Chicago’s Fat Rice restaurant is unassuming from the outside. Neighboring corners host a gas station and auto parts store. The word “restaurant” is painted in yellow and red above a gray awning that might look like the entrance to a seedy nightclub if not for the brightly illustrated posters taped to the windows. Drawn by cartoonist Sarah Becan, they were an early addition to the restaurant. “When we opened, we didn’t have a sign — the inside is dark and the music is relatively loud,” says Fat Rice co-owner Abraham Conlon. “I wanted to have these bright, comic-esque posters in the windows that illustrated… that this is a fun place.”
The restaurant’s cuisine is inspired by Macau, the wealthy gambling haven on the southern coast of China where the longtime presence of the Portuguese eventually influenced the territory’s food. “The cuisine we focus on brings in a lot of different elements, things that feel like they’re not going to go together,” Conlon says. So perhaps it’s no surprise that its new cookbook The Adventures of Fat Rice, which features traditional food photography by Dan Goldberg, photos of Macau, and drawings by Becan, is a similar hodgepodge of styles.
Because Becan’s art features so heavily in the restaurant, using comics to illustrate certain recipes was a no-brainer. But while it wasn’t a stretch for Fat Rice to put comics into their cookbook, in doing so, they’ve joined a growing number of cookbooks that have turned to the format.
Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, published in 2012, used comics to show both the restaurant’s backstory and how to make its recipes. Lucy Kinsley’s personal memoir Relish: My Life in the Kitchen coupled graphic novel narratives with illustrated step-by-step recipe instructions. Chop, Sizzle, Wow, a simplified, comic version of the classic Italian cookbook The Silver Spoon, was published in 2014. And most recently, Robin Ha’s Cook Korean! used a graphic novel format to illustrate how to make Korean dishes (ranging from kimchi to acorn jelly salad), and tell the history of the cuisine and how people serve it.
The format has proved popular with readers. Though Dirt Candy’s original location only had room for 18 diners at a time (the restaurant has since moved), the book is now in its sixth printing — proving that a good cookbook can go a long way to extending a restaurant’s reach.
But comic cookbooks can do something for home cooks, too — make recipes less daunting and easier to follow. Cookbooks are still in demand, but many — with their overly aspirational food photography — wind up as coffee-table books for the kitchen. Cohen describes today’s cookbooks as “inspirational,” more focused on visuals than the cookbooks of the past. “Cookbooks are beautiful and amazing things, but I don’t know that people cook out of them anymore,” she says.
Once upon a time, the cookbooks that found their way into most homes were often written by home cooks or organizations like Women’s Day, Conlon says. Text-heavy books like Joy of Cooking were never meant to be used for decoration; they were kitchen tools. But when restaurants started writing cookbooks, that all changed. In the UK, sales of celebrity cookbooks rose by 250 percent in 2012 alone. Julia Child was teaching people the art of French cooking; cookbook authors of today are selling a lifestyle, a brand, or some combination of the two, sometimes sacrificing usefulness in the process. Food from these cookbooks are more “statement” than “weekday meal.” As a result, most people today turn to Google or websites like Allrecipes.com when they’re hungry.
“I’m sure there are some people out there who cook from a book but, from a restaurant’s standpoint, it’s an advertisement for the restaurant,” Cohen says. Conlon describes his cookbook in a similar way. “It’s a cookbook, but it’s also cataloguing something we’ve done over the past two years of the restaurant.” He hopes people will cook from Fat Rice and says the team tried to present their recipes in a “fun light… so people wouldn’t necessarily be intimidated by it.”
In the Fat Rice cookbook, the comic instructions fall into two categories. So-called “wok comics” look like traditional comic strips and show step-by-step instructions of how to use a wok to make some of Fat Rice’s recipes. “Thing things,” named for the helpful hand in The Addams Family, are simpler comics that show cartoon hands going through the process of shaping empadas (a type of fish pie), dumplings, and papo seco (Portuguese bread rolls).
