Is 2017 the year of the Los Angeles cookbook?
Are we experiencing a golden age of the Los Angeles cookbook? We just might be. Over the last few years, there have been so many cookbooks from L.A. chefs and food writers that they would easily fill a shelf in your cookbook library. And this year is no different: Rustic Canyon executive chef Jeremy Fox published “On Vegetables” in April, which was soon followed by Nguyen Tran’s “Adventures in Starry Kitchen” and Bill Esparza’s “L.A. Mexicano.” This fall, Josef Centeno’s “Bäco: Vivid Recipes from the Heart of Los Angeles” will hit the market, as will books from chefs Wes Avila and Kris Yenbamroong, who run Guerrilla Tacos and Night + Market, respectively. Actually, you’ll probably need two shelves.
That there are now this many cookbooks showcasing this range of L.A. cooking is striking. While Altadena-based independent press Prospect Park Books has been distributing and publishing local cookbooks for a decade, major publishing houses have expressed this level of interest in L.A. dining only relatively recently. Scroll back a decade, and outside a handful of very well-established chefs — Wolfgang Puck, Nancy Silverton, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Miliken — national publishers didn’t pay as much attention to the food of L.A. as they did to the food of other major cities.
“I feel L.A. has traditionally been an underpublished area,” says Ten Speed Press executive editor Jenny Wapner, who acquired “Guerrilla Tacos.” “But book publishing has to work in tandem with all the other media. We had to wait for L.A. to be a nationally recognized food city in the way that New York and San Francisco are. You can’t just do a book in a vacuum; you have to wait for the stars to align.”
The stars have aligned because the national media has (belatedly) become aware — and respectful — of L.A.’s food culture. In the last three years, the city has been named “America’s Greatest Dining City” (Eater), the “Most Exciting Food City in America (GQ), the “Best Eating City in America” (Lucky Peach), one of the “Best Food Cities in the World” (Food & Wine), among various other superlative accolades. “Undeniably,” Wapner says, “L.A. is having a moment right now.”
For local chefs too, the timing was right.
Centeno was approached to write a cookbook a few years ago, but it wasn’t until 2015 that he decided to ink a deal. By that time, he was 3½ years into running his restaurant Bäco Mercat in the Historic Core. “It just felt like the right time. We either had to jump at the opportunity now, while someone was interested, or it was going to pass,” he says. He also wanted to document this particular moment in downtown’s history, “to capture at least one small part of it,” he says, “Because everything here is changing so fast.”
Avila says he had been interested in writing a cookbook, but didn’t feel ready until recently. “By the time I was approached to write “Guerrilla Tacos,” I felt like I had enough recipes,” he says.
That said, editors are not greenlighting book proposals based just on the fact that L.A. is part of the national food conversation. A book’s ability to reach to a wide audience is a factor — and crucially, so is the author’s voice and story.
Voice was certainly a consideration for Wapner, who says Avila “is one of the most dynamic and compelling people I’ve ever talked to.” Clarkson Potter editor-at-large Francis Lam says he was drawn to “Night+Market” in part because of Yenbamroong’s story of growing up in a restaurant family and absorbing the city’s flavors. “People really want a sense of a person, and I think Kris’ book delivers on that,” Lam says.
Individually, these chefs tell fascinating stories of self-discovery; place their books side by side and a map of Southern California cooking emerges, one that reflects a diversity not often found in earlier generations of L.A. cookbooks.
In “L.A. Mexicano,” for instance, Esparza takes us from Costa Mesa to Sherman Oaks as he explores Mexican cooking in Southern California. And the energy of Avila’s book shifts depending on whether he’s making tacos in Pico Rivera or street taters in the Arts District.
“That didn’t happen on purpose,” Avila says, about how L.A. plays out in the pages of “Guerrilla Tacos.” “But as we were writing it, the city just naturally became part of the book. L.A. is almost like a third author.”
This sense of place raises timely themes.
“We certainly didn’t intend this to be political, but wow,” says Prospect Park Books publisher Colleen Dunn Bates, who began work on “L.A. Mexicano” before the presidential election in November. “This book took on a political overtone that I never thought of when we started. Every single one of the stories starts with immigration. And that was not intended.”
These narratives reflect the history of Los Angeles — and of the country as well. At any other time, these cookbooks would resonate far beyond the city for that very reason, but they’re especially relevant now.
Along those lines, Lam sees Yenbamroong’s story fitting into a larger discourse.
“In a moment when we’re talking so much about immigrants and their place in our society, it’s incredibly exciting to talk to immigrants and children of immigrants who can speak about what they do and how they enrich our national culinary consciousness,” he says.
“The L.A. story is an American story.”
Tien Nguyen is the co-author, with Roy Choi and Natasha Phan, of “L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food.”
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