Celebrity cookbooks – are they a recipe for culinary success?

by , Good Food Guide Energy & Home 15 January 2013
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From Jamie Oliver to Gok Wan, famous faces sell cookbooks like hotcakes. Are you prone to ‘doing a Delia’, or are your celebrity cookbooks gathering dust on a shelf?

Antique books on a shelf

Almost half of celebrity cookbooks are never used by home cooks, according to recent research from Saclà. The study found a typical home has ten cookbooks, of which four have never been used.

This certainly rings true for me. I have around 15 cookery books, yet only a handful of these are used with any regularity. They’re far from ‘celebrity’ titles – Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book is a favourite, as is Clare Macdonald’s Seasonal Cooking.

Some cookbooks, while they make great reading in their own right (Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries lived by my bedside for weeks), have almost never been used for cooking. And a copy of Rachel Khoo’s Little Paris Kitchen is in the same pristine condition as it was on the day it was bought.

Add a pinch of chervil and some tatsoi leaves…

Intimidating, overly-complicated recipes and the cost of ingredients are major factors for cookery books gathering dust. Most of us haven’t time to make a special trip to buy obscure ingredients, and in reality few can live up to the standards of a professionally-trained chef who advocates starting preparations two days in advance. Not to mention assembling your own smokery!

If I want to make something special, and if I’m cooking for other people, I might reach for my cookbooks, or if I need guidance on a particular dish or technique. Mainly though, I only open them when I have an ingredient that needs using up. And with millions of recipes available online, the internet is an increasingly popular option. More than half of all home cooks search for recipes online based on ingredients they happen to have in the fridge.

The cookbook compulsion

Yet our appetite for recipe books doesn’t seem to be diminishing. For some, recipe book collecting is almost a compulsion – Nigella Lawson has confessed to a library of more than 4,000. They present a world of beautiful food and culinary talent that’s hard to resist. After all, I may not need any more recipe books, but it won’t stop me wanting to add Yottam Ottolenghi’s latest to my collection.

How many recipe books do you own, and do you have any that you’ve never opened? Do you have a dog-eared, flour-flecked favourite that you always turn to? If you’re looking to add to your collection, what’s on your recipe book wish list?

22 comments

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wavechange

I have noticed that Conversations relating to celebrities seem to attract little attention. For example, the one asking whether professional chef gadgets are worth the money has not elicited a single comment in the past six days.

If someone puts their name to a book or a product, they are likely to gain sales – so why not offer products at a discount rather than charging a premium. I’m prepared to respect anyone who is good at their job but they are probably being paid enough without further exploiting the public.

Celebrity cookbooks half price please.

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Richard

I think it depends on the cookbook. Those that have exotic ingredients and require long preparation times tend to sit on the shelf, but those that are quick, simple, and tasty get used frequently. I would also say that now I use cookbooks less and less because I can find great recipes on the internet for free.

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Nicola

So true, what you say about recipe books gathering dust. I have about 32 recipe books, of which 2 are dog-eared, food-stained, one only held together by an elastic band. I turn to these books again and again, and they have never let me down. Both are by the utterly brilliant, incomparable Katie Stuart who wrote a cookery column for The Times newspaper in the 70s. Every single recipe of hers works EXACTLY as she says it will. All are simple and delicious. I’ve looked at all my other books from time to time, and used them almost never. Still like owning them, though!

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Anna

I absolutely agree – as a student, even with all the time and best intentions in the world, come a dinner with friends I’m not going to be inclined to whip out the shallot and kaffir lime leaves and start preparing a curry that takes up the better part of a day. My most used cookbooks are in fact the ones aimed at students, with quick, cheap, simple recipes. Ideally with easy-to-follow photos.
Yet despite knowing this I have still made a new years resolution to Learn To Cook Properly, and even have my own copy of Rachel Khoo’s “Little Paris Kitchen” (still however sitting pristine and unopened after Christmas).

