Photograph by Aaron Clamage
Photograph by Aaron Clamage

The Storytellers of Cooking: Treasured Books I Can’t Live Without

It’s back to school season, and as I watch my daughters prepare for another year of their education, I like to reconnect with mine, too.

I’m drawn into my library at home, where some of my second most valuable possessions, after my daughters, of course, are sitting, stacked next to each other on shelves.

A beautiful thing happens when you hold a book in your hands. It talks to you, even if you’re not reading it yet, and it starts to tell you things. A worn binding, a stained page – these are all stories that a book will tell, and that’s why I love my collection of books so much. They are a connection to that time and place, in some cases literally with first editions that I have, and there is nothing more treasured than that when it comes to an education.

Growing up, books were a way of learning for me. Ever since I dropped out of school at the age of 15 to devote my life to cooking, they have been one of my only ways of learning. They teach me about the past and the history of the world, and they show me how we, as humans, once were so that I can better understand how we are today. Most importantly, books are a way for me to connect with my greatest passion: cooking. They teach me the history of cooking, and how it has evolved. They’ve been irreplaceable pieces of knowledge, and whenever I’m in search of something new, I always return to these old favorites, and some new, to enlighten me.

1. Physiology of Taste by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, published in 1825

Despite this book’s age, it is still very relevant. Brillat-Savarin was a visionary of his time, because back then philosophers didn’t write a lot about food. His quote, “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” has had a huge impact on my life and my career. It helped me to see the importance of food and the impact it has on our world.

2. The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, published in 1836

This book not only taught me a lot about the earliest cooking in America, but it showed me how far back Spain, where I once called home, influenced the cooking here in America, my new home.

3. The Cuisine of Frédy Girardet by Frédy Girardet, published in 1987

When this book came out, Frédy Girardet was one of the leading revolutionary chefs of his time. It was the first book that I ever bought, and I got it while visiting Frédy’s world-renowned restaurant in Lausanne, Switzerland. I wanted it to so badly, I used my bus fare to pay for it and had to hitchhike my way back to Barcelona. It was worth the price. The dishes in this book have been instrumental to my cooking. His red mullet with rosemary sauce, and how he adds the livers of the fish to the sauce at the end for extra flavor, is truly revolutionary. Or the apples cooked in red wine – such a simple technique but it was so cutting edge to me at the time.

4. Arte de Cozina, Pasteleria, Vizcocheria y Conserveria by Francisco Martínez Montiño, published in 1611

Each time I hold this book, I join my Spanish ancestors at the table. This book is by a chef who cooked for rulers Philip II, Philip III and Philip IV – the golden era of Spanish power. It’s through this book I learned what the Spanish kings were eating and what new kinds of foods were coming to the European table.

5. Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer, published in 1931

This is another great connection to America’s culinary past. It tells the story of a time much later than Mary Randolph’s writing, and it’s crucial for understanding the cooking of the generation I grew up in, but in America. I own a first edition, and while I love every one that’s been printed after that, nothing makes me more aware of that time period than reading this book. My favorite part is when she clarifies what frying is, because it shows how the same technique could be so different depending on where you are in the world. For many countries during that time, the act of frying meant submerging food in a big vat of hot oil, while a cook in the South making fried chicken would actually be pan-frying. Rombauer made that distinction in this book, and I love reading it every time.

6. Oishinbo Mangas by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki, published from 1983-2008

These Japanese comics are about the ultimate quest for culinary perfection. Read the entire series and you will understand all you need to know about Japanese culture.

7. The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years by Nicolas Appert, published in 1811

I love history, and this book is a small token of it. So many times when we look back and examine moments of war, we only think of them as negative moments. Sometimes, when we look a little closer, something very unique happens. During the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte was a strong military leader who knew that he had to feed his troops well, and he announced that he would give a reward of 12,000 francs to the person who could help him achieve this in a simple way. And that’s how Nicolas Appert invented canning.

8. The American History Cookbook by Mark H. Zanger, published in 2003

This book was instrumental in planning for our once pop-up, now permanent, restaurant America Eats Tavern. It uses historical references and recipes to trace the history of cooking in America, and it covers a broad range of time periods.

9. Khana Khazana: Celebration of Indian Cookery by Sanjeev Kapoor, published in 2000

Sanjeev Kapoor is one of the most celebrated cooks of Indian cuisine and someone I greatly admire. He has authored many books, but what I love so much about this one is how it defines all of the different styles of cooking throughout India. This book teaches you just how unique each one of them is, and I am always amazed by it every time I read it.

10. My Mexico by Diana Kennedy, published in 1998

I’m going to tell you something that I hope you’ll never forget: Diana Kennedy is the authority on Mexican cooking. Some people call her the Julia Child of the cuisine, but I won’t, because as my dear friend, I know she can’t stand the comparison. But she really has been influential on teaching the rest of the world about Mexico’s cooking. Every single one of her books are invaluable to me, but if I had to give you one to start with, I would pick this one. It illustrates how she became the storyteller of Mexican cuisine, and why she is the best person for the job.

What are some of your favorite books? Let us know in the comments below.