The cookbook was revolutionised in 1950 with the publication of two important titles within the same year: Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food, published by John Lehmann in London, and Il Cucchiaio d’Argento, published in Milan by the design magazine Domus. Penguin picked up David’s post-war writings in 1956, while the latter collection remained an Italian staple until it was translated into English and republished as The Silver Spoon by Phaidon Press in 2005.
At the time, Phaidon was well known principally for its art and design books – the company having effectively relaunched in 1990 – and the success of its first food title caught some by surprise. But since then its ‘food and cookery’ list has grown steadily and now contains some of its flagship contemporary editions. As if to reinforce its standing within this area, last November Phaidon launched the Cookbook Book by Annahita Kamali and Florian Böhm, which looks at some of the most influential cookery books from the last 100 years. It’s a celebration of what has gone before, but it’s also something of a statement about the company the publisher is keeping.
For Phaidon, part of the key to its success in this buoyant market has come from bringing its heritage as an art book publisher into the kitchen. Visit the food or cooking section of any large bookshop and it’s clear that a range of different publishers have sought to align themselves with well known culinary names: Nigel Slater is on 4th Estate, Nigella Lawson on Chatto & Windus, while Jamie Oliver writes via Penguin’s Michael Joseph imprint; Ebury boasts the recipes of Yotam Ottolenghi; while Bloomsbury has both Heston and Hugh, the famous Leiths books and the doctrine of the ‘nose to tail eating’ school of Fergus Henderson. While Slater’s hardbacks are always well-produced, Ottolenghi’s recent Plenty More a minimalist treat, none of the above look quite like a Phaidon.
As old-fashioned cookery books gather dust on kitchen shelves, the modern culture of food has been blown wide open as a subject – and the Phaidon titles that cover recipes, regional cuisines, famous restaurants and the philosophies of influential chefs come in all manner of formats and styles. An aesthetic built in to the company’s foundation as an art publisher continues to filter through, resulting in some of the most visually appealing food titles around. The company’s design team is small, consisting of creative director Julia Hasting, associate art director Sarah Boris and senior designer Hans Stofregen (Hasting is based in Zürich, while Boris and Stofregen work in London). Designers that the team commission, however, form a long list of impressive studios: Fraser Muggeridge, John Morgan, Yokoland, Studio Frith and Sonya Dyakova (previously design director at Phaidon, now of Atelier Dyakova) to name a few.
“Food is a very sensual thing and Phaidon’s skill as a producer of beautiful books ties in very well with the visual and tactile nature of food,” says Ellie Smith, Phaidon’s UK commissioning editor for food. While Phaidon doesn’t have specific ‘types’ of food book, Smith explains, its food list publishes under a variety of themes. There are books on “national cuisines, our Bibles for home cooking,” she says, “chef-led titles, from Ferran Adrià to Magnus Nilsson, which look at chefs who are doing something exciting and new; food culture, encompassing non-recipe food books such as Nick Lander’s The Art of the Restaurateur; and, finally, home cooking – solid, trusted books for home cooks to use time and time again, such as Jane Hornby’s What to Bake or Adrià’s Family Meal.”
That Adrià’s name appears twice in these examples says something of the role that the celebrated elBulli chef has played in Phaidon’s ascent into food publishing. After the success of The Silver Spoon, the company’s then editorial director Emilia Terragni (now co-publisher) decided to approach Adrià with a book proposal. Adrià agreed and the ideas for A Day at elBulli eventually came to fruition. The Family Meal was published shortly after and Phaidon now enjoys a relationship with the esoteric Spanish chef that, last year, resulted in a seven-volume collection containing details of every elBulli dish served from 2005 until the restaurant’s closure in 2011. (At £425, the set is exclusive, too.)
“The chef’s books often have more of an artistic feel similar to an art book or monograph,” says art director Boris. “The production budget allows us to use different materials, while the home cooking books are mainly PLC cases and rarely have a jacket. For the food culture, home cooking and national cuisine titles we often use illustration, which has created a strong identity for Phaidon’s food books in a market where most have photography on the cover.”
Two recent titles have been the work of designer Kobi Benezri – the telephone directory-inspired listings guide, Where Chefs Eat, and the three-volume A Work in Progress: Journal, Recipes and Snapshots which documents a year in the life of Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant through the eyes of head chef René Redzepi and his staff. While Where Chefs Eat is an interesting spin on a list of ‘best restaurants’ and a practical guide for any visiting gourmet, A Work in Progress is much more of an experimental project. Both projects were awarded ‘in book’ in the 2014 D&AD Annual.
“Phaidon approaches the design of its cookery books in the same way as the design of its art books,” Boris explains. “We also like to work with designers who do not necessarily have a background in food books. Our choices of designers or illustrators are not always obvious matches to the subject. Fiona Strickland, who illustrated How to Boil an Egg was mainly known for her botanical illustrations; Taste of America and Fish were designed by Fraser Muggeridge and he’s mainly known for his design for the arts.”
For Boris, the books that form around the philosophy of a particular chef effectively become artistic projects in themselves. “It’s a work of art for them and it’s like working with an artist,” she says. “They have a very strong sense of what they like and what they want. They are very sensitive to materials, papers, photography and typography, too. A lot of the chefs have also gone through the branding process for their restaurant – but we never carry this through onto the books. A new identity is created for each one.”
For the books where the recipes are the selling point, a different approach is needed that takes on more practical considerations. Boris says that the more ‘mainstream’ titles are often designed in a functional way, so that ingredients and recipe steps can be spotted at a glance. “We consider the format, materials and finishing of the cover carefully so that frequent use in the kitchen doesn’t damage the book,” Hasting adds. “A jacket on a thick home cooking tome isn’t user friendly, for example, and ideally the cover material should not stain easily.” It’s interesting that while many home cooks now resort to tablets and smartphones for recipes, Phaidon has to date only developed three food titles into digital products: the Taste of America anthology and Fäviken Magasinet restaurant monograph as iBooks, and Where Chefs Eat as a guidebook-style app.
This points to something of a cultural change that Phaidon has managed to become part of and now reflects in its printed books. That food, or at least the preparation and experience of food, has become a form of art in itself. It’s symbolic of a wider shift where food has been elevated way above mere sustenance, even beyond entertainment and simple pleasure. “Yes, the cookbook, especially the chef’s book, has moved into the territories of the art book and books on lifestyle and design,” says Hasting. “They are treasured in the same way as our books on art, architecture and design live as coffee table books in people’s homes.”
Perhaps the humble cookbook has been blurring the line between practical guide and art object for longer than we give it credit? After all, as The Cookbook Book attests, these very particular kinds of publications, which say so much about our varied cultures, have always tried to help us work towards creating our own unique experiences. That’s why we continue to treasure them.
Phaidon’s current food and cookery list is at phaidon.com/store/food-cook