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Why Young Chefs Still See Cookbook Deals as a Path to Success

A book deal straight out of the gate means big opportunity

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Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

As a young chef fresh out of culinary school, JJ Johnson knew he had a story to share with the world. While working in Morgan Stanley’s executive kitchen, Johnson and a friend self-published a cookbook called Food Is What I Do in 2010. The book’s recipes encompassed “revised classics” — the type of Amercan food Johnson was used to cooking, with a focus on millennials entertaining at home. “You’re like, ‘I’m just trying to find my way. I want to tell people how I feel,’” he says of the impetus for that book. Four years later, Johnson took that work off the market, in pursuit of a narrative that better reflected the type of chef he is today. “It was just time to tell this story that I truly believe in,” he says.

Johnson’s idea eventually became Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day. The book — co-written by Johnson, a 2014 Eater Young Gun; his mentor, chef Alexander Smalls; and author Veronica Chambers — went on to win the 2019 James Beard Award for Best American Cookbook. “The thing that resonated [for me] was that the book that won the American category was telling the history of the African diaspora,” he says. “I hope the work that I put in pushes the ceiling higher and higher for more people to get credit for the things that belong to them.”

The achievement of Between Harlem and Heaven is an outlier. Only a precious few chefs get the chance to work on a cookbook. And of the hundreds of cookbooks written and published each year, only a few can hope to be considered for, let alone win, a Beard. Other authors may be fortunate enough to land on the New York Times best-seller list. Of course, awards and sales aren’t always the goal. For many young chefs who land a book deal, success can simply mean gaining the experience of publishing a cookbook, or creating a new source of revenue for their small business.

In Johnson’s case, the impetus for Between Harlem and Heaven — and his entire culinary trajectory over the past several years — was his visit to Ghana with Smalls in 2011. The experience opened his eyes to a different side of African cooking, one that intermingled with Asian cuisine through immigrants living in West Africa. The trip spurred Smalls and Johnson to develop the menu at the Cecil restaurant in Harlem and eventually gave Johnson the confidence to contribute to a new book. “Going to Ghana, that made me realize who I was,” he says. “I’m happy that I was able to tell that story with Alexander and that I’m able to keep telling that story moving forward.”

Johnson set out from the beginning to write something that could be both an entry point for home cooks to learn about African diaspora cuisine and an essential reference for young chefs — particularly those like himself, who don’t necessarily see themselves reflected in French-driven culinary school training. “I hope one day Between Harlem and Heaven can sit on the shelf or be a part of the history in culinary school to change the narrative of what [students] are learning,” he says.

For Lisa Ludwinski, owner of Sister Pie in Detroit and a 2015 Eater Young Gun, writing a cookbook was not only a chance to tell the story of her business and share her recipes with a wider audience. It was also an opportunity to create an additional revenue stream for her shop. Although the idea to write a cookbook was on her mind, she didn’t expect to have the chance so early in her career. In 2016, after she was approached by an editor at Ten Speed Press, Ludwinski began writing what eventually became Sister Pie: The Recipes and Stories of a Big-Hearted Bakery in Detroit. “When I started the book process, the bakery had only been open for a year [and] we were figuring so much out,” Ludwinski recalls.

As the owner of a thrumming new neighborhood bakery at the time, Ludwinski says she found it difficult to balance the demands of her daily management responsibilities with writing. “My biggest struggle with writing a book was the feeling of being pulled between the book and being at the bakery,” she says. “Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t able to give either of those things the attention that they needed.”

Since Sister Pie’s release last fall, she estimates the book sold upward of 25,000 copies, with 2,000 sold directly through the Sister Pie storefront. “I don’t think I had any clue as to how many we would sell, but it’s definitely exceeded our expectations,” she says.

Ludwinski has been on the road more frequently to promote the cookbook, with roughly 49 events since last October, in locations like Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles, as well as stops across Michigan. She says she worked hard to adapt the bakery so that it could run smoothly in her absence, and that’s made the business stronger as a whole. “It’s essential to be able to leave and have other people run it so that you can grow ... but it can be hard to force yourself to do that.” she says. “For a while it was almost painful for a lot of people, but then it ended up being a good thing.”

Chef Deuki Hong, a fellow 2015 Eater Young Gun, faced a similar dilemma while collaborating on a cookbook with writer Matt Rodbard. Hong was in the process of opening the New York location of Korean barbecue chain Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong when he struck up a partnership with Robard to make Koreatown: A Cookbook. The writing process involved a whirlwind tour of America’s many Koreatowns. “We were traveling a lot,” he recalls. “There were a lot of Motel 6 nights, and it wasn’t just Korean food in New York or LA. It was going to Virginia, going to Madison, Wisconsin — all these places that I would not have guessed any Koreatowns existed. That’s where we worked.” Amid all the research travel, Hong was commuting back to New York to oversee operations at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong. The chef says it was a balancing act that required both Rodbard’s support and that of his restaurant team.

While Rodbard is primarily responsible for the writing in Koreatown, Hong played the part of a cultural and culinary interpreter as well as a recipe tester. The book became a New York Times best-seller. “The way we made the book was very low-key,” he says. “We bought all the ingredients at Hmart, went to my apartment, and started cooking.”

The biggest challenge for Hong was trying to adapt professional recipes and techniques for home cooks. “I’m a restaurant chef, so I don’t know that Vitamix blenders aren’t common staples in households,” he says, “and Matt would always remind me, ‘Hey, they don’t have that. Hey, they don’t have a microplane.’ I’m like, ‘Who doesn’t have a microplane?’” He believes that working relationship with Rodbard, testing recipes in his tiny kitchen, helped make the book better and more accessible to readers. “I’m proud that that obstacle produced a better product where people are still cooking from it,” he says.

Unlike Johnson and Ludwinski, working on a cookbook project was never one of Hong’s aspirations. “I [didn’t] think I was talented enough or important enough, whatever you want to call it, to write a cookbook,” Hong says. “I guess it’s a theme in my career and in my life. I say ‘yes’ more than I say ‘no’ and I see where it goes.”

For Hong, who now operates Sunday Bird and Sunday at the Museum in San Francisco in collaboration with Boba Guys, the greatest satisfaction has come from seeing the longevity of his and Rodbard’s work. Though it’s been several years since Koreatown published, Hong says he occasionally gets tagged on social media with photos of home-cooked dishes from the book. He likes to think about people around the U.S. learning about and engaging more with Korean food. “It’s still relevant, and I think that’s kind of the mark of a good cookbook,” he says.

Hong isn’t sure if he will work on a cookbook again, but he’s leaving the door open to the possibility. “Obviously my first love is restaurants, and that’s probably where I’ll stay,” he says. “I’m very proud of Koreatown: A Cookbook and I’d be fully content with that as the only cookbook that I’ve ever made.”

Back in New York, Johnson is still reeling from Between Harlem and Heaven’s James Beard win, while preparing to open his grain bowl restaurant, FieldTrip. “I’m still floating in the clouds,” he says. The crucial part for any writer, he says, is coming up with a story that will feel important in the future — one that the author won’t want to take off the market. “Think about what you want to tell the world two years from the year you are shopping your book around,” he says. “It’s not what you want to say at this moment. It’s what you’re going to develop — that’s the story that you’re going to tell.”