From innovative restaurants on every corner to foodies clamoring for the next trend, the Bay Area has one of the nation’s hottest culinary scenes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, San Francisco has more restaurants per capita than any other American city. Between its large number of restaurants and active publishing industry, it’s no wonder that the Bay Area is home to a cookbook scene that is anything but cookie cutter.
Chronicle Books and Ten Speed Press anchor the region’s vibrant cookbook publishing industry, releasing top-selling cookbooks nationwide each year. Lorena Jones, publishing director of Food & Drink and Lifestyle at Chronicle Books, says the epicenter of the culinary world has been shifting from formerly dominant New York to the Bay Area. She notes that in the Bay Area, “you have a culture that cares deeply about food and creativity and the income levels and fascination with new ideas that can support all the newcomers,” adding, “The consumer shift to seasonal and sustainable also fueled the rise of food talent in S.F., where cooks and eaters have had a geographic and agricultural advantage.”
Jones says approximately 15% of Chronicle’s sales are cookbooks. The house publishes 25–30 cookbooks annually, on average, with 31 set to come out in 2015. The publisher has had great success with books from San Francisco–based establishments such as Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson and Miette by Meg Ray. Jones, who has over 20 years of experience editing and publishing cookbooks, attributes the popularity of print cookbooks to the fact that they “put recipes in context with storytelling that is relatable and transporting.” She says, “They provide technique instruction that inspires trust, and they are objects in and of themselves that make a style statement the cook finds compelling and identifies with—or wants to.”
Ten Speed publishes roughly 40 food and drink books each year, with 42 titles on its 2015 list. Executive editor Jenny Wapner says that “cookbooks are more beautiful than ever,” adding that people gravitate to print cookbooks “for the thrill of the physical object.” Improvements in design and printing have also helped lead to new sales. “Because the books are beautiful and unusual looking, they’re finding their way into stores that didn’t previously carry cookbooks, so a more varied audience is discovering them,” she notes.
As examples, Wapner highlights a trio of upcoming Ten Speed cookbooks. This Is Camino, from the Camino restaurant in Oakland, is “one of the smartest cookbooks I’ve had the chance to work on,” she says. And she calls The NoMad Cookbook, from Manhattan’s NoMad restaurant, “show-stopping.” Wapner is also looking forward to Near & Far: Recipes Inspired by Home and Travel, Ten Speed’s third book with the San Francisco–based food blogger Heidi Swanson.
Celia Sack, owner of San Francisco’s Omnivore Books on Food, a bookstore centered on cookbooks, has found a devoted fan base in the Bay Area. She attributes the interest in cookbooks to the fact that as e-books and blogs have grown in popularity, publishers have responded with “more and more aesthetically pleasing books.” She notes, “Cookbooks are tactile, and, when done well, weave a story throughout their pages that cannot be told the same online.”
The aesthetic value Sack mentions may be one reason cookbooks tend to fare better in their physical form than in digital editions. Jones says Chronicle developed some of the first cooking-content apps and expanded in-house production skills to include video, audio, and animation for apps and enhanced e-books. She adds, however, that “the market for tech add-ons never gelled on a scale that supported ongoing development; apps didn’t work on a broad scale, nor did enhanced e-books for cooks.” More niche digital content does have a place in the market, Jones believes. She says that, in general, apps have not fared as well because the average cookbook buyer “values the tactile quality of the physical object and chooses that as the form factor for their creative habit.” She offers a food metaphor to explain how digital works in the cookbook market: “The current relationship between the cooking consumer and their books and digital equivalents is that the physical books feed the whole cook and digital is supplemental, used to aid mobility and searchability of content. Blogs provide snacking that ultimately leads this consumer to want longer-form content that is curated and packaged to maximize the identity statement of creator and follower.”
Jones says the Bay Area has “an amazing confluence of factors that keep its restaurant and recreational cooking scene vital: access to spectacular produce and other foodstuffs, a culture of experimentation and creativity, the influence of innovation from the technology industry, and an abiding appreciation of the good things in life.”Bay Area Spotlight 2015: All Our Coverage