Classic cookbooks for serious cooks. Our favourite classic cookbooks that we recommend as Christmas gifts.

Classic Cookbooks for Serious Cooks – My Desert Island Cookbooks

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These classic cookbooks for serious cooks are the kinds of culinary tomes I’d like to see under my Christmas tree if I didn’t already own them. If your loved-one relishes cooking five-course meals, pounding curry pastes from scratch and making their own charcuterie, these are the cookbooks to buy them.

Classic cookbooks for serious cooks was the brief from Lara for this gift guide – “those cookbooks you’ve used so much over the years that the pages are stained with the splotches of the sauces you were making and pastes you were pounding,” she said.

These classic cookbooks are pretty much my ‘desert island’ cookbooks, as long as the island has a four burner stove and an electric oven. None of these are the flashy new cookbooks that require a degree in science and $10,000 worth of gadgets. While some of the books have very involved and time-consuming recipes, they are all worth your time.

If you’re as passionate about cookbooks as we are, you might also like our post on the things that we hate about cookbooks, from no recipe lists to untested recipes.

NOTE: a click on the images of the books below will take you to Amazon. If you purchase something we earn a small commission.

Classic Cookbooks for Serious Cooks

Larousse Gastronomic

If your loved-one is a dedicated home cook of French cuisine and doesn’t have Larousse Gastronomique on their kitchen shelves, then of all my classic cookbooks for serious cooks this is the one to buy. Published since 1938, this is the cookbook you go to when wanting a definitive answer to any question about classical French cooking. I know that it attempts to cover all cuisines (the latest edition even has a biography on Ferran Adrià), but it’s the classic French old school recipes and techniques that make it indispensable. There’s a reason it’s on every professional chef’s shelves in their restaurant office.

The Professional Chef

It might surprise some people but one of the things I love about The Professional Chef, the weighty tome by he Culinary Institute of America (CIA), first published in 1991, are the sections on nutrition and food and kitchen safety and equipment. The introduction to the profession chapter (chapter one) is fascinating for anyone with an interest in how restaurants operate. The recipes and techniques are all well explained and the photos in the latest edition really lift what was quite an academic reference book to something that might be found on a cooking geek’s coffee table. Chef Paul Bocuse called it “The bible for all chefs” so this is certainly one of those classic cookbooks for serious cooks. But if you are serious, this is indispensable. 

Thai Food

Chef David Thompson’s epic tome Thai Food is more than a cookbook on the cuisines of Thailand, it’s a culinary history book with recipes that date back to the 1800s, perhaps earlier. The recipes are detailed – a curry paste can have more ingredients than a weekly grocery shopping list – and some ingredients are hard to come by outside Asia. So this is arguably only for the most serious of Thai home cooks. But every recipe I’ve tried is worth the effort. David told me he wants to go back and revise the book, but as it stands now, it’s the bible on Thai cooking – whether Thai people accept it or not. Worth noting is David’s lyrical writing and his detailed notes punctuating the recipes.

The French Laundry Cookbook

While Catalan chef Ferran Adria was up to his tricks in Spain, American chef Thomas Keller was in California’s Napa Valley creating carefully detailed dishes that delighted the senses. And his now-classic dishes are all here in the very elegant French Laundry Cookbook, first published in 1999. I made the canapés, such as Salmon tartare with sweet red onion crème fraîche and Parmigiano Reggiano crisps with goat cheese mousse, for so many of the dinner parties we used to have in Dubai. They are still as much a delight to cook as they are for guests to snack on. They always ask for more. Keller’s lemon tart with pine nut crust takes a long time to make but is superb. This is most definitely one of those classic cookbooks for serious cooks with plenty of patience, but it’s incredibly rewarding to cook from.


I love this book so much. Chef Neil Perry’s Rockpool is one of the books I’ve cooked from since it was first published in Australia in 1996. We used to live in Potts Point back then and I’d cook from it regularly for dinner parties. Rockpool was our special occasion restaurant and I took Lara there for a celebratory dinner after her university graduation. What I love about this cookbook is that it demonstrates just how eclectic Australian chef Neil Perry’s cuisine was at a stage of an explosion in creativity in Australia’s restaurant scene. If you want to understand how contemporary Australian cuisine got to the very exciting point it’s at now, buy this book. Dishes such as a risotto with Asian ingredients (duck and coriander) worked surprisingly well and I still make his Hokkien noodle dish to this day.

