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8 Cookbook Covers That Break the Mold
More than just a pretty plate.
Howdy cookbook fans!
And welcome back to designer Frances Baca, who is here to talk about cookbooks that skip perfectly plated food in favor of images that are, hopefully, a bit more impactful. The cookbook design conversation is notoriously a fraught one amidst the publishing process, with many stakeholders getting involved (I can feel all the cookbook marketers in the audience starting to hyperventilate). But I think you’ll agree, especially after reading the analysis of each cover, that these were all worth skipping the food porn for once.
I always learn so much from the pieces Frances writes for SPN and I hope y’all do too. This piece is too long for most email browsers so click the subject line about to read it on the website. Frances, take it away!
Today’s issue of Stained Page News is brought to you by The Kitchen and the Studio: A Memoir of Food and Art (Amazon), a cookbook, an art book, a memoir and a love story by art historian Mallory M. and artist John A. O’Connor. Illustrated with John’s original paintings, this is a unique love story of a creative couple who have always “lived the artist’s life,” and shares the O’Connors’ favorite special occasions and recipes along with the places and the people who made them memorable.
More Than Just a Pretty Plate: 8 Unique Cookbook Covers
—By Frances Baca
“The cover design process takes stamina,” explains designer Michelle Ishay-Cohen. “It requires patience and persistence and a lot of deliberating.” Certainly, creating a cookbook’s cover is often the most belabored, emotionally fraught stage in the design process. Designers must balance their decisions with the author’s desires, sales requirements, marketing insights, and, sometimes, the whims of powerful stakeholders within the publishing team.
Cover design discussions typically center around photographs of prepared dishes, especially for American cookbooks (it is, in fact, rare for designers working in a US market to receive a creative brief that does not request an image of an enticing, colorful plate of food). The desire to conform to an established visual language for books is a safety measure—a way to ensure that a cookbook is immediately recognized as such. And so it goes that the prettier the plate of food on the book’s cover, the greater the likelihood that a reader will pick it up. Though there are times when aligning with similar books can be helpful, thoughtfully bucking the trend can allow a book to stand out, to be far more memorable in a sea of look-alike titles.
The following eight books forgo the prepared dish to offer us cover photographs that recall distant lands, stir memories, spark imaginations, and provoke powerful emotions. In them, designers and photographers tease out the stories within the recipes, and bring to life the vision behind the books. Some covers were deeply held and fought-for, while others fell into place spontaneously. Though they differ in their approaches, they are all expertly executed and succeed in surprising, delighting, and drawing us in—encouraging us to explore what lies just beneath that hotly debated exterior.
Hartwood’s cover evokes a powerful sense of place, inseparable from the astonishingly unique restaurant that this cookbook celebrates. The photograph by Gentl & Hyers resembles an abstract and textural colorscape, its sparkling blues and whites emerging from a deep-green sliver along its right edge. Closer inspection reveals a rugged coastline, an image of the “bright, wild” Yucatán jungle where authors Eric Werner and Mya Henry established Hartwood.
Though its feel is vast, the cover photo speaks to a very specific corner of the world that has shaped everything about Hartwood—from its ingredients (fresh fish and local meats and produce), to its design (open air), to its cooking methods (live fire). Gazing upon it, we are compelled to, perhaps, imagine an octopus being fished from those deep-blue waters, cooking on wood harvested from the dense jungle peeking out from the edge of the cover—a far more tantalizing narrative than a plate of admittedly beautiful pulpo tostadas (p.143).
Apart from its logo—a pleasingly rough, hand-drawn “Hartwood” debossed (when parts of the art sink below the surface of the paper) onto the cover and spine—there is no other restaurant branding on display here. The only obvious nod to marketing is a tastefully designed sticker in the lower-right hand corner, featuring praise from chef René Redzepi. Designer Michelle Ishay-Cohen notes that the sticker can be removed for anyone who chooses to enjoy the cover without this small distraction.
Ishay-Cohen recalls that Gentl & Hyers produced a superb collection of work for Hartwood, providing numerous cover-worthy photographs. The design process was exhaustive, with Ishay-Cohen presenting multiple covers including several featuring prepared dishes. But in the end, the raw beauty of the Yucatán coast prevailed. “It was a push to get away from food on the cover, but the energy of the ocean and sky was undeniable.”
Spare yet striking, the cover of The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook offers only a plate of beets, mint, and lebneh—or rather, what’s left of it—and is a unique example of how just the hint of food can communicate the essence of an entire meal.
