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Much to my wife’s chagrin, I own shelves upon shelves of cookbooks. And the collection keeps expanding. The obsession started back when I was growing up, and in our house my mother—a part-time caterer, constant entertainer and daughter of a chef—kept a heavily bookmarked and food-stained collection herself. I would flip through those books looking for ideas and inspiration, but also as a fan of the photography (which could be scant in cookbooks back in those days). Yes, there are endless online recipes and food videos that I watch, but I still like coming back to cookbooks the way I always have.
Now, some of those that I own lean more toward artsy coffee table books, designed to never actually show me how to cook a thing myself. And sometimes you get a book you think will be accessible, but will be filled with an array of multi-step processes that make my eyes glaze over when I read it. While others thread that needle of communicating a vision of a chef while actually still giving me—an avid, but by no means expert home cook—dishes that I want to make. The kind of things that push me out of my comfort zone, but do a good job of guiding me to delicious food in the end. Chris Shepherd’s new book Cook Like a Local has done just that.
Shepherd, our pick for Chef of the Year in the 2019 Best of the Best awards, released his first book in September. Just as his original restaurant Underbelly was an ode to his adopted hometown Houston, so is his debut tome. Cook Like a Local is filled with recipes that explore the myriad cultures of the city, from Mexican to Vietnamese to Cajun and more.
He and co-writer Kaitlyn Goalen divide the chapters in a novel way. Instead of organizing along the lines of courses in a meal or protein, they break it up according to six ingredients that cut across cultures and define the Houston food scene: fish sauce, chiles, soy, rice, spices and corn. With many cookbooks, I admittedly will skip through all the interstitial sections of the book and go straight to the recipes, but I found the mini-treatises on each ingredient to be interesting on their own.
What’s been especially great is the recipes have worked. The Vietnamese Cha Ca-Style snapper served atop rice noodle bowls with ginger nuoc cham has been a go-to dinner as has been the herb-marinated chicken and the shawarma meatballs. Even better: When I’m cooking food like this my wife is less chagrined by all the books crowding our home.