The ramen dishes at Uncle, which I review this week, are so good that it's worth braving the wait to get a seat at Tommy Lee's restaurant in Highland. But Lee's first foray into noodles wasn't Japanese, but Italian. "The first cookbook I got into was Mario Batali's," shares Lee, who says he didn't have cable until college and had never heard of the Food Network, much less Batali, until then. The show sparked an interest in cooking, though, and before long Lee was making his own pastas -- much to the delight of his roommates from New Jersey. It was only a matter of time before he was honing his skills, and regaling his friends and family with five-course meals from The French Laundry Cookbook.
Lee's story got me wondering about early influences in other chefs' careers. What cookbooks were instrumental in their development? What sources do they turn to now?
Here's what some of the best chefs in town have to say.
When Olav Peterson, chef and co-owner of Bittersweet, applied for his first catering job at eighteen, he needed a good hollandaise recipe, so he turned to one of his mom's cookbooks: Colorado Cache. "I made it and it turned out great," says Peterson. "Then I refrigerated it, and of course it broke. I still threw it on the fish and I still got the job," he marvels. As he got more into his career, he turned to Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook, El Bulli and Noma. But the book he calls his bible is Culinary Artistry. "Mine is so beat up now," he says, "the pages are falling out."
Bob Blair, chef-owner of Fuel Café, has a soft spot for several cookbooks, including The Zuni Café Cookbook, the Moro series, and Sunday Suppers at Lucques. But hands down, his sentimental favorite is a little-known work called Creative Cooking Course. "It was my dad's, and as early as I remember, when I was nine or ten years old, my dad would break out this cookbook," he says. When his parents unexpectedly passed away, his siblings gave him the book, as well as his mom's KitchenAid mixer. "'Mom and Dad would've wanted you to have those,'" he remembers them telling him. Despite all the recipes he's come across over the years, one from that cookbook -- for a light, cream-filled dessert called chocolate roulage -- still appears at family get-togethers and on special occasions. Will it come out for the imminent opening of Refuel? "That might be a good idea," Blair chuckles.
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The first cookbook that Dakota Soifer, chef of Boulder's Café Aion, remembers is his mom's copy of The Joy of Cooking. "It was in three or four pieces because the binding had been opened so many times," he recalls. When he went to college, his parents gave him an updated edition, which he still has. "It had a basic version of everything and I could be young and experiment and put ginger in everything," he laughs. But today this chef is more likely to turn to the Moro cookbooks -- when he's not writing his own, that is, which is due out next fall.