When I look closely at the shelves where I store my cookbooks, I see all kinds of creatures more or less damaged.
The dirtiest, stuck, torn, is undoubtedly an old old book by Martha Stewart, received in 1996, without photos, perfectly indexed, very original titled The Martha Stewart Cookbook, many of which have become family classics, from sweet and savory eggplant caviar with cilantro to squash soup.
Since then, many others have been added, signed Trish Deseine, Nigella Lawson, Yotam Ottolenghi, Josée di Stasio… And, of course, Donna Hay. At one time, in the late 90s and early 2000s, I only cooked with the Australian stylist’s books.
It was the beginnings of modern kitchen photography.
If we look at the world of cookbooks through history, we indeed notice that there is a before and an after Donna Hay. The preponderance of photography, the clean, natural, perfectly imperfect style that we all love today, where, on film and photo sets, we can literally eat the dishes that were photographed – unlike back then previous where everything was sprayed to be shiny, lacquered to be smooth, tampered with to hold better or melt less, for example -, it is she, from Australia, relayed by the Marie Claire French, who imposed it. Not to mention the flavors of the end of the world that she makes us discover and the products that she taught us to tame in a spirit of New World crossbreeding and not of cultural appropriation.
In my collection, I also have a large number of restaurant chef books, but few that I actually consult for recipes. Apart from Estela, New York, by chef Ignacio Mattos, for his simple but dazzling salads – endive with toasted walnuts and breadcrumbs, kohlrabi with apples and hazelnuts, for example. I want to come back there more than ever, it seems, to recreate memories of travel, of disorientation.
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But what is it that really makes me never cook with some books and many more with others? Is there a recipe for publishing a perfect cookbook?
In 2021, unlike 1996, it is clear that the general presentation of the book and the quality of the photos are essential. But you need a gentle balance between the very appetizing side of photos and their accessible nature. The overly perfect images in some chef’s books, for example, are scary. We tell ourselves that we will never be up to the task of recreating such dishes.
Donna Hay is the one who has, if not introduced, at the very least propelled the beauty of imperfection. Drizzle down the side of the pan. Uneven crust. Today, it has become commonplace. We want to taste realistic dishes. We say to ourselves that we can risk preparing them, too.
Among the books that I love to use are those by Briton Nigella Lawson, a former journalist turned professional cook, presenter and cookbook author, not least because her writing is so interesting. She has a lot of self-deprecation and writes in the tone of confidence, as if, each time, she confided in us a secret that goes beyond the ingredients. In Quebec, Daniel Pinard, in the 90s, had great success with his books, in particular because he also took great care to talk to us. To tell. And to refine the texts.
One of the crucial ingredients in the design of these books that we keep coming back to is undoubtedly also their reliability.
At home, all it takes is one failed recipe for a book to find its way into the gift box. And come to think of it, I would have to write on the unbalanced recipe page every time what went wrong. Bad cooking time, poorly dosed spices, poorly explained detail …
How many times have I heard readers, friends, acquaintances, explain to me that they always go back to the same books or the same names, on the internet – and Ricardo is really high on the list of those names mentioned – , because people know “it works”. It’s amazing that cookbook writers don’t make this point more often when promoting themselves.
Obviously, we also choose a cookbook because we choose a voice. A glance. A personality. A philosophy. An approach to life.
I’m a big fan of the Franco-Irish Trish Deseine, for example, because her taste and aesthetic universe, her political positions on social networks, the photos of her daily life, make me want to dive into her plates. I could have said the exact same thing of Josée di Stasio when I discovered her, in the 2000s, or of Donna Hay, of course, whose magazines have long made me dream of just being able to have her life.
I am sure that today, readers of Marilou, Trois fois par jour, or K pour Katrine say the same thing.
The most recent book with all these characteristics for me personally? The one in which I am most often immersed, because it is beautiful, reliable, tasty and intelligent? OIive and Gourmando, by Dyan Solomon. With photos by Maude Chauvin. Delicious, filled with discoveries and magical coffee memories from start to finish.