A good cook is naturally curious, particularly regarding sensuous matters. Art, travel, history, "chemistry... all are" fertile ground for a cook's exploration. Don't miss the standard cookbooks, of course, including Joy of Cooking, The Silver Spoon, and Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking, as well as classic texts by Georges Auguste Escoffier, James Beard, Jacques Pépin, M.F.K. Fisher, Richard Olney, Harold McGee, and Le Repertoire de La Cuisine by Louis Saulnier.
Here are some additional recommendations:
The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Cuisine by The French Culinary Institute, Judith Choate, Glenn Wolf, and Matthew Septimus. An entire culinary curriculum in a book, with the collected thinking, recipes, and techniques of many of the greatest living classical practitioners.
Mastering Knife Skills: The Essential Guide to the Most Important Tools in Your Kitchen by Norman Weinstein. An excellent visual guide to the fundamentals.
Letters to a Young Chef by Daniel Boulud. Career guidance from the Master Chef. Includes lucid and luscious descriptions of (what else?) food.
Sauces: Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making by James Peterson. An indispensable reference.
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. An almost too-vivid description of what we eat, and a thoughtful exploration of how our food choices matter.
Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carê me, the First Celebrity Chef by Ian Kelly. Culinary time travel. A quick, fun, must-read for food history buffs. It has it all: society, politics, menus, and recipes.
The New Food Lover's Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst. A handy dictionary of every conceivable culinary topic and ingredient.
The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten. Entertaining and educational essays on food by one of the industry's most erudite and irreverent critics.
What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained by Robert L. Wolke. Witty, practical, and fascinating Q&A on the science of food and cooking. Written by a professor of chemistry who is also a food columnist.
Don't Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World's Greatest Chefs Edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman. Nothing can lift the spirits of the beginner like a dose of schadenfreude. Think you've bungled? Probably not as badly as some of the very best.
Chef's Story: 27 Chefs Talk About What Got Them into the Kitchen by Dorothy Cann Hamilton and Patric Kuh. The greatest living chefs tell how they got started. Note how often the spark begins with the realization, "Hey, I can do this."
By all means
with a recipe,
how it works.