The James Beard Award-winning chef John Sundstrom was the featured chef and cookbook author at the recent Beard on Books monthly literary series at the historic James Beard House.
Chef John Sundstrom earned a James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest for his Seattle restaurant, Lark where he is chef and owner.
The cookbook, Lark: Cooking Against the Grain is named for his rustic and elegant cuisine and was released in January; pre-sell was Holiday 2012.
A circumspect, thoughtful speaker, Chef John is at the same time tech savvy – checking his smart phone for notes the way an advertising account manager checks his PowerPoint — told the story of his culinary trajectory. Winning the James Bard award in ’07? “It’s a door opener,” claimed Chef John.
Right away, it must be said, the Lark cookbook is different.
It is beautiful. Everything about it is artful, unique and personal.
Measuring around 9 by 12 inches, the book is rather oversized, a vintage picture book of sorts. Further, the cloth binding – maroon color in this first, limited edition (chef notes it will change in later editions, Next up is green.) – breaks to the cover image of the lush forest and the moss and fern carpet that whispers the mystery of nature. There is no typical cover photo of a prepared, plated dish or kitchen or food ingredients for this go-it-his-way chef.
Even the name of the restaurant and the book’s subtitle amplifies his contrarian pursuits.
First established in a not so established neighborhood of Seattle in 2003, the soon to be culinary mecca was thought of as a “lark,” according to Sundstrom. The mission was to support artisanal local culture, including culinary and fine art.
Sundstrom noted how winning the Beard Best Chef award opened so many doors, including the now, rite of passage to produce a cookbook.
There were the usual talks with publisher, agents and other literary experts.
Then, as chef John explained, there was the financial crash that put the cookbook project on the back burner
Rather than cry in their soup, Chef and Jared Stoneberg a kindred chef and technology guru, talked about options over a few drinks one night and determined they could shift gears. It seemed they determined they didn’t need permission – they’d do the cookbook their way.
Chef John credits Jared with the digital, social networking prowess and vision to ignite the project.
The MacArthur genius here is the two determined the Lark cookbook would be produced as a drop-dead, artful print cookbook and at the same time, an E-book available through Kindle, and as a robust, multi-platform App, chock-a-block with videos, photos, and communication capabilities – More on this later.
Essentially they can drop the book onto any platform. “This will be the future of cookbook publishing,” according to Sundstrom.
There was the vision.
But, sigh – there was the issue of financing.
The two determined they would launch a Kickstarter campaign in February of 2012.
Now, somewhat more generally utilized, chef John notes that when they did it, they were pretty much the pioneers in the culinary world to utilize the crowd sourcing capability of Kickstarter.
Stoneberg built the Lark website and launched the Lark Kickstarter campaign.
Kickstarter and Lark were like peanut butter and jelly. Kickstarter even featured Lark as part of their promos, furthering Lark’s outreach.
Contrasting the usual book deal as a two-year project written with a ghostwriter or partner, chef John said not being a major brand name like a Mario Batali or Food Network star, he recognized he’d have little control and would have to sell an awful lot of books to realize any success. “Publishers want the big hits,” he said.
Via self-publishing he could stay true to his brand and stay true to the Lark mission of supporting local artisans and culture.
In fact, the Lark cookbook team was victory of Seattle photographer, videographer, graphic artist, layout and design and programming talent.
“Building the production team with recognized, local artisans supports the local economy,” said Sundstrom
The book was printed in Seattle, too.
Plus, there were efficiencies to shooting all the value-added digital content the same time as the print book’s photography.
Not discounted, the book carries a $50 price tag. All that art doesn’t come cheap.
According the chef John, the added bonus of working with Kickstarter for the cookbook was the ability to engage the fans from the very beginning.
“We could test the recipes with the fans. “It was an engaging feed loop, “he added.
The print cookbook lists every Kickstarter contributor.
There is also a complete list of Resources, as well as the Index.
There doesn’t seem to be anything the creators haven’t thought of here.
The book echoes the Lark restaurant menus.
It is divided not into food groups, but rather the seasons according to chef John.
That is Evergreen: April to July, Bounty: August to October and Mist: November to March.
While this might not be the most intuitive or efficient chapter descriptors, remember this is an artful, personal culinary journey.
Moreover, the recipes are homegrown and elevating at the same time.
Readers can learn to truss a chicken, make charcuterie, ricotta, bread, and pastry and use foraged and seasonal ingredients.
It’s inspiring, enduring food and drink recipes foodies will turn to frequently and share with other good-food friends.
And the headnotes or Seasonal Writings, are compelling food stories that make you want to read more about this chef and his food focus on flavor, sustainable ingredients and eating with the seasons from a variety of food sources including boar and rabbit and all kinds of fish.
No mono-culture food sources here! Rather the spirit of Mist, Evergreen and Bounty infuses, inspires and defines this unique, artful cookbook.
This is comfort food of an exciting kind. The recipes are an adventure of flavor and taste discoveries.
The digital cookbook inspires confidence through the use of slide shows and videos along with step-by-step guides.
In fact, the App is so dynamic and robust experience, a full App review to follow.
For a culinary adventure that was fused as a lark, this is some serious eats.