I've done enough critical writing about recipes lately and now want to set my sights on determining what makes a great cookbook. The books in my collection reflect my age and taste. Most of them are classics or, if too recently published for that lofty status, I deem them well on their way.
As an experienced cook, my needs differ from those of the beginner. This distinction does have some impact on the books I buy but the essential qualities of a good cookbook are fixed, no matter the audience.
A cookbook writers enthusiasm steeps a good cookbook in vigour, weaving vital energy into its binding. It should have an aura or effortlessness and feel as if it had to be written, with recipes that naturally embrace a theme. It should make me want to cook and, although I may be far from my own kitchen while sifting through its pages, a recipe will spark a desire and I'll begin to associate the dish with my own pleasure.
A cookbook with spirit always begins with a story.
Like Simon Hopkinson’s Week In Week Out which he conceived late one Saturday under the influences of a leisurely, home-cooked midday meal. The cookbook makes a persuasive case for creating a “proper” Saturday lunch. Simple menus are tied to themes. A chapter called "Staying Put” suggests that the seasonal malaise of the “dark months” of late winter can be cooked away, with recipes like Chili Crab Salad and Fragrant Duck Pilaf acting as a delicious cure. Hopkinson’s style is easy and lacks the artifice of perfection, making even complex dishes seem entirely possible.
A book can be shaped around an adventure, like Nancy Singleton Hachisu's Japanese Farm Food. This is a cookbook that's as much about her unexpected journey to become a Japanese "farmwife" as a love note to her adopted homeland and its food culture. It’s a delightful tangle of “traditional Japanese and modern American life” that, at heart, celebrates the delicious results of unlikely unions. She makes subtle, thoughtful adjustments to recipes like Japanese-Style Potato Salad or Zucchini Coins with Roasted Sesame. Her connection to Chez Panisse is best illustrated in the dessert section where she credits Lindsey Shere’s seminal work, Chez Panisse Desserts, as a source of great influence.
Patricia Wells’s books were born out of a professional calling. The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris was a very logical and confident next step for the then restaurant critic of the International Herald Tribune. This gastronomic guidebook to the City of Light is enriched with a smattering of recipes from esteemed Parisian contributors. Wells possesses the right kind of reserve to form influential friendships with the wary French and, with her first book, began a publishing phenomenon that other American food writers would eagerly adopt: collaborating with French culinary masters on wildly successful cookbooks.
Cookbooks with spirit have an active and encouraging tone. They are written by skilled and confident teachers who have a burning desire to see their readers straight through to success. Such authors are direct and detailed in their approach, from recipe title to finished dish. They inspire trust and engender readers to follow their lead explicitly.
A fine example of the authoritative voice comes from Anne Willan in LaVarenne Pratique, a cookbook that reads like a lively first-semester class in basic French cookery. Willan's reasoned, methodical approach links theory and technique to recipes that support the lesson. Her book builds on the photographic innovation of other great French cookbooks, like Jacque’s Pépin’s La Technique and La Methode, and is brimming with the self-assurance essential to success.
Great teachers also produce cookbooks with the kind of detail that borders on the obsessive. No greater master exists in this realm than American chef Thomas Keller. In his book Bouchon, he writes, “...the recipes detail the important qualities to strive for in each dish—whether it’s the ratio of ingredients in onion soup, the size you cut your lardons for a beef bourguignon, the texture of a crème caramel...” His books are stunning examples of the exhaustive rigour involved in perfecting practice. This can lead to recipes that are several pages long but Keller knows all too well the irony of the simple dish. Following his lead, recipes like Quiche Lorraine produce results well beyond expectation or imagination.
Sometimes cooks are preoccupied with a single subject, their cookbooks detailing elaborate journeys toward gaining expertise. These authors are usually called to their subject at a young age and become some of our finest teachers, leading by experience.
For Kevin West, born into a farming family in rural Tennessee, preserving was a way of life, not cause for much attention. But the practice that underpinned his youth came calling at a later date and he seized the opportunity to write Saving the Season, a cookbook on preserving. The recipes have deep roots, bound to the traditions that inspired them, and his book is an instructional text with a wholesome approachability and the feeling of joyous discovery. Preserving as a practice binds West more closely to the seasons, the markets where he buys his ingredients and, most importantly, to his people.
Experts can produce cookbooks that are spiritual in nature, as in Chad Robertson's Tartine Bread. Written by a man considered a guru of bread making, it provides a window into his decades-long solitary practice: the quest to achieve mastery. He writes, "I would have to make hundreds of loaves a day for years in a sort of solitary baking trance to achieve what I had in my minds eye." This quiet steady progression gives the cookbook a meditative quality. The lessons of bread making are alive—in our hands—and Robertson leads the way toward an intimate working knowledge.
Other authors arrive at their beloved subject by happenstance, as did Penelope Casas with The Foods & Wines of Spain. She falls in love with the country as a summer student and fills her own need to know more at a time when there are few sources to turn to. Her book is “...as much an extensive collection of recipes and Spanish cooking techniques as a guide to travel and dining in Spain.” It’s written with the earnestness of the outsider and filled with rich detail. There’s a palpable sense that what Casas wants most of all is to do the Spanish proud.
The genesis of a great cookbook is the natural inheritance of the inspired author who calls it to life. Cookbooks, like the eight considered here, combine the skill and character of a cook to produce a unique expression that, under the best conditions, will excite and inspire. A cookbook with spirit will make us rise and take to the kitchen.
Part Two will investigate the subtleties of what I call the guts of a cookbook—the often un-sexy support mechanisms that make a cookbook usable in the kitchen.
 Simon Hopkinson, Week In Week Out, (London: Quadrille Publishing, 2007) p. 8
 Ibid. pp. 32 - 35
 Nancy Singleton Hachisu, Japanese Farm Food, (Missouri: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2012)
 Ibid. p. X
 Ibid. pp. 54, 36
 Ibid. p. 327
 Thomas Keller, Bouchon, (New York: Artisan, 2004) p. ix
 Ibid. p. 91
 Chad Robertson, Tartine Bread, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2010) p. 8
 Penelope Casas, The Foods & Wines of Spain, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1979)