As a chef, I often get asked all sorts of things. What’s your favorite dish? What do I do with arugula? What’s the best sauce? How do I cook X? Who’s your favorite chef? What’s the best cookbook?
These are questions that are often complicated. Favorite dish changes on a whim, because what you’re in the mood for depends on the season, depends on who you’re with, depends on how you feel that day. Arugula has lots of uses. Best sauce with what? Lots of ways to prepare a lot of things, so it’s sort of a loaded gun sort of question.
But the last two are fairly easy for me. Hands down, it is Jacques Pepin. No question. No equivocation. Jacques is THE man in my book. An amazingly skilled chef, he is likewise a gifted teacher, an advocate for the profession, someone who loves food, and has an attitude that is generous and wide when it comes to cuisine. La Technique
was a brilliant and accessible way to bring the fundamentals of French cuisine to the masses. His work and his passion earned him France’s highest civilian honor, the Légion d’honneur. He is very much one of my culinary heroes.
Not surprisingly, he also wrote the cookbook that recommend to folks who want to get their feet wet in cooking. Jacques’ Art of Cooking is easily the most accessible, and best cookbook that I can recommend for beginners and enthusiasts alike. Jacques is very much a teacher, and this pair of books is not only lavish with illustrations, it is a course in cooking. From stocks to patisserie, from fish to meats, from various cutting techniquest and presentation, it is very much a course in cooking that leads one recipe at a time to teaching the fundamentals of cooking, and with step by step instructions, and each recipe builds skills to take to the next. They are an investment in skills, and when I recommend them, it isn’t just for the recipes, but for what amounts to an education in the craft that I love. His enthusiasm and joy for that craft is evident, and it is a joy just to look through, and for beginners and enthusiasts alike, the pair of books are an ode to the craft and art in the kitchen, and done with simplicity an elegance.
Get these first, and take the time to sit down with them. Not just for the recipes, but for the technique and the skills that are presented. For the joy and the artistry. For the basic fundamentals that will build your own skills and develop your own eye and taste. I cannot recommned these books enough, and for the beginner, they are gold. Far more so than The Professional Chef by the Culinary Institute of America–which is far better suited as a text for the burgeoning professional, than for laymen looking to improve their skills. The key to Pepin is always the joy of sharing, and that is what good cooking is about. Sharing with those you love, sharing good times, sharing something that is basic and commonplace, and elevated by the company.