Stephanie Izard: You Don’t Need to be a Top Chef to Release a Cookbook in 2011


Around these parts, Stephanie Izard doesn't really need an introduction, but in the off chance you haven't heard of her, here goes: She rose to national prominence in 2008 when she won the fourth season of Top Chef, and to date, is still the only woman to have nabbed the title on that show.

Prior to that, she ran and subsequently closed the Bucktown restaurant Scylla, and after Top Chef opened Girl And The Goat in the West Loop in summer 2010. That restaurant has gotten plenty of media attention, but Izard has proven -- reality shows aside -- she isn't exactly one to rabidly chase the spotlight. Which is why, presumably, she waited until last month to release her first cookbook: Girl In The Kitchen.

And along with a first book comes many other firsts, but chief among them is the ubiquitous media tour. I gave Izard a call this morning moments after her plane landed to talk about what that experience has been like, as well as explore why she released a tangible cookbook as opposed to one with online elements, and whether you have to have been on TV to really make a go of releasing a cookbook nowadays. Aspiring chefs and authors: heed. 

First off, how's the book and the tour been going so far?

Stephanie Izard: Good! Sales have been going pretty well, but I don't know anything about books still. [Laughs.] All the cities we've gone to, we've had a pretty good response. The tour we set up was a little different than most, and it seems to be going well.

When the idea came about to do a book, had you considered going the all digital route and just publish via iPad or through similar channels? Or did you intentionally only go the tangible, ink-and-paper route?

Stephanie Izard: We did consider going with a dual-purpose, tangible book and some online components, but I think we're going to save all of those plans for the book we're working on now. But I don't know. For me, I still love having cookbooks in my hand, just something you can sit on the couch and flip through. I'm sure a lot of people are just going to recipe websites and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, I think people love flipping through a cookbook. That's just how we decided to go with that.

When you met with your publisher, had they done any research indicating you should only do print or maybe only do digital? Or was the technology still too new at that time?

Stephanie Izard: It wasn't really a question of that, which I think is surprising. I think a lot of chefs these days are just doing the dual thing, where they create a book because there are still a lot of people who want a book, and then create some online components to either complement it or it's just an online version. I guess I sold the book to Chronicle two years ago, so it was just on the cusp -- it will be a different story when I go back to them with the second book. I think the digital component will definitely be discussed heavier, but even two years ago it was like, "Ehh, I think we can still get away with just a book."

What else do you hope to do differently, digitally, with your next book?

Stephanie Izard: It's one thing to read a recipe, but it's another to watch a video of somebody making it. I guess now that there a lot of chefs and authors doing online components we can see what other people are doing and try to think of things that will make it a little bit different. Even showing sourcing the ingredients and bringing the whole farm-to-table thing to life a little bit in the online component can be fun. This next book is all about Girl And The Goat and the opening and things like that, so we'll definitely bring some of the liveliness of the restaurant into the online component.

You might have a better sense of this than me, but as the Internet has had its rippling effect on the publishing industry, from your standpoint, are cookbooks still coming out at the same pace as they have historically? Or have they slowed down?

Stephanie Izard: I have a number of friends with cookbooks coming out, but I don't pay attention to things as closely as I should. [Laughs.] I was just at a book event in D.C., for a national book-club thing, and I was sitting next to Michael Ruhlman, he just had a book that came out. I think people are still producing books, but those who started producing them in the last year, there's definitely going to be more of an online side to it. There's also an online side to just selling or promoting your book. We did a bunch of videos about the book and ways to use the whole online and Internet side for sales of the actual book.

How do you feel about the whole "celebrity chef" movement and the term itself? That's also something that's risen in the last few years.

Stephanie Izard: [Laughs.] When I hear that term, I guess I'm in that category, but I think it's it more Mario Batali and Jamie Oliver. I'm not like, "Oh, hey, me and my buddies the celebrity chefs go somewhere and get our pictures taken and autographs and stuff."

