Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Back for Seconds: The Roger Smith Cookbook Conference, February 7-9th, NYC

There is a huge audience for cookbooks.
Cookbooks are an outsize commentary on our culture.

With more than 23 books under his culinary belt, and presently working on two more food books almost simultaneously, Andrew F. Smith, better known as Andy, surely possesses the discipline of a monk and the quiet passion and anticipation of a high school first date.

He is also food author, educator at the New School in New York City where he teaches food history, food controversies and professional food writing. 
He is a dedicated writer, a plodding journeyman dedicated to his art and industry.  

So often with the greats of one era, talents can be blinded to the advancing, shifting winds and tides and all the forces of nature – blind to the displacing paradigms sea changes.

Think of silent movie stars the likes of Rudolph Valentino or Charlie Chaplin who never made the transition to “talkies.”
Major brands suffer from blinders too and don’t look in the rear view mirror: Kodak lost out to digital and eventually the iPhone.
In all – they never saw it coming…

So how did it come to be that a successful food and drink and author, New School instruction and guest speaker came to help spearhead the first-ever Cookbook Conference bringing together culinary writers and cookbook authors and publishers to determine the next platform or protocol for the industry?

This is the nexus of commerce and art and networking.   
The Cookbook Conference is the third leg of the stool.

It’s Andy’s very love for his avocation that propelled and inspired him and a core cohort to launch The Roger Smith Cookbook Conference program development.

The pioneering Cookbook Cohort includes Bruce Shaw who, according to his website information and Facebook, acquired The Harvard Common Press in 1980 and has been the president and publisher for the past 30 years. He is responsible for the development of the company’s vertical focus in cooking and has built The Harvard Common Press into a nationally recognized publishing company. He is also deeply involved in a number of cookbook outreach efforts, especially bloggers.
Bruce is also an active member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals as well as a major investor in an online recipe start-up, Yummly.com, which allows the user to learn more about you as you use it. The recipe search will allow users to get recipes focused on their needs. For example, vegan or gluten-free eaters will increasingly get recipes delivered to them via online media. 

Also part of the Cookbook Cohort is Ann Mendelson (I like this profile)    http://www.ediblemanhattan.com/magazine/author_anne_mendelson/)
And culinary historian, Cathy Kaufmann, http://www.historictable.com

It was a very organic process, as Smith describes the way they put the show together.  They didn’t start the conference from a structural standpoint but rather from a content foundation. Not surprising for content creators. Er, writers. 

Seriously.  This is one of the broader issue themes that propelled Smith and his cookbook-writing cronies to produce the cookbook conference/gathering.  
“The business model for cookbooks has not suffered from digitization or eBooks or consolidation as the general publishing industry has” explained Smith.  It remains only ten to 15% of current sales. 

The broader publishing industry was seen as having jumped the shark.
And while they recognized their cookbook genre remained safe from the blood that was in the water in other categories, it was still poised to make a leap. 
So to get ahead of that painful bite, they saw the need to collectively manage their future and the changing world of cookbook publishing. 
They were laying in place a recipe for success.

With looming questions like, “If bloggers are giving away recipes/content, what value do cookbooks have?” Or “How can cookbook writers create Apps?”  Or “Where do eBooks an enhanced content fit in the cookbook world?”

Cookbook Conference
In it’s second year, the Cookbook Conference will be again held at the family-owned Roger Smith hotel.  “It’s perfect for us, “ noted Smith (no relation).  It’s a boutique hotel, it has a foodie pedigree, (read artist-friendly); they allow us the freedom to pretty much do what we want (more artistic freedom) “And plus,” he adds with equal parts mirth and strategic sincerity – “The elevators are really slow.” 

Before one can ponder what Depression-era lift technology has to do with a forward-thinking professional conference – Smith points out that slow elevators provide a conversation nest – a captive crew who are more or less forced to chat on the long journey of going from here to there. 
No awkward silence among these word warriors; they exchange shoptalk about the panels and workshops.

