For the best part of two years, I’ve been art-directing and designing for the digital cookbooks start-up, 1000 Cookbooks. Having been on the inside looking around this incredible resource for so long, I rather vainly considered that my own top-ten list was possibly of interest, not least because it’s been formulating in my head for most of the time I’ve been working on this project. So, start with #10 and then take a look at the rest, none of which appear in any order of preference…
Honourable Mentions, Caveats and Apologies
The choosing of a top ten is a cruelly exclusive act, but a great way to devote serious thought to a topic. Lists are provocative and spark endless debate. They’re inspiring too, and can cause you to reflect on items you thought you knew well or inspire you to discover new recommendations.
Of the 40 or so people I’ve personally invited to submit a list of their top ten cookbooks to the 1000 Cookbooks project, there have been very few who submitted one without expressing some regret at not being able to choose an eleventh or twelfth title, and at the impossibility of choosing ‘just one’ Elizabeth David when there were two or three other equally meritorious options. There were some who were reluctant to include anything from very recent times simply because the one criteria it couldn’t possibly fulfil was the test of time itself. I doubt that more than a handful of those invited would choose the same list if asked to repeat the process in a year’s time. We change our cooking and reading habits in response to a wide range of triggers: the company we keep, dietary preferences, the nostalgia we might feel for a certain food or book. Not to mention the untold number of new releases and their rave reviews, plus numerous encounters with forgotten gems of the past all hustling for our affections.
There is much debate about what constitutes a great cookbook, much more still about the validity of an overall ranking of books which suggests a scale of greatness. The beauty of the 1000 Cookbooks list lies not so much in its ranked scale of greatness (which was always likely to create discord and delight in equal measure), but the scope of that greatness (which through such volume and diversity will chime harmoniously with the majority).
What constitutes a great cookbook? Must it be one which you cook from or use regularly? Must it be something which you’ve read from cover to cover? Or be something which you can pass on to a next generation of family? It was only three decades ago that full-colour photography was the exception, not the norm. How many of this era’s cookbooks could be stripped of their dreamy technicolour coats and still withstand the scrutiny of a cookbook lover’s glare and appetite? And in today’s digital world, how many books might have turned out very differently, perhaps not even been published at all, without media platforms to support (and sometimes fund) their genesis, production and marketing? How many others have blossomed on the crest of a wave of tweets, likes and shares?
So, to my own choices or, moreover, the ones which I didn’t choose…
There are no restaurant books on my list (well, not really), despite spending my working life around many good chefs and designing so many good books by them. Of them all, Vivek Singh is without doubt the most hard done by to be sitting outside my Top 10. I use several of his books often and he is both a writer and creator of a most joyous kind of food. To not have an Indian book inside my choices is an anomaly which I find hard to reconcile. Vivek’s Cinnamon Kitchen Cookbook is my ‘eleventh book’. His papdi chaat from that book would be in the running for my last ever supper. Russell Norman’s Polpo also just narrowly missed out: more food in the kind of style and the tone of writing voice that I love. The Ottolenghi mania reached me late, but I can well imagine his books becoming ingrained as favourites over the coming years. His food is clean and flavoursome and I could happily be vegetarian for the rest of my days with his eponymous book as my sole reference. I’m unlikely to ever cook much from Phil Howard’s double-volume set of Square cookbooks, but I’ve always been in awe of the learning and thoughts he committed to the 800+ pages of his epic and inspiring work.
Cooking and cookbooks did not come passed down to me from my parents. Mum was quite simply not a cook; Dad’s culinary legacy consisted of how to make sheet toffee and the perfect cup of tea (the latter I will remain eternally grateful for). There are gaping historical chasms in my list: no David, no Grigson, no Hazan, no Roden. Because they weren’t passed down to me, I’ve simply not discovered them – yet. My own discovery of cooking (as opposed to heating up), and reading recipes (rather than packet or jar instructions) came just as I reached my twenties and was significantly developed during my fifteen years spent in food publishing. First and foremost, my cookbook collection and my love of food books is a reflection of my experience of working and sharing within the food publishing world over the past two decades. Which is not to say that there aren’t many brilliant contemporary names and titles missing, too: books I’ve still yet to discover, or which have completely passed me by. Diana Henry is one such omission. I struggle to explain how her books haven’t yet graced my shelves (the photographer Jason Lowe flagged the woman and her work for me some ten or twelve years ago). I plan to put that right very soon. Rachel Roddy is another about whom I’ve heard too many good things to remain ignorant of her (albeit very recent) work any longer. I have an understandable love but not a blinded bias for books I’ve worked on. To get inside an author’s head and think in tandem with an editor and photographer is a job which I am privileged to have made a living from for so many years. I’ve worked with some extremely gifted authors and the exclusion of so many is all the more kudos to those who have made the cut.
These top ten books have brought me so much pleasure and all of them in very different ways. A best-of list is a flawed method for defining and showing off our tastes; a means of projecting a picture of ourselves that we would like for other people to see. I’m happy with the ‘me’ on show here, but I wouldn’t be if I felt it wasn’t as truthful and as rigorous a ten as I could possibly have settled upon.