On your way to the Millionaire's Club?

Stephanie Izard: [Laughs.] Right. I mean, it's fun to be a little part of it but I guess I'll never look at myself and be like, "Hi, I'm Stephanie and I'm a celebrity chef." [Laughs.] I'm just a chef.

Well, because it's attributed to you and people like you a lot. But I'm wondering if people reading this are hoping someday to release a cookbook, in your opinion, do they have be a big name like yourself or a Mario Batali to make it viable?

Stephanie Izard: I think that, just from my experience of selling the book to a publisher, it definitely helps to already have a fan base. I think that even when I sold my book I didn't have quite as many Twitter followers. My fan base is continuing to grow, and I think now, selling a book, there's more that a publishing company is looking for. But there are so many cookbooks out there and I'm sure there are ton of extremely well written and beautiful cookbooks that the person that wrote them doesn't have a big name behind them. When someone walks into a store and there's 500 cookbooks to choose from, they're going to be drawn to the one with someone they recognize on the cover perhaps. I think it's either having a -- I'm putting little quotation marks around this when I say this -- "celebrity chef" behind it or just having a cool idea and a unique thing. There's some cool books out there, like that one named Bones, and I go in a store and see it's called Bones, I'm like, "Yeah, what's that?" So having something unique behind it helps.

That's a great point, though: As everyone's hopping on the bandwagon, just being on it doesn't get you noticed.

Stephanie Izard: Right. There's a lot of competition out there.

That in mind, what would you advise people who haven't been on a TV show to catch attention as a chef or author?

Stephanie Izard: As a chef, before I went on television I had a restaurant, and we had a PR rep and we were very good about just trying to keep up on that end of things. For me, I was lucky I was a 27-year-old female opening a restaurant. That's like a story unto itself. I would like to hope that any chef who's going to create food, that's the best you can do. It is a competitive market, especially in a city like Chicago where there's people looking for great new restaurants and foodie things all the time. You just create a beautiful place. You don't need to have a big name behind it or anything like that. Same with the writing world, but it's hard for me to say. Like I say, I barely understand it myself. I'm still figuring it out myself.

How did you define your audience for the book? You say you have a story to your arc, and of course you do, but it isn't in the same sort of category as something like the Alinea book.

Stephanie Izard: Yeah. For the book that we wrote, its purpose is to be for Mrs. Smith that lives in the middle of Iowa as well as a foodie in New York. The need for that book is definitely tapping into a number of different markets, which is part of going out on the road and going on Rachael Ray the other day, which is a different target market than when I go do a dinner in Seattle. I'm creating a book that is meant for the home cook or chef friends who enjoys reading it, people that enjoy taking it home and just learning from it.

Something like the Alinea cookbook is just amazing and every person in the industry, every chef and every cook is going to go buy it. It's just beautiful, and your average home cook isn't going to be able to cook from it but they'll still buy it because it's just a beautiful book.

Right. It's a good coffee-table book, if nothing else.

Stephanie Izard: Right. I couldn't make anything out of it. [Laughs.]

What sort of things have you learned going out on a huge media tour like this for the first time?

Stephanie Izard: I'm just trying to have fun with it. Sometimes they're like, "Oh, do this interview for this," and it's like I'm in the middle of Texas doing an interview on the morning show and I'm like, "This is funny. I don't know anyone out here." But that's the point: You go on a book tour to get into markets that might not be as familiar with you. I'm not Mario Batali, so I can't walk into any city with my orange Crocs and have people be like, "Oh my God, there's Mario!"

I was on my way to a Williams-Sonoma outside of Denver, and I was like, "Why are we in the middle of no where?" But the people that came are people who live out there and, again, it's just getting out to people in Denver who maybe are foodies and know who I am but people out in the suburbs there maybe don't. Just going into different markets and understand that it's important to go to places you aren't 100 percent comfortable until you get there.

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