To the creators of the comic cookbooks, those panel-style instructions translate to functionality, even for the most novice chef. Tyler Capps, the creator of Cooking Comically: Recipes So Easy You’ll Actually Make Them (first a webcomic and now a cookbook), says he regularly sees photos fans have posted of his completed recipes. Once, Capps got a message from a woman whose husband died: He had done most of the cooking in the family. But she was able to use the comic-illustrated recipes to cook for her kids. “Comics just lend themselves to instructions really well,” Capps says. “It’s tailor-made for procedural stories.”
In general, the comics genre is growing. The first modern-era comic book was published in 1933, but by 2002, comics and graphic novels eked out about $300 million in total annual sales. In 2015, comic analysts at Comichron and ICv2 estimated those sales surpassed $1 billion for the first time, rising 10 percent between 2014 and 2015 alone. And it’s not just superhero movies fueling people’s interest. Graphic novels, a space where food-focused narratives are thriving, outsold comics by more than $100 million last year.
Becan, the illustrator for Fat Rice, has been making food comics — recipes and food-related stories — for five years. Though some of her drawings were originally made for the restaurant (like the cookbook’s cover, which shows a giant clam and spaghetti monster coming out the ocean) the new pieces were mostly instructional, she says. The more complicated wok comics made sense because “they centered around quick, deftly timed things you had to do on high heat over a wok.”
“For all of those, the main thrust of the work was getting across the information as simply and easily digestible as possible,” Becan says. Sure, you can tell someone to “flip the pan over,” but what if they do it wrong and dump the sizzling food on the stove or, worse, onto themselves? What if they inadvertently skip step five entirely? “Both of us thought a lot of this stuff would be easier to communicate with images.”
This was also the reason why Phaidon released Chop, Sizzle, Wow in 2014. It’s a paired-down, all-comics version of the 1950s Italian cooking opus The Silver Spoon. Phaidon publisher Emilia Terragni says that while the original cookbook is one of their bestselling titles, “we thought it could be interesting to update it for a younger audience who might feel intimidated by the size of the original book.” Terragni believes “the visual experience of cookbooks is always very important,” though the way those visuals are presented can make the book better suited to reading, cooking from, or just paging through for inspiration.
Phaidon went out of its way to find an illustrator who was also a chef: “We wanted the recipes to be easy to follow with useful details and a funny edge,” Terragni says. They landed on Adriano Rampazzo, and instead of the original book’s limited instructions (which often assume a working knowledge of, for example, how to perfectly boil pasta), Chop doesn’t give home cooks a chance to miss a step. A recipe for pizza Margherita shows 29 steps, including small touches like punching the air out of the pizza dough before rolling, how to blanch tomatoes, and a note that the rim of the pizza should be thicker than the center. Above each recipe’s title is a box with an illustrated list of ingredients. The book makes recipes like “chicken in a salt crust” look easy enough to do on a weeknight — while Pinterest photos of the same dish might send many running for the hills.
Comics, Becan says, “are the artistic step between raw photography and straight-up infographics.” While photographs are wonderful, they can’t help but include “every beautiful detail.” She explains that comics can pare that scene down to include only the details the viewer needs to see. “It makes the whole thing a lot simpler and easier to understand.”
Cohen similarly mentioned that the drawings of chopped onions in her cookbook “look like onions a normal person would cut,” not perfectly diced at right angles, a level of perfection usually captured in cookbook photography. “Nothing is perfect and everything is drawn freehand,” Cohen says, noting how perfection breeds intimidation. “When you have a visual picture in a cookbook, it looks perfect and you think you’ll never make onions like that.” But people can easily learn to chop onions that are more-or-less the same size, as an illustration shows.
The owners of fancy cookbook collections might prefer the aspirational nature of those books, but what’s the point of looking through fancy photos of mouthwatering entrees if you’re sitting down to a dinner of Kraft macaroni and cheese? Give a cook a comic, and she’ll be in the kitchen experimenting in no time.