Kitchen Arts & Letters Matt Sartwell
We love cookbooks. Yes, even in this age of the digitally available recipe we firmly believe in the art and craft of the actual cookbook. There is nothing like holding a book in your hands, feeling the weight, the texture of the cover, and the thickness of the paper while taking in the visuals of the design. To celebrate the cookbook we have begun doing book reviews and also want to call your attention to one of our favorite stores – New York City’s Kitchen Arts & Letters. I have been a fan for years and thought a Bakepedia Q&A with Managing Partner Matt Sartwell would be perfect for our audience. I call Matt when I need to uncover the history of panforte and when I must know the best resource book to buy on the macaron or traditional English puddings. The store has a large Home Baking & Dessert inventory as well as many books in the Professional Baking category. The store is a small, packed-to-the-rafters affair on the upper east side of Manhattan, but it holds a world of information, both through the books on its shelves and through the great minds of Matt and Founding Partner Nach Waxman.
Dédé Wilson: Matt, Thank you so much for taking this time with me!
Matt Sartwell: My pleasure, Dédé.
We have known one another for many years but I thought now was the perfect time to bring Kitchen Arts & Letters to our audience. First some background. How long has the store been around?
It was 30 years last September.
And were you there from the get-go?
I joined in fall of 1991.
How did (owner) Nach (Waxman) find you?
I found him! I was an editor at Penguin and wanted a change. A friend was working as Mrs. Waxman’s editorial assistant and I found out the store needed someone…I was an avid home cook. For instance I catered office parties at Penguin…I had an interest…it would be an easy fit. And once I got there, it was hard to shake loose (laughs). It is such a satisfying way to be involved with books. Editing is compromise…
I was just chatting with Jessica Merchant about this. I went from print to digital media, so I went from being edited (sometimes heavily for format and design reasons) to Bakepedia where I have the luxury of being able to say what I want. And then it occurred to me that she went the other way, having begun her career on her blog. We discussed how lucky she was that her chosen publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) allowed her voice to remain intact.
I struggle with this (balance) as well, having gone from the print version of our newsletter to electronic that feeds into our website.
So when people ask you, “what do you do”, how do answer?
(Laughs) Well like anybody who works in a retail setting, there are bills to pay…I have a routine of re-stocking merchandize sold the day before…handle orders coming in on-line…dealing with the public…questions from customers…we get everything from, “ why didn’t my brownies work” to “what do you know about appetizers served in early 19th century Washington, DC?”
Some can’t be answered with a quick check on the Internet. That’s where we come in. I also source materials. Sometimes it is something we discover on our own adventures around the world or sometimes a customer will call our attention to something, like they might say they saw a beautiful book in Stockholm, but didn’t have room to pack it and so could we locate a copy for them?
So everyday is a hodgepodge of these sorts of things…
Yes, those and more. We provide support for recent purchases, questions that one might have or for sharing information about our 92nd Street Y events…the book requests vary so. It could be someone looking for a book on traditional charcuterie or someone will call and ask for the best book for someone who just got his or her first apartment and needs an all-round book to start. Customers walk in the door and you never know what itch they need to scratch.
Tell us about your relationship with the 92nd Street Y.
We have been formally working with them for a while now. They are nearby and have facilities that allow us to have events for 20 or even 650 people. We have had events for Ferran Adria and many other authors. We do small author signings at the store, but we aren’t equipped for more than that. At the Y we can do talks, demos tastings and sell books. People get to meet the authors, too.
What’s coming up?
In August (19th) we have Mark Kurlansky and his daughter. He developed an approach to cooking where he and his daughter would spin a globe and wherever their finger landed, if it were dry land, they would cook from that country and culture. (The book is called International Night).
We have The Meat Men -the La Frieda family – on meat, and a panel of women and social media, which includes Jessica Merchant…Sugar Rush is an evening with Johnny Iuzzini and there will be an evening with Dorie Greenspan.
What are your most popular books right now in terms of baking and sweets?
Well, in terms of the bigger trends I would have to say I was blown away by the Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book last year. It really revived pie baking. That was a quiet section (of the store) and then it came out and more and more pie books started selling. It took me by surprise. It was like fish; we have many more books on fish than customers (looking for fish info). Same went for pies (before that book). I can’t tell you what to attribute the popularity to.
There’s a nice spike right now with Meringue Girls. It’s visually dramatic and has great ideas for parties; that’s an aspect that sells here that doesn’t necessarily in other places…
That sounds like Sweet & Vicious. The book itself is so visually arresting; so bold. It has a definitive point of view. I kick myself for not coming up with her idea of using pearls to create a decorative pie border! Do you know that one? It’s Rizzoli…
No, I hadn’t…I’m looking at it now (online) and ordering some for us.
