French cuisine is still one of the most respected in the world, a byword for standard setting, style, elegance and, of course, exquisite flavours. It is also the foundation on which many other cuisines base their knowledge and development. For many though it can seem too complicated to achieve at home, perhaps other than seemingly simpler dishes like coq au vin or beef bourguignon. But a little knowledge goes a very long way in French cooking and can even help you to transform the simple into the sublime. The resources are the tremendous array of French cookbooks written since the first one ever published in the 14th century.
But that is rather a lot of material to draw from. So which ones are best for novices or those seeking to upgrade their skills?
“This is a book for the servant-less American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules, children's meals, the parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat”. So begins Julia Child’s seminal work on translating the intricacies of French cuisine for an American market hungry to develop a more sophisticated palate. First published in 1961, Mastering the Art of French Cooking is still a primary reference point for chefs all over the world.
The book opens with a useful index of definitions, together with a journey through France’s wines and how best to serve them. The recipes are comprehensive without being overly complicated and designed to favour flavour over expediency, as all French recipes should. Beginners could start off with the soupe à l’oignon, whose extraordinary richness and depth of flavour will surely inspire them to try out more.
Some 13 years later, another American set out his defense of regional culinary traditions — la cuisine de bonne femme. He feared this so-called “Good Wife’s Cuisine” was being relegated to the realms of restaurant kitchens instead of their proper place in the home. By the time he wrote Simple French Food, Richard Olney had lived in France for 23 years, more than enough time to develop his knowledge and sensitivities to its food. As evidenced in three pages wisely and affectionately describing the delightful promises of the Salade Composée (mixed salad) in all its forms. Straight-forward wisdom is Olney’s stock in trade which, when matched with his passion for French food and wine, becomes an essential tour de force.
From the other side of the Atlantic comes French Provincial Cooking by British culinary doyenne, Elizabeth David. Put together as a series of extraordinarily knowledgeable, sharp-witted, and sharp-tongued! (she does not suffer fools or foolishness in any form) essay-recipes, David’s book was published in 1960 and has more than ably weathered the test of time. She takes the reader through all of the classic dishes. Though you will not find French onion soup here, she considers it over-rated and indigestible. David also takes some divine excursions into territory you will likely not have crossed before where dishes such as Duck with Green Peas will make your guests think you’re nothing short of a genius. Delivered in a somewhat schoolmarmish, dictatorial style, her recipes could be difficult to follow if you’re not already confident in the kitchen but in fact make perfect sense if you take the time to read them a couple of times before starting.
To understand the terms, principles and techniques underpinning French cuisine, both novices and old hands alike would benefit from browsing through Institut Paul Bocuse's Gastronomique. It offers a detailed and illustrated breakdown of more than 250 techniques as well as 70 recipes that will help you to prepare stunning Michelin-style plates at home. The hefty tome also offers detailed chapters on how to properly carve and serve your preparations as well as match wine with food. There are also tips on transforming your table into a warm, inviting and hospitable environment for your guests. This is the book that will help you to really lift your game and develop your skills so that you feel comfortable cooking without following any recipes at all, simply relying upon your instincts.
The French Laundry in Napa Valley was nominated as the Best Restaurant in the World in 2003 and 2004, and has held three Michelin stars since 2006. It was described by legendary New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl as “the most exciting place to eat in the United States”. Keller opened the restaurant in 1994, was selected as Best American Chef two years later, and the awards have been piling up ever since. In 1999, he published The French Laundry Cookbook, “the ultimate in porno for chefs”, according to fellow American chef, the recently and tragically deceased Anthony Bourdain.
The recipes blend supreme luxury, clarity and, in some cases, a surprising level of simplicity (considering they are straight from the kitchen of a three-Michelin starred restaurant). As you work through the book, you’ll find detailed explanations of techniques and principles followed by gorgeous illustrative recipes. The soups especially combine vivid displays of colour with sparkling bursts of flavour.
Some of these will take some working up to, but there’s nothing like setting goals. Though there are few better motivations than the tantalising thought of one day serving up braised breast of veal with yellow corn polenta cakes, glazed vegetables and sweet garlic to your delighted friends. However, by tackling the simpler recipes in this book, you will rapidly develop the skills and confidence to take all that in your stride.
Keller himself provides the best advice for aspiring cooks. “There is an inherent contradiction between a cookbook, which is a collection of documents, and a chef, who is an evolving soul not easily transcribed in recipe form. A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to your recipe.
“I can tell you the mechanics—how to make a custard, for instance. But you won’t have a perfect one if you merely follow my instructions. If you don’t feel it, it’s not a perfect custard, no matter how well you’ve executed the mechanics. On the other hand, if it’s not a literally perfect custard, but you have maintained a great feeling for it, then you have created a recipe perfectly because there was passion behind what you did.”