The coffee table book holds a special place in our hearts for its weighty presence, stylised pages and the way it looks when it’s stacked with others of its kind on a designer coffee table. Equally, the cookbook has also long been a staple on our shelves, beloved for the delicious recipes its pages contain — dishes that are brought out on special occasions and memorable dinners. Both breeds are widely cherished, but where the coffee table variety once reigned as the glossy, gift-appropriate show pony (very visible, rarely read), and the cookbook its antithesis (dog-eared, stained and stashed in a corner somewhere), it would seem a new chapter is opening for the latter — and it’s looking set to usurp its polished counterpart.
Over the break, I bought and read Salt, Fat, Acid and Heat, a ‘cookbook’ by Iranian-American Chef Samin Nosrat. It presented what I felt was a new age for the genre. Designed to be read cover to cover, it walked me through the four principles in its title, as the author made the point that anyone, no matter what their experience, had the capacity to make consistently delicious food if they just knew how to treat the four titular elements in their cooking. It was a total revelation. And beyond its informative content, it was presented in such a way that it would look right at home on any designer coffee table (which is where it lives in my home).
It made me think about the kinds of books I had been drawn to of late. A tome from Phaidon called JAPAN, presenting itself as the definitive guide to Japanese cuisine, the delightfully unexpected From Crook to Cook, a cookbook from renowned rapper Snoop Dogg, the beautifully laid out but hefty book from René Redzepi and David Zilber, The Noma Guide To Fermentation, among others that all shared a common theme: food.
Call it a turn to practicality or a sudden desire to up skill, but it seemed that I wasn’t alone in my fascination with beautiful cookbooks. There appears to be now, more than ever, a breed of recipe book that combines practical culinary knowledge with alluring design and a beautifully artistic cover that grants it passage out of the kitchen and into a more visible space. Maybe people want to be seen as more than just collectors of fashion tomes and art bibles. Perhaps they seek recognition as culinary sophisticates as much as cultural ones. I put much of the blame for this shift on Netflix. Never before have we had access to such a wave of cooking shows, each seemingly more artistic and appealing than the last, and I think that these creative cookbooks are answering our desire to introduce some of that sensual magic into our own homes.
That said, I felt it high time we rounded up some of the cookbooks that were capturing our attention for far more than just their food.
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