Most days you won’t find us in our home kitchen, because we’re out and about looking for the next great restaurant to feature. Let’s leave the hard work of making delicious food to the professionals, we say. However, part of the fun of food can be taking a dish that inspired you and making it yourself at home. And we also know that dish can be so much more than a plate of food—it can be a window into a culture or a creative process. The very best cookbooks not only teach us how to make the dishes, but bring their context to life.
This year there was a barrage of amazing books that explored handmade pasta, African Americans’ impact on the country’s culinary history, the diversity of one of America’s largest cities, how to use every part of a fish and much more. There was no shortage of tomes to improve your culinary knowledge and help you cook better yourself. Here are the 11 we loved the most.
At the perpetually packed Felix in Venice, Calif. pasta takes center stage. Literally. In the middle of Evan Funke’s restaurant is a glass-enclosed pasta lab where diners can watch sfoglino’s rolling and shaping some of the best handmade pasta in America. Funke learned the art from nonnas in Italy and now he wants to impart that knowledge to you. In his debut book he broke down the process step-by-step in much the way Chad Robertson showed the world his way of making the perfect loaf in Tartine Bread. Once you’ve got the dough down pat, he takes you through the myriad pasta shapes and the sauces worthy of coating them.
My Mexico City Kitchen
It has been a busy year for Gabriela Camara. After Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the presidency in Mexico, he named her an advisor to his administration. Then she teamed up with Sqirl’s chef Jessica Koslow to create the Santa Monica hotspot Onda and she also published this outstanding book. At her restaurants Contramar and Cala, Camara has found success by taking dishes that weren’t considered fancy, and crafting them with great ingredients and outstanding technique. “In the past, you wouldn’t have seen a tostada on the menu of any halfway decent Mexican restaurant. It wasn’t a refined food. You’d get them on the beach,” she says. Now she serves versions at all three of her restaurants. In My Mexico City Kitchen Camara showed you the tostada and many more of her great creations.
The Whole Fish Cookbook
At Josh Niland’s small seafood restaurant in Sydney, Australia, he has made a big impact. The 31-year-old chef behind Saint Peter has made a mission out of not just cooking fish filets, but creating delicious dishes from every single part of the seafood he serves from the eyeballs to the swim bladders. In The Whole Fish Cookbook he shared both basic and creative techniques from proper butchery to using fish bone marrow.
Cook Like a Local
Our choice for Chef of the Year in our annual Best of the Best dropped his first cookbook, bringing to the page the ideas and recipes that have made him a sensation in his adopted hometown of Houston. Shepherd and co-writer Kaitlyn Goalen organized Cook Like a Local unlike most cookbooks, which usually have sections for vegetables, meat, poultry and the like. Instead he used the ingredients that make Houston—America’s most diverse city—such an amazing food scene. So the chapters are Fish Sauce, Chiles, Soy, Rice, Spices and Corn. In each section you see how the cultures of Houston—Korean, Vietnamese, Mexican and more—intersect around the use of common ingredients creating combinations that wouldn’t have happened anywhere but there.
To write her James Beard Award-winning book The Jemima Code, journalist Toni Tipton-Martin studied two centuries worth of African-American cookbooks to understand their impact on cooking in America. As a follow-up to that history, she has adapted recipes from that cache of cookbooks to create guides for the modern kitchen. Each entry is an interesting little education about how certain dishes and traditions came to be as they passed through the African diaspora. Like how British pasties evolving into everyday little meatpies in the Caribbean and then spread into the States. Or how Edna Lewis put her own imprint on beef Borgognone with grated onions and an onion studded with cloves.
Last year when we asked some of the world’s best chefs to name the most influential restaurants of the last 30 years, Sean Brock’s former restaurant Husk made the list. The chef had taken Southern cuisine and helped move it past tired stereotypes of it being merely heavy, fattening and cheap. In his new cookbook South, the James Beard Award-winner dived deep to explore the differences in the region’s cuisines from Appalachia to Lowcountry and gave his take on classics like catfish, cornbread and more.
Baking at République
Margarita Manzke and her husband, Walter, have become LA legends for their outstanding restaurant République. It transitions from a counter-service cafe during the day to a full-service restaurant at night. While Walter handles the savory side, Margarita has mastered the sweet, including the baked goods that make Angelenos line up every morning as if they’re waiting to get into a club. All that’s missing is the velvet rope. Now she has let people in on some of her secrets, publishing her first cookbook, Baking at République. In it she walks aspiring home pastry chefs through multiple types of dough and even a cookie or two.
The Gaijin Cookbook
Ivan Orkin is the unlikely success story of a Jewish guy from New York moving to Japan to become one of the great ramen makers in Tokyo. But he and his co-author Chris Ying don’t write a book devoted to the craft of ramen—that was their first book together—The Gaijin Cookbook is meant to explore the kind of cooking that happens in everyday life in Japan, from a five-ingredient teriyaki sauce that’s perfect for busy weeknights to having people over to eat tempura. Coming from the perspective of a gaijin—a Japanese term for outsider—also lets him play around with tradition in parts of the book, mixing cultures along the way.
Butcher + Beast
Angie Mar’s food—or life, for that matter—doesn’t shy away from decadence. The chef-owner of the Beatrice Inn in New York’s West Village has a meat-centric menu featuring 90-day dry aged porterhouse with langoustine butter and Muscadet vine-smoked rabbit. In her first book she offered similarly rich recipes like her bone marrow-bourbon crème brûlée, milk-braised pork shoulder, and duck and foie gras pie.
We’re living in a golden era of Israeli cuisine across the country from Bavel in LA to Zahav in Philadelphia. At her New York restaurants Balaboosta, Taim and Kish-Kash Einat Admony is excelling at Middle Eastern fare. In Shuk—a word for open-air marketplace—she celebrated those Israeli marketplaces for the fresh produce they sell to the way they’ve become a crossroads of cultures, including Persian, Yemenite, Moroccan, Iraqi peoples. In the book, her 140 recipes explored Israel’s spices, flatbreads, sauces and more.
Alright, there aren’t that many pictures in this book and there are no recipes. Okay, it’s not a cookbook at all. But for food obsessives, Jeff Gordinier’s journeys with René Redzepi as he explored Mexico, closed down the original Noma, did pop-ups around the globe and opened Noma 2.0, is a fascinating look at the charasmatic chef who has had a massive impact on food and restaurants.