Al Dente | Dishing with food52's Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs

October 26, 2009

Last month food writers Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs launched their much-buzzed-about website, food52, hosting an enthusiastic, open forum where home cooks are invited to submit their best recipes based on weekly themes. After a year of gathering winning recipes--determined by reader votes--the results will be collected in a cookbook published by HarperStudio.

And today Amanda and Merrill launched what promises to be a very entertaining feature: The Tournament of Cookbooks. Sixteen of 2009's best cookbooks will face off against each other with their fates determined by a star-studded panel of celebrity chefs and food writers. The winning cookbook will take home "the coveted Piglet trophy." Early round action kicked off with an upset as Donald Link and Paula Disbrowe's Real Cajun sent John Besh's My New Orleans back to the Big Easy. And the first-round fun continues with Eugenia Bone's Well-Preserved taking on Erin McKenna's BabyCakes and Matt Lee and Ted Lee's The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern going up against David Chang and Peter Meehan's Momofuku.(See the complete bracket.)

I caught up with Amanda and Merrill to check in on food52 and talk about what makes a great recipe, the art of adaptation, collaborating in the kitchen, and get the skinny on the Piglet.

- Brad Thomas Parsons You and Merrill have been working together for five years testing 1,200 recipes and now, with food52, you’ve launched another major project together. What’s the key to your collaborative success?

Merrill Stubbs: We're great friends, and we have similar cooking styles and palates, which makes things run pretty smoothly in the kitchen. Of course, there are ingredients and techniques that we don't agree on, which often inspire interesting (and sometimes lively) debates. Our writing styles are different but complimentary, perhaps because each is colored by the fact that both of us are home cooks at heart.

Amanda Hesser: Merrill has excellent knife skills; I do not. I like working with pastry; Merrill does not. That pretty much sums it up! There’s an austere charm to your mission: “Every week we name the themes. You submit the recipes. We pick two finalists. Everyone votes. And the winner goes into the book.” How do you go about curating the selection of finalists for each week’s themes?

Hesser: We read through every recipe that's submitted for a given recipe theme, and we choose a handful to test. Then we split up these recipes, test them and report back. After selecting the best two, we cook them again on the day we do photography. For our weekly video, we cook two finalist recipes a third time, so by the time the finalists are announced, the recipes are fully vetted. This also gives us a chance to genuinely get to know the recipes and write up an informed headnote. We also read through all of the recipes coming into the site because every week we name a "Wildcard Winner." Any recipe uploaded to the site is eligible, and we keep a running list of recipes we think have great potential. So, behind the scenes, we're constantly cooking these recipes in search of ones we think are truly great. Wildcard Winners also go into the cookbook. Now that you’ve opened the doors to food52 what has surprised you the most about the submissions?

Hesser: How great they are! We've been delighted by the quality and originality of the recipes. When we came up with this idea, we were betting that there were extraordinary home cooks out there waiting to have their work discovered. And it turns out--thankfully--we were right. For me, a rich headnote is as important as the recipe itself. Have you been impressed with the “stories” behind the dishes?

Stubbs: We completely agree. For us, the story behind each recipe is what really brings it to life. The evolution of recipes--how they were conceived, what other recipes inspired them, whether they've been passed down through generations--is a topic we both find fascinating, which is why we encourage our users to really dig into the headnotes. Happily, other people seem to be on the same page. We've gotten some great stories. For example, one woman submitted an apple cake recipe that she got 45 years ago from a friend of her mother, while they were all living on an Air Force base in Okinawa. Something that you’ve addressed is the art of adapting a recipe to make it your own. That must be quite challenging to vet submissions to make sure it isn’t something "borrowed" from another source.

Stubbs: It is a bit of a challenge, but so far the safeguards we have in place seem to be working. We've done everything we can on the site to encourage people to cite their sources. If a dish is inspired by someone else's recipe (whether it's from a friend or from Julia Child), we ask users to share that information. We fully research all recipes before considering them as finalists, and there is a button on each recipe page where users can flag a recipe to let us know privately (our goal is not to publicly shame people) if they've seen it somewhere else. One of my favorite sections is your slideshows, where you lay out the ingredients and document the recipe-testing process.

