Contrary to what some people may believe, becoming a chef – least of all an excellent one – isn’t a simple feat. It’s a lifelong process that involves a solid grasp of fundamental techniques, patience, dedication and a commitment to lifetime learning.
An essential element of learning to become a chef is learning from others. Who better to teach you than the masters? However, working with the culinary world’s best and brightest is not always possible. Fortunately, you can access their valuable insights, advice and tips by reading the books they’ve written.
Many renowned chefs have imparted their knowledge through informative, helpful chef books that teach everything from choosing ingredients to plating styles.
Regardless of the type of chef you are or aspire to be, you’ll benefit from reading and absorbing the information in the chef books listed below.
The Best Chef Books All Culinary Professionals Should Read
Whether you’re studying to become a chef, a beginner about to embark on your professional journey or a veteran of the culinary arts, you’ll find the following chef books helpful for supplementing your knowledge.
Larousse Gastronomique: The World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia by Librairie Larousse
This book is a favorite of renowned chefs such as Ina Garten, Julia Child, Mario Batali, Jacques Pépin, David Chang and James Martin. Larousse Gastronomique was the first book on cooking that Gabriel Kreuther, acclaimed chef and owner of a two-star Michelin restaurant, ever purchased. The late Anthony Bourdain recounted, “Early in my cooking career, I wielded my Larousse like a weapon, and it never let me down.”
Larousse Gastronomique was first published in 1938 – the first edition was edited by Prosper Montagné, one of the most celebrated chefs of the Belle Epoque. Since its publishing, it has become a trusted and beloved source of culinary knowledge. True to its title, the book contains entries on everything related to cooking. In this book, you’ll find in-depth information on cooking terms, techniques, ingredients and more.
It provides expert advice on everything from buying and storing ingredients to perfecting béchamel and béarnaise. Moreover, it also contains biographies of significant figures in the culinary world. The newest edition includes cooking advice and recipes from international cuisines.
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee
According to its author, Harold McGee, this book was written to “translate technical food science into cook-friendly kitchen science.” With On Food and Cooking, home cooks, professional chefs and anyone interested in cooking can gain a deeper understanding of traditional and modern methods of food production, ingredients and the transformational power of cooking.
The book is split into chapters, each dealing with a category of food products. For instance, the first chapter is an in-depth look at milk and dairy products, and its subchapters include information on milk nutrients, milk biology and chemistry, as well as the evolution of cheese.
What makes On Food and Cooking different from other food and kitchen science books is how it accurately, clearly and thoroughly explains even the most challenging concepts and themes. Alton Brown said, “I know of no chef worth his salt who doesn’t keep a copy of Harold McGee’s masterwork … it is the Rosetta stone of the culinary world.”
It is also a very entertaining and easily digestible read. The book explains complex chemical reactions in a conversational style, inserting exciting nuggets of history and even poetry to bring its explanations to life.
The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page
Another must-have for any aspiring chef is The Flavor Bible. As the title implies, this book is all about ingredients, especially seasonings, herbs and spices, and how they elevate flavor in dishes.
The Flavor Bible teaches you how to work more intuitively with ingredients. You’ll discover which flavors work well together, which elements deepen or intensify flavors and how to balance flavor combinations.
This alphabetical index of ingredients and flavor combinations makes it easier for readers to experiment with tastes and textures. What’s more, the book is peppered with interesting anecdotes, helpful tips as well as menu items from respected chefs.However, The Food Bible does not contain any recipes at all. It is meant to inspire and guide, not dictate, innovative chefs who want to experiment with flavor, aroma and mouthfeel to bring the best out of their dishes.
Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page
Written by the same James Beard Award-winning authors as the previous book on the list, Culinary Artistry is an ideal read for the chef or chef-to-be who is genuinely fascinated with and passionate about food. It explores the intricacy of culinary composition.
Just as painting requires the ability to wield a brush correctly and the talent for knowing which colors and textures go well together, cooking is meant to be both a technical and creative endeavor. Hence, Culinary Artistry is a wonderful complement to food science-focused books like On Food and Cooking.
Culinary Artistry will help chefs gain the framework for developing their signature culinary style. It’s a helpful resource not only to chefs but also to pastry chefs, mixologists and other industry professionals who approach their craft with artistry.
The book is highly reviewed, with many professional chefs considering it a must for their bookshelves. These include Grant Achatz, chef of Alinea, and Michael Laiskonis, an award-winning pastry chef.
Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes by Jeffrey Hamelman
Even if you don’t plan to be a baker, having a foundational knowledge of bread-making is a good idea. It helps you become a more well-rounded chef and allows you room to experiment with bread alone or in combination with other dishes.
Bread was written by Jeffrey Hamelman, a professional baker who captained Baking Team USA, representing the United States at the baking world’s version of the World Cup—the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris. Hamelman drew on decades of experience to create this valuable reference on the art and science of baking.
The newest edition includes 140 recipes for various breads, including sourdough rye loaves, flatbreads, focaccia, French baguettes, Swiss farmhouse bread, German farmer’s bread and brioche. The recipes take you through the process step by step. Detailed illustrations and color photographs provide value to bakers who are visual learners.
Additionally, you’ll find helpful information, such as tips for tasting and evaluating bread, in the sidebars. The author talks about his experiences throughout the book, making it an even more compelling read.
The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
The author of this book, J. Kenji López-Alt, is perhaps best known for his work on Serious Eats, for which he served as the managing culinary director and chief culinary consultant. In fact, The Food Lab was adapted from his column on the popular food blog.
The Food Lab was met with critical praise and commercial success. In it, López-Alt leverages the scientific method to teach inquisitive readers the hows and whys of cooking.
This book is a worthwhile read for beginner chefs and home cooks who want a painless, uncomplicated introduction to the world of cooking. It is chockfull of classic American recipes that López-Alt has improved through a combination of food science knowledge and creativity.
Readers will learn new, more straightforward techniques to achieve better results in the kitchen. López-Alt also talks about unconventional alternatives to expensive cooking equipment, such as using a beer cooler if you don’t have a sous vide machine.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
This is not a cookbook or an educational resource in the traditional sense, but it is educational in that it gives readers a peek at what life as a chef is often like. The memoir, described as “gritty” in many reviews, discusses Bourdain’s journey from childhood to culinary superstardom.
The chef recounts the first time he had vichyssoise and oysters and how the experience helped form his appreciation and passion for food. Bourdain doesn’t shy away from talking about the less-than-pleasant side of the culinary world and the challenges of pursuing a career in it.
Through the stories and anecdotes filling this book, he shows that being a professional chef in real life is much harder and less glamorous than how it’s portrayed on TV and in film. However, he also displays respect and passion for food, despite the hardest and rockiest parts of his journey. Bourdain delighted in the power of food to “inspire, astonish, shock, excite, delight, and impress.”
Readers should note, however, that this book was written in 2000, and a lot has changed since then. The experience of one chef might be different from those of others, including the readers.
Pursue Your Culinary Education Beyond Chef Books
Even the best chef books, while providing helpful information to aspiring chefs, fail to replace a solid foundation and grounding in the culinary arts. To achieve this, quality culinary education and training are invaluable.
The Culinary School of Fort Worth goes beyond simply teaching cooking and basic techniques. We prepare students for the real-world kitchen, arming them with the skills they need to be successful in their chosen field.
Our professional culinary program includes 20 hours of on-the-job experience and allows you to earn a certificate in eight to nine months. Apply online, and begin your culinary journey today.