Big Ranch, Big City

Louis Lambert on the origins and culinary experiences behind his debut cookbook.
Louis Lambert
Photo by Ralph Lauer

The task of writing a culinary memoir troubles even the most talented chefs and writers. The venture proved especially difficult for Louis Lambert, who shied away from the endeavor for years, because he never knew what version of his story he wanted to tell. Would he talk about the childhood memories of his West Texas family and their legacy of cattle ranching, or would he reflect upon years of cooking in the confines of his professional and personal kitchens?

One thing was certain: if Lambert was going to write a cookbook, it had to be from the soul, and more than just bound pages of strict directions, rough estimates of temperature settings, and lists of never-ending ingredients. It would have to be a reflection of his West Texas roots as well as recollections of cooking thousands upon thousands of dishes for Texans across the state.

Behold: Big Ranch, Big City  (Ten Speed Press, $40) . The work of a cook who escaped from the West and migrated to the “big city,” only to hear his roots calling him back home. Forgive me for giving away the end, but he eventually returns and becomes one of the masters of authentic Texas cuisine. With the help of  June Naylor , Lambert has put together a cookbook that pays homage to his whole culinary story.

Why is now the time to put out a cookbook?
Over the years, I had been approached by different people to do a book, and at the time, I did not feel like I had a voice or a desire to put something together. I had plenty of material and recipes, but I wasn’t ready to go through the process just for the sake of saying, "I did a book." What changed is that I felt I had reached a point in my life that I had not just recipes to share, but more of a philosophy of cooking and the stories behind why I cook the way I do.

You say that this book is partly a memoir. Do you feel like that’s an important thing to include in cookbooks nowadays?
That’s why I never really had the desire to write the book, because I just didn’t want to do a compilation of recipes. But I think I hit the point in my career where I had more than just recipes to share with the reader. Anybody who likes to cook has similar stories of where they came from.

Tell me a little bit about the title.
Growing up in Odessa and coming from a family of ranchers in West Texas, that was my culture and heritage. At the same time, I trained at the Culinary Institute of America [in New York] and worked in San Francisco in what we laughingly call "the big city.” My cooking is a culmination of my West Texas heritage and my experience in big-city dining. We all do foods that have meaning from growing up, but we also grow an appreciation for other foods through the years. It was my tribute to both sides.

It’s neat that you can appreciate going away for a while and returning home to your roots.
Yeah, I never ran away from who I am or what it meant to grow up in West Texas, but like most well-known chefs, you are searching for who you are. I had dreams of the big city life and fine dining, but as I grew, I was struck by the fact that we have just as much culture and heritage in Texas as anywhere else I’ve been.

Through the years, you have cooked thousands of dishes. How do you ultimately decide what goes into a cookbook like this?
It’s tough. It’s very tough to sit down and try to define who you are with a cookbook. What I tried to do was do a combination or representation of foods we do in the restaurant, foods I grew up eating, and what I cook at home now. In doing that, I wanted to give readers recipes that are more challenging, with complicated cooking methods that we do in the restaurant, as well as very approachable recipes that I’ll throw together when I’m cooking for my family and friends now, like the Cheddar and Corn Pudding or Tamale Gratin.

Were there any classic cookbooks you looked at during the writing process for creative inspiration?
I’ve been collecting cookbooks going on fifteen years. My office is cluttered with them. I love collecting old, vintage cookbooks. So when we were putting this together, I had in my mind what I wanted the content to be, but as far as how the recipes are written, I referenced a bunch of books. There is a book I referenced called  The River Cafe Cookbook  by Rose Grey and Ruth Rogers.  I loved the feel of that book because it was approachable and they portrayed the feeling that you were in the kitchen with them.

What has mattered more to your career as a Texas chef: the classical training you have honed over the years or the fact that you were born in Texas, raised in Texas, and came back to it?
Most of the chefs I have respect for and that do a great job with the food they put on their plates cook from their life experiences. For me, what is more important is to be true to who you are as a cook. I’ve worked with a lot of folks that are classically trained, that have gone to culinary school, and worked in big city restaurants, but that is not as important as knowing who you are as a chef and integrating that into your cooking. Larry McGuire and Tommy Moorman run Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, and none of them are classically trained, but I think they are two of the best chefs in the country. They are cooking from their life experiences and cook foods that they love to cook.

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