It seemed an easy question. Do chefs read cookbooks? The answer? Yes. Sometimes. No.

The real question, we learned, is why?

Some local chefs, Roberto Donna for example, read cookbooks like manuals, one hand on the page, another on the computer keys typing in any good recipes. Others, like Patrick O'Connell, look to cookbooks merely for inspiration. "A great cookbook," he says, "is one that can offer a cook enough confidence to trust his own creative process." Paula Sprotte is hooked on old cookbooks, which tell her what people ate through the ages and why. Remy du Pasquier says he never reads them. "I like to cook," he says, "but it is not a church-type thing." When he's not cooking, he likes to turn twists, not pages. "I'd rather go dancing," he says.

So, you could say there are four approaches to reading cookbooks -- what we shall call the direct, anthropological, inspirational and non approaches.

The Direct Approach While few chefs will admit to copying a recipe directly into a menu, many dishes arrive on the table surprisingly untouched by the chef.

At Nora you'll find Maida Heatter's Texas Chocolate Muffins from her "Book of Great American Desserts" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1985) cut in half and used as short cake with strawberries.

Nora Pouillon, co-owner and chef for Nora and City Cafe, who lines her office at Nora with books ("It's quite a collection"), is partial to the writing efforts of other chefs. Chefs like Wolfgang Puck of Spago in Los Angeles, Nancy Silverton of La Brea, also in L.A., and Joyce Goldstein of Square One in San Francisco. She finds she can apply their ideas to her own dishes more easily.

The adaptation of recipes, however, is not always so direct. A German recipe, she might translate into French. A Mexican dish could find itself bathed in Italian colors. "Instead of cilantro and cumin, I would throw in basil and garlic," says Pouillon.

She buys three books at a time, about four times a year, but then rarely finds the time to read them. Her last purchase? " 'The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American' by Jeff Smith {William and Morrow, 1987}, if you can believe it," she says, explaining that she needs to know what to do with the low-budget cuts because she must buy organic beef and lamb for City Cafe in whole carcasses.

Donna, owner and chef of Galileo's, owns more than 1,000 cookbooks -- many of them sent over from Italy by his mother. He looks to his Italian imports for ideas but must adapt them to American tastes and ingredients. "First of all, I change to make sure the American ingredients work. Second, I change old-style recipes that are either too heavy, or with the meats that are overcooked, into recipes that are more for the taste of today's customer," he says.

Sometimes he just likes to make them tastier. At Galileo's, where 60 percent of the dishes on the menu are cookbook inspired, you'll find a hazelnut torte to which Donna added more hazelnuts, more butter and more lemon peel.

Another recipe, inspired by his favorite author, Gualtiero Marchesi, is a lamb chop stuffed with minced pork and wrapped in caul. He changed the spices in the stuffing, added black truffles and changed the sauce from red wine to rosemary.

Donna reads his books at home, setting aside time once a day to flip through the pages and to compare different recipes for the same dish. "I try to look for original recipes, going to the root of the dish," he says.

Jacques Haeringer, chef and son of the owner of L'Auberge Chez Francois, looks to cookbooks to jog his imagination. "You don't always think of the myriad of produce available. Every time you pick it up, even if you just turn the pages, you'll often see something. Maybe scallops. And you'll say to yourself, 'We haven't done scallops in a long time.' "

The Inspirational Approach O'Connell, co-owner and chef at the Inn at Little Washington, likes to let the ideas seep through him as if "by osmosis," he says. "All the stimulation finds its way eventually into the menu, even if there is a two-year lag." The secret, he says, is in gaining confidence and in understanding that there are no mistakes in cooking. "What we've called mistakes have produced some of the great dishes of the world."

It was by reading cookbooks, especially Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck (Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), volumes I (1961) and II (1968), that O'Connell learned to cook and he picked up the art of croissant making from Paula Peck's "The Art of Fine Baking" (Simon & Schuster, 1961). "What inspired me most was the story she told about spending nine years perfecting her recipes," says O'Connell. "She made them every Saturday for nine years. Each year she and her husband went to France and ate croissants at a fine baker. Each year her croissants were an embarrassment in comparison. Then finally after nine years, her husband said there wasn't a croissant in France that could compare to hers."

