Not your typical cookbook: Photos, illustrations and the meaning of life

Edible Selby

If you're curious about the homes of author Tom Wolfe, shoe and bag designer Christian Louboutin, or Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt of Tartine Bakery, you might want to check out Todd Selby's work. The photographer and illustrator captures creative people in their own spaces for his website. His cookbook, Edible Selby, is filled with photos and illustrations of people in the culinary world and their handwritten answers to his questions. [Ed. note: You can find a sneak peak of the book here.]

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Describe what this book looks like, because it doesn't look like a typical cookbook.

Todd Selby
Todd Selby (Photo: Backyard Bill)

Todd Selby: It's a collection of portraits, still lifes, illustrations, interviews and hand-done recipes from all around the world. It looks like my brain: just chaos, colorful chaos.

LRK: It engages you. As I was reading it, I found myself more involved with it than I would normally be with a book of just photographs. You're talking to people who are doing things that are not necessarily run-of-the-mill -- you are not in all the fancy restaurants. It does feel like a diary of the people whom you met. But what's interesting to me is you ask them questions and they write in their own answers.

TS: As a photojournalist through 3 years, working with so many different magazines, I always felt like there was this editing process that went along with that where a lot of the subjects' voices were lost. I really wanted to figure out a way that people who are in the book could communicate directly with the reader.

The handwritten Q-and-A is quite simple. They're just fun. They're really informative. Seeing Rene Redzepi’s handwriting and his drawings, you really get a sense of who he is and his sense of humor. I think it's quite insightful and it's fun.

LRK: Rene Redzepi is the chef of Noma in Denmark, the restaurant that's gotten so much acclaim. One of the people I was really taken with was a man outside of San Francisco, Angelo Garro.

TS: He's quite an influential guy within the San Francisco Bay Area food movement. He has relationships with all these different chefs. I've always heard stories about him and his incredible kitchen, so I was really excited to get the opportunity to photograph him, his home and his forge. He's actually a foraging forger because he has a forge where he makes metalwork and he forages.

I visited him in San Francisco. He's one of those guys who does everything himself: He hunts boars and he makes his own prosciutto from them, he makes his own wine, he cures his own olives, he makes his own pasta. He does everything and it's just infectious. He has this smile and this happiness around him that just makes everything seem so easy.

His space is incredible. He has the most incredible kitchen that I have ever seen in my whole life. He has a fig tree growing out through the middle of it, a big smoke pit that he made out of a metal drum and then a huge chandelier from Venice. Inside the kitchen there's also the forge where he makes metal spoons, custom grillwork and that sort of thing.

It's an incredible collection of different objects. It really tells you a lot about who he is. When I was there, he actually made a big, iron spoon right there in the forge and then cooked an egg in an open fire with it inside of his home in San Francisco. It's a pretty unique thing.

LRK: What kind of questions did you ask him?

TS: I asked him what the meaning of life was. We had a couple of glasses of wine so I got kind of deep right there, but normally they're a little more light-hearted.

LRK: What was his answer?

TS: When you are born, you are irrelevant. Then you spend all of your life to become relevant. Then you die.

LRK: For a man who seems to get such joy out of the doing, it sounds pretty grim.

TS: I guess he finds his relevance in making food, having people over and entertaining. He's a real entertainer.

Fennel Cake
Angelo Garro's recipe: Fennel Cake

LRK: You obviously chose people as you said because you are intrigued by what they do and how they do it. But one of the things that's interesting in the book is the recipes are people writing how they do what they do. There is no attempt to translate them so it's easy for anybody to do the recipes. Why did you decide to do that?

TS: We had a choice when Deborah, the editor of the book, and I were sitting down to do the book. Every chef provided recipes. At that point some were very specific, some were very vague, some were kind of confusing, some were inspirational. I really felt like it was more valuable to just present it as the chef did.

I think it holds true with how a lot of people really use recipes. Some people follow a recipe really exactly, but then a lot of people -- a lot of the chefs I know who look at recipe books -- quickly glance through it. They see the ingredients, they get the idea of the concept, the flavor profile that you are trying to go for and they do it themselves. They interpret it. It's just this do-it-yourself attitude that a lot of the people have in the book. It's like don't worry about doing it the wrong way, just do it your way.

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