The Chef’s Library: Favorite Cookbooks from the World’s Great Kitchens

the-chefs-library-cover_webI’m in awe of this wonderful new book The Chef’s Library – I have to say. If you are a cookbook fan or serious collector, it will be a total delight.

Some of the most influential chefs in the world choose and talk about their favourite cookbook, key restaurant cookbooks are listed and discussed, and then if that wasn’t enough, there is a directory of important cookbooks. Honestly, if someone just set out to design a book I’d like, it’s this one.

Three things struck me in the the very first minutes:

  1. What an incredible endeavour. It simply smokes hard work, research and time. The permissions alone must have been a nightmare.
  2. My bank balance is going to be destroyed. I have some of the books covered, but absolutely by no means all. There are hundreds. For me, there is just discovery after discovery. I stopped making a mental list of books I wanted to track down when I realised it was running into hundreds of pounds.
  3. Only books can do this kind of thing. Physical books. This is a proper, old-school almanac, an encyclopedia of a kind – yes, a reference book and all that entails. It harks back to older days, to libraries, to shelves, to paper … I find that intoxicating quite frankly.

It’s a book I’ll sit down some day and read from cover to cover – it’s that kind, really – but your immediate instinct is to dip in. I go straight for chefs whose own books I admire, to find out which books they love. Florence Knight, for example (who chooses Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed) or Anna Hansen (David Thompson’s Thai Food). Jamie Oliver goes for Ambrose Heath’s Good Food. Darina Allen chooses her mother-in-law Myrtle’s The Ballymaloe Cookbook. In each chef’s section, there are spreads of the book, the cover, a pic of the chef, and short but fascinating dialogue about the importance they attach to the book. For a cookbook lover, this is basically win, win, win again – brilliant chefs, cookbooks, cookbook covers.

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In fact, it takes me back. When I was a kid, my dad bought me an Encyclopedia of Rock – I still have it. It was pretty tame stuff, and you could tell that it was either put together before Punk, or haughtily after it, was sniffy about Metal, but I was addicted. More than anything I loved reading the potted histories – of The Doors, Dylan, the Stones. Joni Mitchell, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin …

Now all this seems ancient history, but the point I’m stumbling towards is that this book was my inspiration to start record collecting – the spur to go out and buy a Gram Parsons LP, or The Byrds. Even when I was listening to much newer music, I still went back to its stories – because here, crucially, was the tradition. If I read Sid Griffin of The Long Ryders talk about The Byrds it was to this battered old book I turned. I don’t know if this rambling anecdote helps describe Jenny Linford’s outstanding book,  and the way it puts links in the big chain? Or that I loved it so much it made me feel like a kid again, discovering there was a thing called Procol Harum? Maybe not, but I know what I’m trying to say … there’s heritage here.

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Once you have got over the complete masterclass that is the Chef’s Favorites section, the Influential Cookbooks and Cookbook Directory sections that close out the book are equally exciting. Key restaurant books are given coverage – familiar to me like The River Cafe Cookbook or Tom Kerridge’s Best Ever Dishes and then eye-popping new discoveries. And in this format, gentle learning curves.

The closing Cookbook Directory is incredibly interesting – and perhaps for the more amateur cook like me, the place to start. I know more books from this section than the previous two, and particularly like the way the section is laid out by country, and then general (and historical!) – so that you have, for example, Locatelli’s beautiful Made in Italy fronting up for his home nation, and then Nigella Lawson’s ground-breaking How to Eat included in the books on wider content.

I was delighted to see Keith Floyd in there – here he’s representing France with Floyd on France. This makes complete sense. Everyone, though, might have their own favourites that haven’t made the list – and this isn’t a criticism, it’s part of the fun. Books like these make you think. I have a soft spot for Floyd’s American Pie for example – partly because I queued for an hour in the rain to get him to sign it, but mostly because it was the first proper cookbook I ever bought, as opposed to a recipe book. Which is different.

