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Book City: Greg Atkinson's great cookbook loves

The chef and writer on which of his books are tattered beyond recognition -- and which never made it off his bedside table.
Greg Atkinson

Greg Atkinson Charity Burggraaf

Greg Atkinson is owner and chef of the award-winning Restaurant Marché on Bainbridge Island. As a forerunner of the fresh, local food movement, he’s known for his revitalization of the menu at Canlis restaurant. Winner of the James Beard Foundation’s M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, Greg is a former food columnist, and author of several books, including "Northwest Essentials" and "West Coast Cooking".

What books are open on your nightstand right now?

There's quite a stack on that table at any given time. “The Art of Fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz is on top, as I’ve been making crème fraiche and sauerkraut lately. There’s “Selected Poems” by Mary Oliver, and “The Treehouse,” by Kathleen Jamie, who is my favorite poet at the moment. And I almost always have the newest America's Test Kitchen books around; “The Science of Good Cooking,” is my current favorite. I read the first chapter of Malcolm Gladwell's “David and Goliath,” and it’s been sitting there ever since.

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you¹d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

One book that I thoroughly enjoyed and have loaned to several people is “Hotel Bemelmans.” Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the children's book “Madeline,” was a marvelous raconteur, who grew up in the hotel and restaurant industry in Germany before being sent to America by his family to avoid jail time. Like Anthony Bourdain's “Kitchen Confidential”, which came out decades later, this industry memoir was a no-holds-barred tell-all from the dark under-belly of the service world; it's hilarious and moving. Because it's set in the early decades of the twentieth century, it evokes the mood of Downton Abby.

Any book you've read lately that caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?

Thor Hanson's “Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle” traces the origin and development of feathers in history and culture. From fossil feathers to quill pens, down pillows and feather boas, feathers have had quite a run. I had no particular interest in this topic; now I’m fascinated by feathers.

Any well-reviewed or popular books lately that you felt didn't live up to the hype?

So many popular books are completely off my radar! I don't read mystery, romance or horror. I think the very popular Dan Brown (“The Da Vinci Code”) is a dreadful writer; his stories are compelling, but his use of the language doesn't work for me. I suffered through one of his books and cannot understand how people read more than one.

How many cookbooks have you written? Do you have a favorite?

I have six cookbooks published. “In Season,” and its natural sequel “At the Kitchen Table,” are equally dear to me because they are more than cookbooks; they’re books of essays with recipes. Writing those essays helped me come to know who I am, what I care about, and how I want to live.

Does living in the Northwest, on an island, have an influence on your cooking, on your writing?

Absolutely! I have lived in the Northwest since I was twenty years old (I am fifty-four now), and my writing is very much of this place. Many of the observations that open my essays are of the natural world, and our particular corner of the world has some unique topography and some very iconic flora and fauna. Had I stayed in Florida where I grew up, I would be observing different phenomena, cooking with different ingredients and even different techniques. I am of the persuation that where we are actually shapes who we are.

Do you collect cookbooks? Any specific authors, regions, types of cooking?

I have thousands of cookbooks. Many seem to have come to me of their own accord. Because my restaurant is French, I have dozens of French cookbooks that I consult constantly. I inherited a number of my mother's books. I was a judge for the International Association of Culinary Professionals cookbook awards, and over those years I received every qualifying book. I spent years (before the Internet) combing used bookstores for volumes of the old Time-Life Good Cook series, as well as the series on Foods of the World; for some reason those book make me feel wonderfully nostalgic.


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