Inherent in the recipe is an implicit investment of hope, on our part, that it will deliver on its promise to please. Even before our culinary skills mature, many of us harbor the small desire of wanting the recipe to rescue us (not unlike in our search for meaningful love) from the mundane.
As we begin to know ourselves better as cooks, the selection process is refined, and we begin to understand that recipes are not separate from the cook who risks much in both its selection and execution.
But by now, we can see that the recipe (like advice from a friend), is only a guide, a suggestion, a possibility, and with skill, effort and attention to detail, we breathe life into a set of instructions that, without our willingness to fail, will remain unseen on the page, waiting to be discovered.
Each chef has a different story to tell. We all got to talking.
Mark: What is the first cookbook to inspire you?
Cheryl Alters-Jamison, author: I was 15-16 years old in high school. We were living in Galesburg, Ill., and we were all sitting at our table, when Congressman Bob Michel, knowing I like to read recipes, handed me this little pamphlet-like book, The Republican Congressional Cookbook. (Remember, this is in an era when there weren’t a million cookbooks around like there are today.) The recipes in it with the green chiles really intrigued me because I really didn’t know what green chile was. Then, as I was flipping through it, I came upon a recipe from New Mexico by Manuel Lujan––a green chile chicken enchilada casserole. That’s how I became intrigued by foods of the American Southwest. I did get to share this story with Manuel Lujan a few years back, before he died, that the recipe in his cookbook had inspired me to come to New Mexico [laughs]. As odd a little book as it is, it had a great inspirational effect on me.
Joel Coleman, chef, Fire and Hops: The Food Lover’s Companion was very influential. I didn’t go to culinary school; I’ve never worked as an apprentice in a kitchen with an amazing chef––I’m basically self-taught. Matt Werner was the chef who gave me The Food Lovers Companion, as a good-bye present. Not only had we become really good friends, but he was the first chef to really mentor me. That cookbook is very important to me. I still have it and occasionally flip through it.
Olive Tyrrell, chef, The Kitchen: The Joy of Cooking was an extension of my education, along with the PBS shows on Saturday morning when I was a teenager. I was just obsessed with Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and all of those guys, and it was really sort of a balance for me, because I was such an experimental cook and it was generally all free-fall. I was not into recipes as such, but I was obsessed with Jacques and Julia––and Julia’s cooking was my education. It was really my bible. When I started cooking in San Francisco in my early 20s, I took that book with me, and when needed, that’s who I’d ask––that’s who taught me. Once, I was left alone to prep a whole restaurant and it was just me and The Joy Of Cooking. As much as I cook very differently from Joy, that book was my foundation.
Mark Connell, chef, State Capital Kitchen: When I was 19, my parents, for my birthday, bought me The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller. It probably was published just a year prior to that. The French Laundry had just hit its heyday, and I had landed my first cooking job at Cafe Soleil in Reno, Nev., and the entire kitchen was talking about it. At the time, [The French Laundry] had this mystical quality surrounding it, and it had this weird name, too. It’s really a very beautiful book. “The Rabbit” and “The Family Meal” stories are pretty important to me. Reading those stories about a chef with that kind of mentality when you’re very early in your career––not everybody gets to do that. Another interesting thing about it is that, other than the great photography, embedded in all the recipes is usually a technique. And you have to read the recipe to understand the method. Because of that book, I now read recipes in-depth.
Florence Jaramillo, chef, Rancho de Chimayo: The first cookbook to hold my attention was The Joy of Cooking. It was a wedding gift when I was married in 1953; I was 22 years old. That was the first time that I ever had to use a cookbook. It was very informative––it covered the A-Zs as far as the utensils and also whatever else you wanted to make. It was quite thick and really helped me a lot to start. Before that, I had not yet gotten into cooking. I learned after I made a recipe two or three times, I could vary the recipe. I learned to make breads, cakes and cupcakes, and I hadn’t done that before. That was a great cookbook; I still have it.
Annamarie O’Brien, chef/baker, Dolina: We grew up without cookbooks. The only cookbook we had at home was my mother’s hand-written cookbook. It was ivory colored, a hard-covered notebook that she made herself with a beautifully organized index of all of her recipes, with numbered pages and color-coded sections of different foods. I find myself often thinking back to that cookbook and calling my mother and asking her to make copies of certain pages so I can recreate her wonderful food. That was probably the most influential cookbook because that created the love for food in me, and wanting to do this for a living. When I reflect on the early days of wanting to cook, baking would be my favorite part of cooking. I would always try to make the sweet recipes. I hope to inherit the cookbook one day.