Liz and Max Haarala Hamilton’s photograph of golden olive oil mingled with the rubine traces of beets is an evocative, almost painterly, image. The photograph lacks any description of what the prepared dish looks like (you’ll have to turn the book over for that—see below), grabbing our attention and flooding our memory with the delicious, earthy flavor and unmistakable color of red beets.
Though many cookbook cover concepts are carefully planned in advance of the photo shoot, this cover image happened quite by chance. The prepared dish was quickly consumed after it was shot, leaving the photographers to marvel at the traces left behind by the beets. They took the plate back to set and shot it, suggesting to the publisher that it would make a unique cover. “Our client felt that you maybe can’t have an empty plate on a cookbook cover,” says Liz Haarala Hamilton, but the editor loved the idea and asked the designer, Aaron Garza, to mock up a cover with the photograph.
Garza opted for a very stripped down design, allowing the focus to be the spectacular swirl at the center of the image. The contrast between the fluid, intense burst of color on the plate and the tidy white field beneath it evokes a sense of apprehension that any lover of beets can relate to—we long to drag our forks along the plate but also dread the unforgiving stains we may inflict upon such a clean tablecloth. The purple-red type, however, diffuses some of this tension by setting simply and crisply on the plain white surface—almost as if drawn in beet juice by an expert hand.
Much to the surprise of the creative team, the empty plate was the winning cover among several presented to the publisher. Haarala Hamilton explains, “No matter how well a cover is planned, sometimes it just changes on the day and other things work out better than what has been planned originally.” This cover is certainly a supreme example of how being open to spontaneous inspiration on set can reap substantial creative benefits. Haarala Hamilton further remarks that “we all wanted to create a cover that was different and stood out among others, and we think that we definitely achieved this.”
The cover of Adam Leonti and Katie Parla’s Flour Lab resembles, at first glance, the textured canvas of an abstract painting or an otherworldly landscape. Upon further study, the deep browns and dustings of creamy white reveal a marvelous, deliciously attractive crust of freshly baked bread, photographed by Andrew Thomas Lee.
Due to a studio rental mix-up, Lee shot most of the cookbook photos in a colleague's tiny apartment, with limited props. “I still kinda can’t believe we shot a cookbook in about two hundred square feet—if that,” he muses. Lee’s keen sense of resourcefulness kicked in, turning the tight quarters to his creative advantage. The closely cropped cover shot captures the essence of the book without a kitchen, prop, model, or elaborately styled pile of golden loaves.
Tucked cozily into the dark, X-shaped slash extending across the cover, the typography displays a highly restrained touch: one condensed sans-serif typeface, setting in white, with slight variations in size. Perfectly legible in its contrast with the background, this reductive type treatment by designer Stephanie Huntwork reflects Leonti’s recipes, which are pared down to the core principles of baking bread with fresh flours.
Huntwork presented twenty-two covers, which were eventually narrowed down to four. The final choice was influenced by the desire to appeal to “bread people,” whose curiosity would be piqued by the dramatic image. Indeed, looking at the cover, one can easily imagine biting into a rough and slightly floury hunk of bread, a hearty crunch yielding a soft, warm interior. The photograph is enhanced by a sculptural deboss that mimics the bread’s peaks and valleys. The effect is delightful to the touch—it’s almost surprising not to feel a slippery dusting of flour under your fingers as you skim them across the cover.
Lee contentedly recalls his work on Flour Lab, and remarks that cookbooks have a sense of permanence that he finds satisfying—if not a little nerve-racking. “It’s nice to have something permanent in a world where a lot of images just live on the internet,” he comments, adding “I think about this every time we’re shooting and that I really hope I like what we’re creating when I look at this in ten years.” Lee can rest assured, as the timeless appeal of Flour Lab’s cover will surely entice “bread people”—and many others—for years to come.
The austere beauty of Salt & Time’s winterscape cover sets a quiet, thoughtful tone for Alissa Timoshkina’s book on Russian home cooking. The absence of any recognizable Russian dish on the cover reflects her desire to eschew what she calls “conventional visual codes,” in favor of greater creative license in presenting traditional recipes.
The cover photograph by Lizzie Mayson is complemented by a clean, elegant type treatment by designer Charlotte Heal. The contrast between the plain black sans-serif type hanging in the sky, and the large serif title embedded in the snow—whose copper foil-stamped letters shimmer in the light—speak to the complex relationship between sober Soviet appetites and the rich culinary history of Russia. The touches of pale blue, gray, and burnt umber in the image bring texture and warmth to an otherwise barren landscape.
