By the book: what cookbooks do Canberra's top chefs recommend?

No one ever taught me to cook. I left home with a dream and a copy of The Commonsense Cookbook and not long after was able to put a meal on the table. I can read, therefore I can cook was my mantra. Cookbook sales make up about five per cent of total book sales in Australia and, despite the ease of accessing recipes online, they are more popular than ever before. But what makes a good cookbook? A celebrity on the cover? One with beautiful photographs? One that is more about the story than a recipe? It's different for everyone.

Burma Superstar and Salt, Fat, Heat, Acid are among Louis Couttoupes' favourites. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Burma Superstar and Salt, Fat, Heat, Acid are among Louis Couttoupes' favourites. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

We asked some of Canberra's top chefs what cookbooks inspired them when they were learning to cook, what inspires them now, and what books they'd recommend to the home cook.

Louis Couttoupes, @boyandspoon

Do chefs use cookbooks?

All chefs use cookbooks. They will always be an incredible source of inspiration, whether you want to learn the technical aspects of something, or simply as exposure to unfamiliar cuisines. How chefs apply what they learn from cookbooks is the important part. Anyone can follow a recipe and put it on a menu. What sets inspired chefs apart is the ability to read and learn something in a book, and then turn it into something that is truly their own.

What are your favourite books?

I have so many cookbooks these days I've lost count. I like to think of them as a library I can refer to if I want to figure something out, rather than committing them all to memory. If I come across an interesting or unfamiliar ingredient, or get an idea in my head about what direction I want to take a dish, I'll pull out a couple of cookbooks and see where they take me.

I love learning about cuisines that are completely unfamiliar to me and the role food plays in a cultural context. I went to Myanmar recently and loved the food there. When I got home I got hold of a book called Burma Superstar that placed the cuisine of Myanmar as the crossroads of Indian, Chinese and Thai influence, but still very much its own thing. Learning about why food evolved in a particular country or culture in a certain way is as interesting to me as the food itself.

Can you remember your first cookbook?

I remember cooking cakes from my parent's battered copy of the Nursing Mothers' Association of Australia Cookbookwhen I was a kid. I still have the "Simple chocolate cake" recipe committed to memory, and I will always have a soft spot for "Upside down pear cake" (with obligatory tinned fruit).

I think that might be why I love those '70s Penguin paperback classic cookbooks too. The ones that tell you to boil asparagus for 30 minutes. The recipes sound atrocious (I found a recipe for banana curry spaghetti sauce a while back), but they also provide insight into the classic dishes that have become so familiar, and at times some pretty solid techniques.

What can the average home cook learn from cookbooks?

The best thing you can get out of a cookbook is the confidence to be creative without having to follow a recipe to the letter. Once you have a solid understanding of what you are trying to achieve, make it your own, adapt it to your own taste and what is available where you live and in season.

What cookbook would you recommend to the average home cook?

I like books that help you understand both the technical aspects of what you are doing and how to make things that taste good. Noma's Foundation of Flavour: the Noma guide to fermentation for example isn't just about giving you recipes to follow. It's about giving you the skills and understanding to apply to your own experiments. Similarly, books likeBar Tartine and Salt, Fat, Acid, Heatdo really well at explaining how cooking and flavour works and how to get the most out of the ingredients you use. They are both great for chefs and home cooks alike in building your confidence and getting amazing flavour from a range of ingredients in all different ways.

Kurt Neumann, Grazing

Kurt Neumann recommends Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Kurt Neumann recommends Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Do chefs use cookbooks?

Absolutely! They are a vital resource and reference. I use cookbooks in a number of ways, some cookbooks are great as a visual aid used for colour and garnishes inspiration, while others are great for recipes. I usually find I might see something in one book and pair or match flavours, techniques, textures from others. I find when I'm read through cookbooks I can taste the dish as I'm reading it, so it helps me when I'm writing menus or trying to create new dishes.

What are your favourite books?

I don't know if I have a "favourite" cookbook, but I certainly have my regulars. It also depends what I want to research. If it's something homely or a staple recipe, a lemon pudding for instance, I would always start with Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion and modify or adapt it as I might need too. However, if I'm after something a little more "cheffie", I might go to Daniel Humm's Eleven Madison Park. The purpose determines what I dive into. I also have index books full of my own recipes and that I've gathered over the years which are also a great resource.

Can you remember your first cookbook?

My first cookbook could possibly have been the trusty PPC, Practical Professional Cookery, which was recommended by the CIT for all commercial cookery students to buy and use as their resource material. Then The Concise Larousse Gastronomique. I now probably own more than 100 cookbooks, ranging from speciality books on seafood, meat, game, vegetables to Asian cuisine, leading Australian and world renowned chefs.

What can the average home cook learn from cookbooks?

I feel the "average home cook" could use cookbooks for inspiration in many ways. From developing cooking techniques, flavour and texture pairing, to building on a basic recipe repertoire, or simply for enjoyment. Nothing's greater than rediscovering a previously loved cookbook off the home shelf and finding some missed dishes or diving into a new book eager to try some of what it has to offer.

What cookbook would you recommend to the average home cook??

There are so many cookbooks to recommend, however if I'm to suggest just the one to the home cookbook novice, it would have to be Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion, it has everything you need in it. Information about produce, preparation techniques, recommended pairings, season and fantastic tried and trusted recipes.

Marie Koenig, Ginger Catering

Marie Koenig's first cookbook was a staple in German kitchens. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Marie Koenig's first cookbook was a staple in German kitchens. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Do chefs use cookbooks?

Chefs definitely use cookbooks. I predominantly use cookbooks for desserts and baking as well as for menu inspiration - to discover new flavour combinations, different methods of preparation and create new dishes for Ginger Catering's seasonally changing menu at The Conservatory, National Arboretum.

