This was—to put it nicely—a year for spending time indoors, and as we ran through our stocks of dried beans and canned chickpeas and tried (and failed) our hand at baking sourdough, we wondered just how professional chefs do it. Thankfully some of the best in L.A. clued us in with hundreds of tips and cooking tricks.
Cocktail pros, James Beard Award winners, food hosts, and even an action star turned taco authority all released stellar cookbooks this year to help level up the time we spend in our own kitchens. Nancy Silverton’s meat palace chi SPACCA showed us how to perfectly sear a steak and char our vegetables. Café Gratitude’s affirmation-based, totally vegan samosa chaat can finally be ours at home. Apotheke’s botanical cocktails helped trick us into drinking nutritional elixirs with our booze.
Whether you’re still hunting for holiday gifts or shopping for yourself, L.A.’s best cookbooks of 2020 are sure to help in 2021 and far beyond—after all, there’s so much more than sourdough to master.
AMBOY: Recipes from the Filipino-American Dream
Before Alvin Cailan founded Eggslut, before he helped reinvigorate Far East Plaza with incubator Unit 120, before he hosted The Burger Show and before he launched Amboy and then Amboy Quality Meats (now home to one of L.A.’s best burgers), he ate his father’s arroz caldo. In many ways the chef’s new cookbook, co-written with filmmaker and writer Alexandra Cuerdo, is about those early beginnings and flavors and just how his Filipino-American heritage helped him reach his staggering culinary heights of the last decade or so. Yes, there are some Eggslut recipes in there, but it’s barely about that. Not at all, really.
“This is a story about a brown kid, from a brown family, whose roots are in Southeast Asia. More specifically, the Philippines,” Cailan writes. “That makes me American-born Filipino, or, as my grandma used to call us: Amboy.”
Amboy’s pages are peppered with Q&As between Cailan and Cuerdo and personal intros lead into each recipe, which help chart not only his influences and his upbringing but provide cooking anecdotes, quips and shit talking. Recipes follow his childhood to cooking at Portland, Oregon’s Ten01 to his early days in L.A.’s Chinatown to today, but the narrative is just as much a part of this cookbook as the recipes. You will learn to nail steamed rice, you will get the secrets to his adobo, you might try your hand at roasting a pig over a brick fire pit, but you will, beyond that and guaranteed, get a glimpse into the brain of Alvin Cailan.
“Take it for what it is, use it as a cookbook, read it, and compare it to your life,” Cailan writes. “Hate it or love it, but know that this book was made to show the world that a child of immigrants who didn’t follow a traditional path to success can still keep the American dream alive during a time when our president doesn’t even believe that we deserve to dream, let alone be in America.”
Suggested retail: $35, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Apotheke: Modern Medicinal Cocktails
Cracking open Apotheke’s first cocktail book feels more like peering into an alchemist’s journal than a means to a few drink recipes. The beautifully designed release of course provides those, too, but it’s also a history lesson both into the foundations of the apothecary-inspired bar in NYC and L.A., and the ancient art of mixing plants into wellness potions.
Apotheke’s founder and designer, Christopher Tierney, teamed up with co-author Erica Brod to detail the centuries-old practice of distilling liquors for medicinal purposes as well as its roots in alchemy and tinctures. They weave through the rise of the apothecary, the allure of absinthe, a brief backstory on bitters and, as they enter the origins of the cocktail and its base spirits, mixology director Nicolas O’Connor enters the equation and leads us into the realm of Apotheke’s menu: aromatic and botanically-tinged cocktails split into the six categories of health and beauty, aphrodisiacs, stress relievers, stimulants, painkillers and euphorics.
You might muddle gooseberries for antioxidants, whip up a hibiscus tincture meant to increase blood flow, or infuse bourbon with saffron to help aid digestion. Apotheke’s new book contains the recipes for 50 of its herb-and-produce–packed cocktails, pulled from both coasts, but if you’re just beginning your dive into the beverage world O’Connor also provides building blocks like simple syrups, cordials, infusions, bar tools, simple technique for mixing and muddling and beyond. At the intersection of drinking and wellness is Apotheke, and at the intersection of history, style and how-to is this new book.
Suggested retail: $37.50, Harper Design
chi SPACCA: A New Approach to American Cooking
To know meat is to love chi SPACCA, Nancy Silverton’s Italian-leaning temple to grilled steaks and artful salumi, but it’s just as much home to flame-licked vegetables, casual-yet-decadent desserts and, of course, that ooey-gooey focaccia di Recco that’s become a local icon in its own right. In Silverton’s newest cookbook you can learn to fashion it all because the long-awaited tome devoted to one of the James Beard Award-winning chef’s most heralded concepts is finally here.
It’s a wild ride to trace chi SPACCA’s recipes and progress, from humble beginnings as an extra Mozza kitchen to its present reign as one of the finest steakhouses in the city: first rented as a means to more pizza ovens, then a cooking class, then weekly dinners and, finally, a full restaurant and a place for some of the most influential modern L.A. chefs to brainstorm and experiment—Silverton, of course, as well as Chad Colby now of Antico, Matt Molina now of Hippo, and chi SPACCA’s current executive chef and one of the cookbook’s co-authors, Ryan DeNicola.
