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A few months ago we did a radio show with Chef Michael Friedman at The Red Hen. After we stopped recording we were chatting about what we were reading. It was cookbooks. And food magazines. And sites that write about food. And thanks to Chef Friedman, he gave us this idea. What’s the cookbook that made a chef want to be a chef?

We asked some of our favorite chefs (and beverage directors and others in the industry for good measure) to let us know the book that got them in the kitchen. It’s illuminating and useful. Whether you aspire to appear on Food Network or just want to make your dinner a bit more edible, the following may help.

Le Repertoire De La Cuisine: The World Renowned Classic Used by the Experts (1914) by Louis Saulnier

What a great question. I haven’t really thought about the cookbook that got me started. When I first started thinking about becoming a chef I came across Le Repertoire De La Cuisine. It is a technical, how to of French cooking. It’s really every detail you would want. I received it again when I was at the L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda.This cookbook has always been part of my culinary career. When my staff is having trouble and it’s fairly technical I’ll bring out this classic and have them flip thru it to get some perspective. I’ve shared it with many of my chefs and it’s something that’s become a treasure to me. -Neal Corman, Executive Chef of Dyllan’s Raw Bar Grill

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The Joy of Cooking (1931) by Irma S. Rombauer

Definitely The Joy of Cooking. My grandmother had the 6th edition printed in 1975. She would use it all of the time and I would often ask her about recipes in the book. When the 1997 edition came out, she bought it for my twin brother and me. We spent endless hours together in the kitchen trying different recipes out of the book while watching Emeril Lagasse on Food Network for inspiration. Nearly twenty years later, my brother and I are both chefs and love what we do! -Jonathan Dearden, Executive Chef of Radiator

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Larousse Gastronomique (1938) by Prosper Montagné

A book that is a staple for all chefs and inspired me the most to become a chef is the Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagné. It is a encyclopedia of gastronomy with explanations of all cooking terms and techniques that everyone needs in their library. -Sebastien Rondier, Executive Chef of Brabo Brasserie

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Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) by Julia Child

Being a chef really wasn’t on my radar until I read Julia’s book. She was able to share her passion for cooking in a way that really drew me in. My father was a producer at PBS and watching Julia was a religion in the house. -Todd English, Executive Chef and Partner of MXDC Cocina Mexicana

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The Escoffier Cookbook and Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery: For Connoisseurs, Chefs, Epicures Complete With 2973 Recipes (1969) by Auguste Escoffier

The Escoffier Cookbook by the man himself, Auguste Escoffier. I switched careers at 25 and entered culinary school. Got lucky enough to land Auguste Escoffier as a research project.

It was like a reverse culinary lobotomy. A path was opened to my brain that became flooded with culinary information. It wasn’t just about cuisine, which Escoffier literally wrote the book on, but the basis for the entire kitchen brigade system used today. Everything he did, every recipe in that book, is still relevant.

I challenge you to think of another historical figure who’s fundamental systems and guidelines are followed just as closely today. -Michael Bonk, Chef de Cuisine of BLT Steak

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The Making of a Cook (1978) by Madeleine Kamman

The cookbook that helped make me a chef was The Making of a Cook by Madeleine Kamman – the original version. I went on to become a student of Madeleine’s. She was the most intelligent and talented chef with whom I have ever had the good fortune to talk, cook and work. An intuitive genius of food chemistry with an extraordinary palate and ability to teach the qualities of taste. -Ruth Gresser, Chef and Owner of Pizzeria Paradiso

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Calling All Cooks (1982) by Telephone Pioneers of America Alabama

When I was growing up there was a regional cook book put out by the phone company, a collection of passed down recipes from generations of home cooks in Alabama. Calling All Cooks was written in the same colloquial style as my grandmothers recipes, sometimes with ambiguous techniques and measurements. It expanded my perspective and opened a whole new world in the same style that I was accustomed to at the time. It still proves to be a timeless window back to the roots of southern cooking. -Adam Howard, Executive Chef of Blue Duck Tavern

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Art Culinaire since 1986

It was not a cookbook, but a quarterly hardcover magazine called Art Culinaire. I always dreamed of being feature here and finally I did after thirty-two years in volume 128. -Guillermo Pernot, Chef and Partner of Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar

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KidsCooking: A Very Slightly Messy Manual (1987) by The editors of Klutz

My very first cook book was KidsCooking: A Very Slightly Messy Manual! I loved this book so much. I literally made everything in it. The best part was my mom eventually let me cook out of it by myself. I am pretty sure that this cookbook is a big part of how I became a chef. I started cooking as early as I can remember, and to this day I still think of these recipes from time to time. We even have eggs in a frame on our brunch menu in part because it reminds me of being a kid and making it from this book. -Marjorie Meek-Bradley, Executive Chef of St. Anselm

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Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (1984) by Paul Prudhomme

-Wilbur Cox, Chef at Baltimore’s Hotel Revival

Jean-Louis, Cooking With the Seasons (1989) by Jean-Louis Palladin

Growing up in the DC area I would watch Saturday morning cartoons on PBS. After the cartoons often played Great Chefs Great Cities*. Jean-Louis was the only local chef that was a regular on the show. I became a huge fan of his cooking and my first cook book was his cooking with the seasons. It has always inspired me, even to this day. -Ryan Moore, Executive Chef of SABABA

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Essential Cuisine (1996) by Michael Bras

This cookbook was really an eye opener for me, because it was one of the first times I had ever been exposed to such an incredible range of exotic ingredients and plating techniques. I still pull it out from time to time whenever I need a bit of inspiration! -Benjamin Lambert, Executive Chef of Ana at District Winery

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Culinary Artistry (1996) by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg

This book helped me bridge the gap between ingredients and actual dishes. With that said, it’s so hard to choose just one. To keep my creative wheels turning as a young chef, I always used to go to book stores and flip through the pages of various cookbooks to learn as much as I could. -Jason Shelley, Executive Chef of Ocean Prime

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The French Laundry Cookbook (1999) by Thomas Keller.