Can you remember your first cookbook?

My first cookbook, which to this day is also one of my favourite books is called Back Vergnuegen wie noch nie by Christian Teubner. It is an old book that would have been a staple for many housewives in Germany, particularly on farms, it has all the classic cakes, breads, biscuits and slices categorised into festive days (Christmas, Easter etc), Sunday afternoon tea (a very important part of the week!) as well as weekday treats. I discovered my love for the kitchen through this book which saw me bake a new cake or treat almost every day of the week during my last year of school.

My other favourite cookbooks are:

The Flavour Thesaurus: a compendium of pairings, recipes and ideas for the creative cook by Niki Segnit. While this book is not a traditional cookbook it is a great resource for chefs and home cooks alike who would like to develop a "new" dish or reimagine a classic; it helps you pair ingredients that may not seem obvious at first but work really well together.

And Cumulus Inc by Andrew McConnell. I worked at Cumulus in 2017 and I really like the cookbook (and still use it) the dishes are delicious, produce driven and the book also has nostalgic value.

What can the average home cook learn from cookbooks?

What the average home cook can learn from a cookbook depends very much on the cookbook itself and how thoroughly the home cook reads the book. One can just follow a recipe, however there is also a lot of information in cookbooks that a home cook can learn if they spend a bit of time reading the book and trying out different recipes. For example, one can learn many different methods of cookery from a cookbook - poaching, boiling, roasting etc; different flavour combinations and how the different flavours may interact; how different cuts of meat need to be treated differently, for example an eye fillet steak versus brisket; the seasonality of produce, and much much more.

What cookbook would you recommend to the average home cook??

A cookbook that I would recommend to the average home cook, one that I have bought as a Christmas present for a number of people is the Cornersmith cookbook by Alex Elliott-Howery and James Grant. It includes the recipes from the Cornersmith cafe and picklery in Sydney. I love this book because it's focus is on the seasons, on ethical produce and on preserving produce when it is at its best, to ensure a year-round supply of delicious food without the food miles. This book is perfect for the average home cook as the recipes are quite simple, delicious and use ingredients that are accessible.

Mal Hanslow, Pilot

Mal Hanslow is cooking from Josh Niland's The Whole Fish cookbook. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Mal Hanslow is cooking from Josh Niland's The Whole Fish cookbook. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Do chefs use cookbooks?

We use them all the time. They are great tools to learn new processes and techniques from people who specialise in certain things. I'll often use cookbooks as a jumping off point for experimentation with more complex techniques like agar set jellies or gellan gum creams. It's no different than anything else - all the best experts share with and learn from their peers.

What are your favourite books?

I love Harold McGee's book On Food and Cooking. Harold is a food scientist and this book goes deep into the chemistry behind cooking. It gives you a whole new perspective on why we cook the way we do. Another one is the Australian Fish and Seafood Cookbook by Anthony Huckstep, John Susman, Stephen Hodges and Sarah Swan. It's really handy, kind of an encyclopedia of cooking seafood. I also just got my hands on Josh Niland's The Whole Fish Cookbook. I read it cover to cover in a day and have made a couple of his sauces so far. Looking forward to getting stuck into some of the more challenging recipes in that one.

Can you remember your first cookbook?

Someone bought me Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion when I started my apprenticeship at 17. Back then I used it almost daily as a resource to learn the basics.

What can the average home cook learn from cookbooks?

The best home cooks I know make family recipes from their various cultural backgrounds. I guess anyone who wasn't lucky enough to learn to cook through their elders or who want to expand their skills should get stuck into cookbooks. They are of course very handy if you have a particular favourite dish or cuisine that you want to be able to replicate at home, or to impress people with something special. My one tip would be to start with the basics before getting too complex. There's so much information on food and cooking now, it's easy for people to try to run before they can walk. Remember that a well-executed simple dish will always be better than a a badly-executed complex one.

What cookbook would you recommend to the average home cook?

Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companionwill give you a great platform to start from and always return to for inspiration. It teaches you all about the individual ingredients and what flavour combinations and techniques are best to use with them. Thai Street Foodby David Thompson is another great one, I call it the "staff meal bible" because I've used it to cook staff meals at so many different restaurants. Most of his recipes only take around 20 minutes to cook, and it's full of delicious, big, bold Thai flavours.

Dave Young, Temporada

Dave Young still has his old copy of Rockpool. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Dave Young still has his old copy of Rockpool. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Do chefs use cookbooks?

Absolutely. For technique, recipes, inspiration....

What are your favourite books?

Like your children right, not supposed to have favourites? I love books that tell the story as well. I don't want just recipes, I want to hear the story and passion behind the book. My all time favourite is The French Laundry Cookbook. It's pretty old school now and the food is probably a bit dated, but it is beautiful and I love the narration by Thomas Keller - so inspirational. Manresa by David Kinch is also amazing.

However I find myself less and less interested in the huge name cookbooks nowadays, and more interested in simple cooking. Modernist Cuisine was one hell of a read and who doesn't want to know how to cryosear a duck breast, but a book like Gjelina by Travis Lett is so much more enjoyable - beautiful ingredients, simple combinations, great photos, lots of inspiration.

Can you remember your first cookbook?

Rockpoolwas my first cookbook - I got it for my 18th birthday and shortly after went to work for Neil at Rockpool. It's an amazing book - so ahead of its time. The photography and styling was like the restaurant itself - of its time but timeless. I still have it in all its hard cover glory!

What cookbook would you recommend to the average home cook??

Without a doubt The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander. The A-Z of ingredients. So detailed, so thorough, and recipes designed for the home cook.

This story By the book: what cookbooks do Canberra's top chefs recommend? first appeared on The Canberra Times.