I worked on a proposal for a cookbook with a well-known Los Angeles chef, whom I will call J. J. has a genius for intensifying familiar dishes, for transforming comfort food (via small, brilliant touches) into life-affirming food. J.'s recipes are sophisticated, meant for people who pay attention in the kitchen, but not perplexing, show-offy or unnecessarily complicated.
I had done some research and found that, even though the publishing industry was shrinking, cookbooks have been less affected than other genres because, in a tight economy, people eat out less and cook at home more. Publishers seemed to be welcoming cookbooks with accessible recipes; they can be written by chefs but should not read like they are written for chefs. J.'s cookbook fit perfectly into what everyone agreed publishers were looking for, foodwise.
The problem was that J. is a chef in Los Angeles. And all the major publishing houses were, and are, in New York.
The proposal went out via a big agency to the major publishing houses, and we got back an offer. The proposed advance was so low, however, that we essentially would have to produce the book for free; after we paid a photographer and a recipe tester, we would net $0, or less. J. might gain something from the offer, in the way of branding, but the deal offered nothing for the writer except the possibility of some royalties down the road. Spec writing.
We all talk about the impact the digital revolution has had on writers, but in fact we continue to do pretty much what we've always done: brainstorm, research, write, present, represent. It's the distributors or the cultural gatekeepers — network heads, record executives, publishers — whose jobs are being redefined. They now have to understand and anticipate constantly evolving platforms, the latest enhancements, new media, new economics. Because of this pressure, the pool from which the creative class increasingly comes is that of the already famous. Gwyneth Paltrow or the latest Top Chef winner can still publish a cookbook with a New York house. Most others cannot.
But the rub is this. The New York equivalent of J. can still get published. Christina Tosi's Momofuku Milk Bar, Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir Blood, Bones and Butter and April Bloomfield's A Girl and Her Pig all were published recently and all fall into this camp (and are wonderful books). For J. — and for most of the other great chefs in L.A. like J. — the road to a publisher is much, much harder.
Los Angeles is not considered “regional,” like New Orleans or South Carolina or even Napa Valley. We are considered like New York, only lesser. Like human beings everywhere, publishers and agents naturally want to do business with the people they see in the evening — when they're relaxing and having cocktails, and the chef sends out an extra dish of crispy pig's ear with lemon caper dressing. We are all more likely to champion the great things we have close at hand.
Perhaps, like that British journalist who recently penned a piece about how other women don't like her because she's so pretty, I'm overstating and misunderstanding the importance of my own slim experience. But I think it's fair to say that the most eclectic food culture in the country, here in L.A., wants for an adequate publishing presence.
At present I've been lucky enough to be brainstorming on another (in my mind eminently publishable) cookbook, this one with David Myers of Comme Ça (both in West Hollywood and Las Vegas), Pizzeria Ortica and the late, lamented Sona. Myers is a quick study and seems to effortlessly sop up the techniques of other cultures. Jonathan Gold once memorably called him “one of those annoying overachievers your mom always hoped you would be.” Raised in the Midwest, Myers is at his most brilliant when merging the foods of his two adopted cities, Los Angeles and Tokyo. (Myers now has a restaurant and a bakery in the latter's Ginza district.)
If I were a publisher, I would see nothing but auspicious omens for this book. First, Americans adore Japanese food but, at this point, mostly only in restaurants. People who feel perfectly comfortable ordering monkfish liver with slivered daikon and ponzu will not try anything like it at home — Japanese cuisine seems so delicate; it seems to require the hand of an artist. Myers knows how to demystify it, partly because he's inherited an unprecedented American comfort zone with Asian flavors thanks to the work of such chefs (and cookbook authors) as David Bouley, Rocco DiSpirito, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and, of course, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa.
For instance, in trying out recipes for this book, Myers showed me how to make the simplest, most impressively sophisticated starter (or palate cleanser) I have ever served. You balance a very thin slice of radish on top of a very thin slice of raw scallop. Using a chopstick, you dab a dot of yuzu kosho (a citrusy, pungent, widely available Japanese condiment) on top of the radish. A final touch of coarse sea salt adds a crunch, and a spritz of fresh lemon doesn't hurt, either. Maybe add a tiny sprig of parsley if you want; doesn't really matter. This is as bright and vibrant as a starter gets. Arranging the white scallops brings out the artist in me; that plate becomes a blank canvas. With this dish, you look like a friggin' master and really the hardest thing you've had to do is buy a superfresh diver scallop.
Also, very few young people want to sit down these days to a several-course dinner — the closest they come to that kind of eating is to devour a bunch of small plates in quick succession. Myers' dishes are mix-and-match: You can sit down to a larger portion of one or serve a bunch; they all seem to go together. One of my favorites is a tuna that gets cooked just enough when you pour hot water over it. You then blot it and marinate it, the way the Japanese do. Myers pairs this fish with a tofu puree made with onion, ginger, garlic and white soy sauce (more delicate than the dark, very popular in Japan and little known here). I adore this puree warm and have been known to eat it by itself — again, it's so simple and inevitable you can't believe you've lived without it.
The Japanese are great at making rich foods seem healthy. To this end, Myers created a dipping sauce for steak that combines ponzu — citrus and soy sauce — and grated daikon radish. (Check out this recipe, as well as one for Myers' tuna with tofu puree, on our food blog, Squid Ink.) The sauce seems to magically cut any fatty aftertaste from the meat and adds a clean, delicate flavor without any calories. I ask you, how do they do it?
I obviously love cooking these dishes, and I'm determined to overcome the L.A. curse and share them with the world. Of course I'll take every precaution in the proposal to underline the unique quality of what Myers has to offer the home cook; I'll stress his TV-ready looks probably as much as the dishes themselves. I will suggest that there just might be room, in the industry's conception of a launchable author, for someone who is famous in L.A., Tokyo and Las Vegas, even if he hasn't served publishers lunch in midtown Manhattan.
Wish me luck.
Laurie Winer writes about food and culture. She is a founding editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.