Escoffier: With maybe the exception of the Larousse Gastronomique, Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire is the most important and foundational book of modern French cooking. Whether used as a cookbook or a reference book, it’s on the shelf of all the important chefs.
The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin: If you’ve watched Iron Chef, you’ve seen at least one quote from this beguiling and philosophical meditation on all things gastronomic. First published in France in 1825, this epicurean masterpiece has never been out of print.
On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee: It might be a stretch to credit On Food and Cooking with the current wave of creative cooking in homes and restaurants, but McGee’s book certainly laid a foundation for interesting thinking about food. By providing a background of science he helped open up the possibilities of cooking.
A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain: Anthony Bourdain’s most famous book is his memoir Kitchen Confidential and he is now paying the bills hosting No Reservations, what I consider one of the best shows on television. In this collection, written in conjunction with his first TV show, Bourdain explores the cultural resonances of food and travel, demonstrating how both activities can be pathways to a deeper understanding of life.
Blood, Bones and Butter: Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir was one of the most highly acclaimed works of food writing in the last couple of years. On top of being an unflinching and lyrical work, Hamilton’s book (and life) proudly barges into a restaurant world that is still largely a bit of a boys club.
The Art of Eating: This probably belongs up in the Classics section above, but Brillat-Savarin beat MFK Fisher to it. Regardless, modern American food writing started with MFK Fisher and this is the definitive collection of her writing. Not willing to dive into a 748 page tome, her smaller collections, like How to Cook a Wolf and Consider the Oyster are good places to start.
On The Edge
Thai Street Food: If you want to get a true taste of a place’s culture, eat their street food. This gorgeous book presents the street food of one of the world’s most vibrant and interesting culinary cultures. The pictures make this book as much at home on the coffee table as on the kitchen table.
Mission Street Food: Part graphic novel, part memoir, part cookbook, the story of the Mission Street Food book is about a changing American food culture and a couple of people following their dream to run a restaurant.
A Day at elBulli: The recently closed elBulli was considered by many to be the best restaurant in the world, and its head chef, Ferran Adria, to be one of the world’s most creative minds. Though there are recipes in the book, this isn’t a cookbook, so much as it is an exploration of the process of creation focused around food and eating. A great book for artists and writers whether they read about food or not.
Something You Might Actually Cook From
Family Meal: Every day the staff at elBulli sat down together for a family meal before service. The meals were simple, hearty affairs designed to help power the chefs through their long night, but still spiced with the creativity that made Ferran Adria and elBulli world famous. With elBulli now closed, this book will be the closest we can get to tasting Adria’s genius.
Momofuku Milk Bar: If there’s an American Ferran Adria, it might be David Chang, whose restaurants and cookbooks, and now a quarterly food magazine, infuse food and cooking with the rebellious raucous energy of a punk rock show. This book is recipes from the bakery of the same name run by the equally creative Christina Tosi. Who wouldn’t want to whip up a compost cookie, crack pie, and cereal milk ice cream.
The Good Eats Trilogy (Vols 1, 2, and 3): I make more recipes by Alton Brown than by anyone else. His DIY philosophy combined with his commitment to share the reasons for recipes make his one of the most educational cooking shows out there. These books collect all the recipes and techniques from his long running show.