Chef Walter Sterling lugged nearly 20 cookbooks from his home office to where he spends most of his kitchen hours at Oakville Grocery Co. -- bringing his whole collection of more than 500 recipe books to show us would have been a little complicated.
"At 15, I think I stole my mom's Gourmet '86 and one about Mandarin Chinese Food," Sterling says of his collection's start. "I love to cook, so it's a natural extension to want to get your hands on whatever you can read." (He's read almost all of his own.)
The books range from the 1926 edition of the White House Cookbook to the latest editions of The Best of Gourmet and Bon Appétit, with kitschy installments like the complete Time-life spiral-bound Foods of the World series, a signed Thomas Keller box set and a psychedelic deck of cards with classical French recipes on the back falling in between.
In his early days as a chef, Sterling and the five chefs he lived with in Atlanta would draw cards to see what was for dinner: Nine of diamonds? Good luck with the Sole Véronique.
"The old school stuff is really fun," says Sterling, pulling out the German Time-life, "You can make a real German gingerbread house. Plus, things get lost over time and it's nice to rediscover them."
Sterling picks up cookbooks at garage sales and used bookstores, where often, he says, "people don't realize what they have." Family and friends often send interesting finds his way, too.
"Dave [Johnson, the wine director at Oakville] found this out-of-print Jean Louis buried in a wine cellar in Las Vegas," Sterling says. "I probably should have left it in its plastic wrap, but I just couldn't!"
Other unique editions include the industry shocker Chocolate Fusion by pastry chef Fédéric Bau featuring savory recipes that all use chocolate, a hunting lodge cookbook all about game, and La France Des Chefs, a French cookbook organized by the famous chefs who contributed.
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Sterling's collection resides in a wall of books in his office organized by region so he can pull books easily for reference when cooking region-specific cuisine or fulfilling a unique catering order.
"Sometimes when we get an order, we'll joke, '1984 called. They want their stuffed peppers and rice back,'" Sterling says.
Sterling loans out some of his collection a book at a time to the chefs who work with him, but he keeps tabs on them. "I can't lend out too many at once or I might not get them back!"