Book City: Greg Atkinson’s great cookbook loves
Greg Atkinson Credit: 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.
Is there one cookbook you couldn't cook without? That your turn to for recipes for your restaurant?
Most of the recipes we cook at Marché are my own. When I develop my own take on a traditional French dish, I will read every recipe I have for that dish. I spend a lot of time with the old Paul Bocuse cookbook, and with Julia Child's “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
What cookery authors have inspired you?
M.F.K. Fisher, who I eventually got to know, was probably the single greatest influence on my own writing. I used to keep Laurie Colwin's “Home Cooking” under my bed and read snatches of it almost every day when my kids were growing up. Something about her use of the language is so easy and precise that I wanted to read it again and again. I love the sensory descriptions that the late Marcella Hazan used in her recipes, with useful indicators of doneness that read like poetry.
Are your cookbooks pristine or splattered?
My old cookbooks are a mess. I spent so many hours thumbing through my Mom's copy of “Larousse Gastronomique” that the pages are worn thin; that book resides on the kitchen counter at Restaurant Marché. Her old copy of the “Betty Crocker Cooky (sic) Book” is tattered, torn and still with me after fifty years.
When I was learning how to cook, I relied on Marion Cunningham's “Fannie Farmer Cookbook;” it's completely come undone now, splattered, burned, stained and unbound, but I hold on to it because it evokes all the wonderful dishes I made following those recipes, and because Marion eventually became a dear friend who taught me as much about the restaurant business as she did about cooking.
My newer books are mostly in good shape because I never really cook from books any more, or if I do, I take a picture of the page with my phone, or jot down the recipe on a separate sheet of paper.
Do you have favorite cooking blogs?
But I don't really have time for blogs.
When do you carve out time to read?
I read on my day off and I spend at least some time reading in bed every night, although that is not popular with my wife; she likes lights out. Whenever I take a ferry ride into the city — and I go once a week on Sundays to meet my beef producer at the Ballard farmer¹s market — I read coming and going.
What were your most cherished books when you were a child?
I was a big fan of Doctor Seuss and I still have a soft spot for his work. I truly believe he was one of the few real geniuses of our time. In elementary school, I liked biographies of famous Americans, and I collected those. I read “The Black Stallion,” “Black Beauty,” “Lassie,” and scores of other animal stories. I was obsessed with science fiction as a young teen and read everything I could get my hands on by Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and eventually Phillip K. Dick.
My father liked the moderns, so by the time I entered high school, I had read all of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels. I thought this made me sophisticated, so I kept them out in prominent places around my room.
Do you have any favorite genres?
I absolutely love memoir; I will read almost anyone's memoir if the writing is compelling. I love the inside look at how my fellow creatures experience this existence, especially when their experience is completely unlike mine. The most recent memoirs I read were Claire Diederer¹s “Poser,” and “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed.
Are you working on a new cookbook?
I am working on two books at once right now. One is a playful romp through the culinary alphabet, with an essay for every letter and an underlying theme of how language impacts the way we view the world, and especially what we eat. The other book is "The Restaurant Marché Cookbook," which will contain recipes from the restaurant as well as a personal account of how we came to open the place and what it takes to run it.
What book do you plan to read next?
I'm looking forward to “The Art of French Pastry,” by Jacquy Pfeiffer and Martha Rose Shulman. I also really want to read Mary Roach's “Gulp; Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.”
What Val's Reading This Week: "Dept. of Speculation," Jenny Ofill's mesmerizingly brief novel of art, motherhood, and a broken, or perhaps not, marriage. It's mysterious yet opaque, funny and yet so sad, and makes every other novel I've read lately seem redundantly wordy.