Todd Richards’ cookbook, Soul, are pages of family portraits

Todd Richards’ cookbook, Soul, are pages of family portraits

The first thing that you’ll see when you open chef Todd Richards’ cookbook, Soul, are pages of family portraits. Photos of birthdays, holidays, casual get-togethers, arranged in squares of various sizes, like a treasured family photo album. These pages are the first of many personal touches that Richards added to his cookbook that make readers feel like they’re reading the diary of a chef’s life, a candid look at how he came to love his culture and food through cooking.

For Richards, the book is the culmination of his personal evolution as a chef and his long time affinity for cookbooks. “It’s about inspiration for me,” he says on the phone from Atlanta where he lives and runs his restaurant, Richards’ Southern Fried, in the city’s bustling Krog Street Market. When asked about the cookbooks that shaped him as a chef, he rattled off a list without a moment’s hesitation: “I looked at how much I go back to a book for inspiration, and what I reach for over and over again,” he says. He alters the recipe to fit his menu, but the inspiration is still there. “The recipes are important, but finding those substitutions is part of the fun.”

As a chef in the south, many people expect Richard’s repertoire to be limited to southern cooking, but his recipes have influences from all over the world. “Limit the labels,” he implores readers. “You’ll liberate yourself in the kitchen, grow as a cook, and your taste buds will have better dining experiences.”

Below, he shares the essential cookbooks that changed the way he looked at food and opened his mind to new flavors and techniques.

Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis

Taste of Country Cooking, by Edna Lewis

“To me, this book establishes southern cuisine in the modern context of that period,” Richards says. Lewis’ beloved cookbook has served as the benchmark for southern cookbooks, and in its pages, Richards has found tips and tricks for how to make his own dishes. The recipe for fried chicken, for example, adds country ham to the oil at the end to add a depth of flavor to the chicken. “I think that recipe is so avant-garde,” he says.

The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks by Toni Tipton-Martin

The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, by Toni Tipton-Martin

“You don’t see a lot of references to African American chefs and their cooking,” says Richards. Indeed, the cooks that are often canonized in the cookbook genre (and cooking in general) are often white, but African American cooks have held an important role in America’s cooking. In The Jemima Code, Tipton-Martin explores these untold stories. “The research is so scholarly and there’s a great amount of depth to it,” Richards says. “It does a great job of telling the stories of cooks that wouldn’t otherwise be known.”

Charlie Trotter’s Collection of Cookbooks

Charlie Trotter’s Collection of Cookbooks

“Trotter’s books that focus on seafood and meat and game were some of the first cookbooks that I saw that incorporated beautiful photography in with the recipes,” Richards says. The photography, coupled with Trotter’s simply elegant dishes showed Richards that food doesn’t have to be fancy or fussy to be good. “Nothing was over the top and you could recreate the dishes at home,” he says. “It’s been a great reference tool and it gives you a grasp of how to cook well.”

The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller

The French Laundry Cookbook, by Thomas Keller

Personal narrative and avante garde cooking make The French Laundry Cookbook one of Richards’ go-to’s when creating dishes. “That cookbook really set a gold standard for what chef cookbooks are supposed to be,” he says. “Reading how Thomas Keller learned how to kill rabbits in order to learn how to prepare them was the most valuable lesson and it showed that you can’t take food for granted.”

The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty

The Cooking Gene, by Michael W. Twitty

“Michael really emphasizes community and history in this cookbook,” Richards says of The Cooking Gene, a book that’s part memoir, part cookbook, and part history lesson on African American foodways. “You can feel the temperature, the clothes, you taste this picture of America through the lense of food, and you can draw this lesson of how food brings us together.” The lesson that Richards always takes away from Twitty’s book is how important it is to immerse the reader into your work and how that creates a connection to the author. “You can close your eyes and feel like you know Michael when reading that book,” Richards says.

El Bulli by Ferran Adria

El Bulli, by Ferran Adria

The super-technical cooking of Ferran Adria in the epic cookbook El Bulli taught Richards about the power of memory in food. “Stylistically it’s so different than southern food and it doesn’t necessarily look like the standard dish, but you taste those familiar flavors,” he explains. “His interpretations of food show so much creativity, exploration of familiarity in exciting formats, and that’s what drew me to that book.”

Summerland: Recipes for Celebrating with Southern Hospitality by Anne Quatrano

summerland

The power of events and the community they can create is a key element of Richards cookbook. Summerland does the same thing, focusing on recipes that are perfect for events. “Anne’s a local chef here in Atlanta and the spiritual leader of the food in Atlanta’s dining scene,” Richards says. “In the book, everything is done by events, and that’s how I grew up, where food is always tied to holidays and events.” It feels familiar for Richards. “I feel like a kid again when I look at this book.”

Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking Book by Masaharu Morimoto

Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking Book, by Masaharu Morimoto

“Who didn’t grow up on Iron Chef,” Richards laughs. But it’s not the show that makes him love this cookbook. “It’s the rice that I go to here,” he says. “To read how he would painstakingly prepare rice and exalt it as a dish made me have to have that book.”

Heritage by Sean Brock

Heritage by Sean Brock

“Sean and I have been friends a long time and I find so much familiarity in his food,” Richards says. The way that Brock blends together the food of his upbringing with the foods of his wife’s family is particularly inspiring for Richards.

Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook: A Mouth-Watering Treasury of Afro-American Recipes by Pamela Strobel

Princess Pamela's Soul Food Cookbook: A Mouth-Watering Treasury of Afro-American Recipes, by Pamela Strobel

The story of Princess Pamela, who owned and operated a soul food restaurant in Manhattan in the 1960’s, is a big draw to this cookbook for Richards. “It’s a great inspiration to see someone like her who actually ran her own restaurant,” he says. “It’s a template for me and reminds me that I want diverse people to experience black culture.”

Larousse Gastronomique: The World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia

Larousse Gastronomique: The World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia

Originally published in 1938, Larousse Gastronomique is the classic tome of French cooking, and Richards copy is very well-worn. “There’s no cover on this book anymore, just the glue,” he laughs. In its pages he finds inspiration from all over the world. “It reached into Europe, Africa, the Mediterranean, and references so many other cuisines so you can adapt them.”