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Having said all this, I think it’s important to say that in the end this is a book about food. Food is the prize for all this incredible work. As Jenny Linford says in her excellent introduction, “the special joy of cookbooks to anybody interested in food and cooking is that they are useful – and used.” Absolutely. I didn’t pore over my pages about King Crimson or Carole King and then imagine their music. I went down the record shop and bought it, and listened to it. The end result of Linford’s fabulously designed and produced grand labour of love is that new cookbooks will be bought, new recipes will be tried, and new food will settle to the table.

Christmas is now everywhere – so inevitably the mind shifts to the annual panic of present buying. If anyone you know loves cookbooks, has a shelf-load of them and everytime you go to visit there’s cookery stuck down the side of the couch or cluttering the stairs – the Christmas present dilemma for this theoretical person is now officially over. Buy them The Chef’s Library – they will utterly love it, and you for it.

Now I’m going to put on some Barclay James Harvest, open a can of something, and start flipping through The Chef’s Library again.  I see there’s a copy of The Virginia Housewife on AbeBooks for only £1239.99 …


jenny-linford_credit-chris-windsor_webWith grateful thanks to Alexandra at Abrams Chronicle, North Sea Scullery was able to catch up with Jenny Linford to ask a few questions about The Chef’s Library.

NSS: I love your book. For me, it’s a complete treasure chest. Can you tell me a bit about the background to the book, and how the project came about?

 JL: Thank you! So pleased you like it – I think it is a book that cookbook lovers will enjoy and find absorbing. The initial idea was to do a book celebrating great cookbooks. To focus it, however, the editors and I decided to feature chefs’ favourite cookbooks. Obviously this was dependent on legendary chefs such as Michel Bras, Simon Hopkinson, Joyce Molyneux and Ruth Rogers agreeing to share their favourite cookbooks with me. What was clear, however, is that the idea of a favourite cookbook really resonated with chefs. As a food writer it was wonderful to see in this way the power of cookbooks to touch people’s lives. With regards to the chefs, I also wanted to showcase talented, up-and-coming chefs as well as legends – so I was thrilled to get choices from chefs such as Florence Knight, Jackson Boxer and Sean Brock.

NSS: The Chef’s Library is split into three distinct sections – the Chef’s Favourites, Influential Cookbooks & Cookbook Directory. Could you say a bit about the thinking behind the structure?

 JL: We wanted to make sure that there was a comprehensive quality to the book and structuring the book in this way allowed this to happen. So, the Influential Cookbooks features great restaurant and chef cookbooks, such as Ferran Adria’s Adria’s A Day at elBulli, a fascinating insight into Adria’s creative process. Chef and restaurant cookbooks are very interesting as they give great chefs a chance to explain their philosophy and approach to food. There was often a powerful autobiographical element to these books, with chefs sharing their stories and experiences. The focus of the Cookbook Directory is on classic cookbooks written by wonderful writers such as Claudia Roden, Anna del Conte, Diana Henry, with subjects ranging from national cuisines to preserving. This section also gave me a chance to showcase some historic cookbook gems, such a Hannah Glasse’s and Eliza Acton’s influential works.

NSS: The selections from the chefs are inspirational, and occasionally surprising. Can you say bit about your work on this section? It seems like it must have been incredibly exciting and while you say how cooperative all the chefs were, it must also have been very, very hard work!?

JL: You’re right, it was a huge amount of work! These chefs are incredibly busy and so a lot of patience and persistence was required to get a choice – over several months in some cases. What was very exciting for me, however, was receiving the cookbook choices. Always so interesting, especially when the chef shared his or her reason for choosing it. These intimate insights were very inspiring and intriguing; I felt as if I was in such a privileged position. Margot Janse of South Africa’s Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais, for example, wrote very powerfully and well of her choice of favourite cookbook – one can feel how important this book is to her.

NSS: In the chefs’ selections you describe the different inspirations behind their choices – camaraderie, for instance, and inspiration – and I wondered if you spotted themes which emerged throughout all the selections – which the chef’s choices had in common with those of the next two sections of the book?

JL: The book has various aspects that overlap within it. To begin with, several of the chefs who chose cookbooks have also written great cookbooks which I wrote about in the Influential Cookbooks and Directory section. I think the overall theme that runs through the whole book is the power of good food writing. The chefs’ choices were diverse in style – some chose very professional tomes by chefs, others were inspired by more domestic cookbooks. Cookbooks are very diverse in style and nature – just as food is – but if you look through the entries there is an overall quality to them.

