From Iron Chef to MasterChef to Top Chef, there’s no shortage of national media attention for kitchen rock stars and those clamoring for the title. Food Network personalities, big-time bloggers, and now YouTubers continue to dominate the cookbook bestseller list. But cookbooks by regional chefs from across the country are also climbing the charts and winning awards along the way. We spoke with publishers about how they put hometown culinary heroes on the map.
A Matter of Taste
For many publishers, finding the next big cookbook author happens in much the same way as finding a great new local restaurant: word of mouth. A few years ago, Peter Cohen, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Barnes & Noble rep, who lives in Philadelphia, had been talking up Michael Solomonov’s modern Israeli restaurant, Zahav, to Rux Martin, the editorial director at her eponymous imprint at HMH. In September 2013, Martin decided it was time for a visit.
“It felt like the whole house went down to Philadelphia,” Martin says. “We had an amazing feast, and that, from our end, sealed the deal.” Martin bought Solomonov’s cookbook project in a preempt, and her imprint released Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, in October 2015. It took home the 2016 James Beard Award for Book of the Year, also winning in the international category, and has sold more than 34,000 print copies to date, according to Nielsen BookScan.
Martin points to a particular sensory element that is unique to cookbook acquisition, one that is invaluable when committing to an author without an established national platform. “[Tasting] was an incredible advantage,” Martin says. “It’s very risky to preempt [a book by a chef] whose food you haven’t tasted.”
Will Kiester, publisher at Page Street in Salem, Mass., also found an author on a colleague’s recommendation—Jamie Bissonnette, chef at Boston’s Toro. One of the publisher’s photographers mentioned to Kiester that he had a friend who was thriving with two restaurants in Boston and had an “infectious personality to match.”
Again, a book deal was born from a good meal. “We tried Jamie’s food, which is distinctive and delicious, and we signed him, because we believed in him as a chef and visionary,” Kiester says. Page Street released Bissonnette’s The New Charcuterie Cookbook in 2014, and though Kiester acknowledges the book’s niche appeal, he says the book “did better than expected” and has strong backlist potential.
After Artisan executive editor Judy Pray met Sean Brock at a party in 2010 and chatted about Southern cuisine, Brock, chef at Husk in Charleston, S.C., mailed Pray the ingredients to his Hoppin’ John recipe, the dish that “changed his life as a chef,” according to Pray. “Making and tasting that dish made me even more eager to work with him,” she says.
The recipe became the “emotional heart,” Pray says, of Heritage, which was released by Artisan in October 2014 to much critical acclaim, and which has now sold more than 55,000 print copies. It was awarded the 2015 James Beard Award for Book of the Year in American Cooking, and the IACP Julia Child First Book Award.
Chefs cooking in the country’s restaurant hubs essentially have a national platform, according to many publishers we spoke with, which breaks their books out of the regional fold. But is sourcing—not to mention publishing—from a smaller culinary market an obstacle, asset, or nonissue? That’s a matter of debate.
“Let’s face it: all restaurant books except those [from] places like Los Angeles and New York are regional,” HMH’s Martin says, “and the question about whether or not they’re going to work is whether they go national.”
Jenny Wapner, executive editor at Bay Area food, drink, and design publisher Ten Speed, agrees. “New York makes it a national book,” she says. “I think breaking out of that regional mold is hard. I have done so many exceptional regional books, where people are like, ‘Oh, that’s a city I don’t live in.’ ”
Despite certain promotional handicaps, Wapner says, regional food writing has an edge when it comes to content. “The advantage, for me, is editorial,” she says. “You get a different voice, a different set of circumstances that build a different narrative.”
Page Street is in some ways “fighting an uphill battle” in its cookbook publishing efforts, Kiester says. “Our authors have unproven marketing abilities, and often they are testing their outreach for the first time.” He believes that a strong focus on editorial is the best countermeasure against any regional barriers. “It’s about the quality of the content and the concept of the book working together to make a unique connection with readers. [Region] matters less than creating a collection of recipes with particular authority and authenticity.”
Finding and nurturing projects by Midwestern authors is one of the “fundamental aims” of the cookbook program at Chicago’s Agate Publishing, according to Doug Seibold, president and publisher. He says that the “general biases” of bigger publishers in favor of the East and West Coasts create an opportunity for a company such as Agate to develop underappreciated talents from the Midwest.