O'Connell, who is in the process of writing a cookbook himself, finds that the "sweet little cookbook of the past" doesn't have mass market appeal since the coffee-table book came into being. Authors, he believes, are being pressured to appeal to a wider mass of people with the end result being watered down products. "You can't tell if it is supposed to be functional or to dress up your house," he says.

As a cookbook author, Craig Claiborne has always stood out in O'Connell's mind for his reliability, "his sort of guaranteed-to-work recipes which are beautifully tested and concise. And I don't see how any home can be without the 'Joy of Cooking' {by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker (Bobbs-Merrill, 1931)."} O'Connell refers to it at least once a week, if only for the staff meal. "Home cooks forget that, in a restaurant, we have home cooking for the staff." He compiled a staff cookbook, playfully titled "1,001 Recipes with Ground Meat," to use all the trimmings that just don't appear on the menu.

O'Connell keeps his books around his bedroom, finally having to abandon one room for another. "I can't get to my bed, they are all stacked around," he says. "If you can get one idea, one usable recipe to add to your repertoire or circle of ideas, a cookbook has been worthwhile, worth the 50-odd dollars."

The Anthropological Approach Sprotte, the executive chef at Suzanne's, has a weakness for Junior League books ("It's amazing how many clam dips we have all over the country," she says). She fell in love with the Time-Life Books Foods of the World series. "I learned more about culture and history from those books than I did in history class," she says.

These Time-Life cookbooks, with names like "The Cooking of China," "The Cooking of Provincial France" and "The Cooking of the British Isles," made an impression with several of the chefs interviewed. "They were the synthesis of a workable cookbook with a nice slice of culture," adds O'Connell.

That is one reason old cookbooks remain favorites of Sprotte, who figures out what foods were available at various times. "Through the foods they ate you can see who's been conquered by whom," she says.

Sprotte rarely takes recipes directly from books. "I look for proportions. I can tell what they taste like and then I up the spices. There is no such thing as a quarter teaspoon of any herb for me."

Gregory Hill, chef at New Heights, also looks to cookbooks for authenticity. "I use them for research," he says. "I like to look at the development of a dish."

On his current menu he took a blackened fish one step further. He seared a swordfish, sprinkled it with lots of clove and cinnamon and served it with a pear and date relish. "I don't take anything out of books," he says. "You have to rework everything." One dish he reworked is a chicken breast marinated in sour orange and ruda (a Mexican tea) and served with roasted pepper and chorizo and corn tortillas. The combination, he pulled from his mind, the corn tortillas, he pulled from Diana Kennedy's "Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico" (Harper & Row, 1978), but not before adding dried cilantro.

Though his favorites are classic -- Julia Child's "The Way to Cook" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989) and "Jasper White's Cooking From New England" (Harper & Row, 1989) -- Hill has been spending some time in Salvadoran stores, bringing back ingredients in big bags and thumbing through books to see what he can do with them. "I like to take old-style ethnic recipes and give them a modern twist."

The Non Approach Du Pasquier, chef at Cafe Atlantico, is not a cookbook buff. "I probably have about three -- all of them gifts." He spends 12 hours in the kitchen. The last thing he wants to think about when he takes off his apron, he says, is food. "If you're a painter, you're not going to paint every moment. You're going to visit the museum, go to parks, go dancing."

In 22 years of cooking, du Pasquier has come to believe that the secret of cooking is often technique, and that cookbooks don't explain technique well. "The real trick is to know when to put in an ingredient and how to do it," he says.

Du Pasquier loves to make the analogy between cooking and painting, saying you don't need a recipe to paint, only a recipe to make the colors. "I know how the pigment works, but the whole painting is my own taste, my own view of it," he says. "A tree is a tree. We'll do it differently. But everybody will recognize that it is a tree ... usually."

Many of the chefs read magazines for trends and recipes. "They are more seasonal," says Pouillon. "If I need something different for Thanksgiving, they are a good choice.

In the end says Lynn Foster, formerly a sous chef at the Tabard Inn, now owner and chef at Garrett Park Cafe, she has been influenced more by people than cookbooks. "It's hard to see the influence of one particular dish. You won't see a cookbook. It's a culmination of cookbooks, people, time and what I've taught and cooked before," says Foster.

But surely cookbooks have played their part, she says. "Even if I don't do what they say, I know it's influenced me. For one thing, you get to a point {where} you feel creative and go your own way. You don't get that without doing a lot of research."

Nina Killham is a Washington freelancer.