NSS: Of all the chefs’ selections, is there on which stands out for you in particular, for any reason?

 JL: I was fascinated by Jordi Roca’s choice of a novel rather than a cookbook! Reading his intriguing choice, however, I found it made a lot of sense on a number of levels – the protagonist has an amazing sensual awareness and there is an apprenticeship aspect to the plot is paralleled by the journey chefs go on.

NSS: You describe how the chefs found their selections an agony from hundreds of books of real importance to them, but as editor, the choices involved in all three sections must also have been a bit agonising for you too? Also, there must have been a cut-off point with new books – are there any released lately you would have liked to include?

 JL: Yes, it was hard. We sometimes hit permissions barriers re reproduction which meant that books I really wanted to include were omitted. We tried to go to the wire including cookbooks that were being published as I was writing and researching The Chef’s Library, but you’re right, book projects by their nature involve a cut-off point. I have had the odd pang, but have tried to be philosophical about it and not think ‘if only’!

NSS: Your own most recent book, Garlic, only came out in February. Were you to some extent working on both at the same time, and how was that? How did it feel to be working on a cookbook, while holding hundreds of cookbooks by other people in your working thoughts as well? Can you say a bit about Garlic and what readers can expect from it?

 JL: Garlic did overlap slightly with the work on The Chef’s Library. This is something I’m used to having to deal with as a food writer; one has to mentally switch focus between projects. Garlic is very much aimed at home cooks, so very different in feel from many of the chefs’ cookbooks I was reading and researching. The recipes are cosmopolitan, reflecting my own travelled childhood living in countries including Singapore and Italy. I also wanted it to be a contemporary garlic cookbook, so included recipes featuring wild garlic, which is now being widely cooked with, and also black garlic, which chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi have made very fashionable. I enjoy thinking of creative, but appropriate ways to use ingredients, so, for example, came up with a recipe for classic Korean kimcnhi pancakes, but topped them with an unorthodox black garlic crème fraiche, with the flavours and textures working very well.

NSS: I like to think cookbooks will always be with us – there is something about them that withstands digitisation (although that has its uses for reading massive cookery tomes on a train). But what do you think is the future for cookbooks? Why do you think they are so special?

JL: I spent months and months reading cookbooks for The Chef’s Library and what it really brought home to me is how important the completeness of a cookbook is. Reading a cookbook from start to finish is very different from just finding a single recipe on-line through googling how to use an ingredient. Cookbooks offer chefs a chance to preserve for posterity something that is otherwise ephemeral. Food and cooking is a great connecting activity. Being able to read cookbooks by people long dead and yet have their voices leap out from the pages – get a sense of their character, their approach to food – is a wonderful experience. Cookbooks are still being published because people like to have a physical cookbook – one that they can take into the kitchen and cook from, getting stains on the pages in the process, or take to bed to curl up with and read. Cookbooks have a remarkable capacity to become companions and I think that will always be the case.

NSS: Finally, if push comes to shove – do you have a favourite cookbook of your own? Could you say a bit about it?

JL: Now, that is the hardest question you’ve asked! I’m sitting in my study surrounded by hundreds of cookbooks. A cookbook that I do have a huge affection for is Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book – I came across her writing just after I left university and was immediately taken by her approach. She combines wonderful writing – a mix of the personal, cultural, historic – with a very down-to-earth and wonderfully knowledgeable approach to food. I love the simplicity with which the Vegetable Book is conceived: arranged alphabetically by vegetable, so one can find what one’s looking for very easily. Within each section, Grigson offers a mixture of personal memories, with interesting literary, social and historic references as well as recipes – so food is set in a context, which is what I find fascinating. Reading Grigson made me think I wanted to become a food writer.

NSS: Thank you!


The Chef‘s Library: Favorite Cookbooks from the World’s Great Kitchens by Jenny Linford, published by Abrams (£25). Pics from The Chef‘s Library (Abrams) and Jenny Linford, credit: Chris Windsor


Sid & The Gang, The Long Ryders, Whistle Test, 1985