"Do you read books?" was one of the first questions Robbie Millar, chef-proprietor of Shanks in County Down, was asked by Paul Rankin when he went for an interview at Roscoff. "I was slightly taken aback," he remembers, "for a minute I thought he wanted me to tell him about the last novel I had read."
However, the question was a penetrating one. Many chefs appear to express no interest in reading cookery books, believing that they will learn more from the chefs they work with. In reality, though, one book may open a new horizon for a chef or even change the course of cooking in a country.
Joyce Molyneux, joint chef-proprietor of the Carved Angel in Dartmouth, Devon, still refers to the book that has most influenced her cooking. Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking was to alter the British perception of French regional food forever. "I was working at George Perry's Hole in The Wall restaurant in Bath at the time. Britain was embedded in the old hotel-style of French cooking where everything was served with heavy béchamel or brown sauces. The book introduced us to something lighter, from butter sauces and charcuterie to sweet and sour red cabbage."
Molyneux absorbed this lighter style of cooking, using the methods as a springboard for her own particular style. Her ballotine of duck slowly evolved from Elizabeth David's duck paté, while many of the more classical dishes on her menu, such as coq au vin, are imbued with the essence of French Provincial Cooking.
The first book to deeply influence Martin Blunos, chef-proprietor of Lettonie Restaurant with Rooms in Bath, was The Great Chefs of France, published in the 1980s, which he discovered while working in Battersea.
Filled with photographs, the book described the kitchens, dining rooms and staff of the new generation of talented French chefs, everyone from the Troisgros brothers to Paul Bocuse. "It all seemed so untouchable, so inspiring yet ethereal, that I felt I had to have a go," Blunos explains. It was not so much the menus and recipes that affected him, as the extraordinary atmosphere of the restaurants themselves. A decade later, with two Michelin stars under his belt, its seems Blunos's "go" paid off.
At the age of 21, David Everitt-Matthias, chef-proprietor of the one Michelin-starred restaurant Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, was working as a chef saucier for the Four Seasons restaurant at the Inn on the Park in London. It was 1981 and André Daguin, a famous Gascon chef, was invited as a guest chef to promote his book Le Nouveau Cuisinier Gascon. It dedicated an entire chapter to foie gras, the regional speciality, and then subdivided it into four sections: salt and salt, salt and sugar, salt and acid, salt and butter. Every chapter seemed to show a new approach to food, whether it was freshwater fish accompanying meat or unusual desserts such as tarragon sorbet or carrot tart.
Everitt-Matthias was impressed by Daguin's depth of knowledge. The meeting fuelled a passion for Gascon food with its bold flavours. "I am not a subtle chef," explains Everitt-Matthias, "so this approach really appealed to me."
Words of encouragement
However, it was not until he opened his own restaurant that he realised he needed Daguin's book, and after a fruitless search both here and in France, he wrote to Daguin, who duly returned a copy with some words of encouragement. "I believe that certain books help you to build and develop your own style," continues Everitt-Matthias. "As soon as Le Nouveau Cuisinier Gascon arrived, I reread it from cover to cover and then put it aside for reference." Its influence permeates his cooking, but not one recipe comes directly from the book.
It soon becomes clear that chefs' favourite books are the ones that illuminated their own beliefs. Christian Delteil, chef and part-owner of Bank in London, for example, chooses books that reveal different aspects of his cooking: Le Répertoire de la Cuisine by Louis Saulnier, Histoire Naturelle et Morale de la Nourriture by Magdelane Toussaint-Samat, and Classic Food of China by Yan-Kit So.
"Le Répertoire was written almost like a notebook for chefs and was used constantly by Escoffier," Delteil explains. "You simply turn to a recipe and see at a glance what it needs." He finds the simple classicism of these recipes perfectly adapted to his own transcultural style of cooking.
His second choice is a social history of food. Before opening Bank, Delteil spent several years reading cookery books, talking to chefs and travelling. "You have to understand the history, geography and religion of each country to properly understand its recipes." And Yan-Kit So's book allowed Delteil to put Chinese cookery into a formal context. You might not immediately see her influence, yet it lies in dishes such as caramelised foie gras with a beetroot and tamarind vinaigrette.
For Delteil, young chefs often do not understand a dish despite the fact that, technically, they can cook. "You only know you are making progress when they can tell you what went wrong." At Bank, presents are always books, never cash.
The history of Millar's cooking can be followed by tracing the blobs of food and sticky pages in his cookery books. "I always begin by copying out the recipes, but soon give up, and as soon as the book is in the kitchen it will inevitably become splattered by whatever we happen to be making." He lists Joel Robuchon's Cuisine Actuelle, presented by Patricia Wells, quickly followed by Chez Panisse Cooking by Paul Bertolli with Alice Waters. "I use them for inspiration. It is important to reinterpret dishes to one's own style," he explains.
"For example, Robuchon has a recipe for caramelised pineapple served very simply with a vanilla butter. I caramelise a thick slice of pineapple in butter and sugar before serving it with some rum and raisin ice-cream and a coconut macaroon. I finish the dish by drizzling it with a rum, raisin and brown sugar syrup."
He aims to extract a simplicity from these books, harmonising the new with the old - and his skill has already translated itself into a Michelin star.