrous prebiotics (fruit, veg and wholegrains) and probiotics (fermented foods) to help produce the serotonin that keeps us all happy and boost our immune systems. That Sharp adopted this regime while being treated for and surviving cancer; has launched a successful business off the back of it (the Modern Baker Café in Oxford) and has received government funding to explore her ideas further lends the book credibility.

Written in conjunction with School of Artisan Food-trained baker Lindsay Stark, the 120 breads, cakes and biscuits included are all interesting, unusual and delicious sounding. It’s a consistently stimulating read and one that makes you want to get in the kitchen and bake gluten-free chocolate, raisin and hazelnut sourdough with tapioca and buckwheat flours or an apple and almond butter cake with coconut oil.

Modern Baker doesn’t just cover the sweet things in life (all made with unrefined sugars of course). There’s a tartine of Brussels sprouts, feta and hazelnuts with coconut ‘bacon’ that’s  made with tamari, maple syrup, smoked paprika and coconut flakes; savoury pesto and walnut sourdough buns and a range of breads including broccoli and Stichelton sourdough (no commercial yeasts are used in the book).  And a huge bonus is that all the recipes are vegetarian and many gluten free, dairy free and suitable for vegans.

In recent years, we Brits have gone baking mad with a consequent glut of recipe books to feed the fad. That Sharp and Stark have managed to add something different to the mix is to be applauded. All rise for the Modern Baker.

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: Baking
Suitable for: Confident home cooks and professionals
Cookbook Review rating: 4 stars

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Modern Baker: A New Way To Bake
Melissa Sharp with Lindsay Stark
£26 Ebury Press

On the Side: A Sourcebook of inspiring side dishes by Ed Smith

On the sideWhen blogger Ed Smith of Rocket and Squash says in the introduction to this, his first foray into print, that side dishes are ‘often the best bit’ of a meal, it’s difficult to disagree. After all, what’s a steak without chips?

For the most part, Smith looks beyond the obvious – he suggests scorched sweet potatoes with sobrasada butter to go with that steak – and gleefully raids the global larder to brighten up kale and edamame with miso and sweet chilli and add spicy depth to mushrooms with za’atar. Left field ideas like adding yeast to cauliflower puree to provide ‘an (enjoyably) cheesy mustiness’ or coating corn on the cob in gochujang mayo and coconut make for an enjoyable and stimulating read.

It’s a particularly well organised book, with recipes not only grouped into four chapters covering greens, leaves and herbs; vegetables, fruits, flowers and bulbs; roots, squash and potatoes and grains, pulses pasta and rice, but also listed in three directories headed ‘What’s your main dish?’, ‘Where is the side dish prepared?’ (i.e. on the counter, on a hob or in the oven) and ‘How long does it take to make’. That means it’s easy to identify the ideal recipes to suit what’s on your menu, your kitchen set up and time available.

‘Alongside’ suggestions at the end of every recipe make it simple to pick two or three sides that pair with each other to make a meal in themselves (‘I think as eaters we’re creeping away from the idea that there must always be a standout piece of meat or fish in a meal’, claims Smith) or to match with a main course.

There are a few missteps. Smith doesn’t bring anything new to over-familiar dishes like boulangere potatoes, colcannon and cauliflower cheese and some of the recipes including broccoli with tarragon and agretti with olive oil are so simplistic that they hardly warrant inclusion.  But overall, Smith has come up with more than enough inventive ideas to ensure that cooks won’t leave his debut effort on the side.

(This review first appeared in The Caterer magazine)

Cuisine: modern British
Suitable for: Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review rating: 3 stars

Buy this book
On the Side: A sourcebook of inspiring side dishes
Ed Smith
£20 Bloomsbury