Emilia Terragni (second from left) exchanges words with Peter Meehan at the Food Book Fair discussion panel, last weekend to her right Alex Grossman and Anne E McBride
Emilia Terragni (second from left) exchanges words with Peter Meehan at the Food Book Fair discussion panel, last weekend to her right Alex Grossman and Anne E McBride

Emilia Terragni on a cook book's crucial ingredients

Beauty or function? Our publisher, Lucky Peach’s editor-in-chief and Bon Appétit’s creative director test the recipe

All our books are beautiful. Yet cookery titles are often prized for their usefulness rather than their beauty. And, while Phaidon publications such as The Silver Spoon and The Family Meal are easy to cook from, others, such as ElBulli 2005-2011, are more a record of creative output. So, should cook books be beautiful or useful? And does it have to be either/or?

These thoughts were foremost in our minds last weekend at Saturday’s panel discussion at Brooklyn’s Food Book Fair on whether cookbooks were for beauty, function or both. 

 

A spread from Noma
A spread from Noma

The talk was moderated by Anne McBride of the Experimental Cuisine Collective. Phaidon’s publisher and queen of the cookbooks Emilia Terragni took part, alongside Alex Grossman, creative director of Bon Appétit, and Peter Meehan, author and editor-in-chief of Lucky Peach.

Grossman summed up the prevailing tone nicely when he recalled just how broad-minded book-loving foodies can be. “A couple of years ago, I went to the Great Googa Mooga Food and Music Festival in Brooklyn,” he said. “I realized something had changed because there were 25,000 people who were showing up on any given day to eat food. And they didn’t even care about the bands! They just wanted to eat an arepa. So there is a much bigger audience than we really thought before.” Grossman continued, “that’s allowing us all to do some really cool things, most of which is completely based off the precedent set by things like Phaidon’s chef books and Lucky Peach. Books like the first Noma one were crucial in establishing that audience.”

 

A recent Bon Appétit cover
A recent Bon Appétit cover

All three agreed that the presence of such a dynamic food press market is encouraging innovation. Terragni said, “We’re working at the same pace as the magazines now. Having a competitor working simultaneously really brings the bar higher. It’s becoming a bit easier to propose things that aren’t traditional cookbook designs or texts.”

Meehan took a slightly different position, saying, “We do things because we want to be different… but also because we are kind of poor and can’t afford good photography. I look at Bon Appétit every month and I’m like, “fuck them! How did they get those napkins?!” It’s hard to make things look that good.”

Grossman retorted, “And every month Adam Rappaport [editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit) comes in my office and goes, “What is this?! This is crazy!” and I lean back and say, 'Dude… have you seen Lucky Peach?' You guys make it so much easier on us.”

 

A spread from elBulli 2005-2011
A spread from elBulli 2005-2011

Things got a bit more heated when the panelists were asked whether a reader should choose between say 101 Easy Slow Cooker Recipes or elBulli 2005-2011. By way of an answer, Grossman provided an apt comparison to music and fashion.

“Food is the ultimate lifestyle. Everyone on some level has the same experience level with food. We all eat it. The quality and extent of that experience is just different. It’s like reading [mid-market women’s title] Redbook versus French Vogue. The attention to details is what differentiates things. We don’t need to bridge the gap between home cooking and haute cuisine because, just like in fashion, people are bridging that gap by themselves. And some people really do still need a 30-Minute Meals book but also want Noma on their coffee table. No one is excluded.”

Meehan, meanwhile, had high praise for Grossman’s work, “Bon Appétit is doing a great job of bringing high food culture to the mass audience. With Lucky Peach we are slowly extracting our head from our ass and figuring out how to reach a bigger audience. But I don’t think that will ever be the goal of Lucky Peach. We’re more divas fulfilling our own whimsical editorial desires. We will never sell as much as The Slow Cooker Cookbook. But we’re also okay with that.” 

 

A recent Lucky Peach cover
A recent Lucky Peach cover

Phaidon's Emilia Terragni added, “If you look at the rankings in any category on Amazon, it’s all the same. So for us, we focus on serving the interested audience and doing books that are more interesting, more beautiful; that go deeper. We just want to work with the most interesting people and create a great product. People bought Noma with no idea of who René Redzepi was, what Noma was, or even that this was a restaurant book. But we created such a beautiful product and expression of René as an individual that people couldn’t help but want to learn more. It’s rewarding making people interested in a new type of content.”

To find out about that kind of content, take a look at our beautiful and useful food and cookery books here; for more on Peter Meehan, take a look at his intro to our Coi book; and for more on Noma and the man behind it, take a look at our dedicated René Redzepi page.