The introduction to Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s new book, Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, reads, “My teaching, my cooking lessons always begin in the Chinese market. Heaps of vegetables, familiar and exotic; the pork butchers; the herbalists and their shops comprise my classroom.” And while Lo’s book, a lavish volume with full-color photos throughout, shows images of those markets, it doesn’t portray Lo’s tiny frame darting across sidewalks, her eyebrows raising at the green produce, or her voice stating, in Chinese-accented English, “I’m always interested in cooking because I love to eat!”
For that kind of experience, readers can turn to a video Chronicle is releasing today. In five minutes and 22 seconds, the video shows Lo food shopping and cooking; clips of chef Charlie Palmer, China Institute director of arts and culture programs France Pepper, and Lo’s husband, food writer Fred Ferretti, talking about Lo’s influence; and slowly panned shots of the book’s interior.
It was Chronicle’s idea to make a video supporting the book, and the publisher paid for it (professional videos can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand). Chronicle’s publicity manager for food and drink titles David Hawk knew readers wouldn’t necessarily recognize Lo, and hoped a video would tell them who she is and why she’s qualified to write such an authoritative book. “Eileen is a massive talent, but also somewhat of an undiscovered one,” Hawk said. “She’s known primarily by those in the know—and a video seemed the ideal way to capture a bit of what makes her so uniquely qualified to help home cooks educate themselves about traditional Chinese cuisine.”
Chronicle approached San Francisco documentary filmmaker Alex Beckstead to produce the video. Beckstead had done a book trailer for another recent Chronicle title, The Foodie Handbook by Pim Techamuanvivit. He and his partner, Joelle Jaffe, had created some videos for and with bookstores in San Francisco, and Beckstead directed a public television documentary about independent bookstores called Paperback Dreams.
The filmmakers ate several meals with Lo and met some of her family. “We got to know her, and that helped us get a sense of who she was as a person,” Beckstead said. “Now when I read her book, I hear her voice and I see her hands working…. Not every reader can get that directly from Eileen, but we hope the video offers at least a taste.”
The video Beckstead created does succeed in showing Lo’s personality and explaining her background. It may not have the fun factor that another 2009 cookbook video, for the vegan cookbook BabyCakes NYC, had, but Beckstead thinks there is more than answer to the question: what makes a good book trailer? “What I like to see is something that goes beyond the book,” he said. “Excerpts and blurbs are fine, but you can get that from the jacket and thumbing the pages. Much like people want to go to a reading or hear an interview on NPR, a good book trailer can give you a sense of the person behind the book, or the world the book comes from. That’s as true of a cookbook as it is of a novel.”
This story originally appeared in Cooking the Books, PW's e-newsletter for cookbooks.