Though currently residing in England, Timoshkina is from Siberia, a vast and culturally mixed region of Russia. Wistfully, she remarks that the sound of crushing sea salt flakes between her fingers reminds her of the crunch of freshly fallen Siberian snow beneath her feet. Aside from being a key ingredient in so many preserved foods that sustain the Russian people during long winters, salt is a powerful trigger for the memories of her family kitchen and the snowy visions beyond its windows.
Mayson comments that she feels lucky to have worked on Salt & Time, and remembers affectionately the hospitality of the author and her family, and the wondrous changing of the seasons that she documented in the book. Upon reading Salt & Time, the image she captured transcends its initial impression as a simple landscape, to become an expansive and shifting field of memory, culture, and history—all of which are warmly echoed in Timoshkina’s recipes.
Canadian chef Marc Lepine’s restaurant is reflected beautifully in Atelier, the cover of which bravely rejects any notion of traditional cookbook design. Photographed by Christian Lalonde, the ephemeral swirls of gas emitted from dry ice mirror the monochromatic interior of the restaurant and the theatricality of Lepine’s food (featuring no fewer than forty-four courses in his tasting menu).
The slightly expanded sans-serif type sets in a matte white foil, and has a quiet confidence reminiscent of Atelier’s boldly modernist cuisine. The pearl cover stock further enhances the ethereal, luminescent quality of the cover. The effect is mesmerizing, and feels almost cinematic in the way it captures movement and light.
As carefully choreographed as it may seem, the cover did not evolve as designer Jessica Sullivan had planned. The original concept for the photography—featuring flat color in geometric compositions—was rejected by Lepine after a short time on set, resulting in a last-minute mad scramble to reinvent the creative direction for the book. Fortunately, Sullivan and Lalonde had established a strong rapport from previous collaborations and were able to pivot quickly, taking inspiration from Lepine’s use of dry ice during the shoot.
Sullivan designed the cover on set, and swiftly obtained approval from the author and publisher. “Everyone loved it immediately, which was a surprise because I almost always have to showcase food on cookbook covers—as a rule,” remarks Sullivan. She laughs when describing a response to the book from a shortsighted judge in a design competition, who denied Atelier recognition as he felt it resembled an art book rather than a cookbook. “I remember thinking, exactly! You got it right! I did my job. That was exactly the intent of the book!”
The brilliant turquoise cover of Durkhanai Ayubi’s book on Afghan cuisine, Parwana, is unusual not only for its color—seldom do we see cookbook covers that prominently feature the color blue—but also for its expertly composed still life of raw ingredients, styled by Deborah Kaloper. The cover feels almost like a novel, an indirect nod to the deeply personal family history behind Ayubi’s restaurant, the book’s namesake. She explains in the introduction that “the food, ingredients, flavors, rituals, and experiences of my family, I hope to unfold in the pages of this book.”
The intertwining pomegranates, flowers, and citrus in Alicia Taylor’s cover photograph recall the flavors and aromas of Afghan cuisine, and their bold colors contrast vividly with the cool blue surface (a handy effect that draws the eye in a crowded bookshop). Designer Madeleine Kane explains that “the brightness of the cover signals hope and energy, but is balanced by the pared-back design—echoing the quiet resolution that permeates the internal pages.”
Though the bulk of Parwana is devoted to recipes, Ayubi also contributes several essays on Afghan history and traditions. She speaks eloquently about cross-pollination through centuries of blended cultures in Afghanistan, bringing it into the present day through stories of her family’s immigration to Australia and assimilation into a new culture. She pays particular respect to her mother, whose cooking inspired Parwana and whose portrait in the front of the book—in a bright blue dress, holding a bouquet of roses (below)—mirrors the tone of the cover image.
Kane’s touch on the cover is light, setting the type simply but with maximum impact. The title is a crisp white stylized serif typeface debossed within a textured gold foil frame that glimmers softly when angled toward the light. The frame sits authoritatively atop the photograph, clearly visible but almost appearing to blend into the fruits and flowers around it. The small subtitle dangles from the left side of the leaves and pomegranate seeds, receding into the composition. The skillful combination of type and image reinforces a clear visual hierarchy, and gives subtle form to the idea of interconnection so central to the book.
Plated dishes of food were never discussed for this cover, only variations of still lifes and illustrations were presented to the publisher, with the final design selected almost immediately—and it’s easy to see why. Not only does the gorgeous cover compel us to pick up the book, but it also sensitively frames Ayubi’s hopeful wish that Parwana may inspire “a universal desire to connect, irrespective of perceived differences.”
