Books for an Aspiring Chef

Current Song: “…And Justice For All” — Metallica, “…And Justice For All”

In the Chef2Chef forums, over the past month or so, there has been a discussion about what a mother’s son would need if he wants to become a chef and attend Culinary School. That got me thinking, especially as I just registered for Culinary School, but have been reading and following Alice Waters’ advice of spending every last free cent on cookbooks instead of other creature comforts and so on.

People have been mentioning on the forum topic (which, if the wireless network hadn’t just tanked I could look up for you and give you a link…) their “top 5 things” this youngster would need. Invariably, there are 3 or 4 books listed, sometimes even 5. For me, I’m thinking that isn’t nearly enough. Now, they’re naming the “Big 5” or so with titles such as On Cooking, The Professional Chef, La Gastronomique, and On Food and Cooking. I agree that these should be in the library of a good chef, but for the amount of money that would be tied up in the aforementioned books, averaging $50+ each, there’s another route.

What I would recommend would be to find a used bookstore like “Half-Price Books” and live there. Stop in every week to find what gems are there and get as many sources of information as humanly possible. I mean find as many books by Dournenberg and Page as possible. Find as many books by Michael Ruhlman as you can. See if you can find used copies of Madeline Kamman’s The New Making of a Cook or any of the “big 5” used before throwing down the kind of change involved. Even if you don’t have the equivalence of a “Half-Price Books” near you, Barnes and Noble and Borders each have their clearance areas where you can usually pick up some fantastic deals on fairly diverse books.

That said, I have to have a “top 5,” those books I continually reference that I find invaluable, right? Well, sort of.

1. The CIA “The Professional Chef vol. 8”
2. Dournenberg and Page, “Culinary Artistry”
3. Le Courdin Bleu’s “Le Courdin Bleu Cookbook”
4. Michael Ruhlman’s “The Soul of a Chef” OR “The Making of a Chef” (either one is fantastic…)
5. Auguste Escoffier’s “The Escoffier Cookbook”
6. Carol W. Maybach’s “Creating Chefs”
7. Riely’s “The Chef’s Companion”
8. Madeline Kamman’s “The New Making of a Cook”

If I had to narrow it down to just 2 books, it would be the top 2. There is very little you could NOT accomplish with these two in tandem. The “Chef v8” is packed with amazing information and very good recipes as well as very well articulated instructions and quite a bit of history. Culinary Artistry is an invaluable resource, to me. It has so much information in it that isn’t what’s normally covered in cookbooks. I tell you what, the “Flavor Pals” section of the book is probably the best thing that ever happened to my cooking. In a LOT of cases, it allowed me to create dishes at the Cafe that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.

With these two books in hand, or in a bag — the CIA book is heavy — you can learn an amazing amount and, if you’re in a position where you can create dishes for a restaurant, you can come out looking like a genius. Then again, a little creativity goes a long way, too, and everyone needs a little bump.

I wouldn’t say, however, that just 2 or 4 or 5 books will really do it. I have a shelf and a half in the built-ins that are dedicated to cook/cooking books. There’s a book by Aftel and Patterson called “Aroma” that is a unique perspective on cooking with essential oils that I would recommend to anyone. If you can find a copy of The Escoffier Cookbook I would seriously recommend buying it. I would almost always advice against getting any celebrity cookbook, but if there’s a book on the business by a celebrity, snatch it up.

It all comes down to what you can afford and what you can find. My copy of The New Making of a Cook cost me $10 from e-Bay…and $4 of that was shipping and handling. The average price of the books I come home with from “Half-Price Books” is $5.95. The aforementioned Aroma cost $6.95 while retailing at either $24.95 or $32…I don’t remember, but what was important was that I didn’t pay retail and it’s a hell of a book. In fact, the only books on my list that I paid full price for were The Professional Chef v8 at $80 (*cough*) and Culinary Artistry at $26.95. Oh, wait, I did get The Escoffier Cookbook new — $25, the best deal up there, really, although I still can’t really put a price on Culinary Artistry. To me, the more diverse the book collection, the more prepared you are to make your own recipes (I should write about my opinion of recipes, later) and be able to handle anything a Chef throws your way.

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Never Pick Your Nose After Seeding Jalapeños

Current Song: “Accidentally Kelly Street” — Frente!, “Marvin, the Album”

Another successful dinner. We had chicken quesadillas covered with a tri-tomato relish and onions. The boys weren’t as keen on that, but that’s OK… I cheated on the chicken, but sliced it up and cooked it in Ortega taco seasoning that I liquefied with a sugarless limeade concoction. It gave it zing and kept the chicken very moist. I was happy.

After dinner, the relish and onions were combined with minced Jalapeño. It needs to steep, but it’s really good. I wish I could grok the types of tomato I’m using. I poured the internet looking for produce code 3148 and 3149 for the yellow and orange vine tomatoes I used, but no luck. There’s a fascinating article to be found if you search for +”produce codes” +”3149″ however. Good read, if not a little technical for my addled brain, at this hour. Nonetheless, nothing about the tomatoes.

The high point of tonight’s cooking will be tomorrow when we delve into the Strawberry White Chocolate Mousse pie I tossed together. It’s not perfect — I put about 1/8th of an ounce too much gelatin (needed 3/8oz, not 1/2oz) and the “mousse’ is nothing more than sumptuous whipped cream. It will still be good. Really good. I made too much of the strawberry gel stuff and, as a side note, it’s good all by itself.

Well, time to clean up the mess I made.