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Misled by 'The Chef's Library'

What cookbooks do the great chefs use? Great question. Too bad that was only in chapter one.

The Chef's Library: Favorite Cookbooks from the World's Great Kitchens

Publisher: Abrams
Length: 351 pages
Author: Jenny Linford
Price: $40.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-10

A quick perusal of The Chef's Library's pretty dust jacket is enough to make any armchair cook's mouth water. "Which cookbooks do the great chefs use?" wonders the back cover in snazzy red typeface. Author Jenny Linford finds out, querying 72 professional chefs, coupling their answers with brief biographies and glossy photographs.

Yet pretty dust jackets can deceive. Only chapter one of The Chef's Library addresses chefs' favorites books. Chapters two and three are devoted to "Influential Cookbooks" and a "Cookbook Directory", neither utilizing chefs' input as to why the included culinary texts were chosen over others. The resulting book, while attractive, is not a serious work. More on this in a moment.

Chapter one, "The Chefs' Favorites", is the strongest and even there, what should be a lively discussion of cookery, is marred by weak writing. Certainly Linford has set herself a difficult task.

That Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, and Marco Pierre White figure prominently is no surprise. What does bewilder is Linford's dependence on a small group of adjectives telling little of the cookbooks or their authors. Too many chefs / authors are "characterful" or "charismatic", including the notoriously irascible Richard Olney. Chef Tom Kerridge is “exuberantly enthusiastic” when discussing Grand Livre de Cuisine. Is it possible to be enthusiastic any other way? Elsewhere, Heston Blumenthal possesses “appetite for knowledge, insatiable curiosity, and an openness to ideas.” Wylie Dufresne has “an open-minded curiosity, which is reflected in his innovative cooking.”

Granted, mine is a tough assessment. Food writing poses inherent challenges, with only so many ways to describe a well-written recipe or a delicious meal. Capturing the obscure reasons one cookbook moves an individual to pursue the punishing world of professional cookery is challenge enough. Linford did it 72 times.

Chapter two, "Influential Cookbooks", edges into more troubling territory, asking more questions than it answers. Linford writes, "The focus here is on a particular genre within cookbooks: the chef and restaurant cookbook. This category offers chefs a vital opportunity to create a record for posterity of their otherwise ephemeral work."

This is not the definition of an influential cookbook. While applicable, in part, to defining restaurant cookbooks, the wish to capture ephemera for posterity applies to all art.

Most troubling is a lack of methodology or selection rationale. Why is Jason Atherton's Social Suppers deemed influential when Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Cooking is not? Any book purporting to be a reference, directory, or inclusive guide, whatever the subject, is only as valid as its methodology. In the absence of one, the author opens the door to dispute. As it stands, The Chef's Library is a biased volume, inviting argument even as it invalidates Linford's hard work. That's unfortunate.

This isn't to say "Influential Cookbooks", or by extension, The Cook's Library, is full of nonsense. Grant Achatz's Alinea and Ferran Adrià's A Day at El Bulli are influential by any yardstick. Then again, Sat Bains and Ollie Dabbous are doubtless magnificent talents. But influential? In what sphere?

Chapter 3, The "Cookbook Directory" is equally fraught. Once again, readers are offered no explanation as to why certain books are representative while others are excluded. Certainly nobody can reasonably expect a single reference text to encompass every important work in a given field. But a cookbook directory purporting to offer "classic works from around the world" can do better than two Phaidon titles on Mexican cooking while offering nothing by Rick Bayless.

Were this not bad enough, The Chef's Library has some whopping blunders (mine is not an advance review, but a finished copy). Ruth Rogers, who opened London’s River Café with the late Rose Gray, is quoted as saying they didn't "waiver" from Marcella Hazan's recipes. Rose Gray, who died of cancer in 2010, is misidentified as American. She was most decidedly English. Picky? Snarky? Yes and yes. Nor is Linford to blame. Such errors can, and should, be caught by a sharp-eyed editor. A human one.

Strongly written reviews, with their ability to wound, should never be taken lightly by writer or reader. Linford deserves credit for an excellent idea and an incredible amount of legwork: consider querying over 70 people and writing up the responses. Gracedesigns.com and photographer Phil Wilkins also merit mention for their work on a truly lovely volume.

In the end, books like The Chef’s Library contribute to the outsized dreams of readers like this one. We are the armchair chefs, people who love eating, cooking, and reading about food. We have the time and disposable income to try and mimic the professionals we see on television or glimpse in the kitchens of our favorite eateries. Most often our dreams are unrealistic at best, expensively disastrous or even injurious at worst.

Which leads us to a difficult question. Should you buy The Chef’s Library?

It depends. At $40, the cost is a major outlay for a flawed volume. If this expense dips into your grocery till, this is not the book for you. Then again, if you are continually prowling for inspiration, and can afford it, certainly, if only to try and figure out why fellow UK cooks Tamasin Day-Lewis and April Bloomfield don't rate.


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