Welcome to Behind the Cookbook, a new series on Eater that looks at what goes into making a cookbook. Here now, part one in a five-part series on the first cookbook from McSweeney's food imprint, Mission Street Food by Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz (buy at Amazon). Warning: serious cookbook nerdery ahead.[Photos courtesy McSweeney's]
Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz started the San Francisco food truck Mission Street Food in the fall of 2008, shortly after which they moved operations into a neighborhood Chinese restaurant on the nights it was closed. Their new cookbook tells the story of the restaurant, including its guest chefs, crazy theme menus, and charitable goals, and also shares some of its recipes. Below, a quick introduction to Myint and Leibowitz and their thoughts on the cookbook.
In one sentence, what was Mission Street Food?
Mission Street Food was a mirror into which the eaters of San Francisco could gaze deep into their own souls and find America staring back — also it was a twice-weekly pop-up restaurant that served a different menu each night, invited guest chefs to collaborate, and donated its profits to charity.
Why do a Mission Street Food Cookbook?
Mission Street Food raised a lot of interesting issues about what it means to be a restaurant, so that seemed to merit a wider discussion. We wanted to articulate our ideas about food, value, and values. And people were asking us for recipes anyway.
What did the writing process look like?
Our process was very collaborative. Even though most parts of the book are attributed to either "Anthony" or "Karen" we both worked on every sentence. Usually, one of us would draft a section and then we'd sit down together and thoroughly rewrite it, side by side at the computer. It was only after several tries to write the first section that we even settled on the back-and-forth format. During the production phase, we worked closely with our editor, Chris Ying, who devised an innovative layout for the recipes for which we reshaped the instructions into captions to accompany the step-by-step pictures. And of course, we worked collaboratively with our photographer, Alanna Hale, who not only styled the food but often provided the kitchen space where we worked. As a result, her dog snuck into a few shots.
The book seems to be divided evenly between the recipes and the story of the restaurant. Why go that route?
McSweeney's really encouraged us to disregard the boundaries of the genre. So we approached the book the same way we approached the restaurant itself — with no specific idea about how the finished product would turn out. There was a lot of tinkering. But these days, when a Google search yields 25,000,000 results for "steak recipe," we think the discerning reader wants something more — at least some context to help them decide whether or not a recipe is credible.
What makes for a credible recipe?
Following a recipe is easy. Choosing the right recipe is hard. Sometimes great chefs give advice that's too complex or oversimplified. Conversely, anonymous home cooks put amazing recipes on the Internet, but there's no way of knowing without taking the time to try them. We used the narrative to discuss our influences, inspirations, and mistakes, so that people can understand our thought processes and decide for themselves if the recipes are right for them. If you think all of our views about food and restaurants are nonsense, then in all likelihood you won't find our recipes useful either.
So who is the book aimed at? Home cooks? Professionals?
We wrote it for people who are interested in food — the book is not just for cooks, but also for enthusiastic eaters, or anyone curious about the restaurant industry — but to some extent, we also addressed the book to people who aren't particularly interested in food, but are looking for encouragement to launch their own projects, in any field. The book comes at Mission Street Food from a lot different angles, so hopefully, there's something in it for different kinds of people.
How do you think people will use the book?
We'd like to think that people will sit down and read the book for pleasure; it's probably not the kind of book you'd pick up at 5:30 to help you figure out what to make for dinner. Both the narrative and the food sections emphasize the importance of planning ahead and thinking strategically about your ingredients — using stock and fat gleaned from one meal as a component in the next, for instance. Probably the best-case scenario would be if home cooks added a handful of accessible techniques to their repertoire, and if professional cooks reconsidered a couple of traditional approaches.
I know your restaurants (Commonwealth and Mission Chinese Food) work with charities. What groups are they working with now?
Right now, we're working with two different charitable models. Commonwealth donates $10 from each tasting menu to different charities each month, whereas Mission Chinese Food gives 75 cents from each entrée to the SF Food Bank. We visited a lot of food pantries in San Francisco and discovered that they all depend on the Food Bank, so we thought it made sense to focus our contributions on them. The scale and efficiency of their operation is amazing — they have these enormous bags of rice that literally weigh a ton.
Are you following that same model with the cookbook?
We tried to carry some of the principles of a charitable business model over to book sales. We figured if we gave some of the profits to a nonprofit, they'd help promote the book, and we'd feel better about cutting down trees to print essays on the sportification of cooking. So we're working with Slow Food USA, and hopefully contributing to food reform. But so far, they haven't really been promoting the fundraiser very much, which makes us feel okay about continuing to eat Pringles.
Last question: what do you think Mission Street Food's legacy will be?
Hard to say. On some level, it was just a flash in the pan, but it probably encouraged a more flexible approach to restaurants in general. We were part of a larger trend toward a democratization of fine dining in America, but we have yet to see a lot of new places trying to recreate our unique blend of crappy kitchen, crappy dining room, crappy service, and crappy bathroom. We would be excited to see more restaurants adopting a charitable
business model, though.