Whether you are dabbling with the idea of upping your cookery game at home, or planning a career as a chef by taking our Cook’s Certificate, Rosalind, Cookery School’s founder, has pulled together a list of essential Cookery School reading. In fact, her Top 16 Classic Cookery Books for you to peruse and enjoy.
I have thought long and hard about this. There is so much written about cooking but it is probably worth taking a bit of an historical look at food. I have not suggested recipe books as “stand alones”, but think it’s better to have background reading on food, so this list of my Top 16 Classic Cookery Books may help you.
Some of the books that I have listed here, give recipes. You may also find that when searching on the internet, that these authors lead you to other books of theirs or other sources of interest. There are so many recipe books currently being published, and although the majority are good sources, some are jumping on current trends, and are perhaps not as useful as these Top 16 Classic Cookery Books could be.
I think that you will develop a feel about what really good food is about and what I think one needs to strive to achieve and these books will give a feel and background to good food.
What am I currently reading?
Just now, I am enjoying a book called Scoff: a history of food and class in Britain by Pen Vogler, which addresses all aspects of the history of our food. It is lengthy but not heavy reading. Jay Rayner, the UK food critic, and podcaster called it a ‘joyous romp…’.
I have recently finished reading Beef and Liberty by Ben Rogers which looks at food nationalism particularly between England and France. I learnt loads of historic facts from reading this book. It won’t necessarily add to your cooking knowledge, however it’s super interesting background reading.
Some modern US writers that are really worth a read
Quite a few famous Americans have written about food – they are all well-known (thanks to television, and Netflix specials!) and put food into perspective. I think many of their food values still hold good.
Samin Nosrat – her book is called ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking’. Now a major Netflix documentary. Whilst cooking at Chez Panisse at the start of her career, Samin Nosrat noticed that amid the chaos of the kitchen there were four key principles that her fellow chefs would always fall back on to make their food better: Salt, Fat, Acid and Heat.
Best-selling author Michael Pollan –has written several books – and all of them are worth a read – Cooked, Fire, Water, Air, Earth is really interesting. Again, now on Netflix too.
The much-loved Anthony Bourdain – Kitchen Confidential Bourdain’s tales of the kitchen are as passionate as they are unpredictable, as shocking as they are funny. You can lose yourself watching his short travel films here too.
In 1971, Alice Waters opened the restaurant Chez Panisse on the West Coast of USA – which was a trendsetter in that she used fresh, organic local produce. Her biography may interest you and give you an idea of what she was up against when she opened the restaurant.
Some earlier US food writers for further reading
The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook – she wrote early in the last century, however, she sets a good perspective on use of ingredients and food that was cooked.
Ruth Reichl – any of the books that she wrote – usually short and easy reads. She was editor in chief of Gourmet Magazine at one time. Garlic and Sapphires is her riotous account of the many disguises she employs to dine undetected when she takes on the much coveted and highly prestigious job of New York Times restaurant critic.
MFK Fisher – any of her pieces – she wrote many. Here’s an example from 1942 – How to cook a Wolf written to inspire courage in those daunted by wartimes shortages.
Here’s a mixed selection of British food writers, all worth looking at.
Richard Olney – Simple French Food – published in 1974, and considered a classic, in fact, widely considered one of the most important cookbooks ever published.
Simon Hopkinson – Roast Chicken and Other Stories – another book really rated by those that are into good cooking, his book provides an insight into Simon Hopkinson’s unique style of unpretentious cooking with 160 of his favourite recipes.
Contemporary writer Claudia Roden writes now and was the Winner of the Observer Food Monthly Lifetime Achievement Award 2019. Her books on food including Middle Eastern, Italian and Spanish are wonderful and alongside the recipes she gives historical perspective too. I love her recipes as they are genuine and always work.
Fergus Henderson caused something of a sensation when he opened his restaurant St John in London in 1995. As signaled by the restaurant’s logo of a pig (reproduced on the cover of Nose to Tail Eating) St John the emphasis is firmly on meat. Nose to Tail Eating is a collection of his recipes, celebrating, as the title implies, the thrifty rural British tradition of making a delicious virtue of using every part of the animal.
In addition to these books, The Guardian newspaper also has many good articles to browse here perfect for a bit of bedtime foodie reading!
Early British cooks that influenced the way that we cook
Rather than writing about the history or methods of cookery, these are recipe books, featuring quite a lot of text about what these writers were finding in 1960s in European food. It is definitely worth looking at them as they were all wonderful cooks and influenced hugely the way that we cook now. These writers also gave rise to the food revolution that the UK has seen recently (as food in the UK famously used to be so bad in the 1950s and even 1960s!)
Elizabeth David, for example At Elizabeth David’s Table is the very best from the woman who changed the face of British cooking.
Jane Grigson was an English cookery writer. In the latter part of the 20th century she was the author of the food column for The Observer and wrote numerous books about European cuisines and traditional British dishes. Her work proved influential in promoting British food. “Cooking something delicious is really much more satisfactory than painting pictures or making pottery. At least for most of us. Food has the tact to disappear, leaving room and opportunity for masterpieces to come. The mistakes don’t hang on the walls or stand on the shelves to reproach you forever.” Jane Grigson published Good Things in 1971.
Robert Carrier, although an American, his success came in England, where he was based from 1953 as chef, restaurateur and cookery writer. His encyclopedia of cookery is a classic.
I hope that you enjoy this list of classics and that it will give you a feeling of what has happened in food over the past fifty years, which I am sure will stand any budding cook in good stead, even if you only manage to read a couple of them!
Hopefully my Top 16 Classic Cookery Books gives you something worthwhile to do, between cooking. Enjoy your reading and exploring and if you come across any great writing, please do let me know!
Rosalind Rathouse, founder, Cookery School, Little Portland Street, London.