6 Restaurant Cookbooks That Have Made Me a Better Home Cook

published Mar 4, 2015
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(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

In the past few years, a constant stream of chef and restaurant cookbooks have shown up on bookstore shelves. Some of them are beautiful and look beautiful on a coffee table. Some never leave the kitchen. Some really great ones are perfect in both settings. Here are some of the restaurant cookbooks that have inspired my home cooking and shaped a lot of what I know about food and cooking.

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)
(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers

  • How this book has helped me become a better cook: This book is not just a collection of recipes, it is also a collection of inspirations. I grab this book when I feel like I am stuck in a rut and it never fails to give me ideas that make everyday food extraordinary.
  • Buy the book

The Zuni Cafe Cookbook was one of the first restaurant cookbooks I owned, and it is still one of the most-used cookbooks in my collection. Chef and patron, Judy Rodgers was one of the pioneers of simple, seasonal and refined cooking and this book redefined how I thought about cooking and my understanding of ingredients. I know that this is one of the books that I will pass down to my daughter, and it certainly has that classic heirloom feel with its beautiful typeface and styling. There are very few pictures in this book; it relies instead on the strong, instructional voice of Rodgers in its approach.

Favorite recipe: The Zuni Cafe Roast Chicken is certainly my favorite recipe, and one I’ve reworked so many times, but all the recipes in this book are instant classics and turn out perfectly. Her buttermilk mashed potatoes are so addictive, I am surprised that any other food ever gets eaten with them.

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)
(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

River Cafe Two Easy by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers

  • How this book has helped me become a better cook: This is one book I can’t live without. There is always an expectation that restaurant food has to be fancy, but when I read this book I quickly realize that it really is not about fancy techniques (though they have their place), but about simple, great quality and fresh ingredients. When I hosted dinner parties, I used to panic that the food I served wasn’t fancy enough. This book made me understand that sometimes the best parties consist of two fabulously simple dishes with fantastic ingredients and a good bottle of wine (or three).
  • Buy this book

I reach for this restaurant cookbook when it is 5pm and I have no clue what I am cooking that evening. The River Cafe is a popular London, UK-based restaurant that boasts Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall among its chef alumni. There are quite a few books in the River Cafe series, but this is my favorite, simply because it is geared for busy lifestyles, while keeping big flavors and sophisticated food at its heart.

Favorite recipe: I just can’t pick a recipe as my favorite — every single recipe in this book is a winner — but if pressed, I’d have to recommend the Roast Quail and Cabernet or the Crabs with Chili and Fennel. I’ve pretty much made almost all the recipes in this cookbook, and I’ve never been disappointed. There is an even mix of fancy and pantry ingredients and more often than not, you will find that you can very easily make substitutions to suit what you have in your fridge at the moment. The photographs are also simple, elegant and mouthwateringly beautiful.

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)
(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

The Slanted Door by Charles Phan

  • How this book has helped me become a better cook: I am always nervous while cooking from a culture that isn’t familiar to me. This book drew me into the subtleties of Vietnamese cuisine without being overwhelming. I was able to find most of the ingredients in my local Asian grocery, and the attention to detail in the recipes meant that I was able to replicate the flavors of this complex cuisine with no trouble.
  • Buy the book

This book was recommended to me by a friend when I mentioned that I loved Vietnamese food. I was originally going to buy Vietnamese Home Cooking by the same chef, but decided on this one because I fell in love with the cocktails. The Slanted Door is based in San Francisco and is one of the city’s premier dining destinations. This book collects some of the more popular dishes.

It is easy to be intimidated by chef books, but this book is very different to others, as the recipes are approachable enough for home cooks. For me, this book is equally at home in the kitchen, as it is on a coffee table. I love the vibrant photography, but also the ease of recreating the recipes at home. Sure, you do have to go to an Asian grocery to pick up some of the ingredients, but that’s par for the course for most ethnic cookbooks.

Favorite recipe: As I mentioned above, the book also has an impressive collection of house cocktails. I love the Singapore Sling — I’ve made it so many times and it never fails to impress. It also has an interesting section on wine pairings that a lot of books don’t have. The collection of old photographs in the book is simultaneously nostalgic and inspiring. If you’re looking for a cookbook that you can show off but also cook from all the time, this is the one to get (in fact, get two, so you won’t worry about staining it!).

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)
(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

  • How this book has helped me become a better cook: In classic Ottolenghi and Tamimi style, the recipes are authentic, clearly written, easy to make and I usually have most of the ingredients in my pantry. This book introduced me to flavors that I would have never paired together, and made me a much more adventurous cook in the kitchen. These dishes are also impressive at potlucks, I am always asked for recipes.
  • Buy the book

Ottolenghi and Tamimi need no introduction. What you might not know, however, is that this was actually their first cookbook, re-released after the blockbuster success of Plenty and Jerusalem. This cookbook is especially interesting because it collects the recipes from the eponymous restaurant and has influences from all over the world, and not just Jerusalem.

