I’m not sure when I was given a copy of the Antoine’s Restaurant Cookbook by Roy F. Guste Jr. I think I was in college, but the memory is lost like many others from those days. The edition I have is the original, published by Carbery-Guste (725 Rue St. Louis) in 1978. I know I was in law school when I started cooking from it because I remember the rundown apartment in which I was living at the time. It was just north of campus on Highland Road. On one side, the windows looked out on a Church’s Fried Chicken restaurant that was open late at night. Across Highland was a shopping center with a grocery and a couple of bars catering to undergraduates.

It was not a peaceful environment, but I didn’t care; it had a gas stove in the tiny kitchen, and I was much more tolerant of noise at that point in my life. I’d started cooking with some serious intent while I was in college, but until 1991 I had been cooking “freestyle.” By “freestyle,” I mean, “putting ingredients together that seemed like they might work and, when all else failed, adding white wine Worcestershire sauce.” Now and again, I made something good, but more often than not, I’d wasted the little money I had for food on a fantasy that only worked in my addled brain.

I think I picked the Antoine’s cookbook to begin my self-imposed culinary education because at the time Antoine’s was one of the finest restaurants I knew. Also, the cookbook had recipes for stock and “mother” sauces that I felt I should learn. And so I did. I spent hours working on chicken and veal stocks. I made fish and shellfish stocks, as well. I followed the cookbook’s instructions for mayonnaise, velouté, hollandaise and béarnaise. I made the “Creole” sauce (though without the cornstarch) and a tomato sauce that started with a roux. I built on those basic sauces to make espagnole, marchands de vin and financière sauces.

I believe it was when I made my first espagnole sauce that I was truly satisfied with all of the work that I’d put in. Espagnole sauce starts with stock. Stock starts with good, meaty bones; vegetables; and water, simmered for a long time with attention paid to skimming the surface of the broth and then more attention paid to straining the result. Espagnole sauce also calls for tomato sauce, which in this case involves tomatoes, stock, vegetables and a light roux, cooked down and then passed through a sieve at the end of the process. Those are the two most complicated components of espagnole sauce; the remaining ingredients are more of the vegetables that have gone into your stock and tomato sauce (carrot, celery, onion); thyme; parsley; garlic; bay leaf; vinegar; sugar; anchovy; and ground white pepper. Oh, and of course, a roux.

The beautiful thing about espagnole sauce is that you can thereafter make sauces such as marchands de vin (espagnole with wine and mushrooms); medicis (espagnole with bell pepper and sherry); and financière sauces (espagnole with chicken livers, olives and bacon). I will admit that after having spent hours making my first espagnole sauce, I was somewhat daunted by the prospect of using it as yet another component in yet another sauce. But having made a truly good espagnole sauce felt constructive, too. 

I’m hard on myself in the kitchen, but now and then, I pull something off that makes me smile. Something that makes the effort worthwhile. The art and craft of cooking is inherently fleeting. When you combine that with my somewhat-questionable memory for things not related to my work, it’s understandable that I have few images from my life in the kitchen to hold on to. My first espagnole sauce, from the Antoine’s cookbook, is one of them.

These days I have hundreds of cookbooks, and I use them largely for inspiration. Making stock and sauces is second nature to me, and I don’t often refer to the Antoine’s volume as a practical guide, but I still have a soft spot in my heart (and gullet) for it and for the restaurant that inspired it. Are there any cookbooks that have been important to you over the years? Are there any that moved you to cook more or taught you basic concepts and techniques that you’ve used since? Any cookbooks that you use simply for inspiration? Any you’d recommend to novice cooks or to the gourmets in your life?

Let us know in the comments if you will.