Dana Cowin, longtime editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, has a few cookbooks. In fact, she has four separate collections going at once. There's an office cache with hundreds of volumes, which she says she uses to spark story ideas. At home, she keeps another hundred—a good number focused on the quick, healthy meals she wants to whip up, as well as coffee table books collected for their visual appeal. She also has a growing stash of vintage editions, such as Hellen McCully and Jacques Pepin's The Other Half of the Egg, which she says she loves for "the language, the illustrations, and the sense of history." Rounding out the collections, she keeps another hundred books or so at her upstate farm for dinner party inspiration, and finally, she's building a cookbook trove to showcase her favorite books at Food & Wine's new restaurant, Chefs Club. Suffice it to say, she's read a cookbook or two in her time.
I asked Cowin, whose own book, Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen, came out in October, to pick some favorites: the best cookbooks for baking, for dinner party inspiration, and more. Here's what she had to say.
What do you look for in a cookbook?
What I look for in a cookbook is very similar to what I look for in people: lots of personality, point of view, passion, excellence. I abhor the generic, cookbooks without a soul. We are in an incredible time for cookbooks. Looking at the ones published this past fall, I'm dazzled by the variety, the intelligence, the beauty and the commitment of the authors. It feels like there's a freedom to reinvent the genre since the audience for cookbooks is so strong.
What was the first cookbook you fell for? The first book I fell for was The Cuisine of the Sun, published in 1990, about the cooking of Provence by Mireille Johnston. I had a few shelves of cookbooks at the time, review copies from when I worked with the Features Editor of Vogue magazine. Every time I had a dinner party (which admittedly was not all that often), I would scour the shelves, peruse all the books, and nothing would grab me, except the recipes from this one French book. The recipes were easy, good for a crowd, and seemed just interesting enough to impress my friends.
What lesser-known cookbook do you think deserves more love? I am a huge fan of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Simple to Spectacular, written in 2000 with Mark Bittman of How to Cook Everything fame. The idea of giving a recipe and making it gradually more sophisticated is incredibly smart. As you progress from novice to expert, the book remains useful and inspiring.
What cookbook taught you something new? That's the great thing about cookbooks! They always teach you something new! Ovenly: Sweet and Salty Recipes from New York's Most Creative Bakery is a book I'm looking forward to learning from since Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin are always pushing boundaries. For a simple tip, they taught me that "to give pie a crisp bottom crust, finish baking it on the lowest shelf of the oven or on a pizza stone."
Any other favorite baking books? I have a minimum of three baking cookbook heroes who I think are equally amazing: Dorie Greenspan, Joanne Chang, and Alice Medrich. The answer why is pretty similar. The recipes always work and the author guides you along in the most gentle, generous way.
What book do you look to for dinner-party inspiration? Recently I've been turning to Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty and Plenty More as well as Food & Wine's new Chefs' Easy Weeknight Dinners. I like to serve buffet-style and always try to have a variety of salads, grains, and vegetables so I can be sure there is something for everyone (picky eaters, vegans, omnivores, gluten-free) and these books have given me a lot of excellent ideas.
What new books are you most excited about? I'm excited to cook from Charles Phan's The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food. It has a little bit of everything—history of the restaurant, incredible photographs, recipes I'm dying to try. Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts and The Secret Recipes from Dominique Ansel because they reflect the talents of two very different geniuses. Marco Canora's A Good Food Day to explore alternative carbs from a phenomenal Italian chef. Sean Brock's Heritage to learn more about Southern traditions. Karen Mordechai's Sunday Suppers since I adore her entire aesthetic. There are at least two dozen more books that I'm incredibly jazzed about, but I'll hold back.