“By now everyone knows Chicago has one of this country’s great food scenes, but I think a lot of chefs and other prospective food authors around here still don’t get the same kind of attention from the greater media world as their peers in New York City, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area,” Seibold says. “As a result, I think some great projects come our way that bigger publishers have overlooked.” Seibold says that the chefs and food purveyors the publisher works with represent some of the region’s best untapped talent, such as Paula Haney of Chicago’s Hoosier Mama Pie Company. Haney’s The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie, which Agate released in 2013, has sold about 10,400 print copies, per BookScan.
Asheville, N.C., home base for Quarto USA editor Thom O’Hearn, has proven to be a wellspring of cookbook projects. Two of the publisher’s lead cookbooks this fall, Buxton Hall BBQ Book of Smoke by Elliott Moss, and Biscuit Head by Jason Roy and Carolyn Roy, come out of the area.
“Being on the ground is probably the only way we could have published these books, from signing them through development,” O’Hearn says. “I was able to meet with the authors in person many, many times. In some ways it felt like I traveled back in time to another era of book publishing. The authors and I would actually go from handwritten pages to typed recipes, and then chefs could redline at a table, in person, instead of by email.”
Working with local chefs is a mixed bag for Seattle publisher Sasquatch Books. “We often have to fight hard to get national media to pay attention to a regional cookbook,” says Sarah Hanson, Sasquatch president and COO. “The advantages are that we know the food and talent here in our backyard better than an East Coast publisher [would], and we have stronger relationships with local media. We can knock out a comprehensive [Pacific Northwest] media and event campaign like nobody’s business.”
Local talent on the Sasquatch roster includes Jennifer Shea, whose 2013 book, Trophy Cupcakes & Parties!, takes its name from her Seattle bakeshop, and Debra Music and Joe Whinney, proprietors of Seattle’s bean-to-bar company Theo Chocolate and authors of the 2015 recipe book of the same name.
The Cook’s Tale
After Michael Solomonov’s brother, David, died in 2003 during his service in the Israeli army, Solomonov became determined to bring the flavors of Israel to American diners, a journey he captures in Zahav. “His life took an entirely different turn after his brother died,” HMH’s Martin says. “His cooking took a whole different turn, away from the Mediterranean food that we all know, into this still rather unknown cuisine.”
Though discovering a promising cookbook author is literally a matter of taste, the acquiring editors we spoke to say that the best cookbooks—those that find coast-to-coast audiences—also tell a compelling story.
“There was such a narrative arc in Mike’s life, and you just don’t see that very often,” Martin says. “Food is hard to write about, and this [book] has a narrative. That’s a big deal.”
Ten Speed’s Wapner agrees on the necessity of a story, and she found a strong narrative in Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh, N.C. When Christensen opened the restaurant—which carries the name of the previous tenant, who opened one of the first restaurants in the downtown area—in 2007, she sparked a revitalization of the languishing urban center, according to Wapner, creating a community through her restaurant and network of employees, farmers, and patrons.
“It’s a great story that felt of national interest,” Wapner says. The editor signed a deal with Christensen in 2013, and the book, Poole’s, hits shelves on September 20.
If an editor is savvy—not to mention lucky—she may get in early and watch a chef’s story as it develops. “I haunt hundreds of food blogs and food websites, and I frequently reach out to writers who are doing exciting and innovative things in the food field,” says Dervla Kelly, senior cookbook editor at Rodale. “I comment on their blog posts, first as a fan of their site and someone who cooks the recipes that they post, and then later with a mind toward the fact that a book can be developed out of their stories.”
This tack led Kelly to Molly Yeh of the blog My Name Is Yeh. Yeh, who began blogging from Brooklyn, moved to the Midwest to live on a sugar beet farm with her new husband. “I was curious to see how her writing and her recipes would change as her life began in a new, rural area,” Kelly says. “Suddenly, her site grew in leaps and bounds.” Rodale signed her up, and Yeh’s book, Molly on the Range: Recipes and Stories from an Unlikely Life on a Farm, bows in October.
What’s the Big Idea?
Aaron Franklin, owner of Franklin Barbecue, arguably the most popular barbecue joint in America, worked his way to the mainstream with appearances on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and a television commercial for Chase Sapphire. His debut cookbook, also titled Franklin Barbecue, accelerated his rise to national fame. Ten Speed published the book in April 2015, and it has now sold more than 129,000 print copies, per BookScan. When it comes to breaking a regional book out of its locale, concept is key, according to Emily Timberlake, senior editor at Ten Speed.
