"I never really wanted to write a cookbook," says Sean Brock, the James Beard Award-winning chef of Husk and McCrady's in Charleston, SC, and author of the 2014 best-selling Heritage. "Where I'm from, cooking is about grandmothers passing on recipes. If you cooked from a book, you were looked down upon." But Brock eventually realized a cookbook didn't have to be a crutch and instead could serve as a tool to inspire cooks and celebrate the people and communities that influence his cuisine. The trick was setting his apart from the deluge of glossy tomes swamping bookstores. "A lot of cookbooks look great," Brock says. "But you put them on the shelf and quickly forget about them." Heritage, by contrast, sticks in your craw, with a virtuoso mash-up of recipes, personal history, farmers' almanac advice, and ardent treatises on traditional southern ingredients like heirloom beans and heritage livestock. "You can't just fill a cookbook with amazing recipes anymore," Brock says. "It has to tell a story – about the chef's life, about where he or she comes from, what the source of their wisdom is. A great cookbook lets you peak inside their heads and see what inspires them."
To become king of your own kitchen you don't need a hundred trendy new cookbooks on, say, Japanese-Peruvian sushi or French pastry. You need a handful of classics, and then you need to be left alone to work through every recipe and technique until you've dog-eared the pages, smeared sauce on the dust jackets, and finally emerged as the culinary killer you've always known you could be. Jump online and buy our must-have list, a five-book core curriculum guaranteed to get you there.