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The best books on Simple Cooking

recommended by Bruno Loubet

The Michelin-starred chef Bruno Loubet chooses the book that taught him the shortcomings of everything he had learned in catering school, and four other favourites. Two are by Australian chef Stephanie Alexander

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Your first book? 

My favourite for many years was called Cuisine Gourmande by Michel Guérard, a chef in the South of France, part of a series of the best chefs in France. For me it was like a massive revelation – after catering school learning all the basics of French cooking, one day I remember I stopped in a shop and saw this book, and it was the shock of my life when I opened it. I realised that food wasn’t like what I’d been learning for the last three years: it was something that could be much more interesting, much more colourful, much more exciting.

The pictures were very different from the usual pictures in French books, which were very dark and brown – everything with brown sauce. In this book they have a lot of veg and herbs, and a very clean plate with not too much ingredients. What I’d just learned at school – 30 years back – was all the basics of French cooking: the cream, the velouté, all the meat covered with dark sauce, maybe with bread or celery on the side, something like that; cooking with all the technical base, but not the excitement that I’m feeling when I open this book. So it was a massive shock, and it was really so exciting that it gave me the ambition to learn more about this kind of food, and the drive for many years to try to make things better and more exciting – with lighter sauces and more colourful etcetera.

“My food has always been described as something very gutsy with a lot of direct and strong flavour and I think that’s the terroir.”

When I started to read, I very quickly understood that all the words were singing to me, like petit gâteau de carotte de cerfeuil – you know, little cake of carrots with a very light chervil sauce. For me that was like: wow! Compared to what I just learned at my school, which was heavy and not so colourful. And the way he used to call the food as well – ‘little cushion of mushrooms’, things like that – even the words he used in the recipes were like music to me.

What made his method so revolutionary? 

It was the creativity, the different approach, the appearance – he was the start of that: instead of having lots of things on the plate he had maybe three, four ingredients and they really matched each other and married each other. It looks beautiful: very clean and appetising. And it was quite simple – you had all the ingredients and then underneath is the recipe step by step – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. So very clear as well, written in a very simple way.

Still cooking? 

Yes, he still has his restaurant in Eugénie-les-Bains, three Michelin stars and still one of the best in France. I’m sure he’s not in the kitchen any more – he’s too old. But he still runs it.

Your next book? 

River Cottage Cookbook by Fearnley-Whittingstall: I can’t pronounce his name at all. What I really like is it’s about what food should be: sustainable. I like that he has some chapters where he talks about the gardening, how to grow your food, how to pick, to store, to cook and to eat. You start from the beginning and go up to the end, and I’m sure a lot of people changed their way of thinking when they read this, because it makes them understand that food doesn’t grow in a plastic bag in a supermarket but on a farm with a lot of work and the seasons happening.

There’s a big focus on ingredients. 

Yeah, where they come from and when you should use them – for example, you shouldn’t use asparagus in winter (because then they come from Peru), but in summer, when they are English and don’t come from far and are at the top of their condition. I like the fact that he talks about all of this and maybe gives a bit of excitement because he’s obviously a very likeable person from the way he writes and his show on TV – he’s kind of nice, and easy going, and sometimes a bit funny, and doesn’t take himself very seriously. I like as well he talks about how you should plan your garden and your larder at the same time, and I like all the connections he makes between everything in the book. He ends up with dishes that sound very yummy – just making the most of, for example, a pork joint by roasting with three or four veg, and maybe a spice to pull everything out and make it a bit more exciting. It’s not by having 100 exotic ingredients that the recipe becomes nice, just that fact you use the perfect produce at the perfect time. Most of his dishes are classic and regional English dishes, mixed with a bit of French and Italian – for example, the lamb kidney with chilli and lentils. It’s a fantastic dish you resolve to eat in front of the fireplace on a winter day at home, you know?

Next book? 

The Cook’s Companion by Stephanie Alexander, who owned a restaurant for many years, which was one of the best, if not the best, in Australia – and she’s a fantastic cook. I don’t know how long it took her to write but it’s the book that sold the most in Australia ever – not only of cookery books – so it’s a massive achievement. This book is a bit like a bible or a dictionary – it’s a huge book with so much information and you can go there for so much reference. She talks about the production of the food and the tradition and the culture. For example, you go to kumquat and then you will see where they come from, where they grow – originally it’s Japanese or whatever – and then the seasons, and she has a friend who likes to do this recipe and then that – but you have to be careful because they are very bitter, and a way to cut this bitterness is to do this. You see, it’s more than just a recipe, it’s very informative.

