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Robert St. John’s Top 25 cookbooks

The view from my desk is inspirational. I’ve been in the same office for 27 years. There are no windows, but I have surrounded myself with things that inspire me and things that I love.

There are a lot of photos of family all over the room. There are also a lot of photos of the Beatles. There are odd trinkets, trophies, honors, certificates, a college degree, awards, and all sorts of memorabilia scattered everywhere. My Regional Emmy Award sits next to a personalized bowling ball signed by Jeff “The Dude” Bridges. They are both situated next to a first place trophy from a Jell-O wrestling competition (I didn’t compete; it was turned in when I was collecting trophies for the décor in one of our restaurants).

Most of all there are cookbooks.

Last month, while I was out of town, my assistant, Simeon Williford, took on the rather large task of organizing and pouring through the cookbook collection in my office. It’s a task she’s been dreading — and putting off — for almost four years. It sounds like an easy undertaking, but I have been collecting cookbooks for over 40 years and by a loose estimation, there are somewhere around 1,200 cookbooks on the shelves across from my desk. That doesn’t include the hundreds of books in boxes stashed in other places in my office, at home, and in several storage facilities.

The cookbooks are semi-organized today as she made substantial progress while I was away. Though the hallway just outside of my office is packed with books, and I have yet to undertake the long-overdue task of culling through the stacks in the hopes of eliminating ones that I no longer use, never did use, or books that just need to be given away.

My office wall is filled with books. The question I am most often asked — after the “How many books do you have?” question — is, “Have you read all of those?” The answer is yes. They’re all cookbooks. Restaurants and food are my life, my hobby, my passion, and my joy. I have at least viewed every page of every book on those shelves.

Asking if I have cooked from them is a different story. I have cooked from many of them, especially during the early days when I was working 90 hours a week in the kitchen. I have been inspired, at least in some way, by most of them. These days the cookbooks I cook from most are my cookbooks. The books I become inspired by, and the ones that encourage me and keep me motivated writing and releasing cookbooks — I have two cookbooks in the works for release over the next two years — are on these shelves.

I have several dozen volumes of Art Culinaire, but have never cooked from any of them. I probably never will. They’re pretty to look at though. There are a pair of antique lawyer bookcases flanking the cookbook shelves that contain mainly non-fiction books and some fiction from Mississippi writers, but everything else — save some business books — in the room is a cookbook.

I often get asked about my favorite cookbooks. I have never answered that question before for fear of leaving one out that I truly treasure. But now that my cookbooks are semi organized, I’m going to take a stab at listing my top 25. It should be noted that any list I ever create is a fluid document. I change my mind often on subjective things like favorite songs, albums, or books. It should also be noted that each of these books has a personal connection to me in some aspect. I either cooked from it in my early career or used it as an instruction manual and text to further my skill and knowledge. Here is the list as it stands today (in no particular order, and I am sure I’m overlooking several):

  1. Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen by Paul Prudhomme — This book came out in the mid 1980s and is still in print. People today don’t recognize the revolution that surrounded Prudhomme after he opened K-Paul’s. He was a great chef, and a chemist of real cooking.
  2. The Commander’s Palace New Orleans Cookbook by Ella and Dick Brennan — This book had just been released when I started working as the executive chef in the Purple Parrot kitchen. The recipes were my north star and exactly what I was aiming to recreate in my first restaurant.
  3. Larousse Gastronomique by Librarie Larousse — I never attended cooking school. I started cooking after firing our chef opening night. I needed all the basics I could get.
  4. The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer — More early day basics.
  5. Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne — a massive work from the best Mississippi culinarian to ever walk the earth.
  6. Southern Sideboards by The Junior League of Jackson — My mother and grandmother cooked from this book. It tastes like home.
  7. Come On In by The Junior League of Jackson — The follow up to Southern Sideboards.
  8. Recipe Jubilee by The Junior League of Mobile — my mom’s gumbo recipe started here.
  9. Screen Doors and Sweet Tea by Martha Foose — When this book was released, I sat in my car outside the bookstore and couldn’t stop turning pages.
  10. How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman — No kitchen should be without it.
  11. Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg Karen Page — My copy is so dogeared and worn. This book probably gets more use than any other in my collection. The recipes and restaurants are dated at this point, but the flavor profiles and dynamics are spot-on and useful. It’s the first book I bought my son when he told me of his desire to go into the restaurant biz. The Flavor Thesaurus by Niki Segnit is a newer, more comprehensive book. I just bought my son a copy of this one, too.
  12. Tex Mex by Ford Fry — This book inspired me to open a Tex Mex restaurant. Excellent.
  13. Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen by Rick Bayless — the master of Mexican.
  14. River Road Recipes by Junior League of Baton Rouge — my grandmother’s gumbo came from this book.
  15. Ad Hoc At Home by Thomas Keller — Simply the best at what he does. Period. End of story. I have all his books. This is my favorite (it’s the most approachable).
  16. Staff Meals from Chanterelle by David Waltuck — I am typically more interested in what the chefs are feeding each other before the dinner service begins that the actual food they are serving later on the menu. This is the first book I bought that covered those family staff meals.
  17. Frank Stitt’s Southern Table by Frank Stitt — No one can compare to what Stitt has done for the Alabama culinary scene.
  18. Frank Brigtsen’s Stay at Home Cookbook by Frank Brigtsen — this is more of a pamphlet than a book. Brigtsen released it during Covid. I value it as much, if not more, than almost all the others on this list. Frank rocks.
  19. The Edna Lewis Cookbook by Edna Lewis — Other than my grandmother, Miss Lewis was my fired chicken muse.
  20. Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child — The bible.
  21. The Gift of Southern Cooking by Scott Peacock — This book was big for me when it came out. Still is.
  22. Emeril’s New Orleans Cooking by Emeril Lagasse — This was a revelational text for me. Emeril opened his first restaurant a year or so after I opened mine. He’s been an example to follow ever since.
  23. Crescent City Cooking by Susan Spicer — Spicer and Brigtsen are two of my favorite chefs in the city. They are both as gracious as they are talented. This is her first cookbook.
  24. The New Basics by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukens — I studied The Silver Palate Cookbook by these two in my early days of the kitchen. This came next.
  25. The Professional Chef by Culinary Institute of America — My go-to when I need to learn how it is done.

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