Franklin’s Meat Smoking Manifesto (as the book is subtitled) weighs in at 224 pages, but it has only a dozen recipes. Because the initial five chapters take a deep dive into the mechanics of barbecue—how to build or hack your backyard smoker, how to source and cure wood, and how to buy and trim the best meat—the first recipe doesn’t appear until page 147. “Franklin’s book was completely different from all the existing barbecue books on the market,” Timberlake says.
She also acquired and edited James Beard and IACP award–winning baking book Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish, owner of Ken’s Artisan Bakery in Portland, Ore. Again, Timberlake attributes the success of the book, which per BookScan has sold almost 56,000 print copies since its 2012 release, to its distinct concept. “We knew that Portland was one of the food capitals of the country, and that Ken’s bakery sourced many of the best restaurants and shops with bread,” Timberlake says. “But what appealed to us most about Ken’s approach was that he did not just reproduce recipes for the items he sold in his bakery. Rather, he developed and rigorously tested new recipes that were specifically made for home ovens.”
Heritage author Sean Brock originally envisioned writing a cookbook that focused on Charleston cuisine, but the concept didn’t “feel right, as it didn’t reflect his growing national persona,” says Artisan’s Judy Pray, and it didn’t align with the chef’s expansion into Nashville. Artisan recalibrated to reflect his new visibility within the industry, and in Heritage Brock explores and reimagines the foods of his Appalachian upbringing and his adopted hometown of Charleston, while incorporating his passion for conserving the heritage dishes and ingredients of the South.
Start Local, Go National
One unifying publicity strategy of many cookbook publishers is to capitalize on a regional author’s baked-in fan base, and the loyal local media eager to cover a hometown star. There was a “great deal of anticipation” in Seattle for Renee Erickson’s debut cookbook, according to Sasquatch’s Hanson. Erickson, author of 2014’s A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus, is also the chef and owner of four of Seattle’s most popular restaurants. “Every customer at any of her restaurants collectively formed the foundation of readers for her cookbook,” Hanson says. “There is a viral quality to the very best restaurants. People tell friends of a magical meal, and the reputation grows and grows.”
Agate’s Seibold harnessed former broadcast journalist Anupy Singla’s network of local contacts to promote 2010’s The Indian Slow Cooker, one of the publisher’s perennial bestsellers (almost 54,000 print copies to date, per BookScan). Singla enjoyed an early embrace from the Chicago Tribune, which reviewed the book positively and featured Singla in the paper’s series about inspirational local women, giving the book a “big boost,” Seibold says.
According to Martin at HMH, one of Solomonov’s local allies in Philadelphia media also moved the needle for Zahav. “It’s a rare cookbook that gets on Terry Gross,” she says, referring to the host of NPR’s Fresh Air. “But it didn’t hurt that her office was nearby.”
Feeding the Publicity Machine
In the same way that editors may acquire a book after enjoying a chef’s cooking, a good meal can be a new author’s best ambassador to the public. For A Boat, Sasquatch sent Erickson on a six-city tour, including stops in Portland, Ore.; Los Angeles; New York; and Rockport, Maine. The tour focused on ticketed events, in which each hosting restaurant would craft a meal or menu inspired by the book. “Many of the events sold out and fueled great local media coverage in their respective markets,” Hanson says. The book, per BookScan, has sold more than 18,000 print copies to date.
In the six weeks after Heritage was published, Brock did 22 public events in 18 cities, most of which were ticketed dinners in conjunction with restaurants and independent booksellers. “It was a great way for chefs around the country to introduce their customers to Sean’s cooking, and for bookstore owners and restaurant owners to forge relationships,” says Allison McGeehon, director of publicity and marketing at Artisan.
Of course, landing on a national platform is still one of the best ways to get attention. Kiester says that though much of Page Street’s sales are generated by authors’ social media efforts on Twitter and Facebook, as well as high-traffic blogs, The New Mediterranean Table by Minneapolis chef Sameh Wadi got a major boost from the most mainstream of coverage.
Wadi, who had “two great restaurants but no national name,” was featured on the front page of the New York Times Food section a few months after the book was released in April 2015, as part of the paper’s Ramadan coverage.
The press was in part a matter of good timing, but Kiester also credits the strength of the author and his book. “Everybody who picked up the book believed in it,” Kiester says. “I tell my authors, ‘The best way to market your book is to make a great one.’ ”
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