Looking through some cookbooks these days could almost make a person feel dirty.
“I think you’re first drawn to a cookbook because it’s like food porn,” says Matthias Merges, the chef who ran Charlie Trotter’s kitchen for 14 years. “Most cookbooks — you can see the way that Ten Speed Press does theirs and now [visual art and design publisher] Phaidon is in the cookbook arena — it’s all tabletop-beautiful.”
In other words, cookbooks look better every year. They are great lookbooks. But does anyone actually learn anything from cookbooks? Some of the city’s most celebrated chefs say they have.
Merges credits the Time-Life “Foods of the World” series, which he first read when he was about 8 years old.
“When you’re young, you never know the breadth of the food world,” says Merges, who plans to open his first restaurant, a Japanese yakitori-inspired restaurant called Yusho in Logan Square, in late July or early August. “When my brother and I discovered those Time-Life books, it opened up the whole world to us. It was like, what was that show? Wild Kingdom. Or Jacques Cousteau.”
One night, on their parents’ anniversary, the Merges boys decided to make an ambitious dinner, sukiyaki, or Japanese hot pot, combining beef and vegetables in a single pot. Before he started flipping through the Time-Life series, young Matthias had no idea such a dish even existed, let alone how to make it.
Later, in other volumes, he learned how to cure meats and fish. The Indian book taught him that curry was so much more than just a spice in a bottle labeled “curry.” It is a mix of spices, for one, and it also is a stew, and it differs from country to country. All of this, a boy who would one day become a professional chef, learned from spiral-bound cookbooks.
Some professional chefs learned from cookbooks even after the age of 10.
Jason Hammel and his wife Amalea Tshilds own and operate Lula Cafe in Logan Square and Nightwood in Pilsen. Hammel worked as a chain restaurant line cook in graduate school and is basically self-taught. For years he devoured cookbooks, walking around with one particular volume, The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller, under his arm.
Now, more than 10 years later, he still consults his tattered copy of that seminal book, which introduced him to big-pot blanching.
“The idea is, if you’re going to blanch a green vegetable it’ll be greener and brighter if you use a big pot with a lot of hot water,” he says.
The visual beauty of cookbooks is proof that we eat with our eyes first, and brilliantly green vegetables are much more appealing than vegetables the color of Army pants. But sometimes, even now, Hammel’s cooks crowd their veggies.
“There’s been a million times when I’ve come in and instead of explaining it to them, I just slap down the book with the page open and I say, ‘You need to read this,’ ” Hammel says.
From The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers, Hammel learned about the importance of pre-seasoning.
“Salting ahead of time is one of her major concepts and one part of her book that I love,” he says.
Hammel, who calls Rodgers’ book “probably the best-written cookbook that exists,” often gives the book to his cooks to read.
“One cook didn’t give it back,” he says.
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