Cristian Pontiggia, chef, El Nido: When I was really, really young, in 1996, I was around 15 years old, and I found this book. It’s a regional book, Valtellina di Gusto, from my hometown Bartolina in the Lombardia region of Italy. The recipes are all the typical recipes from my town. This is the first love I have, and one of the books to inspire me to do this job. Poor food, simple, but rich in flavor. My town was a poor town. One of the main ingredients in this book is buckwheat flour. In the North, we don’t have the ocean, so we use ingredients like butter, cheeses, buckwheat flour. I am inspired by the memory of flavors [from] when I was young—what my grandma, my mother and grandfather [have cooked] from a long family cooking tradition, and it’s really filled with memories.
Mark: What is your favorite cookbook?
Cheryl Alters-Jamison: The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking by Barbara Tropp––I adore this book. I have probably cooked more out of this book than any other cookbook I own, other than my own books. Even more than Deborah Madison’s, whom I adore. This book so inspired me by her writing, and I love to cook Asian foods when I’m not working on my own stuff for books. The writing is just so inspired and detailed. The techniques I’ve learned are applicable across a wide assortment of different cuisines. A lot of people might be intimidated by the amount of detail in this, but I just soaked it up. I love it and any recipes I ever made out of this book have been just fantastic. When you have that experience with any cookbook, you know it’s absolutely essential. Just incredible detail on things that I just felt like, OK, she’s with me in the kitchen––I can accomplish this. It’s had a very big impact on how I write. At the time, I had no idea that I was ever going to write recipes professionally or do a book professionally––or talk to anybody about technique. It’s had so much to do with the way I like to write and explain technique.
Joel Coleman: Benu by Corey Lee. Benu, Lee’s restaurant in San Francisco, is essentially the Asian French Laundry. I get most of my inspiration eating other places and traveling, as well as definitely looking through a cookbook.
Olive Tyrrell: French Feasts: 299 Traditional Recipes for Family Meals and Gatherings by Stéphane Reynaud. This book is the epitome of life through food. It’s lush, real, gorgeous, funny––it’s French! It’s the lifestyle that I wish we had here in America. It’s life and enjoyment and pleasure rather than work; they have that balance right, and it’s absolutely delicious. This is who I always aspire to be in food, in myself.
Mark Connell: I think that my favorite cookbook, the only cookbook that I’ve read cover to cover on the day I got it is Reflections of Culinary Artistry by Pierre Gagnaire. I thought it was such a peculiar book because it’s just a bunch of photos that were taken, and then a year later, they showed Pierre the photos and he wrote a paragraph about each one. It’s cool because there’s a few dishes he mentions that he doesn’t even remember making, so he can’t talk about what his inspiration was for that dish. He puts a lot of odd ingredients together, but it’s nice to see he actually has an inspiration for putting those ingredients together––rather than just trying to be creative, for the sake of being creative. There’s a real purpose to his choices. He writes very poetically. It’s a pretty interesting perspective on cooking. That was the first time that I ever heard the phrase, “Cuisine Immediate.” It means, basically, improvisational cooking. It’s something I try to do, every night if I can, with the tasting menu––even though it drives the cooks crazy.
Florence Jaramillo: We moved here from Connecticut in 1963, and we started the restaurant in 1965. I have a lot of cookbooks––I collect them. Whenever I travel, I pick up a cookbook of that region––if it was a specialty or Italian food or something. I like to read cookbooks, and I learn a lot from them. There is one that I like, written by a woman in Santa Fe. It’s a very small cookbook––it was just put together about chiles, desserts, and I used to use that book a lot. It’s called Comidas de New Mexico by Lucy Delgado.
Annamarie O’Brien: Every year, I have a new favorite cookbook. This year, it is Bar Tartine: Techniques and Recipes by Cortney Burns and Nicolaus Balla. I’ve been there a couple of times and had great meals. What I like about it is both of these cooks are influenced and inspired by Central European cooking. Nicolaus Balla’s father is Slovakian and Cortney Burns trained in Hungary and has a lot of Hungarian influence in her cooking, so I was pleasantly surprised to find dishes on their menu that reminded me of home.
