Recipe Books & Celebrity Chefs

Have we stopped reading recipe books? I have this habit of first consulting Google or similar and then, once I have removed most recipes from the USA looked at other countries whose opinion I trust a little more, I reach for my books. I am buying less food books, certainly not any that are celebrity chef based.  My suspicion is that most Xmas sales of food books are from the assisted pens of celebrity chefs complete with a shit load of glossy pics. They do sell to the masses.


There have been many attempts to persuade me to come across to the celebrity chef side, all the arguments run like ‘its helping the masses to cook’ etc. I disagree, it is not helping them to cook anything but the recipe that is being done, it does not help them with technique or understanding, nor does it teach basics. You can teach a monkey how to cook, but doesn’t mean they have any understanding. Further I suspect that a lot of the ‘tension’ that is now being created by TV producers is false in order to engender more interest. So maybe its reasonable to assume as did Delia Smith that much of TV cooking shows are entertainment. Food as entertainment for me is an abomination.


I have not spoken nicely of some of the wine and food shows that now seem to be an integral part of the tourism thrust in this country, frankly I still see no great reason to be well disposed, it seems that these ‘events’ are indeed as Delia Smith suggested, mere entertainment. And in the case of  some events, the need to bring in names from around the world at vast expense and thus be only affordable by affluent punters, does little to embellish and enrich the lives of people who cannot afford the large gate costs involved.

Is the grinch in me rising again. Many who are dedicated to food and cooking learned much of the craft from watching our parents and relatives cook. A lot of the girls who all were expected to be able to cook learned from school where Home Economics was taught. Coming back into popularity again I am thrilled to see. My mothers recipe book collection was miniscule, CWA, PWMU and when Margaret Fulton began to open the hearts and minds of Australia to food, her recipe books too.




My mother in law was a great cutter out of recipes from magazines and newspapers and I am lucky enough to have a lot of her collection. Its illuminating stuff. Fascinating to see the growth and evolution of cooking and food through the 2nd World War and into the 1940’s and beyond.


But back to theme… I started collecting recipe books when Penguin became more involved in producing well written works by renowned food experts, Elizabeth David, Julia Child, Margaret Fulton and many others. To my knowledge not one of these writers was a working chef, they trained yes! Julia Child trained in some highly prestigious Parisian Food Schools. David was self taught, but a thorough researcher and one with the ability to capture in writing the ambiance. Margaret Fulton a great cook and very able communicator. That meant I had maybe 20 books in total (still have them) along with the basics like my mother of the CWA, PWMU and a few Hospital Auxiliary recipe books published as fund raisers and that was that.

In very many ways it may be seen that Farmers Markets offer the best chance for all to enjoy great food and to learn and become engaged in food and cooking. Perhaps in the future these markets will develop and grow to fill the need that is now not being filled by television or food and wine shows to educate and inform. The only hope is that the markets are not taken over by entrepreneurs who will see the chance to make money and change them inherently, not for the better. It does seem that when the dollar intervenes, all things change.

The cult of the celebrity chef was started in France I suspect where you had several chefs with their own restaurants producing books on foods that we had little knowledge of, apart from Julia Child and the two other authors of Mastering the Art of French Cooking giving us extraordinary insight into technique. I was gob smacked at the books that opened up for us the regional foods of France. This was followed soon by writers exploring Italy, Spain and almost every country in Europe, and from every perspective. The Mediterranean became the epicentre of food and style. I would argue that these books were technique based. And yes, its true that at that time the Internet did not exist, that even International communication was at least difficult. That newsreels, TV, newspapers, magazines and books were the only source of growing knowledge. Swapping and collecting recipes was a strong pastime and I have many that I attribute to this or that Aunt, friend or relative. My Mother’s hand written recipe book always has an attribution for every recipe and those passed on to her by her mother are acknowledged in that way. I noted that the books recently published by the CWA, have all recipes attributed.


I was hooked after I bought volumes 1 and 2 of Mastering the Art, but I was hooked on technique, the how of food and cooking. It was knowledge that I did not have, I knew how to make a white sauce, but I did not know the many variations and subtleties of a béchamel. Nor in fact did I know how to cook it properly (20 minutes to be sure that the taste of flour is no longer there). I still recall the first time I made Pate, properly with all the attention to detail, that was followed by all manner of pates and terrines as I explored. Mum had of course made potted meat, done a tongue and jellied occasional meats. Most of this I didn’t like. Pate was a world apart and delicious. Terrines, meats preserved in fats, a revelation. No wonder I stacked on the weight.


Being obsessive is part of my nature and I would never be content to not know it all, I became an addicted collector of quality recipe and food books. I devoured them, I read them like novels, I argued and discussed with my friends, I debated the finer points of this or that food. All the while becoming more and more consumed by food and cooking. In the end I knew that there was no other way. I simply gave into my passion and allowed it to consume my life.

Of course there was the occasional diversion along the way, Buddhism, travel, stuff like that.

Some of my children are similar and the other day I was a little taken aback to hear them discussing who was getting what when I shuffle off… recipe collection, copper collection, cooking equipment, wine. I needed to remind them that as of now, it was not my intention nor wish to leave too soon and that maybe like the Pharaohs of Egypt, I may elect to take it with me.


Maybe Yotam Ottolenghi has the right idea, his books are a revelation, a new type of cuisine. Arab Israeli foods that have never been part of mainstream. He is clever enough to also be aware that technique is the basis of knowledge and makes sure that in his books and on his recent television shows, that technique is clearly shown. He is also aware that much of the spicing techniques that he grew up with, are at best little understood by western cooks.


It is a source of wonderment to me that we now have to take on the entire worlds cuisines in our own kitchens. That we are urged by the television to try this and buy that. We are clearly also not going to come close to understanding what we are doing, but that seems to not be of any great concern as we barrel our way along. Maybe its a good way, creating and forging new paths, new ways to eat. Not a bad plan. I hope as we go, that we tip our hat every now and then to the past masters and learn a little of the techniques and theories of food and cooking, and even see the return of a hand made sponge cake, but that may be too much to ask.


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~ by peterwatson on March 11, 2013.

One Response to “Recipe Books & Celebrity Chefs”

  1. YEAHHH Peter. Like rude waiters, music in restaurants that is at a level bored young staff like and diners don’t, and like queuing for a long time to get a table, celebrity chefs leave much to be desired. Technique, practice, experimentation and imagination all lead to experience, and then you can cook anything. Keep up the grinch attack!

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