The Great Cook Book Challenge on Channel 4 sees chef Jamie Oliver trying to find a worthy winner who can write a brilliant cookbook to whet the nation’s appetite.
Airing Mondays at 8 p.m., the show will be judged by the undisputed king of cookbooks, Jamie Oliver, a man with 25 books and 15 million sales to his credit: he knows his onions and what to put them in.
It’s a daunting task for competitors to come up with something new: with 5,000 cookbooks published in the last year alone, the chances of coming up with something original remotely are nearly impossible.
In nearly 45 years as a chef, I’ve amassed a vast collection of thousands of cookbooks that includes a vast array of classic books and numerous tomes on virtually every cooking style and ingredient imaginable.
Julia Child, Paul Bocuse, Elizabeth David, Marco Pierre White, Thomas Keller, Escoffier, Larousse, Fergus Henderson, Claudia Roden, Raymond Blanc, Jane Grigson, Gordon Ramsay, Alain Ducasse, Marcella Hazan, Robert Carrier – they are all on the des shelves.
But alongside the classics, there are the obscure: Barbara Cartland’s The Romance of Food (did another cookbook involve a recipe where you have to soak triangles in bleach?), Winning Ways with Cheese or The Pyromaniac’s Cookbook.
I have to admit that most of my books come from used bookstores and like most collectors, hunting for that rare find becomes something of an obsession.
On that note, our favorite game is trying to find my first book, Hughes Cooking, which was published in 2004, in the charity shop bin – the best price we’ve found it for is 25p, but we consider it a bargain if we find it for less than £1. Join us.
It was the cookbook, rather than the physical act of cooking, that first caught my attention when I was young.
Cooking was really my mother’s domain, not that there were ever many fights: my father, my two brothers and I were willing subjects.
I loved watching the food she created – the Eccles cakes filled with plump fruit, the coconut madeleines with their desiccated coconut dusting, the cakes, the sausage rolls…he never It’s not hard to see where my love for The Assembly House’s afternoon tea comes from. .
But where did my Mum, whose passion was baking, find HER inspiration? From the same cookbooks I flipped through at home and still collect today.
The Be-Ro book, first published in 1923 and now in its 41st edition, was literally the Bible in our kitchen, treated with reverence and respect.
Covered in all sorts of food debris and scribbled notes, it was a vital cog in our daily lives. The excitement as it moved from black and white to the colorful edition was palpable: the family favorite Harlequin Pie came to life.
It was the most exotic thing I have ever seen, a jam tart, divided into four with each quarter filled alternately with raspberry, apricot and blackcurrant jams and lemon curd to complement the chef- work.
Mark Mitson, our Swiss-trained pastry chef on the job, has so far resisted the call to add Tarte Harlequin to our menu, even when I beg.
Over 40 million copies of this little book have found their way into homes around the world, so I think it can justifiably claim to be the most influential cookbook of all time.
By 1875 Thomas Bell owned a wholesale grocery store and tea business in the North of England with top-selling brands including Bell’s Royal Baking Powder and, which was a novelty at the time, the self-rising flour.
After the death of Edward VII it became illegal to use the name Royal, so Bell took the first letters of each of the two words in the brand name to create “Be-Ro”.
In an effort to make self-rising flour more popular, the company held exhibitions in the early 1920s where freshly baked scones, pastries and cakes were sold for one shilling to visitors.
These were so popular that people demanded to have copies of the recipes so they could cook the dishes at home. These free recipes formed the basis of our valuable Be-Ro book.
In 1976, I managed to persuade my parents to subscribe to Marshall Cavendish Good Cooking magazine.
It was delivered weekly and was no mean feat: in 84 parts, it featured everything from menu planning to dinner parties, step-by-step butchery guides to intricate cake decorating: I memorized every page.
The full-page color plate of a pineapple upside-down cake was a revelation, a milestone in my career path – the promise of such glamor in the letterbox every Wednesday made me run home from school.
I still treasure the complete set – with their easy-to-clean blue PVC binders – and they are truly one of my most treasured possessions, a towering tribute to my parents’ silent support of their son’s culinary dreams.
The popularity of cookbooks is by no means a new phenomenon: the oldest manuscript was written in 1324 and featured 220 recipes, while Mrs Beeton’s book on household management was first published in 1868 and is still in print.
At home, our shelves groan under the weight of cookbooks.
Most I cherish, some I love beyond measure, some I question (Cooking with Coolio? Life on a Plate by Sid Owen? Better Thank Sex Cookbook by Margi Clarke? Who made them? purchased?!).
I am now on the hunt for the most esoteric. The day we discovered Barbara Cartland’s book was a good day, and recently a great friend with a love of cooking to match mine found the Holy Grail and gave me a first edition of Liberace Cooks, complete with photos of his dining table, his bar and signed by the man himself. Lifestyle goals and recipes in one book!
Five of my favorite cookbooks:
My Gastronomy. Nico Ladenis, 1987
It happened when my lifelong ambition to run my own restaurant finally crystallized into a real possibility. Nico was famous for having no patience with difficult diners and an unwavering philosophy when it came to food and service. The anecdotes in this beautiful book were as influential as the recipes. His chocolate marquise, with more or less success, often appeared on my first menus.
Great British Chefs: Kit Chapman 1989
A book that changed my life! This book had an incredible influence when I started looking at chefs, their restaurants and their stories as much as their cuisine. Bryan Turner, Alistair Little, Richard Shephard were all featured, alongside Norfolk’s David Adlard. The excitement of seeing someone who cooked at Wymondham in a book like this was so incredibly inspiring. Author Kit Chapman was the owner of Taunton Castle. Once I went there for an interview, I didn’t get the job…it went to the late Gary Rhodes.
Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin, 2008
There comes a time in your life as a chef when you tire of Michelin-style recipes with methods that take longer to read than to cook. Kenny Shopsin was the chef and owner of his namesake restaurant in Greenwich Village. Described as a cross between Elizabeth David and Richard Pryor. Shopsin, who died in 2018, had a menu of hundreds of dishes, all cooked from scratch, and his house policy was, if he doesn’t like how you look, you can’t come in! Outrageous, opinionated, this book contains recipes for things you secretly desire. You’ll have a belly laugh through a bite of pancake!
Feasts: Stéphane Reynaud, 2008
My book on the desert island. It includes everything I would like to cook and everything I would like to eat. Traditional French cuisine with beautiful photographs and even better illustrations. I love the story of the snail and the frog, the rules of petanque and the guide to speaking like a local! I love it.
What I’m reading right now:
Taste: My life through food, Stanley Tucci, 2021
Actor and director Tucci grew up in an Italian-American family and, like most Italians, what you eat next is at the forefront of his life. The recipes are few but include a Negroni and meatballs (the main thing) and I found out there is a cheese broth (made from parmesan rinds) – who knew! An easy read for a pasta obsessive.
· Four times a year. Richard runs his book cooking masterclasses at The Assembly House. An evening of readings, reflections and recipes from his collection of over 1,000 cookbooks, for more information and to book visit www.richardhuguescookeryschool.co.uk