The world’s history of cookbooks has been a fruitful one. I challenge you to find a cookbook subject that has yet to be written. Nowadays, if you’re a chef or you own a restaurant, you have a cookbook. Cookbook creation has become an industry and a money-making venture in its own right.
At what point did cookbooks truly lose their inspirational meaning? We’ve all participated in the traditional pastime of picking up a recipe book and cooking some of the classics. Over time, the traditional tomes of recipes have become specialized, ending with the reader confused or wanting more. Most cookbooks today are packed with recipes either too ambitious to attempt in a home kitchen or too watered down to resemble the actual dish. Many modern cookbooks leave their readers hungry.
One of the real joys in watching a chef live in his kitchen is watching an artist in his own element; this is the visceral and emotional experience missing from most cookbooks. Most of us have become so dependent upon cookbooks with step-by-step instructions that we’ve forgotten how to create our own recipes. Our grandparents threw meals together by taste, adding bits of this and pinches of that, and the recipes jotted down for their children were usually the first recipes to be found in the house. Food was created by feeling, emotion, and, most of all, the senses.
A new cookbook, Notes from a Kitchen, explores the creative origins behind cooking and omits recipes. Cooking is an emotional task, one that requires passion. The standard cookbook format weakens this feeling, offering a static listing of ingredients and tasks to create a thoroughly tested dish. While this enables a beginner to learn the basics of preparing food, it does little to inspire confidence and creativity in a cook.
I produced this book with Jeff Scott to create something more utilitarian for culinary aficionados, line cooks, sous-chefs, executive chefs, and culinary students. Intended to teach via inspiration, this culinary journal offers an insider’s view of the best chefs and kitchens in America. This total immersion — through film footage, photos, private notes, and narrative — gives readers insight into the obsessions that drive chefs’ innovations. On a macro level, the focus is on the daily creative lives of chefs, but on a micro level, the reader is exposed to each chef’s unique methods, as well as the perceived emotional reaction a diner may experience from a certain dish. It’s a celebration of the individual experience on each side of the plate.
In George Mendes’ section, for example, the book details the development of a salad, from the initial brainstorming sessions through its inclusion on the menu. Readers get to see how Mendes experiments with his ingredients and prep; he shows his willingness to fail until he lands upon the right mix of elements. This trial-and-error process ultimately leads to the best dishes, but people who cook rarely see this side of restaurants; it’s assumed that everything is delicious on the first attempt.