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February 9, 2012 at 7:00 AM

The future of the cookbook? Lark chef goes for Kickstarter campaign

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You want that recipe for Lark’s chocolate madeleines or chicken liver parfait? Listen up.

For years, people have been asking Lark chef John Sundstrom about writing a cookbook. He’s finally going ahead with one, but not in the way you might expect. Rather than going with a big-name publisher, Sundstrom started a Kickstarter campaign this week to do the project himself, aiming to raise $33,000 from supporters for a Lark cooking app and cookbook. Contributions start as low as $10, earning donors anything from access to recipes and videos up to cooking classes ($250) or having Sundstrom cater your dinner party ($5,000). The James Beard award-winning chef hopes donors will participate in the book, taking opportunities like test-driving recipes and voting on which should make it into the final version.

Self-publishing used to be the route of writers who couldn’t get a contract with a traditional publisher. A lot has changed since those days. It no longer carries the same stigma — at least, not always. I still wanted to run the idea past a few publishers I know who are, coincidentally, holding a conference today on the future of the cookbook.

This guy is one of the top chefs in Seattle, I told them. Plenty of publishers would love to sign him on for a traditional cookbook.

“Is he nuts?” I asked.

Their answer: Not necessarily. In fact, he might be on to something.

After just two days on Kickstarter, Sundstrom’s raised more than a third of the money he needs for the project. He’s got 58 days left to get the rest. If he doesn’t reach the goal, under Kickstarter rules, all the money gets returned to donors.

Sundstrom had been aproached by larger publishers for years, but — especially after the recession — was never convinced that a cookbook in the modern publishing world would have the long-term support and financial backing to succeed. And the big industry model didn’t seem to fit with the way he’s always approached Lark, as a place where he does what he can himself (tearing out drywall, for instance), calls in professionals for what he can’t (lamps and lighting), and creates a community. Farmers, fishers, diners — they’re all part of what makes Lark what it is.

“If you’re a Food Network person or you’ve got multiple restaurants in a big city, you’re going to be a very attractive person to deal with” from a publisher’s view, Sundstrom said. But he felt like “a pretty small player” who might need a different way to do things. He started wondering what other avenues he could pursue.

Cooking apps, he decided, were a relevant and useful new route, one that could also be translated into an e-book and a print cookbook. He sees a few existing apps as models, such as those from Jamie Oliver and Mario Batali, but pictures his as being “a much more personal project,” giving people a sense of the Northwest and Lark and its owners. It’ll have 90-plus recipes, including signatures like Lark’s chocolate madeleines. It’ll offer complex recipes as well as simpler ones like the perennial winter favorite of mussels with bacon and cider, “a super-easy dish and also a 20-minute meal”. He pictures photo essays and video tutorials — perhaps how to fillet a coho, or a look at what it’s like to go razor clamming or mushroom foraging, and how those ingredients find their way to the menu.

The Kickstarter money will go for practical help: Hiring people to do the technical work, photography, video editing and printing. The intent is “to bring the right people in at the right steps and give it a real polish and finish.”

Sundstrom is also following a route taken by some other serious Seattle chefs. Lisa Dupar of Pomegranate won a major national award for her self-published “Fried Chicken and Champagne” book. Tamara Murphy, often named in the same breath as Sundstrom when describing Seattle’s fine farm-to-table chefs, self-published her book “Tender”, while John Howie went the same route for “Passion & Palate“.

The cookbook-conference organizers, Bruce Shaw and Adam Salomone of Harvard Common Press, think the approach wouldn’t work for everyone, but that Sundstrom seems to know what he’s in store for and what he wants. And as big publishers have moved away from restaurant and chef-based cookbooks and toward bloggers and other “new frontiers,” there’s a chance he could be better off drawing support and an audience through this route.

“It’s a tricky balance…” said Salomone, associate publisher of the press, which is also an investor in the online recipe search yummly. Self-publishing means more control, but it also means losing a professional sounding board, creative support, and people to handle an entirely different area of cookbooks than chefs and writers usually navigate.

“The litmus test for this is, are you prepared to get into not just the creative side, but the business of cookbook publishing?”

It’s not only the work of putting together a beautiful book, noted press president Bruce Shaw, but doing the legwork — selling it to bookstores, getting it stocked by (which accounts for more than 40 percent of their own sales), distribution to gift stores and gourmet stores and markets and more.

“A good publishing house is still doing that work,” he said. carries Dupar’s book, but not the ones by Murphy or Howie.

Shaw also wondered if Sundstrom just hadn’t found a fit with the right publishing house (something a good agent can help with, he noted). Different publishers have different strengths, and some might have been a better fit than the ones who approached him.

Still, “(Self-publishing) may really make sense. In this day and age with social media, where you can get directly to people on your own…I could argue that he will do a much more effective job of that, and I would argue that any publisher is going to ask him to do that anyway.”

It’s a big project, said Sundstrom, and yet “I feel like we’ve put together a great team of talented people”. That’s something that, in the restaurant world, at least, he knows how to do. “We put together great teams all the time.”

If the funding comes through, the goal is to have the app and e-book ready by the beginning of July, with the print version going to press a few weeks later.

Want to be part of the future of at least one cookbook? Here’s your chance, until the Kickstarter campaign ends April 6.



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