As the Christmas shopping season approached, the British Medical Association took a pop at celebrity cookbooks, claiming that their recipes make you fat. Impeccable timing – though the news seems to have had little or no impact on sales. Celebs are still the hottest cookbook ticket around.
Take Jamie Oliver. He was slammed hard in the report but he’s still at the top of the charts, and his sales have so far brought in a tasty £134m for his publishers. So with figures like that flying around, are we just as much in love with this food-porn-on-paper as ever?
I look round my own office, always scattered with the latest celeb cookbooks. Most will go unread and be shipped off to the charity shop or donated to the local school without me ever having opened them. But then I look again, and realise that some of the less flashy numbers have in fact migrated to my bookshelves. Has there been a change in the landscape of culinary letters?
Indeed there has. And if there hasn’t exactly been a hurricane, then at least the winds of change are blowing through. For what makes the new books different is that they tell a story, recount a journey or provide insight or inspiration; in other words, are not simply a regurgitation of stale recipes.
Cookbooks that tell a story
I call to the stand Clarissa Dixon Wright, once one half of the Fat Ladies. Last year, she published a weighty paperback entitled The History of English Food, and the book is just that: a history of our cuisine, warts and all. It makes great reading.
Then there’s the relatively unknown chef Lionel Strub, who has told the tale of his troubled life as a novice in Alsace and his journey through the kitchens of Europe, ending up in the UK, where he has remained for the last 25 years. From Alsace to Yorkshire is punctuated with recipes reflecting a fusion of the cultures he has lived and worked in.
But the award for best book of last year has to go to the visually stunning Too Many Chiefs Only One Indian, from the two-Michelin-star chef Sat Bains. Within weeks of publishing, he won UK Cookbook of the Year at the Gourmand Book Awards 2012.
This is the first book from the chef-proprietor of his eponymous restaurant-with-rooms in Nottingham. It includes a foreword by Heston Blumenthal, and contributions from 36 of the world’s greatest chefs.
Sat is of Punjabi origin (hence the witty title) and cooks full-on modern British food. His sumptuous book submerges us in the genre with lavish photography and enough words, thoughts and musings to warrant dragging the book to bed. The recipes will outface even the most competent cooks and mostly require equipment rarely found in the home – waterbath, spherifier et al – but inspire more than any I have seen in a long time. There’s much to try to copy.
The linen-bound book costs a hefty £75 and is a limited edition. But is it worth the money? If you’re a serious foodie, and love insights into the workings of a first-class restaurant and the mind of a top chef, then I say: Yes, absolutely. It will remain a permanent addition to my collection, not just as a cookbook, but as a statement of British cooking in the 21st century.
These are just three of the new-style food books coming through; books that offer something new, exciting, challenging and, above all, interesting. I doubt any will knock the ubiquitous Jamie off his pedestal just yet. But come next Christmas…
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