It has been 15 years since the death of Julia Child. Her Cambridge, Mass., home has long since been sold, and today its iconic kitchen is a historical artifact on display at the National Museum of American History, 400 miles away. Yet for New England’s cookbook publishers, Child is alive in everyday conversation, and her legacy and lessons inspire their commanding presence in the landscape of American cooking today.
While each publisher has its defining characteristics, all draw from Child in some way, and all share her belief that good cookbooks come from caring for the reader, not cultivating the celebrity of the author. “She would call the less serious people ‘fluffies,’ ” Christopher Kimball of Milk Street says. “Look at her. She’s not a born entertainer, right? She doesn’t look the part, but she’s having so much fun doing this, she’s very curious, she likes to teach. She took it very seriously. If you’re going to do it, do it well.”
On the north shore of Massachusetts, well-crafted cookbooks provide the core list for two of New England’s largest independent publishers, Page Street and the Quarto Group. Their approach, which is less celebrity-driven, may seem paradoxical at first, given the popularity of celebrity chef’s titles. As Page Street publisher Will Kiester explains it, “We’re often publishing the second or third book on the market”—which suits his strategy.
It’s not that Page Street would shy away from having a number-one bestseller, but Kiester’s goal is to create a list of titles that continue to sell over time, and sometimes that means being second in line to a flashier title that may come and go. “Our commercial stuff comes out a little later because, if we do an instant pot book, it’s not because we hired a celebrity or an instant pot researcher but because we found a person who is really good at these things,” he says. “It usually takes a bit longer, but I feel like that authenticity helps us sell more books.”
Though both publishers are producing a large number of new titles—in 2019 Page Street will publish 119 and Quarto’s New England imprints will release more than 200—their aim is to build a powerful backlist.
“Sixty to seventy percent of our revenue comes from backlist,” according to Quarto chief operating officer Ken Fund. Whereas a large publisher might seek a celebrity author for a cookbook, Fund’s editors are focused on producing a catalogue of issue-specific titles that, as he says, “surround an issue.”
“A lot of people say that with cookbooks, you’ve got to be a celebrity cookbook writer to make it work,” Fund says. “No. Not really. Our books are more need-driven than spontaneous, and customers buy them because we’ve vetted them and they stand the test of time.”
In 2017, America’s Test Kitchen relocated to a newly designed 20,000-sq.-ft. space in Boston’s Seaport District. In addition to housing multiple kitchens, the meticulously designed headquarters includes film studios, offices, equipment-testing spaces, and a massive cookbook library with its own cataloguing system created by library science students at nearby Simmons College.
Despite its scale, chief creative officer Jack Bishop says the new space is just a reflection of ATK’s founding mission since 1993, which is all about collaboration. “We thought, If we can get six people in a kitchen together, maybe we can be half as smart as Julia Child,” he adds with a wide smile.
The company’s large multimedia presence allows Bishop and his team to draw on a digital audience to guide their creation of new cookbooks, which are also vetted by in-house guests who test the recipes at ATK. Though ATK’s focus is technique, feedback from readers guided the creation of a forthcoming keto book, Easy Everyday Keto (ATK, Mar. 2020), which showcases the company’s commitment to collaboration.
“It’s hard enough to do keto,” Bishop says of the high-fat, high-protein diet. “It’s almost impossible to do it for a long time, and it has to be much better than throwing a pat of butter on a steak.” Instead, he notes, ATK’s book will surprise readers with vegetable-filled recipes and less animal protein.
To create a different kind of keto cookbook, ATK partnered with the Friedman School of Nutrition Policy and Science at Tufts University. “They helped us translate the principles of the diet into recipes,” says Bishop, who oversaw the coordination with ATK’s 28-person cookbook team.
For Bishop, location has a lot to do with the continued success of such collaborations. “Being in Boston has allowed us to do our own thing,” he says, “and come up with a model and approach that we have validated.”
For over 30 years, Interlink Publishing (based in Northampton, Mass.) has been a hub for a different kind of cookbook. When founder and publisher Michel Moushabeck set out to publish cookbooks in 1987, his goal was to bring food from around the world to American kitchens, but like Child, he also wanted to raise a broader multicultural awareness for readers.
“It was really important for us to set ourselves apart from everybody else,” Moushabeck says. “What is unique about our cookbooks is that they double as cultural guides. For me the writing is just as important as the recipes.” That tradition will continue into 2020, when Interlink will publish Venetian Republic, which explores food from regions as diverse as Venice, Adriatic Croatia, and the Greek Islands. It will also publish Carpathia: Recipes from the Heart of Romania, which Moushabeck calls “the first book to celebrate the culinary diversity of Romania.”
“We want our cookbooks to be read in bed as well as in the kitchen—the gastronomic history and the cultural,” Moushabeck says. “We spend a lot of time working with those authors to get that right formula. You grab a book and say, ‘Ah, that’s what makes an Interlink cookbook.’”
Mastery, Not Perfection
Back at Kimball’s Milk Street, the chef and author has been rethinking what good cooking looks like. Kimball spent decades exploring New England cooking as a founder of America’s Test Kitchen, but the new company is more globally focused.
Founded in 2016, its 45 employees produce radio and TV shows and a magazine while also running local cooking classes. But Kimball is often travelling the world, finding good food in far-off places and learning techniques he can bring back to readers in the United States.
Each year, Milk Street produces The Milk Street Cookbook (Little, Brown, 2019), along with a handful of other titles that take the recipes and techniques the staff discover elsewhere and put them in American kitchens. In April 2020, for instance, it will publish Milk Street Fast and Slow: Instant Pot Cooking at the Speed You Need.
What’s left of New England in Kimball’s work is a continued respect for the importance of cookbooks, even though making them is difficult. “I think you should do the hard things,” Kimball says. “It’s hard to do good books. I think taking the harder, slower road is synonymous with building a good brand.”
Like Kiester, Kimball believes that dedication leads to authenticity. “People are interested in transforming their life,” he says. “In food, if you’re a better cook and learn to cook differently, I think that is transformative. Ultimately that’s the difference between transformation and entertainment. We say, ‘Here’s how it’s done authentically, here’s the person who made it, and now you can try it.’ ”
“We’re translators,” Kimball adds. “People say, ‘Can you take recipes from some other place?’ Well, that’s what Julia did. That’s what we’re doing too.”