This book has a large collection of cakes, breads and desserts, in addition to the fresh produce, meat and fish dishes that Ottolenghi and Tamimi are famous for. It’s a great book if you are looking for inspiration for a dinner party, and a lot of the dishes can be made ahead of time. In keeping with the authors’ styles, the recipes are very approachable and use everyday ingredients.

Favorite recipe: One of my favorite dishes from this book is the Chickpea, Spinach and Sweet Potato Stew, and the Ginger and Pistachio Biscotti are a hit in my kitchen every time. Most of the dishes are illustrated with photographs, which will satisfy those who need the visual gratification. Warning: Don’t read this book on a empty stomach.

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

Thomas Keller Bouchon Bakery by Sebastien Rouxel

  • How this book has helped me become a better cook: First off, I now use kitchen scales constantly, thanks to this book. I am not a confident baker, especially when it comes to pastries, and when I first borrowed this book, it was only to look at the pictures. But I’ve been consistently baking from it for a while now, and it has taught me the value of a well-written, incredibly detailed recipe — this book has turned me from an average home baker to producing goodies that look and taste professional. I am now a more confident baker, and I am more than happy to tackle recipes that I would normally never attempt.
  • Buy the book

I borrowed this book from my friend Diane, and I don’t think she’s getting it back. (Sorry, D.) This is a fabulous cookbook for those of you who love to bake, and heck, those of you who love to eat. Thomas Keller selects a collection of gorgeous recipes from his bakeries and the result is this tome of a book. The book itself is beautiful, if a tad on the large side (it needs its own space on my bookshelf).

I love that this book is incredibly detailed, and so it works both for a beginner baker and for a more accomplished cook. The recipes are well laid out, and quite a few have step-by-step pictures. I am not going to tell you that you can open this book and make a recipe when you have a moment — no, one thing you do need with this book is time, and a lot of the recipes are long. However, if you want to produce perfect breads, cakes and pastries, you can’t go wrong with it. Invest in a kitchen scale and away you go.

Favorite recipe: Diane and I both love the macaron recipe in this book, it is Diane’s go-to recipe for when she wants lovely little sweets. I also love the muffins and cakes, which satisfy my sweet tooth perfectly.

If you are a Thomas Keller fan, his The French Laundry Cookbook is also a great investment.

(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

Momofuku by David Chang and Peter Meehan

  • How this book has helped me become a better cook: I’ll be honest, this was a book that made me, and a few of my foodie friends, pretty nervous. We’re all fans of David Chang (and avid readers of Lucky Peach, too) so recreating the recipes from this book was always going to be a labor of love (and fear). But if there is one thing I learned from this book, it is that it is okay to experiment, okay to add my own personal touch to the classics, because as David Chang himself says, “Is it f***– delicious?” And let’s face it, considering the popularity of all the recipes I’ve cooked from this book… they are f***– delicious! Sure, they take time to make, and I probably won’t make the pig head paté… but then, maybe I will. That’s the beauty of this book.
  • Buy the book

This is an incredible cookbook. It’s probably a little more chef-y than some of the other books on this list, but that does not at all take away from the great recipes and anecdotes that make up this book. This is not just a cookbook, it is a storybook that takes the reader on a journey through the successes (and some misadventures) of Chef David Chang.

Favorite recipe: This restaurant is on my dream list, so I love the fact that a lot of the dishes on the restaurant’s menu are in this book. The pork buns are delicious, and while they take some patience, they can be made by a determined home cook. My friends and I even had a ramen night, for which we made some of the ramen recipes in this book, too. If you love cooking and you love Asian flavors, this is one of those books that is not just inspirational, but also one that you will use a lot.

A Few Honorable Mentions:

  • The Sobo Cookbook: From food truck to Vancouver Island’s best known restaurant, this book focuses on seasonal cuisine that is fresh, easy and delicious. One of the newer books I’ve been loving.
  • Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking: The renowned Basque restaurant shares its philosophy on food and cooking. My friend lent me this book and it is just beautiful.
  • Ferran Adria and el Bulli: The Art, The Philosophy, The Gastronomy: Dive into the world of one of the most famous chefs of our time. This tome will keep you fascinated for a long time.
  • Butter Baked Goods and The Duchess Bake Shop Cookbook: Two of Canada’s brilliant neighborhood bakeries share their secrets. Written specifically for the home baker, I love the classic style and recipes from both.
  • Bar Tartine: The newest book from bread gurus Chad Robertson and his team at Tartine Bakery, this is a gorgeous book filled with tips and techniques to improve your cooking.

Which restaurant cookbooks would you recommend?