Nelson’s restaurants—more than 25 in a town of 10,000—are diverse, inventive, and boast a high standard of excellence. And they are busy: if you’ve ever talked with a restaurant owner or chef you know that they work all the time. So it’s reasonable to think they wouldn’t have much time for libraries, books, reading—or collaboration.
Last winter I approached Nelson’s kitchen wizards with a project. The Nelson Library wanted to build on the success of the literary cookbook Seasonings: A Year of Local Flavour in Words and Recipes we produced with the Kootenay Country Store Co-op. Seasonings raised $45,000 for the Library’s expansion and collections, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Canadian Culinary Book Awards.
With the new project we wanted to celebrate Nelson’s foodie culture, as well as the impact of books on peoples’ lives. By pairing local chefs with the books they’ve loved we hoped to prove that, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably.” And so the concept for Pairings: A Compendium of Beloved Recipes and Books from the Chefs of Nelson was born.
We had a knock-your-socks-off team. Steven Cretney of The Forest Communication Design, who designed Seasonings, was enthusiastically on board. David Gluns, talented photographer for the Whitewater Cooks series by Shelley Adams, was all over the idea. Now, we just needed content, and after a little persuasion 21 busy chefs said “yes.”
The chefs were asked to provide recipes across different categories. They had to provide them by deadline (hit and miss) and following a template (mostly miss); they had to prepare two dishes to be photographed; and they had to stand still long enough to be photographed themselves. Finally, they had to tell us about a book that inspired them, made them laugh, changed their lives.
This last part was interesting. Some chefs couldn’t wait to tell us about their chosen book, resulting in a reading list with such diverse titles as The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris, A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and The Gift by Hafiz.
Some chefs were more reticent. “I don’t have time to read,” they told us. So we asked them to reach back. They’d get a faraway look in their eyes, put down their whisk/knife/spatula, and start talking about childhood, and the books into which they disappeared—which is how Redwall by Brian Jacques and The Great Wolf and the Woodsman by Helen Hoover made the list.
We told their stories as chefs and as readers: Rangsiwut Klinsutho of Busaba Thai Café described the impact of the story of friendship and hope in John Steinbeck’s classic novella Of Mice and Men, read when he was learning English as a second language. Rania Kassem of Mana’eesh Middle Eastern chose The Butterfly’s Burden by Mahmoud Darwish, who “writes about homeland. He writes about his mother’s kitchen, about the smell of food. And he writes beautiful love poetry.”
David spent a solid day with each restaurant, shooting dishes, chefs, and people reading over a dish of something delicious. At night he’d spend hours uploading hundreds of images. I’d wake to breathtaking photographs of Scallop Escabeche or Sardinian Tiramisu, and a pervasive sense of frenzy. The final days before printer deadline were, to say the least, intense.
It was a huge undertaking: chefs interviewed, copy written, recipes formatted, thousands of images shot, and while Steven worked his design magic a small army proofed and proofed and proofed. At deadline we were still finding typos: egg “yokes” is particularly memorable.
There is an element of hilarity that creeps into every project at zero-hour that just puts everything into perspective. After one late-night emailing session with David, who was finishing up a shoot of chilli peppers in the small hours, I awoke to find creative new photos in our Dropbox folder. I’m still laughing.
Now, Pairings is a reality and the chillies are back where they belong. We’ll launch the book as part of the Nelson Public Library’s 95th birthday party, with our hearts full of gratitude. David and Steven each donated two thirds of their time. Those busy chefs were not too busy to provide appetizers for the party, and the restaurants will sell our lovely new book, giving us 21 additional points of sale and giving them both income and advertising. It doesn’t get more collaborative than that.
It’s no secret that the role of libraries is expanding. We are social hubs, points of connection, and community-builders, while our budgets don’t necessarily reflect the new reality. The Pairings project addresses the social (what’s more social than a meal shared?), builds new points of connection, enhances community pride, and celebrates books, while raising money, the better to keep the pages turning.
Anne DeGrace is the Adult Services Coordinator at the Nelson Public Library.