There’s something about the idea of cooking through an entire cookbook that’s very appealing. Like you’re going to culinary school for $30. The best-known example is Julie & Julia, née The Julie/Julia Project, which left both Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the whole cook-the-book concept feeling a little overexposed. But many of the most talented chefs of our era — Alice Waters, Tom Colicchio, Alton Brown — started out learning a single cookbook front to back. BuzzFeed asked them and other food celebs to pick one they’d recommend cooking through and explain why. If you’re a fan of one of these people, getting to know the cookbook that informed their dedication to food will be fascinating.
1. Anthony Bourdain says: La Technique by Jacques Pépin
I choose Jacques Pépin’s La Technique because along the way, you’ll learn so many important fundamentals, so many classic dishes, and because Pépin is right about everything. Impeccable!
La Technique is the most famous cookbook written by Pépin, 78, who was personal chef to three French heads of state including Charles De Gaulle, had a TV show with Julia Child, and is a dean at the International Culinary Center.
2. Padma Lakshmi says: Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi
I would recommend Plenty, which shows you how diverse, easy, and delicious vegetarian cooking can be. It’s got glorious photos and is super sumptuous.
Ottolenghi is an Israeli-born chef with four restaurants in London and a weekly food column in The Guardian. This vegetarian cookbook was hugely popular when it came out a few years ago. It’s a good pick if your priority is cooking healthier food — or looking like Padma.
3. Alton Brown says: The Frugal Gourmet by Jeff Smith
The very first cookbook I actually purchased for myself was the original Frugal Gourmet cookbook. I cooked my way through from front to back and I still recommend that journey to novice cooks. It’s got a bit of everything in it and the recipes are easy to follow. Food isn’t bad either.
Jeff Smith (1939–2004) was the author of a dozen best-selling cookbooks and hosted The Frugal Gourmet, a popular American cooking show on PBS in the ’80s and ’90s.
4. Tom Colicchio says: Think Like A Chef by Tom Colicchio
My own book is great, especially for beginners or someone who wants to translate restaurant cooking to home cooking.
You know Colicchio from TV, but this book is a better window into the source of his cred: the time he spent at top NYC restaurants like The Quilted Giraffe and Gotham Bar & Grill, and Gramercy Tavern.
I fell in love with food in France, and when I came back home, I wanted to eat the same way. I went over to my little local bookstore/cookware shop, and I was lucky to find a book by Elizabeth David. I just started cooking out of that book, from beginning to end. It was Summer Cooking, her Provencal cookbook.
British-born Elizabeth David (1913–1992) is one of the all-time greatest cookbook authors. Her books transformed British and American home cooking in the 20th century. It is safe to say that without Elizabeth David, we may have never known about pasta, olive oil, or Parmesan cheese. (The above quote from Waters inspired this post and came out of a larger Q&A in the most recent issue of Lucky Peach.)
This is the one that I cooked through. You could argue that without him that there wouldn’t be Chez Panisse because [Olney and Alice Waters] were best friends, and she visited him in Provence. He’s one of those forgotten greats. It’s also a great book just to read. Every time I eat out too much and get sick of food, I go look at his egg section just to read his recipe for something like his rolled fines hermes omelet. It’s just the way he describes it. Food is so simple and we make it so complicated these days.
Olney (1927–1999) spent most of his adult life in France writing about food and wine. This is his most personal cookbook — a mixture of recipes with dense, informative text that may seem intimidating, but reads beautifully and is as much about eating as about cooking. Olney also edited the famous 28-volume Time-Life book series The Good Cook.
When I was first teaching myself to bake, I baked my way through Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts and learned so much. Her recipes are beautifully written; they’re detailed, but not fussy, and she’s there with you - she knows when something might look curdled and when it will all come back together again, and she won’t let you worry … or fail. And her desserts are scrumptious. So many years later, I still love the book and think it would still be a great book for a modern baker to work through and learn from.
According to this fantastic Saveur profile of Heatter, she was discovered by New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne in 1968, during the Republican Party presidential convention in Miami, because her restaurant was serving an elephant meat omelet as a media stunt. Amazing. She eventually won three James Beard Awards because her recipes are so fantastic. But seriously go read this profile of Maida Heatter.
My book “Fast Food My Way” Volume 2. It’s simple, affordable and brings great results.
Chef Jacques is allowed to recommend one of his own cookbooks (he has written more than 20) because every other person on this list probably considered doing so. This is his most modern day-to-day cookbook, and it comes with DVDs, which sounds silly but is actually very helpful.
9. J. Kenji López-Alt says: River Cottage Veg by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
You probably know Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall from his best-selling epic tome The River Cottage Meat Book, but the man is just as passionate about his vegetables. Like all of his books, River Cottage Veg is gorgeous, easy to read, and packed with unintimidating recipes that are designed for real people who like to cook real food in real kitchens.
In 1997, Fearnley-Whittingstall moved into a former gamekeeper’s lodge in rural England called River Cottage and started filming a TV show about his efforts to become a self-reliant farmer. Through that show and the resulting cookbooks he’s become a beloved British celebrity chef. (Lopez-Alt’s second choice was the same as Lakshi’s pick, Plenty)
One of my favorite cookbooks of all time is How to Cook Without a Book by food writer Pam Anderson. It isn’t glossy, fancy, or full of photographs, but it single-handedly altered the way I approach cooking by showing me how to take a small handful of cooking techniques and use them to create literally endless variations for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I recommend it to anyone trying to find their footing in the kitchen!
