July 28, 2010

Blockbuster cookbooks and celebrity chefs date back to the 18th century

I love it when my articles connect me to interesting people from different walks of life. Food historian and lawyer Sandra Sherman contacted me through my blog recently after reading my Joe Baum article, explaining that she was fascinated by Baum’s entrepreneurial spirit and connected it with her latest book, Invention of the Modern Cookbook. In her book, Sherman examines how 17th- and 18th-century chefs became some of the earliest entrepreneurs, using promotional (and self-promotional) strategies that presaged Baum’s imaginative brand of restaurant showmanship. Sandra wrote, “It’s amazing how quickly capitalism and foodie culture grew together.”

We might think that today’s celebrity chef and cookbook mania is unique. In 2006 alone, Americans spent over half a billion dollars on cookbooks, Sherman writes in her fascinating history, and almost 2,000 cookbooks were published that year. This when more than 38,000 were already in print! It’s hard from our perspective to imagine a time more cook and cookbook crazy.

In fact, however, the modern blockbuster cookbook (The Joy of Cooking or Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for example) has roots in women-authored cookbooks of the 18th century. Lydia Fisher’s The Prudent Housewife (1750) was printed 25 times, Sherman tells us, and hers was only one of several cookbooks that went through multiple printings.

Robert May was the first great English celebrity chef, a “master of self-promotion,” according to Sherman, with an ego to match his cooking skills. In his 1665 Accomplisht Cook, as was the custom of the day, he included poems by hacks for hire. They were the celebrity blurbs of the 17th century, often penned by uncredentialed unknowns who were sometimes comically clueless about their subjects. Their job was to write “puffery.” In other words, not too different from today’s celebrity puff piece.

Accomplisht Cook featured a frontispiece portrait of the chef, a glowing bio detailing all the famous people May cooked for, and his extensive experience in continental kitchens. These story-telling techniques were the same ones I employed in the many chef profiles I reported as a correspondent for People, in which a crucial element was which celebrities ate at said chef’s “posh” or “tony” restaurant. Sherman amusingly compares Grant Achatz’s 2008 book Alinea (also the name of his Chicago restaurant), in its self-promotional zest, to May’s Accomplisht Cook, what with its numerous introductions, serious essays by noted food journalists, musings on the nature of the cooking genius, and homage not to his biological father, as May paid, but to his spiritual father, Thomas Keller.

The arrival of women celebrity chefs in the second quarter of the18th century injected a note of modesty, practicality and relatability into the celebrity cookbook, softening its image much as Julia Child brought a breath of fresh air and undercut the Olympian poses of male French predecessors such as Antonin CarĂªme or Auguste Escoffier.

Best-selling British cookbook author Hannah Glasse addressed the reader directly and refreshingly in her book The Art of Cookery, a bit like a chef-blogger today might chat directly with her legions of followers. Sherman describes this approach as “an in-your-face refutation of pompous French chefs.”

In her book, The Experienced English House-keeper, best-selling British author Elizabeth Raffald affected a warm competence that won over readers, drawing them in further by confiding how the labors of putting the book together had compromised her health. A precursor, perhaps, to the over-sharing that is a hallmark of not just today’s cookbooks, but all print and social media.

There’s so much more good stuff in this book that sheds light on today’s culinary landscape that you’ll just have to buy it yourself and read it!

July 14, 2010

Restaurateur Joe Baum lived to work

 It was fascinating to research this story in the current edition of Edible Manhattan on restaurateur Joe Baum. I had so much good material a lot of it ended up on the cutting room floor.

Baum (pictured at left with his daughter, Hilary) is credited with coming up with many of the innovations  that define the modern American restaurant. During his career he was responsible for some of the showiest, most profitable eateries of the day, including Windows on the World, Tavern on the Green, and The Four Seasons.

Although I was not able to fully tell this part of his tale, the end of Baum’s career was a bittersweet one. In 1970, he endured a painful ouster from the firm he had led to success with his wildly imaginative innovations, Restaurant Associates. He bounced back, however, landing a gigantic contract to develop all 22 restaurants in the new World Trade Center complex. From there, he rose to even greater heights of glory. In 1985, at the age of 65, he took on the $30 million project of overseeing a meticulous and widely praised renovation of The Rainbow Room complex atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza. With the Rockefeller family itself footing the bill, Baum had at his disposal the kind of deep pockets he needed to realize his lavish vision.

The good times came to an end in 1996, though, when the real estate development and management company Tishman Speyer took over the center. Lease renewal negotiations fell through in 1998 between Baum, co-operator David Emil and Tishman Speyer over a $4 million per year lease agreement, which would have been the highest in the business. Baum and Emil walked away from the contract, and the Cipriani family took over the restaurant for an 11-year-run that ended badly. In 1998 Cipriani, by then deeply in debt, was ousted by Tishman over millions of dollars in unpaid rent.

Negotiations between the Baum team (which by then included restaurateur Drew Nierporent) and Tishman Speyer fell through in May 1998. By October, Joe Baum was dead. To those who knew him best, there was no question that the loss of his beloved Rainbow Room, which he had coveted since first setting eyes on it on a school field trip to New York City in 1941, was what finally led to Joe Baum’s death. “Losing the lease at the Rainbow Room put Joe over the edge,” Baum’s longtime confidant and personal advisor Tony Zazula told me. Tishman Speyer, he says, “Didn’t realize they had the best.”  Yes, Baum had been suffering from some time from the prostate cancer that killed him, but this was a man who wanted to live forever because he loved his work so much.

Baum’s longtime scribe  and speechwriter Irena Chalmers said of Baum, “he died of a broken heart.”

July 9, 2010

Myers of Keswick celebrates its 25th anniversary

This has been a week of celebration for Myers of Keswick founder Peter Myers. Not only has he returned from England this week to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his Hudson Street bastion of all foods British, his daughter Jennifer Myers Pulidore, who now runs the shop, is expecting her first child on August 5th. Any customer who spends more than $30 will get a free Myers of Keswick mug all day tomorrow. Now is the time to stock up on English victuals in preparation for Sunday's World Cup finals! The only thing that could be better is if England were still in the contest....

Myers of Keswick
634 Hudson Street (between Jane and Horatio Streets)
New York, NY 10014-5167
(212) 691-4194