The Art of Mexican Cooking

Published in 1989, The Art of Mexican Cooking was my first real cookbook purchase. It should really have been the last. It was dense, academic, with no colour photos to inspire the home cook. However, the authenticity of the regional recipes and Diana Kennedy’s painstaking research inspired our passion for Mexican food and therefore partly-motivated our first trip to Mexico. This book is a must for anyone who loves real Mexican cooking and has the time to create these fantastic dishes. Again, with over 200 recipes, this is another one of those classic cookbooks for serious cooks of Mexican cuisine.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking

When I first came across this two-volume tome of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (published in 1961) in the pantry at my uncle’s house, it had not been used. I’ve always wondered how many times Julia Child’s books have been purchased only for the recipient to look up the boeuf bourguignon recipe and quietly place the book back on the shelf. But for me, that complex recipe was so well-detailed that it was the first dish I made from the book – it was sublime. Despite Child being neither a professional chef or French, she managed to get across her passion for the food of France. The books were co-authored with French writers Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. Wonderful stuff but undoubtedly one of those classic cookbooks for serious cooks of French cuisine.

Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing

I’ve always had a fascination with making charcuterie from my first visits to Spain and Italy in 1999. Since purchasing Charcuterie, The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing (published in 2005) I’ve made everything from a rustic country pâté to lots of fresh sausages, courtesy of a professional grade mincer and sausage stuffer I bought here. The only thing I can’t really make are the cured meats due to the heat and humidity here in Siem Reap – as well as the outrageous electricity costs to run an extra refrigerator. The recipes I’ve tried are excellent and clearly explained, with Michael Ruhlman both a journalist and trained chef, and Brian Polcyn, a chef and butchery teacher, expertly guiding you through the processes.

While these make great gifts for any occasion, this post was originally part of our Christmas gift ideas series. Click through for Christmas Gifts for Asian Home Cooks, a Guide to Asian Kitchen Essentials, Christmas Gifts for Travel Photographers and Travellers Who Love Photography and Christmas Gifts for Picnic Lovers.

If you have any recommendations for classic cookbooks for serious cooks we’d love to hear your suggestions. I’m also curious to know what your desert island cookbooks are…


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Terence Carter is an editorial food and travel photographer and infrequent travel writer with a love of photographing people, places and plates of food. After living in the Middle East for a dozen years, he settled in South-East Asia a dozen years ago with his wife, travel and food writer and sometime magazine editor Lara Dunston.

4 thoughts on “Classic Cookbooks for Serious Cooks – My Desert Island Cookbooks”

  1. Interesting list. Mine would be completely different but would include Stephanie Alexander ‘The Cook’s Conpanion’ which I bought in Melbourne when we lived there and got sent back to the UK in my husband’s internal office post! Habe you seen the 1000 cookbooks app and website?

  2. Hi Kate, of course yours would be completely different, it’s a very personal thing and reflects our culinary experiences and what cuisines we enjoy cooking. The Cook’s Companion is a great reference book, but we left Australia in 1999 and living in the Middle East, we spent every single holiday exploring Europe, hence the overt French bias in my reference books.
    Love to read your list. I’m sure it would be much different to mine given our discussions on cookbooks!

  3. Great list Terence.
    When I look at my ratty, stained cook books ( clearly the most used) David Thompson’s is certainly one and Stephanie Alexander’s bible.
    Kylie Kwong has been much loved in our house and in recent years, gasp, Jamie Oliver ( ie. yummy, nutritious and able to feed a family fast ! )

  4. Thanks Sandy, when I left Sydney the only Kylie that was famous was Minogue…
    We had Steph Alexander’s bible at the uncle’s house but it never was used much.
    At least Jamie tests his recipes and has great photography, but when he
    veers from Italian he does some weird stuff…

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