From the perspective of being a new cook at 30, it was pivotal in teaching me not only cooking, but the actual mechanics of working in a restaurant kitchen. That is to say, the “why” behind doing things a certain ways in restaurants. Take for example – the meaning and importance of family meal each day. -Tim Ma, Executive Chef of Eaton DC, Chef and Owner of Kyirisan

I’m not sure a cookbook gets all the blame, but I still love the original French Laundry cookbook. It is a perfect cookbook in every sense. It embraces more than the dish – it focuses on the true philosophy of hospitality and makes sure it’s always refined in every way, every setting, every ingredient. It’s everything that culinary hospitality professionals should aspire to be. -Marc Hennessy, Executive Chef of RARE Steakhouse & Tavern

The French Laundry Cookbook that I bought on a trip to the French Laundry, which was also the first prix fixe dinner of that kind for me. And every part of the experience blew me away —- including meeting Chef Thomas Keller, except I was so full of food and wine that I was too tongue tied to say anything! I read every recipe over and over again and it still has pride of place in my kitchen. -Zena Polin, Co-owner of The Dish & Dram and The Daily Dish

Also the book that inspired Russell Smith, Executive Chef of The Source by Wolfgang Puck

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Kitchen Confidential (2000) by Anthony Bourdain

Without a doubt, the book that inspired me to become a chef was Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. Though it is not a typical cookbook with recipes, Kitchen Confidential is inspiring from start to finish, as it includes anecdotes that make me want to be a better chef on a daily basis. I was able to identify with so many aspects of this book, and still apply Bourdain’s recommendations to my life, staff, food, and most importantly, my career. -Nicolas Caicedo, Executive Chef of The Williamsburg Hotel

The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy (2001) by Claudia Fleming

I didn’t have one specifically that made be want to be a chef, but I have one that has inspired me since I was just beginning in the pastry field and that is Claudia Flemings The Last Course. Coming from the midwest (Small Town USA) I was never exposed to the types of desserts that she did. The way she looked at things, her flavors. I was just a real inspiration. -Michelle Poteaux, Pastry Chef and Owner of Bastille

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La Cuisine de Référence (2004) by Michel Maincent-Morel

The Cuisine de Reference cookbook by Michel Maincent-Morel made me want to be a chef. My brother went to culinary school 7 years before I did, and whenever he came home I would steal this book from him. It teaches you all the basics of cooking and pastry baking, complete with plenty of pictures and full recipes. -Chef Jean-Marie Perrot of La Cafette

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Sunday Suppers at Lucques (2005) by Suzanne Goin

When I was in culinary school, my mother sent me ‘Sunday Suppers at Lucques’ by Suzanne Goin. It changed the way that I wanted to cook (it also deviated from the way we were being taught how to cook). The focus on texture, flavor balance and seasonality struck a chord with me. I ended up staging at Lucques later on that year, and it opened my eyes to what restaurants should strive to become. I still look at that book for inspiration, and still hunt down new menus from Chef Goin’s arsenal. That book is still on my shelf – with a lot more rips and stains than I cared to reveal! -Michael Friedman, chef and owner of The Red Hen & All-Purpose

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Nasty Bits (2006) by Anthony Bourdain

My parents inspired me to become a chef, but it wasn’t until Anthony Bourdain’s Nasty Bits was it reaffirmed. Anything he wrote will timelessly inspire people to not necessarily become a chef, but will at least give the industry the respect it deserves and food a whole new meaning. -Ed McIntosh of Sliced and soon to open Chop Shop

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Cookbook: The Flavor Bible (2008) by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen A. Page

There is no single book that made me want to become a chef, but one of the most important books I use regularly is The Flavor Bible. I use it every time I work on a new menu item. -Rich Falbo, Executive Chef of Firefly

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Medium Raw (2010) by Anthony Bourdain

It’s not a cookbook exactly, but Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain was important to me. Where Kitchen Confidential was a candid look inside the kitchen, this was an in-depth look into the big issues of the food industry. It was right when I was starting to cook and it really opened my eyes to how things really work and how we can approach things differently. -Faiz Ally, Chef de Cuisine of Poca Madre

Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails (2014) by David Kaplan and Nick Fauchald

The first book I read when I started to bartend. It’s more than just original cocktails made at the NYC bar; it has stories and explanations about hospitality, service, and prep that are just as, if not more, important than ratios and measurements. It described this perfect, mystical type of bar I had always wanted to work in, but didn’t even know existed up until then. Meehan’s Bartender Manual is also great inspiration for thinking about bar management and operations. -Monica Lee, Beverage Director for Daikaya Group (Daikaya, Bantam King, Haikan, and Soon-to-Open Hatoba)

 

Related inspiration

Great Chefs Great Cities television show

The show transported you into chefs kitchens. You got to see them cook their signature dishes – no frills, no editing. It was real cooking by masters. Chefs like Rick Tramonto, Jean-Louis Palladin, Jeremiah Tower, Michel Richard, Alain Passard! How incredible is that?! How can you not want to be a great chef after watching something like this?! Cooks today should watch these episodes. I’m going to look for my DVD’s now. Wait. Who has a DVD player? -Katsuya Fukushima, Executive Chef and Partner of Daikaya Group (Daikaya, Bantam King, Haikan and Soon-to-Open Hatoba)

 

 

 

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