Here Silverton, DeNicola and the Mozza founder’s frequent cookbook collaborator, Carolynn Carreño, delve into family-style recipes from throughout the restaurant’s near-decade–long run, splitting categories into sputini, or snacks, such as ’nduja, whipped lardo, and tips on building antipasto platters; salads; meats (pork, lamb, duck, rabbit, chicken and beef, including, yes, the famed bistecca fiorentina); fish, which extends to making seafood stock as well as the lobster pot pie; vegetables; and sweets—yes, even the butterscotch budino.
It’s comprehensive, with some recipes suitable for beginners and others for the more advanced home cook, with tips on plating most recipes. There are pantry essentials and equipment tips to get you rolling, and even the most ardent vegetarian will find something of use here: You will learn to make some of its most famous spice blends and seasonings—including the porcini rub and the fennel rub—you will get a crash course in grilling from DeNicola, you will plan a trip to your nearest farmers market; something for everyone.
Suggested retail: $35, Alfred A. Knopf
La Vida Verde: Plant-Based Mexican Cooking with Authentic Flavor
If you’re into L.A.’s creative vegan scene or simply love a stroll around Smorgasburg, you might’ve seen Jocelyn Ramirez ladling avocado aguas frescas into to-go cups or spooning gloriously flavorful jackfruit al pastor onto handmade blue-corn tortillas. The native Angeleno’s been developing delectable plant-based Mexican and South American recipes since founding Todo Verde in 2015, reimagining family recipes for moles, marinades, pozoles, tamales and beyond, and bringing healthy alternatives to Angelenos everywhere.
This year Ramirez brought Todo Verde to even more plant-loving diners with her first cookbook: La Vida Verde, an encouraging how-to that reinterprets street food and family-style dishes alike with entirely meat- and dairy-free ingredients. Cashew crema tops esquites, hearts of palm form the base of her beloved ceviche inspired by family trips to the docks of San Pedro, and Ramirez walks you through making your own almond-and-cashew–based queso fresco with a recipe that requires little more than nuts and cheesecloth. She doesn’t stop there; peppered throughout are memories of cooking with her abuela, an ethos of food as medicine—especially pertaining to her father’s fight with cancer—and reflections on the disproportionate challenges people of color face when it comes to finding healthful dining options. It’s a personal cookbook built for the masses, even (maybe especially) those who can’t imagine Mexican food without meat or dairy.
“I believe that plant-based Mexican food is both the past and the future of Mexican food culture,” she writes, later adding, “Listen, I’m not sharing these recipes so you stop eating your abuelita’s all-time favorite dish filled with queso de Mexico when the opportunity presents itself. I’m just suggesting you not completely rule out the idea of exploring plant-based options.”
Suggested retail: $21.99, Page Street Publishing
Love is Served: Inspired Plant-Based Recipes from Southern California
What a year for vegan Angelenos. In addition to Todo Verde’s La Vida Verde, one of the city’s highest-profile and most popular plant-based restaurants penned its own guide to clean eating, and Café Gratitude’s Love is Served covers the bases no matter the cuisine or occasion.
Before you ask, yes, the dishes include their affirmation-based names: One of the regional chain’s signature features is ordering by declaring “I Am Serene” (gluten-free cinnamon rolls), “I Am Powerful” (cashew granola), “I Am Thriving” (curried lentil soup), “I Am Passionate” (chocolate lava cake) and so on. With the new cookbook you’ll never need to worry about sheepishly uttering those words to another human being again, if that makes you uncomfortable, and you of course have the benefit of bringing some of executive chef Seizan Dreux Ellis’s vegan classics to your home for good.
You’ll learn how to whip up some plant-based building blocks—we’re talking tempeh chorizo, chickpea eggs, coconut yogurt, almond milk and more—along with breakfast (baked doughnuts, fried oyster mushrooms with savory oat waffles, and cast-iron chickpea quiche with almond romesco and cashew ricotta, to name a few) and Café Gratitude’s breezy all-day fare. Recipes such as French-inspired grilled polenta with mushroom ragu; pasta with tempeh bolognese; ancient-grain pizzas; fried buffalo cauliflower with cashew nacho cheese; and the signature young-coconut ceviche are all laid bare, as are vegan recipes always worth keeping in your back pocket—we could personally house a metric ton of the brazil nut parmesan and our wallets love that it’s now replicable at home. This is a solid general cookbook for eating dairy- and meat-free, even for the most ardent omnivore. And now, We Are Hungry.
Suggested retail: $35, Avery
Trejo’s Tacos: Recipes & Stories from L.A.
Hollywood’s machete-wielding muscle man used to rob restaurants in the ’60s. Now his face is plastered on doughnut shops and cantinas. In Danny Trejo’s first Trejo’s Tacos cookbook, you get to trace his memories of collaborating with his mom in the kitchen and watch how years of crime, time in prison, recovery, an acting career and a lifetime in Los Angeles helped build the action star’s chain of restaurants, pulling inspiration from it all.
