NZ's top chefs fess up in their books

By Geraldine Johns

Geraldine Johns asks six of our top chefs what their favourite cookbooks are — the ones that really inspire them — and why.

Simon Wright, executive chef and co-owner of The French Cafe. Photo / Richard Robinson
Simon Wright, executive chef and co-owner of The French Cafe. Photo / Richard Robinson

Any frequent visitor to restaurants or cafes can attest that the talent of a chef does not lie in their ability to spell. Or punctuate. Menu-writing sins are themselves worthy of a book.

It doesn't really make a lot of sense when you consider that chefs - good ones at least - love nothing more than devouring a good cookbook. Their collections don't just provide information and inspiration; they catalogue their life's journey.

SIMON WRIGHT
Executive chef and co-owner of The French Cafe

One of the city's finest dining establishments, The French Cafe restaurant regularly takes home the big gongs when the major culinary prizes are dished out. A few years ago, Wright - who was born and raised in England - penned his own coffee table cookbook. He gave it the same title as his restaurant, which he co-owns with his wife, Creghan Molloy Wright.

"I collect cookbooks - I've probably got a couple of thousand - so it's hard to choose just three. I treasure them all. Every time I read one, I always find something I missed. I never really copy anything out, I think to myself 'oh, that looks good' and I might then go off on a tangent and do my own recipe.

"Every time I buy a new book it's my favourite for a while, so to be a stand-out it would have to be something really special.

"If someone said to me I was going to a desert island and I could only take three, these are the ones I'd take: The French Laundry by Thomas Keller. It was first published in 1999 and I bought it when it came out. I love it because not only was the French Laundry a real cutting-edge restaurant at the time, but also I love his writing; his approach feels like he's written it from the heart.

"Essential Cuisine by Michele Bras would also go with me. Bras is very famous for [doing things like] serving a plate with 20 vegetables, all cooked differently. The book - published 10 years ago - was way ahead of its time. He used a lot of ingredients that are now very trendy. I find it very inspirational.

"And I'll never forget that when I left London in 1990, I had my rucksack full of clothes and I thought that I better take a book with me. So I took Raymond Blanc's Recipes from Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons and I carried it all around the world. Even though it's old, some photos and recipes still stand up today, and it's got a lot of memories for me. It would still make it into my top three."

CELIA HARVEY
Food writer, and chef at Greys Avenue Deli

When Celia Harvey lived and worked in London, she spent four years at, among other places, The River Cafe. There she earned tremendous (and deserved) high praise. We are lucky to have reclaimed her as one of ours, she has a gift for making all her food work beautifully with seemingly little effort. Harvey is the chef at Greys Avenue, recognised as the first Kosher deli in New Zealand.

"As a child - I would have been 9 or 10 - I remember reading Mum's cookbooks, especially one by [food writer and Britain's first television chef] Marguerite Patten, which I looked at a lot. Mum and Dad were going through a time of being vegetarians and I wanted to cook meat - a crown rib roast with little paper chef's hats.

"Then I got into cooking at intermediate school. I'd make bread for our sandwiches and chocolate cake for our lunch boxes. Mum bought me the Junior Cookbook series by Mary Pat Fergus. I still remember some of the recipes: lemon delicious pudding, chocolate self-saucing pudding.

"The books were spiral-bound, with step-by-step illustrations and kept in the bottom of the kitchen drawer, where Mum still keeps her cookbooks today.

"One of my favourites now - I've got so many - is Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson. He was head chef at Bibendum - the first fancy restaurant I dined at when I was in London. Before then he'd been head chef at Hilaire, where I was working. My boss at Hilaire gave me the book. Hopkinson's a really good food writer. He's just bloody good.

"It's a storybook and a cookbook and it's all about how things should be done properly. It's got 300 classic recipes. There's a lot of dialogue - no food pictures - with proper English food like 'omelette Arnold Bennett'."

Roast Chicken and Other Stories was voted the most useful cookbook ever by a panel of Hopkinson's peers. Harvey can see why: "it's a recipe book I go back to a lot. It's a good reference point. When I need to check a classic, I just think 'Simon will have it'."

YAEL SHOCHAT
Owner of Ima Bistro, Auckland

Shochat's speciality is Mediterranean and Israeli cuisine - reflecting her Israeli upbringing. She has been cooking since her early teens and treating Auckland to her tastes since arriving in New Zealand in the late 1990s. Should she ever need to, Shochat doesn't have to look far for a recipe - her restaurant features her cookbooks as part of the décor.

"My earliest cookbook belonged to my [late] mother. I can't remember its name but it was the first French cookbook to be translated into Hebrew. I cooked my first proper three-course meal for my family. I was 14. It was extremely rich - full of cream and butter. No one in my family could get up afterwards.

"I also love Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food. That's much more than a cookbook, it's like a PhD. It's not just recipes, she's got essays in there too. It's all about the Sephardic world and the Ashkenazi world, about rituals and history. It's a fantastic book and I love it.

"The women at the River Cafe [Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray] were hugely inspirational to me and I've got most of their books too. I've got the blue one [The River Cafe Cookbook], the yellow one [River Cafe Cookbook Two] and the green one [River Cafe Cookbook Green] and I have the 'easy' one [River Cafe Cookbook Easy]. I also have a small one of theirs about seafood. I used to cook a lot of their food. I don't go back to them so much now but their style influenced me a lot."

