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Remembering Peter Workman: Publisher, Visionary, and 'Truly One of the Good Guys'

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Here now, writer and New York Times refugee Regina Schrambling on Peter Workman, founder of Workman Publishing, who died this weekend at the age of 74:

Peter Workman and cookbooks. [Right photo: Workman / Facebook]

?I'm not exactly the sentimental type, but I'm taking Peter Workman's death personally. He was truly one of the good guys in the food world, although his influence extended way beyond that little pond. He never followed the Food Network; his publishing house sought out authors with substance who would sell for the long haul — The Silver Palate Cookbook is still on shelves after 31 years for very good reasons. (It's not a recipe book, but What to Expect When You're Expecting has been on the NYT bestseller list for 605 weeks.) And his book parties were legendary for both their generosity and their conviviality (at a party, for one of Steven Raichlen's infinite barbecue books, I met an editor who wound up hiring me a few weeks later to be her deputy on a certain Dining section).

Peter was known for coming up with softcovers with catchy titles and graphics, and for page-a-day calendars like A Year of Beer. Like all good guys, and way ahead of BuzzFeed, he milked cats, starting with B. Kliban's. But he also founded Artisan, which publishes big, beautiful books with shelf-life sustainability by the likes of Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert, and Frank Stitt. The French Laundry Cookbook alone has sold more than half a million copies, even at $50 a pop, and launched a thousand menu imitations. (How many butter-poached lobsters can one country eat?)

Artisan also does lovely books with big price tags on cuisines that don't often get such respect — he put Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford way out ahead on Southeast Asia. And not many publishers would have braved Francis Mallmann's Seven Fires, which is subtitled "Grilling the Argentine Way," as in: a whole cow over a campfire. (It says it all that so many of Peter's books have been honored by the James Beard Foundation, but the phenomenon behind them never won a lifetime achievement award.)

I guess it's hard to remember, but before the internet, edible ideas spread through cookbooks. The Silver Palate was the Joy of Cooking for a generation — a friend who worked on the old New York Times Entertaining supplement always complained that half the hostesses she wanted to feature wanted to serve the chicken Marbella from it. (The recipes hold up amazingly well. As recently as the other week, one borrowed from a sequel was showcased in the Dining section.)

My Twitter pal Beth Wareham, who worked for Peter twice as publicity director, says part of his genius was hiring people from outside publishing to create a sort of "bio-diversity" that made his books, and the selling of them, even smarter. And he was famous for being involved in every detail. "He drove you crazy waiting," said Wareham. "He'd fuss with a book until you forgot you hadn't even published it yet."

Helen Rosner, who also worked for him and is now the digital editor at Saveur, said: "His whole philosophy boiled down to two simple but very radical ideas: Trust your instincts when it comes to telling the reader what he doesn't yet realize what he wants, and don't make the reader work too hard to get the message. Peter was a master marketer — he knew how to sell books at all levels: to the readers, to the booksellers, to the salesmen who sold to the booksellers."

Not least of his accomplishments was thriving through the whole "cookbooks are doomed, we're all gonna die" hysteria as publishing evolved. Sure, Workman does audiobooks and ebooks, but coffee tables can still use Artisan's Bouchon Bakery.
?I was lucky enough to meet Peter through Suzanne Rafer, who edited the Silver Palate books and many more while working for him for 39 years. This morning she emailed to describe him as "a visionary with so many visions still unrealized. I find I'm filled with greatness clichés that ring true, but he deserves so much more than clichés. Yes, we knew it was coming, but it is still shocking. He built a wonderful company, just the best. We will continue to make him proud. I will toast him with a tuna salad sandwich (a favorite of his) at lunch!"

We three had lunch together back when I was freelancing columns for the NYT Magazine in the Eighties and Suzanne was trying to entice me to do a book for him. His one failure may have been with me. But as we talked that day about my silly life story to that point, he had a typically Peter concept I still chew on: "Can you outrun yourself?"

The food world's going to be a sadder place without that singular mind.

— Regina Schrambling

· All Peter Workman Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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