Back to (Cooking) School 

It's time to get a DIY culinary education

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As kids and college students prepare to head back to school, it occurs to me that some of us might benefit from some schooling as well—in the kitchen, that is. I have never been a "natural" cook. I'm not somebody who instinctively knows that this ingredient will play nicely on the plate with that one. Yet, I've been told that I'm a pretty good cook. Some folks—whose judgments I seriously question—have even said, "You should open a restaurant."

Over the years, I have learned to cook. But it was with a lot of trial and error and, most importantly, some really good cookbooks. When I first began poking around in the kitchen, the only televised cooking shows were on PBS. And the only celebrity chefs I knew of were The Galloping Gourmet (Graham Kerr), Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and The Frugal Gourmet (Jeff Smith). Batali, Lagasse, Flay, Ray and others wouldn't come along until years later.

So I turned to cookbooks—and still do. However, too many cookbooks are nothing more than a collection of recipes. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with that; it's just that they don't really contribute much in the way of practical technical advice. That is, the nuts and bolts behind good—and great—cooking.

Thankfully, you don't have to go to The Culinary Institute of America or Le Cordon Bleu to learn to cook. With the help of the fine books that follow, you'll be a top chef in no time. Most of these books aren't new, and inexpensive secondhand copies are easy to find.

The most oil-splattered and tattered cookbook I own is Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. It's a hefty cookbook that you can find used for a few bucks, but it's priceless. I doubt I'll ever find a better recipe than the lemon-stuffed roast chicken in Cooking at Home—and, thanks to beautiful step-by-step illustrative photography, I now know how to carve one. This book is stuffed with useful advice from two of the planet's best cooks. Pepin and Child devote two entire pages, for example, to the topic of steaks and how to pan-fry them. Just as much space is given to making mayonnaise. If I could have only one cookbook in my kitchen, this would be the one.

For learning the most basic components of successful cooking, Michael Ruhlman's book Ruhlman's Twenty is both innovative and indispensible. The subtitle describes what Ruhlman is up to: 20 Techniques—100 Recipes—A Cook's Manifesto. Wanna make spectacular scrambled eggs? It helps to understand the main principle of eggs: "Eggs require gentle heat and gradual temperature change." To make a great vinaigrette, it helps to understand the principles of using acidity in the kitchen. Roasting, poaching, grilling, braising, frying, sautéing—it's all here. There is no possible way that you could read this fine, wonderfully photographed book and not become a better cook. I like Ruhlman's Twenty so much I have both a hard copy in my kitchen and another on my Kindle, so it's never far from hand.

Looking for a professional culinary course without the big tuition price tag? Look no further than The Professional Chef by The Culinary Institute of America (CIA). The great Paul Bocuse—who knows a thing or two about cooking—calls The Professional Chef "the bible for all chefs." You should know, however, that this is a textbook. Most of the recipes are for large serving quantities, and the sheer volume (1,232 pages) can be intimidating. But if you want to get really serious about cooking and try to step up your skills to a professional level, this book is for you. Or, as Anthony Bourdain says, "This is The Mothership for recipes and basic culinary techniques. Anyone and everyone serious about food and cooking should have one in their kitchen."

When I bought Jacque Pepin's La Techinique: An Illustrated Guide to the Fundamental Techniques of Cooking many years ago, I didn't know that he would eventually become my culinary guiding light. There's no chef I respect more. He's also just a helluva nice, down-to-earth guy. Anyway, La Technique was the book I turned to when I was trying to impress dinner dates in grad school. Although it does contain recipes, this is not a cookbook per se. It's really a how-to book about cooking techniques such as how to hold a knife, fillet a fish, turn a tomato into a flower garnish, cook and eat a lobster and so much more, all with step-by-step illustrations. La Technique is a classic book that could turn you into a first rate sous chef—or, at the very least, a really good prep cook.

Eric Ripert's book, On The Line: Inside the World of Le Bernardin, tells you everything you'd ever want or need to know about how a top-notch restaurant kitchen operates, from explaining the stations in a professional kitchen (executive chef, sous-chef, tournant, garde-manger, etc.) and some of the slang you hear in a busy kitchen ("Uptown!" "Downtown!" "Behind!" "Fire!"), to what's in the Le Bernardin pantry and walk-ins. Chapters like "The Birth of a New Dish," "A Night on the Line" and "Food Costs Explained" are enlightening to both the future restaurateur and the curious customer or home cook. For anyone considering a cooking career, I'd strongly advise reading On The Line first.

Now, most of these books are fairly dense. If you're a first-time cook or someone just learning the basics, I'd recommend Essentials of Cooking by James Peterson. It contains 100 essential recipes and the skills and techniques to accomplish them, from how to dress a salad, to cooking risotto and grilling fish. Unlike some of the aforementioned titles, Essentials of Cooking nurtures the amateur cook with solid, practical advice, photographs and recipes to go along with them.

I'll see you back in school!

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