(Laughs) I told you about something new?
Yes, that’s what I meant about us discovering new titles in all sorts of ways…ice cream is a trend now as well.
Oh, I couldn’t agree more, even outside of books. At the Fancy Food Show there were so many new products in the frozen dessert category.
What’s the most requested book that you can’t get?
That would have to be The Last Course by Claudia Fleming. If I had 100 copies I could sell them in one day.
I have that book! I better guard it.
Yeah, don’t lend it out (laughs).
What do you attribute that popularity to?
The book is mentioned by other writers on blogs and spoken about by other pastry chefs…it creates an awareness and also what is distinct is her range of savory ingredients in desserts. It doesn’t happen all the time, but often enough. The book has accumulated a legendary appeal.
What are the 3 books every baker should have?
Wow, hmm…that’s hard because there are so many different kinds of bakers…
Should we divide it up into beginners and advanced?
How about can I answer that as if I were stranded on an island? What my books would be? I am an intermediate baker so it would be a good representation.
Sure, go for it!
I would take Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads. That book has gotten me through so many bread baking dilemmas. And (laughs), well the next book says a lot about the kind of baking I do. I would have to choose a cookie book. Hmm, and I would say there are 2 to choose between…I am going to say Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy (by Alice Medrich) because it keeps surprising me. I trust it, but it also keeps me interested…there are enough different recipes and different types of recipes and I love her approach with technique…she goes back to square one and reimagines and reinvents.
What was the other cookie book you were weighing your decision on?
I was tossing back and forth with the Martha Stewart Cookies. Despite any of the baggage with her, this book works. It is wholly dependable, but it doesn’t surprise me the way Alice’s does.
And then for the third book, as a general fill-in-the-blank, make sure I can do anything book I would say the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion. It has the basics like muffins and cakes but it also has the funny little stuff like crackers and pancakes. I have found that it is always solid from a technique point of view. It doesn’t always do what I want with flavor, but you can play with that. They even encourage you to run in different directions with flavor choices.
These 3 books provide a great range of choices. Choosing the best book is so individual because of people’s strengths…I also use Bakewise (by Shirley Corriher) in a completely different fashion; as more of a reference. Choosing 10 books would be harder!
What’s the most rare book in the store?
There are different ways to come at that…we have one of the 300 copies that were done of a very beautiful edition of The Physiology of Taste, the MFK Fisher translation with illustrations by Wayne Thiebeaud. There are lines drawings and watercolors. It is a truly fine edition. They are numbered and sell for $3200. Breath-taking to look at. A beautiful piece of bookmaking all the way around.
We also have 1 copy of the original of Noma book. The story of the original is that there were 3000 produced in Danish and 1000 in English and Rene (Redzepi) hated it. He didn’t want it re-printed. (He didn’t like the photography or reproduction). The last one we sold was for $1100. We have one more copy but I think we will keep it as reference for the historical documentation of that culinary movement.
Nach has some early editions of The Epicurian by Ranhofer…maybe he has some early Amelia Simmons on hand…but we don’t get into the true antiquarian books the way Ben Kinmont does in CA, but we do acquire things from time to time.
Sometimes the value is to the person searching… a particular book might not be valuable to anyone else, but there is a connection…Mom cooked from it but their sister got the book after Mom passed and they want a copy. Those are not big-ticket items, but they make people happy.
It’s so true. One can like a book for so many reasons. It might be the recipes, it might be the nostalgic connection that you have or it might even be the design. I love the new trend of covers where there is no paper jacket but the cover itself is artistic. What are those called, that style?
Paper over boards.
I love it, the tactile experience is part if it. You cannot get that with an online recipe.
We have a book covered with fabric to mimic feathers. It’s so individual.
What is that book about?
It’s a book about game called Loose Birds and Game.
What baking and dessert titles are you looking forward to?
This fall we have much to look forward to: a bread book from Della Fattoria from CA…it’s an Artisan (publisher) book. Cindy Paulsen keeps asking for it and she’s no fool, so we are paying attention.
There are books coming from Dominique Ansel and Johnny Iuzzini that already have a lot of buzz…I’m looking forward to the new Medrich book on alternative flours. Last fall wasn’t so great; there was no clear contender.
And of course the Rose (Levy Beranbaum) and Dorie (Greenspan) books are coming out…
It’s a packed season this year yet they (the topics) aren’t fighting each other. Also the Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts book from Norton…the pastry chef from Del Posto.
So much to look forward to! We will be covering those here at Bakepedia. Matt, thank you so much for your time. Always a pleasure speaking with you.