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Holiday Arts Guide: The Minds of Chefs

New cookbooks offer a glimpse inside some of the city's top restaurants

There are still people who will try to convince you that no one in New York cooks at home, arguing that the average kitchen simply isn't big enough. Even if the first part of that statement were true (which it isn't), one reason fewer people seem to cook may be that the city has too many good restaurants. Even ambitious foodies with deep pockets would be hard-pressed to sample from all the menus on their wish lists before the next class of promising chefs turns up to remake Gotham's dining scene yet again.

Fortunately for hungry New Yorkers, chefs like to share recipes almost as much as they enjoy inventing them. And this year happens to be a particularly good one when it comes to cookbooks, with offerings now on shelves from some of the city's most raved-about restaurants. From edgier Brooklyn newcomers like Roberta's to such Manhattan dining institutions as Gramercy Tavern, top chefs have temporarily swapped stovetops for laptops, committing some of their best recipes to print. Which means that no matter how big your kitchen is, you can now enjoy a meal befitting a name like Daniel Boulud or Andy Ricker without waiting in line or blowing your budget for the week.

Besides the aesthetic appeal of the books themselves, the beauty of these kitchen companions is how faithfully they convey the character and conviction of each chef. By deftly combining memoir, photography, no-nonsense advice, and, on occasion, a dash of cultural anthropology, these books end up as insightful as they are instructive. Spend a few days with any one of them and you'll feel as if you've enrolled in a master class with a culinary luminary.

All of these food experts seem determined to impart their accumulated wisdom to interested readers and aspiring chefs, demystifying the cuisines they specialize in and placing them within reach of home cooks. Sidebars in Michael Anthony's Gramercy Tavern Cookbook, for example, read like notes from a professor in the margins of a term paper. Anthony answers questions that any eager student might ask of an accomplished professional, including "What Makes a Great Dish?" and "Should I Go to Cooking School?" The four authors of Roberta's Cookbook supply plenty of tips on sautéing seafood, starting with the correct way to identify fresh fish at the market, pointing out colors, smells, and textures to be attentive to as a shopper. Ricker introduces each of the chapters in Pok Pok with a personal anecdote, often revealing something fundamental about som tam (papaya salads), larb (minced meat salads), or khong yaang (grilled foods). His individual recipes begin with handy comments about the desired flavor profile and a few complementary dishes.

Every page of these books communicates exuberance for food and its accompanying culture, with lushly photographed dishes and dining rooms and painstaking descriptions of ingredients, substitutions, and methods, right down to specific gestures to master. Early on in his book, Ricker explains how to properly use a mortar and pestle, perhaps the two most elemental tools in Thai cuisine. "Because the particulars of the method are subtle," he writes, "it also helps to keep in mind what not to do. Do not pound in a straight-up-and-down motion. Do not aim for the center of the mortar." Ivan Orkin's recipe for shio, a ramen that combines two different broths for its flavor, stretches across 36 pages of Ivan Ramen, including images. Boulud, in his astoundingly thorough Daniel: My French Cuisine, waxes poetic on truffles, "the true diamonds of the food chain," and then offers half a dozen ways to use them, including an elegant (and extravagant) topping for scrambled eggs and a refined yet rustic accompaniment to chicken breast, paired with cabbage, onion, carrot, and chestnut.

These cookbooks also offer plenty of simpler fare. Boulud may have 14 restaurants, three James Beard awards, and three Michelin stars, but in the "Daniel at Home" section, he devotes space to the preparation of a classic salad Lyonnaise. Carlo Mirarchi, Brandon Hoy, Chris Parachini, and Katherine Wheelock carefully walk through the steps involved in making Roberta's pizza dough, sauce, and fresh mozzarella, although they also reveal the secret to an "awesome in the original sense of the word" cheeseburger: dry-aged ground beef. Anthony tempts readers with a recipe for peanut butter semifreddo with chocolate macarons, hot fudge, caramel sauce, and candied peanuts, only to provide another for chocolate chip-walnut cookies toward the end of his tome. And after going into detail about how to toast the rye flour for his soba-style ramen noodles, Chef Orkin offers basic instructions for steamed rice topped with pulled pork and roasted tomato.

Each cookbook also includes information on sourcing ingredients and tools, with Pok Pok including Austin Bush's color photos of noodles, produce, herbs, and roots, an immensely helpful guide for shoppers trying to distinguish between Chinese broccoli and Yu choy. Pick up one of these volumes to learn new tricks and techniques, but also to gain a deeper understanding of the food of France, Thailand, and Japan, not to mention the U.S. And you might discover a dish that you're capable of perfecting in the process.

Daniel: My French Cuisine

Daniel Boulud and Sylvie Bigar

Grand Central Life & Style,416 pp., $60

The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook

Michael Anthony with a history by Danny MeyerClarkson

Potter Publishers, 352 pp., $50

Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo's Most Unlikely Noodle Joint

Ivan Orkin with Chris Ying

Ten Speed Press, 224 pp., $29.99

Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand

Andy Ricker with JJ Goode

Ten Speed Press, 304 pp., $35

Roberta's Cookbook

Carlo Mirarchi, Brandon Hoy, Chris Parachini, and Katherine Wheelock

Clarkson Potter Publishers, 288 pp., $35

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