STYLE

Francis Lam praises printed cookbooks, says they're not going the way of the dodo

06/25/2015 01:06 EDT | Updated 06/25/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - The Internet is a powerful medium for food news and recipes, but Francis Lam doesn't think it will snuff out the pleasure of engaging with a printed cookbook — at least not in the foreseeable future.

"People love the physical object and they love how they can engage with it in a rich, literally in a three-dimensional, way," said the Clarkson Potter editor and New York Times Magazine columnist.

"They love holding it in their hands."

About 90 per cent of cookbooks sold are print editions versus a fraction bought as electronic versions — the opposite of most other forms of publishing, he said.

One reason is the technology to render a beautifully made cookbook on a device is not quite there yet, he said.

As well, some readers are reticent about taking their device into the kitchen where it can be splattered, he added, prior to taking part in a panel discussion on food media at the recent Terroir Symposium for the hospitality industry in Toronto.

Whether it's sampling new restaurants or watching food TV, people want to know the story of their food.

"It's something that people really bring into their lives in a really active way and I think, weirdly enough, the very old form of cookbooks is a way of doing that," said Lam, who attended culinary school, wrote for the now-defunct Gourmet magazine and has been a judge on "Top Chef Masters."

Lam is no stranger to either medium, having "loved and hated" the immediacy of the Internet during a stint as a website editor before going into the world of books.

"I've heard people say, 'You're just climbing back on the dinosaur and waiting for it to die.' I had some nervousness about that, but I've learned more as I've continued to work in this industry for just over two years — not very long at all, really a baby in book terms.

"If I was a book I wouldn't be published yet," he added with a laugh.

When scouting prospective cookbooks, the Clarkson Potter editor is most compelled by those that let readers into the mind and character of the author.

"I think the cookbook — pretty purely as a collection of recipes that you take home and cook — I think that is probably in decline to be honest, but I think what people want to see and what people would love to see is the cookbook that will broaden their world and broaden their world through the storytelling and through the writing and through the photography as much as it does through the recipes."

Lam cites two of his projects being published this fall as examples.

In "Slow Fires: Mastering New Ways to Braise, Roast, and Grill," Justin Smillie, chef and partner of Upland NYC, teaches the reader those basic techniques and then how to break the rules or see them in a new light.

"I think it's the kind of cookbook that people are going to pull down from their shelves 10 years from now and say: this is what made me a great cook," said Lam.

"It's very detail-oriented; it's very learn how to touch and feel and taste."

Lam also thinks "Tacos: Recipes and Provocations" by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman will inspire discussion.

Stupak is chef-owner of three Mexican restaurants in New York, but he is not Mexican. He made a U-turn from pastry chef at fine dining establishments.

Lam said the story of the book can be found in one of the recipes: a taco of seared scallops, caramelized cauliflower and caper raisin emulsion. Stupak's customers complained about the $16 price tag yet he noted they wouldn't bat an eye about paying twice that for the same item, minus the tortilla, at three Michelin-starred Jean-Georges in Manhattan, which allowed him to use the recipe.

In "Tacos," Stupak explores why certain ethnic cuisines are elevated to fine dining status — French, Italian, Spanish — while others, like Mexican, are expected to be cheap to be considered authentic.

"That's the kind of thing I look for, the kind of book that is meaningful in the world beyond recipes," Lam said.

Follow @lois_abraham on Twitter.

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