The culinary classics that influenced Australia's best cookbook authors

Bill Granger's debut cookbook turns 20 in October.
Bill Granger's debut cookbook turns 20 in October. Photo: Supplied

It could be a sauce-stained Fulton, a hulking Larousse, or a Naked Chef found loitering in the back of an opp shop. The right cookbook in the right hands is a splendid thing, not only responsible for sensational food, but sometimes actually imparting life-changing lessons.

Good Food asked Australia's greatest cookbook authors about the kitchen classics that influenced them, and what those books can still teach us today.

Bill Granger

"I'm not a trained chef, so everything I've learnt, I've learnt from books," says Granger. "One that changed the way I cooked was Roger Verge's Cuisine of the Sun from 1978. Verge was a legend of nouvelle cuisine and the book is all about simple, approachable southern French cooking. The title spoke to me as much as the recipes. No matter what I do, I've always loved the food of the sun."

More modern books Granger uses regularly include Patricia Wells' The Provence Cookbook published in 2004, and 2005's Kitchen Diaries by British food writer Nigel Slater.

"Nigel shows you how to really pay attention to the seasons. For most of Australia, our seasons aren't as dramatic as Europe's, so it's easy to lose touch with produce – particularly with everything available in supermarkets all the time. Buying seasonally is cheaper and better, plus you can find yourself cooking with ingredients you might be a bit scared of. That's always a good thing."

Granger's first book, Sydney Food (released in 2000), also preached the gospel of local and seasonal. Now the scrambled egg king, who owns 19 venues across Sydney, Seoul, London, Hawaii and Tokyo, is celebrating the book's 20th anniversary by launching Australian Food through Murdoch Books in October.

"Because I've really been concentrating on the restaurants over the past few years, I haven't been able to write a book for a while," he says. "I wanted to celebrate everything I've done over the past decade; something that's a snapshot of where our food is now, similar to Sydney Food 20 years ago."

Granger is amazed by the pace at which Australian cooking evolves. "I know this will seem trite, but we really do embrace food from around the world in a way few other countries do," he says.

"It's extraordinary what you can buy in Australian supermarkets now. I mean, you can find kimchi in a country town. Eating well is not a class thing in Australia either. The world sees our food as cafe culture, and I think that has a lot to do with the friendliness of Australians."

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One piece of advice you hope people take from your books?

"Season and taste as you cook. That layering will improve the finished dish – think balance. I always keep acid in mind, too, like a squeeze of lemon, which gives food a real lift. Buy good quality sea salt; it's worth every cent."

Helen Goh

Born in Malaysia and educated in Melbourne, cookbook author Helen Goh, who co-authored Sweet with Yotam Ottolenghi, says the book that has influenced her most is Prune by New York City chef Gabrielle Hamilton. Her food is intensely personal, almost autobiographical, the food her elegant French mother cooked for her as a child, Goh says. "It's the food I love too – untrendy, unapologetically classic food."

"I admire Hamilton's ethos of coaxing ingredients to 'find the heart' and her willingness to attend to mediocre supermarket produce (when we are constantly implored to buy the very best – what if you can't afford it?) to take the 'fluorescent tube' out of them and make them 'incandescent' on the plate."

Goh says she has eaten at Prune. "It's the real deal – relaxed and unpretentious. The pasta vongole was so good, I ordered a second.

"And while Prune the cookbook offers recipes for many of the fabulous dishes served at the restaurant, including tips for success, it's her philosophy that I aspire to: Work with grace and care, consider that no task is too menial in your quest to produce and serve good food, and don't waste anything!"

For her own book Sweet, she hopes that the same level of care is evident in the recipes and notes.

One piece of advice you hope people take from your books?

"More than anything, I hope that it sparks moments of magic: the wonder of baking's alchemy and the joy that it brings."

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Publicity photo of Karen Martini.
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Photo: Supplied

Karen Martini

"If you want a perfect result, sometimes cookery can't be rushed," says Martini, who keeps a copy of Damien Pignolet's French close to her kitchen. "Damien is so articulate and inspirational if you want to learn from the ground up. It's not like a boring textbook; you're learning from something quite beautiful."

Martini says French is perfect for slowing down and reflecting on something she hasn't made in a while. "It could be terrine or charcuterie, roasting and braising things such as veal breast, calves' brains and sweetbreads, or grilling sirloin with Cafe de Paris butter."

"I also love Arabesque by Greg and Lucy Malouf. It was the first book to unpick the flavours of my childhood and of my grandmother's Tunisian-Italian cooking. It beautifully covers the basics of ingredients and history of Middle Eastern food."

Good Food can reveal Martini's next book, Cook, will be released by Hardie Grant in 2021. Three years in the making and 900 pages long, Martini hopes Cook will be a new kitchen go-to for Australian homes. "It's not an encyclopaedia, but rather my opinion on a lot of things – the how and why of why I do something the way I do. It's my version of a modern Australian handbook."