What kind of tradition does she draw on? 

This woman had a bit of an interesting life also, because I think she stayed in France for two years to learn and to cook, and she went to Asia, and obviously in Australia you have a lot of influences: Asian, French, Greek, Polish, people for whom food is their passion. And the Australian people embrace all this, and have an understanding of it, and then it becomes part of their culture, so there is a lot of influence. The book’s really personal as well – obviously for reference you can search the internet and find most of what you want. But in Stephanie Alexander you have the facts, plus a bit of reading, and you understand a bit of her life and her friends, and things they are doing. Like they are doing an orange chutney, and she says: My friend is doing this chutney and what I like about it is when we met for a curry weekend ten years ago a friend of ours brought this orange and we did this chutney, and in Japan they do this. So this story plugs into the recipe, and you have a bit of human perspective.

Next book? 

A new book – I think it’s really nice, very entertaining, I’m already a fan of it: Orchards in the Oasis by Josceline Dimbleby. I really like the way she writes – very feminine! You really feel it’s a woman writing, and I like the way she starts from when she was a little girl, and she has a very interesting life: she travelled all over the world and then when she got married to David Dimbleby and had children she started to cook all this lovely food with all this influence from around the world and all these memories. So the book is going through her life and how she came across all these smells and senses and everything – it’s not really a cookery book, but it just happens to have recipes all along because obviously food has been linked so much with all her life. I really like this book and I reckon it will do really well because it’s so different.

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I think it’s always nice when you have this little bit extra – this human side. It’s like for me in the restaurant, I cook something and maybe somebody calls me to the table and I go there and start to talk, and I always find that maybe I have a dish they like and they say how much they like it and everything. And then if I say: I do this dish because my mother used to do something similar, I changed it a bit and I did this. They are always looking at you like they are listening to God talking! Because for them this extra information is something which makes them appreciate the whole thing even more than just taking the recipe out of a book or the internet. I think people love the story, and take it on board, and maybe they remember the story each time they eat. It seems to touch people, and in a different way than just taking information.

Next book? 

Another one by Stephanie Alexander called Cooking and Travelling in South-West France. I’m from the Southwest and my feet are very much in the ground there, and what I find in that book is she definitely captures the soul of the Southwest. It’s very interesting for me to look at this book, even the choice of recipes are very clever and really the spirit of the Southwest – 120 per cent – it couldn’t be anywhere else. She obviously has such a good understanding of what she is doing and she captures the identity of the place. I don’t think a French person could have done better, even somebody from the Southwest, so I’m very impressed. She refers a lot to people by name – for example she says, When I see Madame Morissette she was doing this cake and I looked and changed it a bit because I think it will need this ingredient. She talks about the place and the people and I read this and I felt it was part of my childhood. It’s so close to what it is that it reminds me of memories and stories. She talks about the market, the produce, and some very unusual recipes. But cooking is not only recipes, and this book helps for that because she makes you understand why in that region they’re doing this kind of food and where it comes from. She might say: Chicken in that region is nice and they do this kind of dish, because they have that mushroom and this wine, or whatever. And then people kind of put things together – because you really read this and say: In my region I have a light beer. Oh! Maybe I should try to do my chicken with a light beer in a stew, you know? So it kind of opens your mind and if you get a bit of confidence in your way of thinking and how you see food and understand food, then maybe you try different things and develop your own way of cooking.

Big emphasis on terroir? 

Of course – I come from the Southwest so I do a lot of things that are already typical, like my own charcuterie, I do the air-dried duck, stuffed neck of duck, rillettes of duck. My food has always been described as something very gutsy with a lot of direct and strong flavour and I think that’s the terroir. It’s all about something you can identify from an area, and hopefully people can identify my food to Bruno, you know?

October 28, 2010

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Bruno Loubet

Bruno Loubet

Bruno Loubet was born in Libourne in Southwest France. He won his first Michelin star at London’s Four Seasons at Inn on the Park. He then opened Bistrot Bruno in Frith Street, and in 1995 the critically acclaimed brasserie L’Odeon on Regent Street which won The Times Restaurant of the Year. Bistro Bruno Loubet in Clerkenwell in London opened in 2010.

Bruno Loubet

Bruno Loubet

Bruno Loubet was born in Libourne in Southwest France. He won his first Michelin star at London’s Four Seasons at Inn on the Park. He then opened Bistrot Bruno in Frith Street, and in 1995 the critically acclaimed brasserie L’Odeon on Regent Street which won The Times Restaurant of the Year. Bistro Bruno Loubet in Clerkenwell in London opened in 2010.