Some of Philadelphia's most celebrated chefs have branched out by writing cookbooks. But does success on the plate translate into success on the page?
Some cookbooks are meant to be drooled over at the coffee table, with gorgeous, large color photographs and text aimed at activating the salivary glands. Then there are the cookbooks meant to be used, to become dog-eared and spattered from repeated reference.
To Richard Landau and other Philadelphia-based chef-authors, it’s the second category that appeals to them.
“The biggest compliment a cookbook author can get is for someone to say they use the recipes,” said Landau, who, with his wife, Kate Jacoby, wrote The Vedge Cookbook, based on dishes served at their hit Center City restaurant of the same name.
“We hear from people using the book, cooking their way through it,” said Landau. “That’s a big score for us. It’s a companion in your kitchen. It’s a very real cookbook — you can cook from it.”
Beyond the emotional kick from reader response, Landau said he and Jacoby undertook cookbook writing as companion pieces to their restaurants, “like a program to a concert.” They self-published two earlier cookbooks based on their previous restaurants, Horizons Café in Willow Grove and Horizons off South Street in Philadelphia. They had the concept and framework for the Vedge cookbook in mind long before opening their third restaurant, but it still took a solid year of writing, editing and photography supervision before it went to the printer.
The editing process was the eye-opener for Landau.
“When that first manuscript comes back from the editor with all the writing on it, my God, you want to jump off a bridge,” he exclaimed.
Steve Cook, who finished writing the last chapter of the as-yet untitled Zahav cookbook this fall with business partner Michael Solomonov, finds keeping the home cook at the forefront is critical.
“A couple of our earlier dishes at Zahav were a little ‘chef-y,’ technique-driven,” said Cook. “One of my earlier dishes was sweetbreads wrapped in chicken skins, but you’re not going to throw that together for the kids.”
He and Solomonov undertook the project, after years of discussion, to introduce Israeli cuisine to a wider audience beyond those patronizing the restaurant. The goal, said Cook, is to promote “a view of Israel that isn’t the one talked about most often in the media, and one that shows it’s about more than hummus and falafel.”
Among the many attributes Solomonov brought to the joint project is that “he doesn’t cook food for his own ego — he wants to make the customers happy,” said Cook, whose first venture as owner and chef was at University City’s Marigold Kitchen, where he later hired Solomonov to replace him in the kitchen. “Mike’s approach is why Zahav is successful, and our cookbook is in that same vein. It’s not about the chef’s ability to do tricks.”
Landau’s publisher for The Vedge Cookbook insisted on keeping it user-friendly. “We took our restaurant dishes and made them home-friendly so you don’t have to have a smoker or grill or fancy gadgets,” he said.
Aliza Green, with 15 cookbooks and food guides to her credit, aims to educate the home cook.
“If I hadn’t ended up cooking, I would have been a history professor,” Green said of her penchant for pedagogy.
She is currently working on The Magic of Spice Blends, which she describes as an outsized book on how to use seasonings in recipes. She’s also written a series of Field Guides on ingredients (Meat, Produce, Herbs and Spices, Seafood) which focus on the nature, care and use of those foods as well as recipe-centric tomes on beans, pasta, baking, fish and meat, along with co-authoring stints with Georges Perrier and Guillermo Pernot.
Finding time to write a cookbook is a challenge to authors whose “day job” is running restaurants, according to Green, the chef-manager of Baba’s Cafe at Material Culture, a furnishings emporium and auction house at 4700 Wissahickon Ave.
“Cookbook writing is hard to fit in,” she said. “I initially declined to write the spice book, but decided it was both an opportunity and a challenge.”
For book projects she initiates, Green approaches the publisher with what becomes the germ of the book: the table of contents and a sample chapter. For several of the books she was assigned to write, like the first in her Field Guide series, the publisher established the format, though she expanded upon the initial structure in subsequent volumes. “My last few books have had very strong photography, so you have to think about the visual part of it. The photo books involve a lot of step-by-step process,” she said.