There are plenty of photos featuring machetes and even more honest moments as Trejo and co-author Hugh Garvey wind through how-to’s for traditional tacos, barbacoa brisket, orange crema, a Mexican-Indian hybrid chicken tikka, and, of course, doughnuts. It’s a tome that teaches cooking “the Trejo way,” which means an eye for freshness while shopping and playing fast and loose in the kitchen—you might throw some leftover fried rice into your dish, or you might be on a cleanse and want to whip up cauliflower instead of carne asada. It’s all meant to be fun and flexible.
Trejo includes musings on Los Angeles in all its shapes and forms, his favorite L.A. restaurants and hangouts, its vibrant mural culture, and a little history on how L.A.’s doughnut boxes became that iconic shade of pink. He even advises on how to keep your cooking knives (and machetes) sharp. This is a man with 70-plus years in Los Angeles. He knows a thing or two.
“There are some days when I wake up and I don’t feel like this is real,” Trejo writes. “I think somebody’s gonna shake me awake saying, ‘Hey, Danny, wake up. It’s time to go to chow.’ And I’m going to look around and still be in prison. But instead every day I wake up and pray to do a good job, help someone, take good selfies with fans, go to the restaurant and make sure everybody’s getting the taco they want. I’m living the dream.”
Suggested retail: $26, Clarkson Potter
These aren’t straightforward cookbooks, but they’re worth picking up.
Eat a Peach: A Memoir
A lot of people ask David Chang for the secret to his success, and through the years the Momofuku titan, Ugly Delicious host and, locally, Majordōmo chef has answered in a few ways: hard word, luck, cooking simple, craveable food with no pretense. But in his first memoir, Eat a Peach, the real answer proves far more nuanced and quite a bit darker.
Chang doesn’t mince words when speaking about depression and bipolar disorder, and how manic episodes and at times violent mood swings served as both incentive and roadblock to launching, perpetuating and expanding his restaurant empire. The industry saved his life, though it wasn’t always clear how or why; he just knew he had to keep going, part addiction, part self-sabotage, part light at the end of a very long tunnel filled with obsession and close calls and, of course, ramen and pork buns.
It’s so honest a firsthand account of his successes and failures that Chang revisits and rewrites an entire chapter—strikethroughs, red ink and all—to detail just how big an asshole (and potentially how dangerous a boss) he really was when opening Momofuku Seiōbo. Violent outbursts, temper tantrums, self-involvement and ruling by fear are nowhere near novel in the restaurant industry, and as much as anyone wants to believe they’re emblematic of “old-guard” ways, they’re still very much alive and unwell; one of the world’s most influential chefs and restaurateurs taking accountability is more than a positive step toward their one-day elimination. It’s no fix, but it’s a good example, and Chang’s words serve as a constant reminder that what we experience in a dining room is never the full picture.
It isn’t all darkness; Eat a Peach is full of hope and levity, growth and new beginnings. It recounts the trials and tribulations in opening every restaurant along the way, especially Majordomo—one of the best restaurants in L.A.—and keeps an eye toward the silver linings. It also looks toward a culinary world that doesn’t glamorize male-driven kitchens, ego and abuse. There is always room and time for betterment. “The only fatal error,” Chang writes, “would be to stop trying.”
Suggested retail: $28, Clarkson Potter
Snacky Tunes: Music is the Main Ingredient, Chefs and Their Music
Food and music go hand in hand, and almost no one is more aware of it than the brothers Bresnitz. The family affair behind the hit radio show and podcast Snacky Tunes have devoted their personal lives and careers to the creativity ties that bind both fields, inviting chefs to their weekly on-air space to chat about musical influence, inspiration and, of course, what they’ve been listening to lately.
This is a cookbook, but it’s so much more. The must-own new release from the Bresnitzes and their Snacky Tunes co-producer, Khuong Phan, also functions as an essay collection and playlist compendium from some of the greatest chefs in Los Angeles and beyond, providing hyper-personal glimpses into the minds and favorite tracks of the likes of Pasjoli’s David Beran, Ms Chi Cafe’s Shirley Chung, Gwen’s Curtis Stone, chef-about-town Nyesha Arrington and LASA’s Chad and Chase Valencia.
Each chef provides a recipe inspired by a song, and assembles a playlist themed for anything from a good day to the perfect dinner party to a full travel itinerary. They share deeply personal insights—American music helped teach French chef Dominique Ansel how to speak English, for instance, while a live show by Prince enlightened Ethiopian Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson to a new kind of confidence and representation that would inform his cooking for years to come.
There are no glossy food photos, or any photos at all; there is only music and word and vulnerability in a format that feels fun and fresh. This could very well be my favorite book of the year, and it could very well be yours, too.
Suggested retail: $24.95, Phaidon
You can find all of these tomes online, but don’t forget to support local bookshops such as Now Serving, the Last Bookstore, Vroman’s, Skylight Books and the Iliad.