Cristian Pontiggia: My favorite cookbook is Il Gusto Dell’Eccellenza. It’s from my favorite restaurant in Florence, Enoteca Pinchiorri––an old traditional Tuscan restaurant, a generational restaurant. Generation after generation owns the restaurant––the grandfather to the father, to the daughter. They were one of the first restaurants to experiment in a different way, to take a regional recipe and incorporate influences from a different part of the world. Also, it started to mix Northern and Southern Italian at the same time. A long time ago, nobody else was doing that. This restaurant incorporated some Japanese technique. They would take a traditional recipe and take it to the next level. They were very avant-garde. I remember talking with them; I told them I was a young chef—I love your flavor, I love your restaurant—and they give me the book as a present.
Mark: Why do you cook?
Cheryl Alters-Jamison: I cook because I have to. It’s what I love, it’s what I do. It’s what I do when I’m happy and sad, when I need to think, or when I don’t want to think, how I express who I am, and it’s how I make use of my creativity. It’s just really everything to me, absolutely central to my existence, and it has been that way since I was a little kid. My parents weren’t adventuresome cooks, they were very much Midwestern, straight meat-and-potatoes style of cooking and actually, that’s part of what inspired me to cook. I felt like there was a lot more out there, and through cooking different cuisines, you’d learn about what they were eating in other parts of the world.
Joel Coleman: It didn’t start off as a love for it. In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was doing. My first love was music. When I started cooking, I was still serious about pursuing a career as a music producer. My mom always reminds me, I was just born with it. “You’ve had it from the beginning, I’ve known for a long time this is just what you’re supposed to do.” I feel like there’s the emotional side that’s really meaningful, knowing your work has touched people deeply and it creates a memory that they’ll have forever. It warms my heart to have that effect on people.
Florence Jaramillo: I love to cook. I loved working in the kitchen before I got my divorce. I liked the front of the house, but I like the kitchen better. It’s always been a love for me. I like to make plates, cook for people, family, friends. I wasn’t afraid to try different things. I just like to cook. In Connecticut, I used to entertain a lot on weekends, and finally I said to myself, jokingly, “I should do this for a living.” But I never thought I’d have a restaurant.
Annamarie O’Brien: I simply cook because I love the process. Great connections and conversations usually happen around the table with friends sharing a wonderful meal, and I love that I am able to provide that, and share pieces of myself, and my Slovakian culture. I’m doing what I love to do. Baking is very fulfilling and gives me an outlet to be creative in a way that I love and it’s very rewarding to see people eating food and being thankful for the experience. It’s an instant satisfaction to see someone eating food that you put your love and energy into.
Mark Connell: Sometimes, I wonder why. It’s just one of those things. When I was 7 or 8 years old, living in Montana, we ran out of peanut butter and we wanted to make some PBJs. I looked at my friends and I said, “I got this!” I put a bunch of peanuts in a plastic bag and ran over them with my bike a bunch of times [laughing]; it didn’t work. But I had the idea.
I think there’s always been a real interest in cooking, it comes naturally, and I really like making people happy, and I’ll bend over backwards for vegetarians and vegans, anybody with dietary issues, because that’s what I’m trying to do is make people happy. I’m not making this dish for myself, that’s my point of view on it. It’s not for myself, it’s for other people, and I’m hoping to leave them with a memorable experience.
Olive Tyrrell: It’s simply to give pleasure. It’s my way of making the world a little bit better one meal at a time and leave the world a better place––that’s what we should be doing, and food, to me, is doing that. It’s imparting a little bit of happiness to somebody, even for an hour, and hopefully they’ll take that happiness out to the world.
A huge part of it for me is that I get to support local farmers; I get to be part of that whole game. There’s some young people who started farming last year. I buy their produce and that’s awesome, as well as growing our own food at the nursery. Every morning, I’m out there harvesting the freshness. People eat it, and they’re jazzed about it. In my little restaurant, I get to be a part of that conversation, and that makes me really happy because it’s real.
Cristian Pontiggia: First of all, I like to eat. Second, it is a more complete form of art. In cooking, you have everything. Think about an artist [who] makes a painting, you have the color, the paints, the frame––a picture in their mind. But with the food, there are similar things, the plate is a frame––we don’t paint just with the color and the presentation, but we incorporate every sense. Smell, taste, visualization, everything. The process is unique. Everything is on the plate––you can see it with your eyes, you can smell it, taste it. Sometimes, you can hear it, too. For me, it’s the most complete form of art ever. It satisfies my creative and artistic intentions, but in the more complex and amazing way. I can create something and destroy it right away by eating it. For me it is pure poetry. You can buy a painting and everybody can see it forever. With the plate, we can recreate the same dish, but it’s never going to be exactly the same. It’s just for you.
by Mark Oppenheimer