There is a lot of very good information to learn from cookbooks regardless of your skill levels. I also believe there are hidden gems on the internet, but you have to be willing to sift thru mountains of random, inconclusive, and sometimes dangerous recipes that someone may try to recreate from a youtube video and post on their blog :/
I have been in the culinary field for a worthwhile amount of time, so I know how to cook the proteins, I know how to work with a wide range of vegetables, starches, fruits, grains, etc., so I take a different approach to the recipes I am either trying to make or flavor combos I'd like to acheive. When I look at a new recipe that a friend or family member brings me, I look at the cooking method used, the spice blends (paying attention to the ratio), and any specifics that make this recipe different. I can't remember the last time I literally followed step 1, step 2, and so forth, unless it was a baking recipe (baking is a different ball game, I'm a savory chef).
A lot of cookbooks I've come across tend to tone down the flavors, and I continuously would add a tablespoon more of this, a teaspoon of that, in an effort to make the food pop and not just settle for satisfactory. Learn to cook the proteins correctly (so you don't die or kill the wife/husband), be mindful of cross contamination, and above all else... taste, season, taste. Part of being a great cook is knowing how to correct the balance between the bitter, sour, sweet, salty and the goal is the umami.
Books and the internet are great for learning plate presentations and exploring new garnish ideas. When I'm going to grab a book or two to help brainstorm something new, I lean towards the following (not a conclusive list, but some good ones):
The Flavor Bible
Complete Book of Sauces
If I'd like some plating ideas, I'll look through a number of pictures online. When plating, I make sure I have an excellent sauce, a strong protein cooked to temp, crisp vegetables, full flavor starch, and other key variables to include are texture, height, color, and functional garnish (i.e. don't throw a twig of rosemary on my steak or stab my chicken with lemongrass for the height).
In summary, there are a lot of good resources out there, but everyone's palate is different. The key to excellent cooking is simple, use your senses. Does it smell good? Did you taste it and make adjustments? Is it visually appealing? I may be a chef, but I am a cook first, and a lifetime student. There is a wealth of knowledge in books, online, and from everyday cooks you come across in life. Be open to learning from everywhere, but use common sense as there is good AND bad information out there. In the end, it's YOUR plate, make it special.
Edited by jcmochef - 1/8/15 at 8:42am