Plus, the conference has built in plenty of time for interaction among the attendees. 
“We see the networking as such a valuable part of the event,” Smith points out.  “We’ve heard of more than one success anecdote of someone finding an agent or getting a book contract.” 
That kind of thing that can only come about with thoughtful one-one-one conversations. Therefore they built in plenty of needed down time to talk, swap stories and business cards over -- what else – cocktails and meals – as well as between the panels and workshops.

This year there are 32 panels and eight workshops. There are 120 panelists – experts in their field – from culinary history to food writing, cookbook editing, cookbook reviews and marketing and public relations.

Smith explained the workshops as hands-on learning experiences.  They are three to four hours long.  With subjects that include Introduction to Cookbook Publishing, Cookbook Publishing 360, The Wild World of Self-Publishing, the sessions are chock-a-block with detailed expert advice, discussion, and Q&A. Some have advance preparation and reading prep required in order to better benefit the attendees.
“The goal is a practical orientation,” Smith said. He explained how the workshops offer in-depth, practical information from those who know best.
While some of the workshops are already filled, video of the workshops will be made available for purchase.  

The Panels essentially fall into one of two, loosely defined or labeled categories: academic and looking at the future.

The 20 academic sessions undertake such topics as culinary history and how food impacts economics and cultures.

The future sessions explore the nexus of cookbooks and technology, and popular culture. 

These 12 panels will showcase key topics careening toward every element of the world of cookbooks.  For example, Smith explained that with half a million recipes online, there is a lot of talk about what is a successful cookbook today?
Mixing it up even more is the fact that those food bloggers firing off recipes to the blogosphere – can, in turn, garner a traditional cookbook. 
Famous chefs – who used to produce a cookbook to increase the popularity for his or her restaurant, now more often produce cookbooks as part of their brand building to help sell vanity products in vertical market categories from kitchen appliances to frozen food.  And chefs who work with “ghost” writers find those spirits are not content to remain in the shadows and instead produce their own cookbooks….   
Food apps might allow someone to press a button and see the soufflĂ© being made – in images.  
The issue and opportunity of enhanced platforms – meaning adding audio and video to cookbooks is very, very big.  The digital version of the book can offer value-added content.
(This Examiner shot video during the photo session for her book, The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook for this very purpose. At the same time, Smith said that cookbook publishers increasingly look for authors who have an audience across social media outlets.  Twitter and Facebook Followers can enthusiastically help sell books and viral communications and extend the fan base.)

“This is what is so exciting about our business,” enthuses Smith in talking about all the opportunities technology can afford cookbook publishing as it whisks into the 21st century. 

In response to this Examiner’s questions, Smith highlighted a few of the panel’s subject topics, including “…Why Write Cookbooks for Kids?”
‘There exists generational and gender issues baked into this topic. 
Smith chuckles recalling how his mother would “throw” him out of the kitchen.
Today, he notes that approximately 40% of the Food Network’s audience is male!  Quite a demographic shift in the food culture.
Food at home and what we can do with children are important messages that resonate according to Smith.
The Regional American Cookery panel will discuss how food is a way to identify and authenticate a region and its people.” “Regional cookbooks will continue to rise in popularity,” Smith said.  Why? 
Family traditions and recipes and celebrations, along with local food culture and cultivation used to be passed on through the generations.  This is how all cookbooks came to be.

However, given time pressure, overscheduling and parenting “out-sourcing” these traditions have too often become a lost art.
Regional cookbooks have stepped up and filled a culinary and cultural historical void.   “Regional cookbooks preserve local and regional culinary art in the presence of nationalization and globalization – both of these phenomenon contribute to the destruction of local traditions,” Smith added. 
Regional cookbooks are the antidote to indistinguishable, industrial menus.  

