Photo: zack bent

Against the Grain: Or, How To Build A Cookbook In Two Formats

I first entertained the idea of writing a cookbook in 2007. That was the year I won the James Beard award for Best Chef Northwest, and I had a few publishers sniffing around to see if I was ready. I wasn’t, really, but it did get me thinking about it being something a chef should do at a certain point; about what it could do for the restaurant; about sharing some of what I’ve learned over the years.

If I were to do it, I’d want to produce something that told the story of my Seattle restaurant Lark, my cooking, and life in the Northwest. Opening Lark was a culmination of years of experience behind the stove, a distillation of my ideas and ideals about cooking and running a restaurant. Like the cookbook, it was a real community effort, supported by many hours of work from friends and family – a labor of love. It took a few years before I could express how the rhythm of cooking is different here. While Utah or New England present four distinct seasons, I’ve found the Northwest offers three. The food at Lark is often described as rustic, yet elegant. I think of it as intensely focused; we apply just the right touch to a dish to bring it to full and delicious completeness.

My first few discussions with several excellent publishing houses were enlightening. I knew nothing about how this whole business worked and found the learning curve steep. Unless I was confident in my ability to sell many, many thousands of books, the numbers, pros, and cons just didn’t seem to add up. All the time and energy required seemed to go first to paying big city salaries, before the chef or writer saw any return. My overall impression was that, with any given author, publishers essentially roll the dice hoping for a hit. The odds in Vegas looked just as good to me, and demanded a lot less work.

Of course, having another notch in my belt was enticing. The cookbook would be a marketing tool that allowed me to stay relevant and provided a news hook as well.

But, for the next couple of years, my efforts were concentrated on the success and constant evolution of Lark; I never put a deal together and my window of opportunity disappeared, both with time elapsed and a tanking economy. I continued to jot down ideas here and there, started making lists of favorite dishes – both mine and our customers’ – and pulled out all my favorite cookbooks, analyzing what I liked, and didn’t, about each one. I loved the font and layout of the Balthazar cookbook, the photos and seasonal approach from Shunju, the whimsy of Pork and Sons, the quest for perfection in the French Laundry cookbook, just to name a few.

In November 2011, I started talking with former chef and now programmer and web developer Jared Stoneberg about reviving the cookbook idea. Jared presented a convincing argument for the dual media approach, and the more we discussed it, the more enticing and exciting the possibilities seemed for trying something new.

Jared had worked at Lark several years prior, and after he switched careers we kept in touch; he designed our new websites and came in for dinner often. We decided that we would form our own production company with the aim of putting out high-quality content in print and app formats. If we had control of the content creation, we figured we could take every opportunity to optimize each.

Cookbooks hold a special place in people’s hearts and in book collections, and I don’t think new technology or devices will ever entirely replace the look and feel of a beautiful, well-made book. But, with tablet-sized devices becoming more and more prevalent, we thought we should break into that market too. We researched the current app releases for weeks, rating the existing options and thinking about what we liked or didn’t. Some apps would have one or two elements that we really liked; great photos or user-friendly recipes or functionality; shopping lists, sharing options or links. But on the whole, we felt like we could present a more complete experience with a lot more personality.

Producing both formats simultaneously was an approach we hadn’t seen before. It allows users to enjoy the tactile pleasures of the print book while making their menu plans in comfort, and then, when ready, to bring their tablets with them to the market, check off their shopping lists as they go, and share the results with friends and family.

Free to write our own rules, we could tap into Seattle's considerable local talent for all production needs. Pooling our contacts, we quickly put together an amazing ten-person team that covered many disciplines: photographer, videographer, book and graphic designer, app designer, programmers, recipe co-writer and social media manager. We involved people with backgrounds in fine arts and teaching.

One of the drawbacks of the traditional publishing model is that a chef's audience doesn't know a cookbook is in the works until just prior to its release. The chef or author finds a few extra hours a week to write, and over time, gets his material together, bounces it back and forth with the editor (or often ghost or co-writer), then it gets designed, sent overseas to be printed, and finally, two years later, it’s in stores. All told, it’s a rather insular endeavor.

It’s also a missed opportunity. What our fans want is to be closer to the chef, the restaurant and the creative process.

That’s why one of the first decisions we made was to involve them in the project. Kickstarter turned out to be an excellent way to engage the community, both aesthetically (by asking for feedback on recipes and design during the early stages of the project) and financially (through direct contributions). Having a brick-and-mortar restaurant made it easy to offer attractive, real world rewards in addition to those presented by the app and cookbook – parties with favorite Lark menu items, cooking classes, custom tasting menus and exclusive dinners for contributors.

Once the campaign began, we had numerous opportunities to engage our audience. We kept in touch via e-mail newsletters and social media platforms while reaching out to more traditional media outlets and interacting with Lark’s customers. We also received support from within the Kickstarter community through highlighted placements and acknowledgments. Within 10 days, we met our modest goal of $33,000 and ended at just over $54,000 – 164% of our funding goal. In hindsight, we should have asked for about $50,000 more to cover the actual cost of printing in Seattle, but it remains a very successful campaign and was enough to fund the production.

As production got underway, we did our best to work fast and lean. For each scheduled photo shoot, we’d cover ten recipes. In one day, we captured hundreds of images: ten to twleve for the slideshow version (in the app), and one to three shots that would end up in print. Of course there was a lot of selection, editing and fine tuning required for each photo. Still, we were pretty efficient in terms of using our photographer's time productively. What didn’t work out so well was when we tried to do video and photography at the same time. Rodrigo Valenzuela, our videographer, and Zack Bent, our photographer, had very different needs when it came to lighting, staging and timing. After the first overlapping shoot, we realized we’d made an error, and gave them each their own sessions moving forward. It was a rookie mistake that wouldn’t have happened with pros, sure, but our shoots also didn’t cost tens of thousands of dollars or require a huge, cumbersome crew.

We’ll update the app often, addressing bugs and adding a few more functions like a “scale up" feature and a toggle for switching from imperial to metric measurements (for our international friends). And this is only the beginning. I’ve also got some new ideas kicking around for other apps — Atelier Lark, a personal cooking school with tutorials focused on specific techniques or categories of ingredients.

For now, we’ve put out a cookbook and app to be proud of, and fulfilled our Kickstarters' rewards, all in one year — twice as fast as the traditional publishing model.

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