In a new series, we ask some of our favourite chefs about the cookbook that's left a lasting impression on them. While many chefs are themselves cookbook authors, the books they pored over in their younger years can be revealing, not least for the slice of food history they offer up.
First in the series is Peter Gilmore, chef at Sydney restaurants Quay and Bennelong and creator of some of Australia's most beloved and recognisable dishes (the snow egg, sea pearls and eight-texture chocolate cake among them). He chose Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook, published in 1999, as his favourite cookbook.
How did The French Laundry Cookbook first make its way into your hands, Peter?
I was a young, recently qualified chef and I was looking around Chefs' Warehouse when I saw it. It was a new release then. It was the first cookbook where I got really excited by the chef and his philosophy. It was a version of French cuisine that had his touch all over it. I loved reading the stories about how he developed as a chef. It was the story of a chef's career coming together and it came at a time when he was at the height of his career.
How has the book influenced your own cooking?
I was really impressed at how closely he worked with his suppliers. I think he was one of the first chefs we saw outside of France or Italy who had that close relationship. That was inspiring to me. A few years later I started to do the same thing at Quay.
I also really liked the precision of his food: it was so clean and sharp. Although my approach has evolved into something a bit more organic, back then I did love how considered the textures of his dishes were and just how clean the dish looked. It wasn't too cluttered; the product was treated with respect.
Had you visited French Laundry prior to reading the book?
No. You've got to remember that at that time there wasn't Instagram or blogs. The only way you found out about these chefs was through buying a book or if you happened to read a review [of the restaurant] in the LA Times, for example. And you couldn't even look up the review online! You just didn't know about what chefs were doing overseas. A chef's cookbook was a window into a whole philosophy and cuisine; a book really was a calling card.
What was the first dish you cooked from the book?
I don't know that I've cooked too many dishes from the book. It was more about reading and being inspired by his philosophy, and applying that to local ingredients. I do remember cooking the potato blinis as a canapé. I can't remember which restaurant I was working in but we did that dish with caviar for a special event.
What great chefs' cookbooks are about is inspiration – and I don't think it's just for other chefs. I think it's for cooks who want to be pushed a bit further. You don't have to follow a recipe step by step. You might take one technique or step and apply it to something else.
I think people also like to have an insider's look at how things are done behind closed doors.
How do you think the book has held up since its first edition in 1999?
I think it's a modern classic. Thomas Keller created a modern style of classical French-American cuisine that he's known for and that he still lives by today. You can see it on his menus and on the plate. I'm sure it's evolved subtly but he's been very true to his culinary beliefs.
Thomas Keller, The French Laundry Cookbook (Workman Publishing, 1999, $89.99).