When working with chefs as a co-author, “you’re there to make them look good and make sure every recipe is clear, so there is a lot of back-and-forth” Green said.
Working with both Perrier and Pernot was rewarding for Green. Serving as Perrier’s co-author for her first book “allowed me to write on my own and get editors to look at it. I had a track record,” she said. ¡Ceviche! , her book with Pernot, the Nuevo Latino chef behind Cuba Libre in Old City and Atlantic City, earned them both a James Beard award.
An author’s work isn’t done once the book rolls off the presses. That’s when they must then find time to promote it.
“Publishers expect you to do more and more of the promotion on your own,” said Green. “For Running Press, I did extensive book tours that the publisher paid for, but that doesn’t happen anymore for most authors.” Today’s author must also devote time to websites, social media and blogs. Special events and guest chef gigs also demand time to spur sales. Product placement helps, too. Fante’s kitchen supply store in South Philly’s Italian Market told Green they rarely sell a pasta-making machine without also ringing up a copy of Green’s Making Artisan Pasta.
Cookbooks are more than “merely a collection of recipes printed and bound together,” according to Cook. “A cookbook, especially a restaurant cookbook, has to tell a story. In this case, our cookbook is the story of Zahav.” That restaurant is now six years old — “middle-aged” as far as restaurants go, and with “a lot of history,” he said. “To try to tell that story through the food is the challenging part. We want people to get excited about the restaurant and the recipes. The stories around the recipes, where they came from, what influenced them, that’s both interesting and challenging.”
While Solomonov provided most of the recipes, Cook shouldered the writing burden for their new cookbook.
“As an entrepreneur, I’ve worn many hats and always loved to write, though I’ll be super-happy when the manuscript is developed,” he said. “The first chapters write themselves, catching up with your mind — it comes naturally, it’s very exciting, fun and rewarding. But as you start knocking off chapters, it gets harder and harder, all the easy stories that you think about in the beginning fade, the walls start to move in. Your universe of material becomes smaller in trying to determine what would be a good story to tell. The creative part becomes work.”
Vedge’s Landau finds inspiration in writing the text and telling the stories, introducing each dish and its origins.
“I loved the writing part,” he said. “My next dream is to get a cookbook out that talks more about the mentality behind what we do. It’s not just the cooking — there’s an energy behind it from loving food, traveling, the stories behind it all.”
Landau said the best cooking advice he ever received was from Joe Fischer, the owner of the now-shuttered Tale of the Whale seafood restaurant in Glenside, where a young Landau once tended bar. Fischer told him the first rule of the business is that the food simply has to taste good. “I don’t like dishes where you have to think about why you should like it,” he said. “I’m appealing to a sense of taste — this is Philadelphia, not San Francisco.”
Philadelphia may not be San Francisco, but other locales influence local cookbook authors.
Although only three of Green’s cookbooks have had dedicated international themes (Perrier’s Le Bec-Fin Recipes, ¡Ceviche! and her solo artisan pasta volume) recipes from around the world show up throughout her writing, partly as a result of an itinerant childhood spent following her theoretical physicist father to his global academic and conference commitments.
Born in Washington, D.C., as a child Green lived in Holland for a year, spent a summer in Italy as a 5-year-old and went to first grade in Israel, followed by summers in Mexico and France. She’s continued to travel as an adult — Brazil, Venezuela, Turkey and India, to name just a few.
“The biggest influence on my cooking and writing — indeed, it shaped my career — is that I lived in so many places growing up, exposed to all sorts of cuisines and markets beginning at an early age,” she said. “I can remember when we lived in Mexico — I was 11 — where our maid taught me how to make chiles rellenos.”
Foreign influence is what the Cook-Solomonov cookbook is all about. But their Zahav cookbook, both emphasize, is American-Israeli.
