Cookbooks for Every Person in Your Life
The founders of acclaimed LA bookstore, Now Serving, put together this list of the year’s best cookbooks to make any collection even better.
Now Serving is an intimate cookbook and culinary shop in Los Angeles—which has pivoted to online-only since the pandemic took hold. As a specialty bookstore focused on food and cooking, we navigate hundreds of new cookbooks released every year. So when tasked with selecting a handful of titles that have made an impression on us, we approached it as if a customer in the store was asking us this same question.
Our selections here represent inspiring subject matter, diverse storytelling, and unique, new voices that would add value to any existing collection.
For both the studious chef or the advanced home cook who owns The Food Lab and Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat—The Flavor Equation by Nik Sharma is a remarkable love letter to food and science. Just as compelling as a photographer as he is a food writer, Sharma continues to bring his unique sensibility and understanding to the mechanics of taste; aside from the recipes, there are enough charts, graphs, and analytics here to make your favorite food geek’s head spin.
A wholly overdue and poetically righteous undertaking from Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen brings the cuisines of the eight east African countries that touch the Indian Ocean through soulful bibis (grandmothers) that welcome us into their homes, feeding us dishes that nourished their families for generations. A cookbook filled with reverence, joy, and urgency that we can all return to over and over again learning something new every time.
This is a standout offering by Michelle Polzine in a boon year for baking books when we needed them the most. The chef-owner of the beloved Bay Area institution, Polzine sets her vintage time machine to the gilded age of Middle European glories such as the Dobos Torta, the beguiling Honey Cake, and a strudel procedural recipe that will leave even the most avid bakers gobsmacked and wide-eyed. A long overdue book honoring the tradition of bakeries in Vienna and Prague that hits the mark in this gorgeous tome.
In a year when many of us couldn’t travel, London chef Marianna Leivaditaki’s personal tribute to her sun-soaked Cretan childhood, Aegean, is a godsend to the culinary traveler. Tempered with analog charm of another time and matter-of-fact sensibility, Leivaditaki’s dishes of tiny fishes cooked over embers or rosemary-scented rabbit pay tribute to her heritage while also igniting her creativity to allow modernity to grace these pages.
From Bay Area chef Bryant Terry, this book is an ideal gift whether it's for the novice vegan or the experienced plant-based pro. Imbued with bright Afro-Asian flavors throughout, inventive dishes such as Jerk Tofu Wrapped in Collards, Mushroom Gumbo, and Dirty Cauliflower reflect the immigrant-based ingenuity of what modern vegan cuisine can be and how deliciously enticing it is for herbivores and omnivores alike.
With the precision touch of a clockmaker, London chef Calum Franklin of The Pie Room, deals out fantasies crafted in flaky dough, egg-washed to the hilt, and filled with godly foodstuffs like potato dauphinois and caramelized onion or smoked haddock and sweet corn chowder. There is only one Pie Room, and it is here in all its steampiped and marbled glory, with Franklin’s crack team of chefs, we get a peek into the particular madness of the British tradition of pie, its two-fisted appeal of practicality and frugalness (make a filling with humble ingredients, cover it with dough, feed people) and the glory of what the stunning summation of that comforting equation can truly be.
There is an almost monastic, holistic approach to the ingredients that chef Melissa M. Martin handles in her book on Cajun cooking, Mosquito Supper Club. She explains in detail how living on the bayou with rice, shrimp, crab, oysters, and crawfish is in her blood and how the simplicity of South Louisiana cuisine long echoed the tenets of freshness, seasonality, and local sustainability which modern American cooking stands on the shoulders of, despite the fact that this region is tragically disappearing. There are unforgettable recipes here of lost shrimp gumbo, she-crab soup, smothered okra, and oyster bisque among others that you won’t be able to shake—they were always here, we just needed Martin to remind us.
For a culinary memoir, in a bumper crop year of great reads from David Chang and Phyllis Grant, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger from Southern pastry royalty Lisa Donavan won’t steer you wrong. A heady cocktail of love, family, food, and the fire that drives her personal and professional journey, Donavan really knows how to wring out the marrow in a story, how to bring you into a world that is etched and fleshed out with tremendous skill and a singular voice.
The hand-pulled biang biang noodles are pure legend at this point, a NYC keepsake of heat and chew—whether they are fragrant with spiced lamb or oil-seared with cumin and chile. These noodles will be what lures you to Jason Wang’s Xi’an Famous Foods, but it will be the family ingenuity and the compelling immigrant hustle behind Xi’an to bring flavors from western China that will have you hooked.
Mastered sourdough this year? While many have dabbled in feeding a starter and puzzled in what to do with all that discard, it was Bryan Ford’s New World Sourdough from earlier this summer that captured our imaginations and bread-baking aspirations. Playing both to his Honduran roots and his growing up in New Orleans, Ford turns out lively and swoon-worthy loaves of birote, plantain sourdough, and his choco pan de coco, a true Instagram star in its own right.
With many people this year taking on projects in the kitchen—fermentation provided the mother of all rabbit holes to stumble down into. For those obsessive ferment-heads yet still accessible to the casual cook, Koji Alchemy by Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky is the final, microbiotic frontier to conjure flavors seemingly like magic, to rapidly age meats, cheeses, and more in this surprisingly practical and intoxicating guide to this revolutionary mold.
For the health and wellness-minded, it’s worth picking up Lindsay Maitland Hunt’s book just for the eye-opening science of microbiota. It’s an impressively researched and compelling look at gut health—how it affects your immune system, allergies, chronic pain, and more—with straightforward yet inventive recipes that put flavor first, satisfying while also healing, no matter what your lifestyle demands of you.
Looking for something that will impress your chef friends and give you an inside look into the brain of culinary giant, Ferran Adria, godhead of the legendary el Bulli in Spain? With his ongoing series Bullipedia, the el Bulli Foundation released the weighty volume and existentially titled, What Is Cooking? this year. It is an impressive, gorgeous, and often mind-blowing look at why we cook, what we cook, and how cooking has evolved over millennia, and perhaps where it is going into the future.
For those of us who need to reach out for something a little stronger in these end times, look no further than NYC bar vet John deBary’s irreverent, and opinionated as hell book. Creative insights into cocktail culture abound with deBary offering up such gems as inventive ways on how to hack a drink out of your parents’ liquor cabinet, along with peerless riffs on classic recipes whenever you’re feeling traditionalist. It's the swiss army knife of drink books with an attitude!
Inspired by the longest running food podcast of the same name, Snacky Tunes by Darin and Greg Bresnitz, pulls apart the molecules that bond music and food—a compound that has beguiled the brothers for the better part of their waking lives—only to build it back together here with a treasure trove of interviews, recipes, and of course, playlists by some of the most gifted chefs from around the world. Often obsessives in their own right, chefs—such as Igancio Mattos, Nina Compton, Lee Tiernan, and Gabriela Camara among many others—offer up what music means to them, to their creative processes, and to the importance it has in their restaurants.