That’s a great new year’s resolution, Anna! I agree with you about student cookbooks – their accessible, frugal style often guarantees they’ll be useful long after graduation… How funny that we both have the same book, too :)

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Frappetout

Cookbooks are like cones and wire coat hangers – they multiply and breed in the darkness and lo! a tribe of them has appeared over the horizon when you next look again on the bookshelf…

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Stuart

We own over 70 cookbooks and last year my wife challenged me to cook from all of them or get rid of them. That was a great exercise as made us realise we really didn’t need some of them, as well as getting us cooking quite different food. You also spot if you buy a few books from our chef, they do start to repeat themselves (Jamie Oliver being a prime example). The main challenge we had though was when we came to Gordon Ramsey’s Chef book with recipes from his star restaurant…this year keeping it simple and just trying to cook everything from Nigel Slater’s new Kitchen Diaries…

Your point about chefs repeating themselves is interesting. As you say, it’s the kind of thing you’d only really notice by cooking your way through their books. What an informative, delicious challenge!

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Cher Jackson

Well I am definitely in the category of storing more cookbooks that I use.
I have to say I think the idea of access to recipes that convert the odds and ends from the larder and the fridge to a delicious meal sound just what I need. Eating for one, I find myself throwing food away which is a terrible thing to do.
Great article.

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John Loydall

I’m sure I own well over 100 cookbooks. Some I’ve bought simply for the photography and to inspire me – Noma being a prime example – I’m not sure if I’ll ever cook anything from that book in full (I’m not sure I could ever get the ingredients).

Some books I’ve bought and have never used – not sure why – maybe not enough pictures (I like to see what I’m going to cook).

And some books I always come back to – The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating: Fergus Henderson is probably my most used book – even for the simpler things in the book like sauces/snacks – I just keep coming back to it for some reason – it’s an interesting read.

The Moro cookbook is another I keep coming back to… I think the books I use most are the books where recipes are easy to adapt and change to use whatever you have in the house. The more precise/scientific they are, the less likely I am to have all the ingredients in.

So – my books fall into 2 categories – beautiful to look at – Noma, French Laundry, 11 Madison Park etc..

And those with recipes that are easier to adapt – Moro, Rick Stein, MoVida Rustica, Nose to tail eating are the ones that spring to mind..

The fact that I probably never even pick up 50% of my books wont stop me buying more though…

I think I have six cookbooks, and I haven’t used a couple of them yet. My favourite cookbook was crowdsourced – it’s filled with recipes from people in the estate I used to live in, including a chocolate cake recipe I submitted myself.

The fact that the recipes come from real people mean I’m much more motivated to try them out. No scary ingredients or excessive preparation times, just tasty food. Perfect.

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Nicola

A sad coincidence has just come to light: the wonderful Katie Stuart’s obituary is in yesterday’s Times (Tues Jan 15th). She died on Sunday, 13th January. What a delightful person she seems to have been. She was apparantly at the forefront of the 1960s and 1970s discovery of foreign flavours. A celebrity of sorts, she gave hundreds of talks and cookery demonstrations to raise funds for charity. She modestly attributed her appointment to The Times to Antony Blake’s brilliant colour photographs which had illustrated her recipes in The Woman’s Journal.

Fascinating reading about the wide range of cookbooks owned by Stuart and John Loydall. I’m going to look up the Fergus Henderson, the Moro and the MoVida Rustica online.

How very sad. Katie Stewart was a wonderful cook and food writer.

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Katyquilter

I have just thinned out my collection of cookbooks! The ones kept include paperbacks entitled “The I hate to cook book”, a standby since first getting married in the Sixties, and the ” I still hate to cook book” which my empathising son bought me. With chapter headings such as ” Company’s coming – or your back’s against the wall” and “The leftover, or every family needs a dog”, they have seen me through years of culinary lack of confidence. Delia gets used; a glossy book of chocolate recipes has gone to the charity shop, along with any that have non-standard ingredients, or start with the instruction to soak/marinate/etc overnight.

