MediaBistro's Fishbowl | Food52's Founders Reveal The Secret Ingredients to a Crowd-sourced Cookbook

September 25, 2009

food52, a Web site devoted to creating a user-generated cookbook in one year, officially launched today.

The site seeks to celebrate and highlight home cooks by asking readers to submit recipes that fit into various categories each week. Founders Amanda Hesser (in the photo, on left) and Merrill Stubbs then sort through entrants, cook up their favorites and select two finalists for readers to vote on. The winners will go into the cookbook, to be published by HarperStudio once the project is complete.

food52 had a soft launch in June with Hesser and Stubbs granting passwords to almost 1,800 interested foodies who wanted to access the site over the past few months. Now that Hesser and Stubbs have had a chance to work out all the kinks, the site opened up today for anyone to browse, upload recipes and vote on yummy recipes.

In advance of the site’s official launch, FishbowlNY spoke with Hesser, a former reporter for The New York Times‘ dining section and food editor of The New York Times Magazine who still writes a food column for the paper, and Stubbs, a freelance food writer and recipe developer, to discuss their motivation behind the site and their crazy life of cooking in two New York City apartments.

- Amanda Ernst

FishbowlNY: How did you come up with the idea for food52?

Amanda Hesser: We met while I was putting together a cookbook for The New York Times. We ended up cooking more 1,200 recipes together and spent countless hours in the kitchen with each other. And we observed something from the work: that many of the best recipes came from home cooks. There is this level of practicality to home cooks’ recipes because you are just one person in the kitchen and you want to make something great but you only have so much time and energy. We started looking online to see what was out there, and although there are a lot of good things — blogs and recipes sites and food sites — what was lacking was a celebration of the home chef. Americans have become very savvy and they know a lot, but when you go online you don’t see that. We wanted to create a place where enthusiastic home cooks could have a voice. And we thought, “Wouldn’t it be really fun to create a cookbook that drew in the online community and their recipes as the foundation of the book and they helped decide what was in the book?”

Merrill Stubbs: We called it food52 because every week for a year we are going to hold recipe contests and every week we are going to have voting between two themes that we think should be in the book. Each recipe falls into a category that we came up with, like “Your Best Preserves” or “Your Best Summer Cocktail.” People submit them throughout the week, we look through them, test them and then pick the best two. Then we post the two and the readers vote. We’re adding two recipes every week, plus we add wildcard recipes that readers submit to the database that haven’t been submitted to a contest. After a year, we will have a book of about 150 recipes.

FBNY: How do you decide which recipes get to be the finalists?

AH: We decide those finalists by cooking. And we do cook more than two recipes. Our goal is to present two finalists whose recipes we love, and that we’d be happy to have in the book. It’s up to our community to decide which one they’re most excited about.

FBNY: How much time do spend cooking the recipes from the site?

MS: We set aside a full day once a week to cook. So far it’s worked and we’ve found really good recipes within that time frame. We’ve been getting so many great recipes we have wanted to test all of them. For now we’ve been able to get everything done in that one day. But, we’ve also given ourselves some extra days. When we pick the finalists, one of us cooks one and the other cooks the other, and we cook side by side and make a video.

FBNY: Since you’re both freelancers, where do you work?

MS: We work in Brooklyn and we have a couple of local haunts where we go and take over for a couple of hours — anywhere that has good coffee and wifi. We mostly work at Amanda’s kitchen because she was a much nicer kitchen than I do. We both have pretty good kitchens for New York, and we figured we might as well cook from home kitchens because that’s what our readers are doing.

FBNY: How did you go about getting a publisher for this project?

AH: HarperStudio is our publisher. They were really excited about this project. They are taking a new approach to publishing, with smaller advances and a 50/50 split with authors, so there’s more ownership and a greater stake in book. They also have a great presence online so we felt that they were a good match for what we were

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