JEREMY SCHMID
Owner of Two Fifteen Bistro

Before setting up his own restaurant, Schmid had worked at some of the city's top venues. He also established the Little Boys sausage brand. As was the case with his sausages, so it is at Two Fifteen: Schmid likes to make everything by hand and from scratch. Wherever possible, he eschews anything in the way of convenience or fake food.

Schmid reaches immediately for the French cooking bible Larousse Gastronomique as his first pick. The book was originally published in France in 1938.

"My mother gave it to me in 1992 for my birthday, when I was doing my apprenticeship. Food has changed quite a bit recently, but if you ever needed to know anything about anything, it's in there. It's an awesome reference book - especially for me during my first 10 years of cooking.

"My second pick would be My Gastronomy by Nico Ladenis. I ate in his restaurant, a three-star Michelin place, in Park Lane in London. I like his philosophy - that taste is the most important thing - and I like his attitude. He says you have to learn everything properly rather than throw everything together on a plate. You can't run before you walk.

"The other book is a French charcuterie book that two of my friends - she's French and he's a Kiwi - gave me. It's written in French, so I have to get my mother to translate it for me. It's called Les Charcuteries Maison and it's by Bruno Ballureau. I like it because I enjoy charcuterie." (Schmid's menu features a selection of house-dried cured meats that he does himself. His air-dried beef, with truffled potato and poached egg is a dish for which diners make many happy returns.)

"Now I'm working on my own book. I hope one day that it [will become] a book that other people reference. I like to inspire people to create their own recipes."

SIMON GAULT
Executive chef and part owner of the Nourish Group

Everyone knows who Simon Gault is by now. Three seasons as a judge on MasterChef does that to you. But Gault had a culinary life long before the telly came calling. Long, long ago he had his own restaurant in his own name. Then came Euro. Gault is now executive chef and part-owner of the Nourish Group - a restaurant empire (including Euro) spanning the North Island. But Gault's stellar culinary career has not been entirely land-based. He's also enjoyed a few high seas adventures, as chef on a super-yacht to an ocean-going multimillionaire. And he likes to take to the skies too, he's a glider pilot instructor and pilot of vintage military aircraft.

"The Edmonds Cookery Book would definitely be my first pick. When I went to work on a super-yacht, I couldn't carry a lot of books. But that one is a good one. It has all the basics.

"The Edmonds is not a total chef's cookbook - but sometimes it's not about fancy food - it's about the simple things that you know will work, and if you want to fancy it up, you can. This is the cookbook that's my little secret weapon that I keep in the cupboard.

"I've also got a book called Food Lover's Companion [written by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst]. It offers comprehensive definitions of nearly 6000 food, drink and culinary terms. That sounds highly boring - but it is a fantastic tool. I can flick to any page in that book and it will tell you everything you need to know about anything you want; every trick there is.

"I know it sounds crazy, but it's a well-thumbed book - especially when I'm writing recipes.

"One of the earlier books I got was one [Antoine's owner and high priest of chefs] Tony Astle gave me when I finished my apprenticeship. It's [the two-volume] Mastering the Art of French Cooking [written by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child.] I got it when I was 18 and I still look at it. The traditional old things are still alive and well; the old wheel still rolls down the road - even if you've taken a chink out of it and sent it off in a different direction."

Gault - who has penned a few books himself - sees what he calls "the new glossy books" as ones to flick through and look at the pictures and pass on.

The oldies and goodies, such as those he's listed "are the ones I always use".

JUDITH TABRON
Owner of Soul Bar and Bistro

Even though she would view the title with a degree of disdain, Tabron probably qualifies as one of the true doyennes of Auckland's dining scene. She was one of the first females to take cheffing seriously in New Zealand (there was only one other girl in her class when she did her apprenticeship at the old Auckland Technological Institute.) Next, she went to London. And after returning to New Zealand from a lengthy spell working at some top spots there, she has gone on to have a magic touch for whatever restaurant venture she turns her hand to in her old home town.

"I'm always looking at cookbooks. I come from a family of five kids and when I was young I always did the baking. I can still rattle off a chocolate cake recipe - I'm not sure where that one was from - that I used to make.

"The first cookbook I ever got was one given to me after I came first in Form 6C at Onehunga High School. It's got a certificate in it to me in my maiden name - Judith Hickey. What I'm not going to tell you is that 6C was second-year fifth form. I would more have expected to have got something tattooed on my forehead that said 'girl most unlikely to succeed'." (Tabron has since been inducted into the school's business hall of fame.)

"The book was called South East Asian Cookbook, by Charmaine Solomon [first published in 1972]. That's where I got my cauliflower fritters recipe from. They're still on my menu.

"When I was 23 and living in London, I got The Book of Ingredients [by Adrian Bailey and Philip Dowell; introduced by Jane Grigson]. It had a picture of every ingredient in it and, when I got that, it was good because there were a whole lot of ingredients I'd never seen in New Zealand. I hadn't even tasted coriander until I put it in my mouth and realised it wasn't parsley. So that book became a really useful thing for me."

From her vast collection of books, Tabron also selects a Hamlyn publication: Pates and Terrines.

"This has always been a reference point for me. It's still a remarkable book."
All Tabron's cookbooks contain the date on which she purchased them. And she's not afraid to make notes in them either. "Cookbooks all deserve a good defacing," she says. She will farewell them if they don't educate or inspire. "I often have a throw-out if I don't use them."

- NZ Herald

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