The joy of the artisanal cookbook

Colour food photos are now just so ‘paint-by-numbers’

There’s still more than a month to go before Heston Blumenthal’s eagerly awaited The Big Fat Duck Cookbook lands in North America, yet already it’s being hailed as a milestone that will erase the blurry line between cookbook and art book. Sure, hard-core Blumenthal groupies will be shelling out $275 to recreate the famed British chef’s signature snail porridge, scrambled-egg-and-bacon ice cream and palate-cleansing mousse of nitrogen, lime, vodka, green tea and egg white reduced to –196? F. But publisher Bloomsbury is wisely marketing the 448-page tome for what it is: a “stunning, colourful and joyous work of art.” Each copy comes in a case decorated with a hand-painted feather. On the cover, instead of a glossy beauty shot of Blumenthal, his restaurant or his celebrated salmon poached in licorice, they’ve opted for a stylish drawing of the Fat Duck’s custom-made cutlery. Inside, colour photography documents the chef’s mad genius. The true iconoclastic spirit of the enterprise, however, is conveyed via hyper-animated illustrations by the British artist Dave McKean.

The creative concoction serves up yet more proof of a renaissance in artfully illustrated cookbooks, a tradition that dates back to 1610 when Bartolomeo Scappi published Opera . . . dell’arte del cucinare, filled with beautiful woodcuts of the Renaissance kitchen. The New York-based food writer Molly O’Neill sees the trend as reflective of a cultural sea change: “There’s a move in the zeitgeist to connect food with traditionally higher forms of cultural expression—painting, woodcuts, drawing, watercolours,” she says. Indeed, when the British art book publisher Phaidon published 1080 Recipes, an update of Simone Ortega’s beloved collection of traditional Spanish dishes, last year, they turned to the celebrated Barcelona artist and designer Javier Mariscal to infuse it with a fresh vibe. Mariscal’s colourful pastel-and-ink drawings of fish and tapas and lemons animate the book’s 975 pages; they’re childlike yet sophisticated, joyful even when depicting disembodied tongues and peeled sheep’s skulls. The book, written by Ortega and her daughter Inés Ortega, also has photographs, but they’re tucked in discreetly, separate from the text.

Nach Waxman, who owns Kitchen Arts and Letters, a cookbook store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, says his customers, most of whom are culinary professionals looking for inspiration, still want photographs. “It’s one of the ways they can absorb what a dish is,” he says. Yet he too sees a new focus on the evocative power of illustration. “It’s a way to provide atmosphere and background and character,” he says. Waxman cites the 2007 publishing sensation The Pied de Cochon Cookbook as a breakout book. Its visuals—which include pen-and-ink drawings and photomontage illustrations by Montreal artist Tom Tassel—telegraph the creativity and manic energy of chef Martin Picard’s Montreal brasserie. (The French edition also includes a madcap 48-page graphic novel about the “history of pork”; its humour was deemed “too Québécois” to withstand translation.) “It’s gusty and innovative,” says Waxman, who says it’s been his bestselling title this year.

Barbara-Jo McIntosh, the proprietor of Barbara-Jo’s Books for Cooks in Vancouver, is another fan of illustration. A current favourite, she says, is the new A Vegetable Collection: Recipes and Rhymes to Conquer Kids of All Ages, a small book filled with whimsical veggie watercolours by author Dorothy Perillo Linder. “I just love it,” she says.

Illustrated cookbooks have always been with us, of course, with drawings used instructively—showing how to cut vegetables in a julienne or how to fillet a fish. The most celebrated gastro-porn published during the past few decades (think Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook or Ferran Adrià’s lavish El Bulli cookbooks), however, was invariably illustrated with high-production photography. That said, a few distinctive exceptions bucked the trend. The Silver Palate cookbooks by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso illustrated with Lukins’s charmingly offhand pen-and-ink drawings redefined the 1980s food landscape and were groundbreaking commercially, says Alison Fryer, manager of Toronto’s Cookbook Store. In fact, when colour photography was used in the Silver Palate Cookbook 25th Anniversary Edition last year, loyalists were incensed. It didn’t sell well, says Waxman. “I think people find the photographs violate the character of the book,” he says. “I feel that way.” Chez Panisse, Alice Water’s Berkeley, Calif., restaurant, is also known for its beautiful cookbooks featuring woodcuts and black-and-white illustration. (Chez Panisse Desserts illustrated by Wayne Thiebaud is particularly revered.) And of course there’s Ralph Steadman’s wine books, among them The Grapes of Ralph, illustrated with his trademark gonzo artistry. “Steadman is the standard-bearer,” says Fryer, who observes his influence is evident in both The Pied de Cochon Cookbook and The Big Fat Duck Cookbook.

Leanne Shapton, the art director of the New York Times op-ed page, views the trend as part of a growing appreciation of illustration. “I think people are recognizing how romantic and whimsical it can be,” she says, noting that North America is finally catching up to France, where a long-standing illustration tradition exists. “Illustration is getting more sophisticated and grown-up here,” she says. “It’s gone from cartoons to the graphic novel and fashion advertising.”

Illustration is one way to make a book timeless, says O’Neill, who observes photography, particularly colour photography, dates a book. “If you’re doing a book about food style it’s fantastic,” she says. “But if you’re making a book you hope will be part of a 21st-century food library, photography makes it difficult. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that The Joy of Cooking has never had a photograph.”

O’Neill believes the movement to illustration is partially a reaction to food TV and glitzy “supermodel shots of chocolate torte.” And this, in turn, reflects a new-found interest in food that is handmade and artisanal. Illustration can express authenticity and passion in a way photography rarely does, O’Neill says, and readers respond to that. “The thing that is real, that comes from the heart and a lifetime of experience, always resonates deeper than the opportunistic book made to grab a certain segment of the audience,” she says.

It’s also no coincidence illustrated books tend to be illustrated by the author or a close friend, says Fryer. McIntosh agrees. “A book that’s illustrated suggests the chef or author has had a lot of input into putting it together,” she says. “Because I don’t think a publisher alone would want to go there.”

Noted cookbook author Faith Willinger was so passionate about using illustrations by her sister, Suzanne Heller, in her most recent cookbook, Adventures of an Italian Food Lover: With Recipes From 213 of My Very Best Friends, that she left her long-time publisher HarperCollins when it resisted. Willinger believes the colourful watercolour landscapes and portraits are an essential part of the book. “I want you to feel that you know those people, through my writing and through her watercolours,” she says. Her next project is a collaboration with her sister on an updated version of her classic Red, White and Green: The Italian Way with Vegetables.

Willinger counts herself among the many people who turn to cookbooks for more than recipes. As a reader, she says, she wants to be engaged rather than taught. “I’m looking for something to be entertained by, not necessarily to cook from,” she says. “I don’t want someone to show me a colour picture of what they think the food should look like. That’s paint-by-numbers. And I don’t want to tell people what their food should look like. They don’t even have to follow m
y recipe if they want to be really Italian about it.”

Currently Willinger’s selling limited-edition prints from her book on her website and donating the proceeds to charity. As cookbooks become art books, a cookbook art market is emerging. Waxman speaks regretfully of not snapping up original art from a Chez Panisse cookbook years ago when it was available for a surprisingly reasonable price. “It pains me now to think about it,” he says. “That is wonderful, wonderful art.” Oh, and the recipes aren’t bad either.