Anderson is the author of seven cookbooks and is a former executive editor of Cook’s Illustrated.
11. Michael Pollan says: In The Green Kitchen by Alice Waters
If I were starting out and wanted to learn to cook, I would cook my way through The Green Kitchen, by Alice Waters. It’s a terrific primer at the end of which you’ll be able to make a handful of key dishes, and several incredibly useful sauces and dressings. It’s like learning a few key words in the vast vocabulary of cooking. My other choice would Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal (2011), which also has a limited number of recipes, but they’re fundamental and she presents them in such a way that, as you learn them, you learn some of the deep principles that will help you cook everything, as well as a general approach that will turn cooking from an occasional thing into a gratifying routine.
12. John T. Edge says: Southern Food by John Egerton
Cook your way through John Egerton’s Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, and in History and you will get the best kind of history lessons, a road trip tour of the region’s fabled restaurants, and a collection of honest recipes that’s unrivaled.
Egerton is a highly regarded Georgia-born journalist who has written extensively on education, race relations, and social-cultural issues in the South. He is one of the founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of cultural studies at the University of Mississippi.
This book and its author were a major inspiration to one of my cooking heroes, Elizabeth David, and the recipes seem to bridge nicely the 19th and 20th centuries. It feels historical, but not solely traditional, as its author reaches out to others cultures for inspiration. It’s famous for its fanciful section on ‘Dishes from the Arabian Nights’, and it finishes with a list of supplies for the pantry it call’s ‘The Alchemist’s Cupboard’, but it also contains many simple, delicious recipes. The ‘Sauces’, Chestnut’, and ‘Apple’ sections I return to often enough to know I should just cook the whole book.
This one would definitely be a challenge, but a fun challenge even for the most jaded food media type. The author, Hilda Leyer (1880–1957) wrote it between the two world wars; she also founded the Society of Herbalists. Miss Olga Hartley, the coauthor, was her assistant.
14. Dana Cowin says: The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater
I would recommend cooking through English star Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries. First, he’s a delightful writer and it would guarantee lovely food prose porn in your life on a regular basis. Second, since he’s cooking through the year, you can be sure that the ingredients will be in the market and not too difficult to find. Third, his recipes are simple but interesting. Though many people thrive on the hard cookbooks that teach you everything you need to know about the cooking of a particular place, say Isan, I’m afraid I’m less studious than that and I think cooking should be fun.
Slater is the longtime Observer food columnist who’s had a bunch of TV shows and cookbooks. This book is a yearlong diary of what he eats and cooks. It was also mentioned by Lindgren, who says, “More than any other book I know, the book unfolds over time the way real people cook: a bigger meal occasionally, perhaps on Sunday, followed by the creative use of leftovers, and then perhaps a sandwich or soup from the same.”
15. David Lebovitz says: The Simple Art Of Perfect Baking by Flo Braker
I would recommend The Simple Art of Perfect Baking by Flo Braker, who explains the process baking from the perspective of a home baker, who wants to learn the basics of baking (from pound cake to pie crusts and tarts), then go on to tackle more detailed and spectacular creations.
Braker is an award winning Palo Alto-based cookbook author and longtime contributor to the food section of the San Francisco Chronicle. She’s also a former president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
16. Francis Lam says: The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook by David Rosengarten
To be honest, the idea of cooking all the way through a cookbook, from page 4 to 304, has always seemed like a level of commitment I couldn’t ever imagine for myself. That said, one cookbook that I think is really, really worth reading — and yes, cooking — through is the Dean and Deluca Cookbook. It’s a little too old for really modern cooks, and it’s not old enough to be vintage cool. It’s way 80s/90s, and way fancy-olive-bar aspirational. But that’s exactly why I love it. It’s an amazing document of who we wanted to be 20 years ago, and you can see all the ways how we became those eaters and cooks…and all the ways we didn’t. And the recipes are really good! Most of my biggest hits are adaptations (ripped off) from it.
This is not because I am half Italian or because it was one of my first cookbooks. Well, maybe that’s part of it. But the book has a great mix of recipes, some complex enough for a dinner party and some so simple you can knock out two or three at a time. Plus, it gives you a basic mastery of pasta which is a life skill that will come in handy in ways a beginning cook cannot even begin to comprehend.
Hazan died on Sept. 29, 2013. Severson recommended her cookbook for this post only four days before Hazan passed away, then subsequently wrote Hazan’s obituary for the New York Times, “Changed the Way Americans Cook Italian Food.” Go read it.
18. Ruth Reichl says: The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook by Alice B. Toklas
I’ve chosen The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook for many reasons. First and foremost, because Toklas is such a wonderful writer she makes you want to run off to the market and into the kitchen. What other book has chapters called “Murder in the Kitchen” and “Dishes for Artists”? And secondly because while her recipes are clear, varied and extremely reliable, they force you to use your mind and your palate. Cook your way through this book, and you’ll have fun, be smarter — and eat wonderfully.
Born in 1877 in San Francisco, Toklas was an avant-garde thinker who moved to Paris at age 30. She was Gertrude Stein’s lover and the couple hosted a salon that attracted writers like Ernest Hemingway and painters like Picasso and Matisse. This book is her literary memoir and it includes many recipes contributed by the couple’s famous friends.