“Mike trained here and understands the American consumer, but at the same time he’s Israeli and spent time in kitchens there,” said Cook. “I think of him as an interpreter. He’s got one foot in both worlds, and if anyone is going to convey this ideal of an ever-changing Israeli cuisine, Mike’s the guy to do it. Our cookbook is for an American reader who can relate to Mike in a way you may not be able to relate to an Israeli cook.”
Both the forthcoming Zahav cookbook and Green’s current project are all about seasonings.
Solomonov said specific spices, along with techniques, are used in the cookbook to evoke Israeli cuisine. “The quality of spices we get are really good, and although there are a couple that are exotic, we make translations for the home cook so they are user-friendly.”
Green’s Magic of Spice Blends cookbook, in the final stages of preparation, will feature 50 mixtures suitable for home cooks. It goes back in time to the first cookbook she read, Craig Claiborne’s Cooking with Herbs & Spices, a gift from her parents on her 11th birthday. (The book inspired the name for her first catering business, Herbs and Spices.) The first cookbook she bought for herself was Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food. Other influential volumes for Green include The Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy and “of course” Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Cookbooks were never on the radar of the young Landau, a self-taught cook. But one cookbook author became his hero: Graham Kerr.
Those with long enough memories may remember Kerr, an English hotelier by way of New Zealand, who gained fame nearly half a century ago as “The Galloping Gourmet,” which was the name of his first cookbook and popular television show, where a glass of wine was always close at hand on the set, along with prodigious quantities of butter and cream. Kerr’s cooking in those days was the antithesis to the vegan regime at which Landau excels.
“He made all this really rich food, then his wife had a heart attack, so he completely cleaned up his cooking,” said Landau. “His theory was, if you take out all the cheese, butter and cream, you’ve got to add stuff back in: color, texture, flavor. That’s the approach I took from him.”
Although raised by Jewish parents — his mother’s family were assimilated German Jews who celebrated Christmas, which his Russian-Jewish father found appalling — Jewish cooking was not in Landau’s blood. The flavors, however, were. “We were a classic 1970s family that loved to cook, but we didn’t do grandma’s recipes,” Landau said. “We’d grill, and it was a time when woks and Chinese cooking were in vogue.”
Still, Ashkenazi food struck a familiar and welcome taste for Landau, who fondly recalls the sensory joys of the Jewish deli he still craves.
“I grew up in Elkins Park, where we had a restaurant called, of all things, the Chuck Wagon. I loved their big rye bread sandwiches along with the sauerkraut, pickles, caraway and dill. That is my comfort food, Jewish soul food,” said Landau.
He disagrees with those vegans and vegetarians who say that if you elect to avoid meat, you should not allow yourself to enjoy the flavors associated with meat.
“There are a lot of flavors that can be translated into a vegan dish,” he said. Curing, pickling, smoking and spicing “are not exclusive to meat — they’re methods. We take those methods and apply them to vegetables.”
Landau’s carrot-hummus dish from the restaurant and The Vedge Cookbook is a case in point. It features a pastrami-like spice blend, sauerkraut and dill. “It’s a direct inspiration from the Reuben. We don’t want to make a Reuben — we just like that flavor profile.”
Landau regards his cookbook as a companion piece to the restaurant, “like a program at a concert.” To write a cookbook, he explained, “you’ve got to have the passion.”
None of Philadelphia’s chef-authors do it for the money. While a successful restaurant with the requisite hard work can provide suitable remuneration, there’s not much of a financial return for a cookbook.
One of Philadelphia›s most successful chef-entrepreneurs, Marc Vetri, proved that point in a recent Instagram picturing his first book’s royalty check for the most recent six-month period ($126.34) with this comment: “Note to chefs … if you write a book ’cause you think you’re gonna make money … think again.”
Robert Libkind is a longtime observer of the Philadelphia food scene and the lead writer for the Exponent's food blog, Philacatessen. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.