Hesser: Thank you--we work with a wonderful photographer, Sarah Shatz. Every Tuesday we get together and cook all of the finalist recipes (plus the Wildcard). We do set up the ingredient shots but the rest of the photography is off the cuff, with Sarah moving around the kitchen with us and shooting as we cook. We have a couple of goals with the photography--the first is to celebrate cooking, both the beauty and the mess. We hope to entertain both cooks and armchair (laptop?) cooks with the photography. For people who want to cook the recipes, we want to tempt them, give them a sense of what things should look like and offer tips. And for those who who aren't cooking the recipes, we want to provide them with enough information to make a decision about which recipe to vote for. Last but not least, we thought it would be fun for the people whose recipes we cook to see their dishes prepared, styled and shot by a professional photographer. As someone who obsesses over cookbooks on a daily basis, I wanted to talk about your Tournament of Cookbooks. Starting today you’re pitting 16 of 2009’s best cookbooks against each other in a quest for glory--and “the coveted Piglet Trophy.” Before we get to the cookbooks, what’s the origin of the Piglet? Do you have a picture of it?

Stubbs: The Piglet is our homage to the Rooster, which is the prize awarded to the winner of The Morning News' annual Tournament of Books. Their tournament inspired ours, so we thought we'd give our prize a similar feel. A piglet just seemed right for a cookbook tournament. Unfortunately, we don't have a photo of the trophy, as we are still awaiting its arrival. But it's definitely topped with a pig! How did you select the Sweet Sixteen?

Hesser: Tons of cookbooks are published each year, so Charlotte Druckman (our partner in the TOC), Merrill and I called publishers, kept up with cookbook news, talked to friends and colleagues, and did our best to look at a wide range of books. With any list like this people (myself included) are quick to see what didn’t make the cut. Any titles that didn’t make it that you wish did?

Stubbs: We considered a few other titles, but unfortunately some of them weren't available when we began the judging--even in galley form. Hopefully some of those authors will have books out when we do this again! noticed there are three food lit titles in there (I Love, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, The Sweet Life in Paris, and Ratio). Are they eligible because they featured recipes? How do you think they’ll fare against a straight-up recipe book?

Stubbs: Yes, they all have recipes, and the authors are serious cooks. We included these three because we thought the recipes were insightful and could stand up to those from other, more conventional cookbooks in the competition.

Hesser: Also, Charlotte, Merrill, and I wanted a range of cookbook styles because we wanted to encourage the conversation about what makes a great cookbook. Is it just the recipes? Is it the writing? The aesthetic? I, too, was a big fan of Canal House Cooking and can’t wait for future, seasonal installments. It’s a tough book to get your hands on, though.

Hesser: It appealed to us that the authors, Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, were going against the grain and experimenting with a new form: the seasonal cookbook. We thought it was important to recognize interesting books like this, even if it takes effort to buy them. You’ve got quite the lineup of judges--Grant Achatz, Dan Barber, Nora Ephron, and Gwyneth Paltrow, to name a few. What’s the judging process like? What are they looking for in a cookbook?

Stubbs: The judging process is different for everyone. We did ask that all of the judges cook at least 3 recipes from each of their two books, but other than that they were pretty much on their own. We chose these judges because we were confident that they had enough experience with cooking and writing to be able to assess cookbooks with an eye toward all of the important factors: flavors, clarity, organization, visual appeal, narrative, etc.

Hesser: And when you have this many judges, the range of perspectives makes it exciting. That's how we ended up with some upsets, and some really wonderfully written decisions. Will there ever be a time when everyone’s in the same room together hashing it out?

Stubbs: Not this time around, but maybe in the future we can have an all-out debate for the final round! In your opinion, what makes a cookbook a keeper--one you’ll turn to again and again?

Stubbs: We ask ourselves this question whenever we're trying to determine whether a recipe we've tested for food52 deserves to be a finalist, and we think it applies here as well: "If we were served this dish at a dinner party, would we ask for the recipe?" In our minds, a cookbook that contains more recipes which would elicit a "yes" to this question than a "no" makes it a keeper.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Food52 (we cook 52 weeks a year, get it?) is a food and home brand, here to help you eat thoughtfully and live joyfully.