Anna Jones’s book on seasonal vegetable-forward cooking, The Modern Cook’s Year, is a lovely example in contrasts. Resembling a detail from a Dutch still-life painting, Ana Cuba’s photograph feels soft and serene, yet boldly contemporary. Designer Jonathan Pelham dramatically crops Cuba’s photo, leaving a large white area where only the stark black type intrudes. Though not immediately apparent, Pelham’s cropping conforms to an interior compositional grid of similarly framed images. Once we’re in the rhythm of flipping pages, a pleasing harmony emerges between cover and interior.
Lauded as the “voice of modern vegetarian cooking” in her native England, Jones’s name looms large on the cover and is rendered in a light deboss—a small but satisfying tactile detail. The restrained, centered typography plays against the asymmetrically positioned image, and consists of both an elegantly proportioned serif typeface and a contrasting sans-serif for the tagline—further reinforcing the juxtaposition of modern and classical sensibilities.
Lemons are a signature ingredient for Jones, and were a natural choice for the cover. Pairing them with a peach conveys the idea of seasons merging, but also plays to the strengths of Cuba’s sensitivity to light, color, and shape. Cuba notes that the black background against the bright, fresh colors of the fruit gave the shot the quiet drama they were seeking for the cover. A prepared dish was never considered, as the established visual language of Jones’s previous cookbooks dictated a looser, more artistic approach to the cover.
There were concerns from the publisher’s sales and marketing teams about how clearly aligned The Modern Cook’s Year was with Jones’s previous books, how well it might perform as a gift book, or how easily identifiable it would be as a cookbook. These questions landed squarely in Pelham’s lap, but he felt confident that the cover expressed Jones’s vision for the book and would hit the mark with her audience. He asserts, “There is a point where you stop asking useful questions, start second-guessing, and become obsessed with risk minimization. This invariably results in timid, unconvincing designs if you let the process run away with itself.”
Pelham notes that the positive reviews the book has received validate his approach, remarking, “It’s gratifying to know that all those hundreds of hours, all those evenings spent in the office working until 11 pm, made an impression in the real world.”
In Cooking for the Culture, author Toya Boudy shares food and stories from her upbringing in New Orleans. The book features lovingly written autobiographical recipe headnotes, as well various short essays and sidebars detailing the people, places, and experiences that made her the person she is today.
The highly personal tone of the cookbook resonates most deeply within its stunning cover. In it, Boudy defiantly grips a slice of watermelon, her bedazzled blue nails and matching sapphire ring contrasting against the intense red fruit. Her muscular, tattooed arm and the pushed-up sleeve of her chef’s coat reflect strength and discipline, but there is also joy in the image—a feeling of ownership, hope, and pride that shine forth. Designer Allison Chi complements this feeling with the sunny yellow title type, keeping her cover design spare in deference to such a powerful photograph.
Boudy envisioned the cover early in the process of making her book, and insisted—much to the chagrin of her family—that it was the perfect image for the message she wanted to convey. She describes in her book that “when I told my mama about the photo idea of me gripping watermelon she looked at me and said, ‘No, Toya.’ And I said, ‘Ma, I’m in a place creatively where I just want to take everything back that was used to make fun of us as Black people or used to classify us as the lesser race.’”
Photographer Sam Hanna understood Boudy’s intent for the book and worked closely with her and her husband, Chris, setting up the shoot in their living room.The moody lighting and dark background were Hanna’s suggestions, and the cover was shot quickly (in fact, what was initially intended as a concept photo was selected as the final cover).
The publishing team advocated for a design with Boudy’s face on the cover, which they thought best expressed the personality of the book. But Boudy and the editor pushed back. They reiterated why the chosen photograph was an important symbol for Boudy’s story, further explaining that the hardiness of watermelons—and their role as an important food for enslaved Africans—speaks both to her resilience and her culture. Chi notes happily, “Thankfully, with the extra push, everyone was on board 100 percent!”
In her interview with Everything Cookbooks, Boudy simply and eloquently sums up her vision for the cover: “I wanted to make people slightly uncomfortable, and I wanted people to get so uncomfortable that they have to look, and after that they realize that what they thought was something that made them uncomfortable was really something that was beautiful.”
Frances Baca is principal of Frances Baca Design and Consulting in Berkeley, California. Her studio focuses on book design and creative direction and consulting. She has designed and art directed countless cookbooks, and she was the founding design director of the much-loved food and culture journal Gastronomica. Her work has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation, the Society of Publication Designers, the Association of American University Presses, Graphic Design USA, the New England Book Show, and Bookbuilders West. You can hear more about her thoughts on cookbook design in the Salt + Spine podcast.