One piece of advice you hope people take from your books?

"Push yourself to explore as many cuisines as possible, from Sichuan to Korean to the food of the Levant. New ingredients and techniques will only enhance your repertoire of go-to recipes and provide more confidence in the kitchen."

Donna Hay

"It's funny, you know," says Hay. "Most of the cookbooks that influenced me when I was really young didn't have pictures of food, which is not me at all. There was the Country Women's Association Cookbook and Commonsense Cookery, which had every recipe you could want, but you never knew what the end result should look like. I suppose that also meant you could never go wrong."

Pictures or not, Hay says Commonsense Cookery was invaluable for basics such as Anzac biscuits, melting moments and lemon delicious pudding, plus the inspiration for her first family meals.

"I remember putting on my first dinner party for Dad's birthday. I cooked steak diane and chocolate blancmange, and I'm pretty sure the blancmange was something you could use on a building site. But at least it was in a very pretty glass my parents were given as a wedding present."

Everyday Fresh by Hay will hit shelves October 7. "I've tried to jam in all the good fresh stuff but make it super easy. There are a lot of almost-instant dinners for two people, just to solve that 'Oh my goodness, what are we going to cook tonight' problem. A can of lentils dressed up to make a fab salad, perhaps."

One piece of advice you hope people take from your books?

"I hope that people have learnt that cooking a recipe that looks as good as it tastes can be super simple as well as amazingly satisfying. Not just by the way that it tastes but also in the way it makes you feel."

Neil Perry in his restaurant, Rockpool, in Sydney.
13th September 2013
Photo: Janie Barrett

Photo: Janie Barrett

Neil Perry

"French cookbooks in the late '70s by Richard Olney, Alain Senderens and Michel Guerard really put me on the path of cooking the best I could," says Perry, who retired from Rockpool Dining Group in July. "Guerard's Cuisine Gourmande especially. It contains so many great dishes and techniques. Who knows? If I ever do another restaurant, I might pull a couple of recipes out of there."

Cuisine Gourmande taught Perry about the importance of honing his craft. "To understand the craft of cooking in depth, you have to focus not just on making a dish, but how you can make it better. Anyone can cook 50,000 steaks, but you need to be paying attention each time and always learning. You need to make sure the last steak you grilled is the best one you have ever cooked."

Perry says he gravitates toward cookbooks that provide insight on technique and dish variations. "Books that show you how to turn 100 recipes into 400. That's what I tried to do with The Food I Love and Balance and Harmony [published in 2005 and 2008 respectively]. Balance and Harmony is great if you want to start cooking Asian food, explaining steaming techniques, masterstocks and simple stir-frying, for example. The Food I Love [pictured] is very much the Mediterranean version of that."

One piece of advice you hope people take from your books?

"A recipe is a guideline, not a document to be followed slavishly. Cooking should be fun."

Kylie Kwong

In his 1993 cookbook Fresh From Italy, Stefano Manfredi writes "I am Italian. And I am a cook. But I live in Australia and, whenever I can, I seek out and use only the finest and freshest Australian ingredients. This book is about the way I have brought to Australia the Italian sensibility to food I grew up with."

Kylie Kwong says this philosophy completely resonated with her, "being an Australian-born Chinese person who cooks Cantonese-style food with an Australian sensibility". After spending two years with Neil Perry at Rockpool, Kwong developed a strong desire to learn more about Italian cuisine and spent some time at family-run Restaurant Manfredi.

"I had the immense privilege of working alongside Stefano, his formidable mother Franca, his brother Franco and head chef Nicole. Just myself and the family pretty much, in that cosy, homey, soulful Ultimo kitchen. Stefano's cookbook reminds me of that extremely happy and influential time. It is filled with simple, delicious, rustic-style recipes for classics including the two basic sauce types in the Italian repertoire – the sugo and the salsa. Stefano teaches us about sugo being a lighter, fresher sauce."

Regarding her own cookbooks, Kwong says the most gratifying and ongoing feedback she receives is for Simple Chinese Cooking. "It's the best representation of my core recipes and adaptations of the recipes my mother passed on to me."

One piece of advice you hope people take from your books?

"The difference between ordinary food and wonderful food is, to a great extent, dictated by the quality of the ingredients used in its preparation. And I've seen so many people paralysed by worrying if a piece of meat, fish or chicken is cooked and I say to them, for heaven's sake, get your knife in there and just have a look, don't be afraid!"

Julia Busuttil Nishimura

"By the time I was in my teens, I had worked my way through all of Mum's cookbooks (mostly Women's Weekly and Margaret Fulton) and was desperate for something more," says the Melbourne-based cook, teacher and author of Ostro. "When I was 16, my mum bought me a handful of cookbooks through a subscription offer, one of those four-for-$25-type deals that would fall out of a magazine."

River Cafe: Two Easy by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers was included in that collection. Published in 2005, it was the fifth book by Gray and Rogers, who introduced London to a new type of understated Italian elegance when River Cafe opened in 1987.

