on food and cooking - harold mcgee
if you buy one book, get this one and thank me later. mcgee is the bible of professional kitchens, the constant reference book of culinary schools. "chef", you might ask, "why should we add cream of tartar to whipped cream?" chef is going to look at you and tell you to check mcgee. on food and cooking is an exploration of the whys. if a recipe tells you how to achieve a perfect vinaigrette or emulsion, mcgee will tell you why it works the way it does. what's the science behind it. what alternatives are there and how you might be able to build upon.
the flavor bible - karen page and andrew dornenburg
this isn't really a book you sit down and read cover to cover but it's a priceless reference guide worth its weight in saffron. ever wonder what to do with that pile of beets or the handful of fennel that will really make it sing? the flavor bible is a compendium of ingredients and what they are commonly and classically paired with, to provide a jumping off point for your own creativity in pairing flavors and creating dishes of your own. absolutely classic pairings, like pork and apples, are bolded in the print lists. they're classics for a reason but there's a lot in there that is ready to be explored.
ratio: - michael ruhlman
oh, ratio, you wonderful beast of a book. in this book, ruhlman indulges a concept he realized during his time at the culinary institute of america - that recipes are not the important bit, but the ratios they are founded within are. learning the ratios of what constitutes hollandaise or bread provides an endless amount of elasticity in the creation of a dish and a much simpler item to memorize.
the making of a chef - michael ruhlman
the same author of the above book, the making of a chef is a diary of an author's time attending the culinary institute of america. ruhlman has a wonderful way about storytelling and infuses the pressure of the exams and rigorous training into the book. this is a must read if you are remotely considering culinary school.
letters to a young chef - daniel boulud
simple and another in the vein of "thinking-about-culinary-school?read-this-first". if the descriptions of long hours and low pay turn you off, this isn't the right field - but if boulud's sheer excitement and love of food are instead what jump off the page and kindle something in you, then yeah, you've made the right call. i pick this up when i have moments of self-doubt, wondering if i've made a huge mistake.
heat - bill buford
i read this one the quickest. buford isn't a culinary professional, but a new york times writer who joins mario batali's babbo kitchen as a nontraditional extern and his subsequent career. he falls in love with heat and fire, quits his day job at the paper to fulltime follow his culinary explorations, which take him from babbo to a tuscan butchershop and beyond. i love the way this is written, it's an easy read with pages upon pages of fascinating descriptions of life in a true kitchen and anecdotes about his complete bewilderment and clumsiness when first arriving, something all new cooks and culinary students appreciate.
and a memoir, for good measure
the sharper your knife, the less you cry - kathleen flinn
i read this just before beginning culinary school and strongly identified with the 'wtf just happened' vibe of the memoir. in it, the author loses her job and, in the midst of the loss, decides to buck everything and follow her lifelong dream - to le cordon bleu in paris. my own path, losing my job at a new york startup and following it to ice in manhattan, wasn't too far off.
the author is relatable and funny, it's a very quick read - great for when you need something light and friendly you can indulge in before bed or on the train.