Did you know that there are 16 dedicated cookbook stores across the United States and New York’s Kitchen Arts & Letters is the oldest of them? Founded by Nach Waxman (he passed away suddenly in August of 2021), it’s been a staple on the Upper East Side for nearly 40 years, housing over 12,000 titles.
Matt Sartwell is Kitchen Arts’ managing partner. He’s been with the store for more than 30 years, helping discerning professionals, especially those seeking out unusual books from around the world and in many languages. The store has grown from a brick-and-mortar location into an active web presence, reaching customers around the world. In addition to new books and out-of-print titles, they have popular food magazines, hard-to-find journals (Petits Propos Culinaires), foreign periodicals (Apicius, Fool) and industry glossies (Art Culinaire) alongside even more unusual finds.
Sartwell has been a member of the James Beard Foundation’s Book Awards committee and its chair for three years and also served as a member of the IACP’s Culinary Classics committee.
Total Food Service caught up with Matt Sartwell to discuss the state of bookstores, trends, the challenges, and opportunities that lie ahead.
Tell us about your professional life before joining Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore.
I was an editor at Penguin for about six years. I didn’t work with food books: I kept cooking separate from the daily grind of marketing meetings and battles over acquisition budgets. But I was the guy who cooked for office parties.
What do you do in your role as Managing Partner?
The main thing I do that isn’t done by anyone else here is select the new books to carry. I may ask my colleagues for their input, “Have you heard of this author?” or “Do you care about this technique or ingredient?”, but I’m the one with more than 30 years experience selling food and drink books, so I’m the one who has to be impressed.
Who is your customer base and how do you select your offerings?
The biggest, most loyal part of our base is the professionals. Chefs, caterers, bakers. They need good books in a way that home cooks don’t. Home cooks may love a new book, but professionals have to keep investing in their livelihood. They may come looking for practical information, like an innovative book on fish butchery, or they may want something that just makes them sit up and start thinking creatively after being in a rut. Imagine running a beverage program and having to develop new cocktails to keep up with all the pretty things people see on Instagram. The drinks may look great, but how do they taste and how practical are they for the height of service? Books are a path to problem-solving.
What role do cookbooks play now for chefs and overall, for the food service industry?
Like I said, books can be extremely practical: a new trend takes off and suddenly every bakery in town is serving something that wasn’t on the radar last year (remember macarons?). But books can also act as a creative stimulant. There’s a lot of pressure on people in food service. Of course, they have to be consistent in their quality, but they also have to adapt to all the forces that are part of the big social conversation about what’s interesting in food and drink. Books in which professionals speak to each other may go right over the head of most home cooks, but pros recognize the exciting part of the work of their colleagues–and then they run with it.
Tell us about the nearly three dozen cookbooks in your Fall catalog.
A huge number of cookbooks are released every Fall: we counted more than 600 in publisher catalogs, and we weren’t trying to be exhaustive. With our Fall Pre-Order selections, we try to cut through all the noise to focus on the books we think will be most rewarding, like the new Noma book, or the new book from Sebastian Bras. They’re not all for professional cooks, but we’re focused on the books that are serious enough that even non-professional books can offer something distinct, like Naomo Duguid’s The Miracle of Salt.
What trends in cookbooks have you seen over the years?
The most consistent is that cooks and books have become more adventurous. Books offer more detail, more science, more culture, and explore regions and traditions that were considered too offbeat a few decades ago. Another is that people want to be able to make things that they might have formerly bought, whether a restaurant is preparing its own house mustards and mixers, or curing its own salumi. Some of that change comes from the desire to reduce food waste, to be more sustainable, and more seasonal. And whether a restaurant is serving its own bread or prosciutto, or develops a signature cocktail built on an ingredient they ferment in-house, it’s all about standing out from the competition.
You’ve been instrumental in building specialist libraries, tell us about that.
This is always fun, and each one is a very different experience because they are purpose-built, so to say. We always begin by asking questions about who will be using the library and why they’ll be coming there. It could be very focused on technical reference, or it might be designed to take people on adventures, to get them to step over familiar boundaries and look at ingredients or cuisines they don’t know much about. In some cases, we’ve been able to outfit two- to -three hundred copy libraries right off our shelves. But in other cases, we’ve spent a lot of time investigating whether certain types of books exist and how we can get them. And by that, I mean everything from a history of Venezuelan food to a scientific guide to Neapolitan pizza doughs to a complete set of the famous Robert Laffont chef tomes from 1980s France.
We’ve helped build specialist libraries at major universities and at start-up generators. and developed private collections for chefs and first edition aficionados.
There’s no way to ensure inflation doesn’t affect business, so how do these industry experts offset the nationwide rise in costs in the recipes included in cookbooks?
Books that help restaurants produce more food in-house, like those I mentioned on condiments or meat preserving or fish butchery, help chefs get more value out of the ingredients they’re buying. And if it helps a menu seem more distinctive, and gives the front-of-house team more interesting stories to tell about the food, then it can add value to diner’s experience as well.
How do you support the industry?
We’re pretty aggressive when it comes to promoting worthy books from local chefs and restaurants. Sometimes they are our customers, but not always. But we know that a vigorous food service industry is good for all our customers and therefore good for us. We have a great time at the StarChefs International Chefs’ Congress and we’re eager for that to happen again because it’s an amazing way to connect with some of the most dynamic people in the local and national industry. And we are always here to try to answer that question that seems to be too oddball, too obscure to show up online.
We also work with organizations like the Museum of Food and Drink, the NYC Wine & Food Festival, and Les Dames d’Escoffier to help put interesting books in front of the public. The more serious the average citizen is about good food, the better it is for everyone in the industry. Often that’s part of a fundraising effort for the organization’s own work, or it supports worthy organizations like God’s Love We Deliver.
Tell our readers about your store account and rewards program so they can sign-up.
We have a rewards program that works on our website, or in the store. There’s a Rewards button on the main menu of the website, or just logging in will get you a prompt to create an account. The program tracks purchases you make, offers dollars-off coupons as you hit milestones, and also offers rewards points for doing things like leaving reviews for books you bought. In the store, we can sign you up right at the counter.