"Written by these incredible women, Two Easy opened my eyes to a world of simple Italian cooking," says Busuttil Nishimura. "Rose and Ruth taught me about solid combinations like prosciutto and melon, anchovy and butter, and cannellini beans and olives. This was my education. Their book is full of simple pasta dishes, wonderful vegetable recipes and contains what has become my go-to lemon tart recipe. I think it will forever be my favourite and most influential cookbook."

Similar to Two Easy, Busuttil Nishimura says her new cookbook, A Year of Simple Family Food (released August 25 through Plum), is all about unpretentious, unfussy and generous recipes.

"I aim to celebrate the incredible way in which the coming and goings of produce can punctuate our year. The first peach of summer, the anticipation of broad beans and berries in early spring, the satisfaction of a long, slow braise in the depths of winter. They all have their own joy and are worth emphasising."

One piece of advice you hope people take from your books?

"Begin with great ingredients and you're almost all of the way there to a wonderful meal. And always cook your onions for far longer than you thought was necessary." 

Maggie Beer, one of the many treasures that calls South Australia home.

Photo: David Solm

Maggie Beer

Few books were available on regional, seasonal cooking when Maggie Beer and husband Colin settled in the Barossa in 1973, and certainly none specific to Australia. "When Stephanie [Alexander] released Stephanie's Menus for Food Lovers in 1985, it was a real breakthrough to have an Australian book like it," says Beer. "It was very, very special to me."

Beer also gives thanks to Elizabeth David's 1960 classic French Provincial Cooking and Madeleine Kamman's When French Women Cook, a recipe-led memoir published in 1976 and rich with stories of foraging herbs and churning butter from the milk of village cows.

"Those books accentuated what I believed in, while providing practical examples utilising everything a cook could find in their region. Reading Elizabeth David was more like reading a novel. She didn't always exactly give you a recipe, but you would understand how this goes with that in terms of texture, flavour and balance."

Beer's most recent book, Maggie's Recipe for Life, was co-authored with Alzheimer's disease researcher Professor Ralph Martins.

"It's about food to protect our brains from dementia, from cradle to grave. I never saw it has a health book, but a collection of recipes full of flavour and supported by Ralph's science. A varied diet with spices and fresh herbs is good for the brain – all things that are part and parcel of a passionate cook's armoury."

One piece of advice you hope people take from your books?

"Buy local and grow as much as you can yourself so you reap the rewards of the freshest produce every day."

Stephanie Alexander

"My all-time favourite cookbook is Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking, closely followed by her Italian Food," says The Cook's Companion author.

"I have always admired the meticulous work of Richard Olney and was also delighted by the wit and sparkle of Edouard de Pomiane, and the slight madness of Patience Gray in Honey from a Weed. And, of course, Claudia Roden's masterpiece, the Book of Middle Eastern Food."

"My belief in the central importance of sharing food around a table was only reinforced by the stories from the writers above, and further reinforced by my own experience of living and working in France in the early '60s."

Alexander's most recent book, The Cook's Apprentice, and her 20 years establishing the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, stem from a belief that the best way to achieve a food-literate generation of young people is to involve them in growing, harvesting, preparing and sharing as early as possible.

"And to make it fun," she says. "A young student who grows their own broad beans or carrots, picks them, prepares them, cooks them, and maybe drizzles them with olive oil, grates parmesan over them, or strews them with fresh parsley, will feel differently about carrots or broad beans forever."

Alexander is working on a new book ("the very last one," she says) but it will not be seen until late next year and few details are available just yet.

One piece of advice you hope people take from your books?

"Read the recipe from beginning to end before you touch a single utensil or ingredient!"

Hetty McKinnon

"The book I come back to again and again is Breakfast, Lunch, Tea by Rose Carrarini," says Community author and salad fan Hetty McKinnon. "It's one of the first books I bought when I became interested in cooking and for me, it ticks all the boxes of what a great cookbook should be. Story-driven, comforting, inviting, human and, of course, offering great recipes."

Published in 2006, Breakfast, Lunch, Tea was the first book by Carrarini, who worked in the fashion industry before opening beloved London restaurant and delicatessen Villandry in 1988.

"Rose starts the book by saying 'I am not a trained chef. Everything I have achieved has been a result of learning from other chefs, responding to customers' desires and reading lots'. Her story of self-actualisation has always resonated with me. Rose built a community around food, by offering the simple food that she loves, and I think this is very inspiring."

McKinnon's next vegetable-forward book, To Asia, With Love will be released on September 29. The Arthur Street Kitchen founder says she aims to demystify Asian cooking and give readers the confidence to master jook (congee), dumplings, noodles and other dishes often perceived as "too hard" for the home.

"I also hope To Asia, With Love will be a bridge to bring people from all backgrounds together, highlighting the important role that food plays in connecting us to our cultural identities."