We caught up with James Oseland, editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine and author of James Beard award-winning The Cradle of Flavor, while on book tour for his fifth cookbook, The Way We Cook (Saveur): Portraits of Home Cooks Around the World.
This is more of a photo book than cookbook, how did the idea come about?
I wish I had a more glamorous answer, but it was an idea I had in the shower one morning a year and a half ago. My hot-shower vision came to me in two thoughts: the first was that this is a story of global cooking that I had not seen; the other was that we need to do this, we have so much material in our archives—so many powerful photos—and they are just sitting there.
We produce between 30 and 40 new stories a year, and on any given story the photographer—in this day of digital shooting—comes back as many 6000 images. Of those images, we may print 15 in the magazine, leaving hundreds of extraordinary images lying fallow. This is both a book I wanted to own and see, and a way to honor the work of photographers that would have gone unappreciated.
Last year Chronicle published Saveur: The New Comfort Food—Home Cooking from Around the World. Did you find similarities between that book and the current one, as to what defines home cooking and comfort food?
There could be, but you’d have to look with a tweezer. There is a Saveur-ishness to both titles. The reader is being treated to visual and textual information that is earthier, more documentary-like than most food books out there. The organizing principle of The Way We Cook is as simple as the subtitle, images of cooking around the world. The epiphany I had during the process was, “Wow, there really is this undeniable synchronicity between all these images." Be it a picture of a 3-star chef like Grant Anchatz in his kitchen or of a hut on the outskirts of Jakarta in which a fire is smoldering in the ground. At first glance they might appear disparate but there is something so obviously hard–wired in the act of cooking that the high-tech restaurant heat is not that different from that fire in the ground.
Digitally speaking, what’s Saveur been up to?
We have published five ebooks, three of those were so successful they are actually going to made into physical books: Easy Asian, Easy Italian, and a cookie book. The Way We Cook started as a 100-page e-book We are now going to build another digital version of this book.
Where do you see the future of book publishing and magazine publishing going?
I feel that a lot of people are intimidated by what might be viewed as digital threat. I see this time as liberating, where we can expand our way of telling stories in all sorts of exciting ways that even a few years ago that would have been unimaginable.
You are on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters. Has your experience there influenced what you choose for your magazine, or vice versa?
Not really—what I do on that show is I eat in front of a lot of people. I’ve always been opinionated about what I eat, and I’m perhaps more vocal about it and that’s perhaps why I was brought onto the show. The work I do at Saveur has made me a more sophisticated eater, because I’ve not only traveled the world over, but, in the magazine’s test kitchen, I’m eating food from all over the world.
What are the cookbooks on your shelf now?
I learned to cook from cookbooks. My mom took me to the library once a week, and the books I checked out were not Babar, but stacks and stacks of cookbooks. So I have a deep reverence for cookbooks. Nowadays, however, I have a pretty much paired down my collection, as I largely do not cook from cookbooks. I have a hard time following the blue print of a recipe; instead, I curate the best ideas from the best recipes and put them together.
What’s one of your favorites?
If I had to pick a favorite book—it’s decimated, it has no cover, and it’s in six pieces—it would be Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking.
And what was among those first cookbooks you checked out?
LIFE Picture Cookbook was the first that I remember. The edition I grew up with was published in 1958.