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Neil Bonnaud

My most used one is the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book; 40 years old and passed down from my mother. It uses proper ingredients like lard and suet, in real pounds and ounces. It has everything I need from how to skin a rabbit to making a swiss roll.

Meanwhile, most meals are ‘ifits’ – if it’s in the cupboard | fridge | freezer it can be used for a meal. :-)

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John Ward

A few weeks before Christmas I noticed in W H Smith’s that around fifteen of the books in their top books were to do with cuisine in one form or another. And yet, looking around at the population at large [very large sometimes], I don’t get the impression that we are eating better or more healthily. Perhaps there is an alternative range of cook books with titles like “The Fat, Lard and Grease Fry-Up Diet”, “How to Make Heavyweight Cakes for Pleasure”, “Cut Out All That Fruit & Veg”, and “Waistless in Space [A Sartorial Guide to Elasticated Pants]“. I leave the celebrity endorsements for each weighty tome to the imagination of others.

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wavechange

Food for thought. These titles might sell well if endorsed by celebrities.

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Stephen Gaccon

Facinated by the topic and the posts. Very sad to here that Katie Stewart died recently. I regularly dip into her books, as well as Those of Jane Grigson, Delia, Simon Hopkinson and Nigel Slater. Other favourites are Marcella Hassan and Alistair Little.
Owning a huge selection, perhaps a number of hundred books, the core I really check for things is around 30, perhaps a page or two from each.
So, books provide different influences – some for the photos, some for inspiration, and some become core necessities.
I wont be thinning out my collection, I just need more shelves!

Some great cookery book suggestions there Stephen, thank you for your comment. I loved your cry of ‘I just need more shelves!’ I know the feeling…

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Nicola

It would seem from this fascinating Conversation that most people in fact use considerably fewer than half their celebrity cookbooks. In some cases we’re using a paltry tenth of the cookbooks we own. The Sacla research Francesca quoted above found that ‘almost half of celebrity cookbooks are never used by home cooks.’ I’d have put it at much less than half. Also interesting that Sacla found that the ‘average home,’ if there is such a thing, has 10 cookbooks. I think even in my late teens/early twenties (some time in the 1800s) I had more than that.
And even though I dip into most of them very seldom, I, like Stephen Gaccon above, (great post, by the way) have no intention of thinning out my collection either.

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Nina

As with so many, collecting cookery books is, for me, an irresistible indulgence. I generally order new cookery books online after having looked and researched and sighed over the fact that I should not order all 7 that tempt. When they arrive they will be my bedtime reading on their first night in their new home. In the days to come they will be poured over and I will begin marking pages with those small arrow shaped `stick its’ bought especially for the purpose. It always makes me very hungry. I generally then cook a couple of recipes – usually the simpler ones – and it is the end result of this that tends to determine how frequently said book is to be used…. However I do think that too many people treat celebrity chef/restaurant cookery books with too much reverence. The best attitute to have is to treat them like a Delia or Katie Stewart and just get stuck in… Dog ear the pages, get them covered in olive oil and chocolate and when necessary, improvise. If they are too alternative or precious in their lists of ingredients, don’t buy them. Make them accessible and before you know it, they will be on the kitchen table as often as in the shelf. My personal favourites are Dennis Cotter’s Cafe Paradiso and Paradiso Seasons, James Martin’s Desserts, Diva Cooking/Cookbook by Victoria Blashford-Snell and Jennifer Joyce, Ottolenghi, The Conran Cookbook. And of course I regularly return back to Delia, Nigella and Jamie…

What a fabulous account of cookery book use. A lot of what you say strikes a chord, particularly the bit about sighing over online wishlists…. I love how you describe their progression from bedside to kitchen table. Which is just how it should be. Your advice is spot on: just get stuck in and start cooking. Thanks Nina!

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