A Professional Chef’s 5 Favorite Cookbooks

Here are five great cookbooks with tons of doable recipes and ideas for Thanksgiving.

I have been working in foodservice in one capacity or another now for more than forty years. I washed dishes, bussed tables, flipped burgers and tended bar. I’ve worked in fine French country inns and Irish pubs, and even did a stint in a topless bar. Over the years I have amassed a large collection of cookbooks and out of all of them these are my top five: my desert island cookbooks.


“The Art of Simple Foods” by Alice Waters

The Art of Simple Foods by Alice Waters. I think this is a wonderful book, simple recipes as the title implies, delicious results and don’t we all need more simplicity in our lives? The recipe for Roast Pork is one of the best things I have ever eaten. I sometimes find Alice Waters kind of hard to take but I have to say, I love this book and use it often.


“Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen” by Wolfgang Puck

Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck. Before he became a TV star and pizza maker, Wolfgang Puck was in the forefront of modernizing cooking methods. I received this book as a gift twenty-five years ago and it changed the way I cooked both at home and at work.


“Joy of Cooking”

Yes, the Joy of Cooking. For years before the internet if I could not find a recipe anywhere else I could almost always find it in Joy. Still packs a punch for the number of recipes for cookies, pies and cakes alone. I still have the old edition my mom gave me and break it out several times a year at holidays during baking season.


“Artisan Baking Across America” by Maggie Glezer

Artisan Baking Across America by Maggie Glezer. I cook for a living but I bake bread for joy and this is one of the best bread books I’ve ever had. Not a ton of recipes but those it does have are excellent, easy to follow and the results are fantastic. Full of great pictures and resources.


“The Cuisines of Mexico” by Diana Kennedy

When I was a young man first out of chef school and and working in the Washington, DC area, there was nothing I loved more than real Mexican food. Unfortunately there were very few places where you could actually get good Mexican food (or pizza, bagels, real Italian food and don’t even mention Bialys). Diana Kennedy, the foremost authority on the regional cuisines of Mexico, first released the The Cuisines of Mexico in 1972 and anyone who has eaten beyond Old El Paso will recognize that this is serious food. Be prepared to get your kitchen dirty and eat food better tha anything you’ve eaten anywhere outside of the barrio. A big plus these days is most of the ingredients are now available in your local market. When I first started using this book I used to have to buy some of the spices and chiles mail order.


It’s tough to choose just five out of all the books I’ve collected over the years. I will give a couple of honorable mentions; Pork & Sons, a recent big, beautiful book of French pork recipes full of wonderful text and pictures and as a chef I have to mention the Repertoire de la Cuisine, a classic French cookbook by Louis Saulnier for chef’s first released in 1914. It is probably the most bare bones cookbook you will ever encounter. Basic ingredients and method but a treasure trove of classic French recipes from the Golden Age by one of Escoffier’s protegees.

I’ve had many books fall out of favor with me over the years, cooking has changed drastically over the course of my career. When I started chef school up in Hyde Park the basic text book, The Professional Chef had recipes for Baked Hamburger Loaf and Cream of Tomato Soup. The newest edition looks like a coffee table book. Every time I move I almost invariably donate a box full of cookbooks to the library. I’m also sure there are plenty of cooks who will read this and say, “Feh!” but it’s my list and I’m sticking with it.

Happy cooking.


Originally published on Open Salon.


Image credit: ReneS/Flickr

About Steve Jaeger

Steve Jaeger grew up in suburban New York but has lived in the Washington, DC area since his teens. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and worked as a chef for more than thirty years. He is an avid baseball fan, history buff and never misses Curb Your Enthusiasm. He lives in Arlington, VA with three children and a cat.

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