I so wish the Cookbook Conference would have been on my or my publisher's radar screen -- I would have been honored and oh-so-perfect for this Regional Cookbook panel with The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook.  Sigh... There was so much going on with the book tour and signings that it escaped us... 

Continuing, Smith said the Regional Cookbooks also offer “a nostalgic look back to the rich cultural past that food and family provide.”
Smith cited New Orleans, Chicago, and Alice Waters’ Bay area as food-centric places where happy or unusual circumstances occurred to command incredibly different and unique food cultures that influence national and international significance and recognition. 

Honing in on Waters, Smith explained that she and her Chez Panisse were not the only one to stress locally-sources ingredients.  However she got the visibility and encouraged so many to follow the local food and slow food lifestyle. 
Incredibly, New York was the last to buy into this culinary transformational, seismic shift. 
Even more interesting though, is how Smith goes on to illustrate how this could be – how a restaurant and culinary powerhouse could trip up or miss-step it’s leadership in this way.

Smith related how haute cuisine in the European, particularly the established French cooking preeminence -- as defined by and in New York, died. About 20 years ago California led the homegrown movement.   
“If you look at New York City haute cuisine restaurant menus 40 or 50 years ago, we can see those menu items no longer exist.  There was a complexity of that era that diners and chefs no longer wanted to pursue. Today’s menus are not based on the same principles. 

The “aha” is that the old ways were so powerful and so persuasive in New York that it was only natural that it would take more time for the premiere, entrenched – and popular – dining traditions to take so long to eventually fall away. 
Its very success meant it would take more than a passing fad to render the status quo to the culinary history archives.

The Cookbooks as Works of Art panel spotlights cookbooks that “feature recipes with hard-to-source ingredients or professional-grade equipment, (that) may be faithful records of what goes on in restaurant kitchens, but they often seem intentionally too complex for the home cook. As a result, these books function as totems, signs that the owner is interested in and knowledgeable about trending food culture. Some recent examples include: the El Bulli books, Alinea, Momofuku, Modernist Cuisine, NOMA, The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. We are interested in the implications of the popularity of these books, where food is no longer really presented as nourishment, but rather as something more akin to art.”

Culinary bliss…

Recognizing that most cookbook authors and food writers toil away in a more or less solitary environment, the conference is a singular opportunity for food writers to come together to learn about the future of their world. 
They are passionate about their art.
But they may be in the dark or frightened about the rapid pace of change technology is delivering to their craft. 

Smith is also quick to point out that unlike other conferences where the food is undeniably bad, attendees were over the moon about the delicious, exquisite food as prepared by Daniel Mowles, Chef de Cuisine at the Roger Smith Hotel’s Lily’s Restaurant.  Chef Daniel shops local too – He shows off his street smarts at The Union Square Greenmarket.  You can bet there won’t be a green bean almandine anywhere on the menu!  

Think you are satiated following New York Restaurant Week?
video of Chef Mowles, chef de cuisine, Roger Smith Hotel
Gotham is just getting started.   

The hunger for food news, culinary history and politics, master chefs is kicking into high gear at The Roger Smith Cookbook Conference, February 7-9.

If you are a foodie and/or a professional cookbook author and food writer in any of the myriad food cultures, you cannot miss this cookbook conference.

This Examiner predicts The Roger Smith Cookbook Conference will be to food writing as the legendary Frankfurt Book Fair has been to the general publishing marketplace.

Register and learn more here:

The media partner is Heritage Radio Network (www.heritageradio.org)

Andy Smith’s most recently published books are: American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food (University of California Press) and
Drinking History: 15 Turning Points in the Making of American Beverages (Columbia University Press).

Andy serves as the editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia on Food and Drink in America and is the Series Editor for the Edible Series published by Reaktion Books.
He has written more than three hundred articles in academic journals, popular magazines and newspapers, and has served as historical consultant to several television series.

Andy Smith’s library shelf of books can be found at his website: www.andrewfsmith.com

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