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A Cookbook Where Color Is the Main Ingredient
Tasting rainbows in Maria Zizka's Cook Color.
Howdy cookbook fans!
And welcome to your Friday issue of Stained Page News! Today, designer Frances Baca is back to explore the design of a new cookbook: Cook Color: A Rainbow of 100 Recipes by Maria Zizka. What happens when you prioritize color in your cooking? And how do you design a cookbook around recipes that focus on color? Frances explores all that and more, below.
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Tasting Rainbows: The Brilliant Alchemy of Cook Color
—By Frances Baca
Flipping through the pages of Maria Zizka’s latest cookbook, Cook Color: A Rainbow of 100 Recipes, I pause to contemplate a dish of eight blue-green dumplings. Their wrinkly, damp skins—pinched tightly and bulging with ground pork and cabbage—inspire a mix of curiosity and confusion. Though the ingredient list promises an experience of savory goodness, any inkling of the flavor their otherworldly color may impart eludes me. I find myself attempting to reconcile the memory of chewy, delicious dumplings with this new, entirely mystifying notion of the sea and sky, of cornflowers, robin’s eggs, and Smurfs. It’s confounding—and utterly delightful.
In Cook Color, Zizka draws us into a world of vibrant—and often surprising—naturally colored food that dazzles the eye, teases the palate, and challenges our preconceptions of what makes a dish delicious. The book features monochromatic foods that move through the color spectrum from white to yellow, orange, red, pink, purple, blue, green, brown, and finally, black. Zizka and her agent, Katherine Cowles, brainstormed the concept for Cook Color, noting both the lack of cookbooks devoted to color, and the huge appeal such a book may have for adventurous cooks. And while flavor and seasonality play an important part in the story, Cook Color is primarily a celebration of visual beauty. Whether inherently colorful, or manipulated using natural ingredients, Zizka’s dishes are carefully composed, artfully styled, and wildly creative.
Zizka studied color theory books shared by her husband, Graham Bradley, a graphic designer, but otherwise relied on her background in science and cooking to provide the foundation she needed to take on the daunting task of creating a full rainbow of recipes, without the aid of artificial food coloring. “I let loose in the kitchen and gave myself permission to get a little weird and wacky in the name of blazing a new path,” comments Zizka. The writing and recipe development phase spanned eighteen months, with Zizka learning to harness color shifts in ingredients, which often occurred when they were exposed to temperature changes or acidity. Baked dishes like cookies and cakes were particularly difficult to predict. “Sometimes I would lean into the color that the dish was telling me it wanted to be, and I’d make revisions so that my new aim was the new color. There was a lot of trial and error. And a lot of surprises!”
Zizka’s meals at home were the primary testing ground for her recipes, with Bradley providing a gentle but insistent push toward further experimentation. She began combining similarly hued ingredients, and mixing ingredients from different parts of the world, to achieve the most vibrant colors. “And then an interesting thing started to happen,” notes Zizka, “I began cooking in a whole new way. I paid more attention to the way everything looked.” Activities like grocery shopping, gardening, or visiting a museum were consumed with careful scrutiny of the colors around her. “Everything I saw—from a tie-dye shirt someone was wearing to the patchwork of various weeds growing in our garden—informed and inspired me as I worked on Cook Color.”
Photographer David Malosh and food stylist Simon Andrews were entrusted with bringing Zizka’s recipes to life for the book. Malosh and Andrews have a long history of collaboration and immediately understood the vision for Cook Color. They rose to the challenge of shooting foods in traditionally unappetizing colors (blue, purple) and difficult to capture details (white, black)—not to mention adhering to a creative brief that called for no props or angle variations—with their finely tuned and symbiotic creative sensibilities. “As a cook, initially I balked: color is tough to control when cooking,” comments Andrews. “The ask was definitely a challenge and I found that appealing.”
Andrews’s planning for the photo shoot was exhaustive, including several shopping trips to source the specific ingredients required to achieve desired colors. Malosh notes that “There aren't too many tricks involved with Simon's food styling, it's all very natural because he starts with phenomenal ingredients. Not expensive ones, but beautiful little touches shopped the morning of a shoot from the farmer's market or from that one shop that has perfectly ripe fruit. It makes an enormous difference in camera.” Indeed, the simplicity of the photographs reveals an incredible attention to detail, each composition lighted sensitively by Malosh’s expert eye.
The photographs are simply composed—just food on a white plate, captured from overhead—allowing color to dominate. Malosh and Andrews shot a selection of recipes daily from each color, adjusting the plating and cropping as they progressed. “We relied on what we naturally thought looked appetizing shot very tight, and where something may benefit from feeling abundant or busier,” says Andrews. A modest prop budget dictated that fabrics were frequently used in place of the rented surfaces that would be required for 100+ color-specific photographs, with Malosh sometimes painting and plastering his own surfaces between shots. Some of the most striking photographs feature no surface at all, but instead offer a full frame of sublimely textured and richly hued food.
Cook Color’s designer, Vanessa Holden, received daily updates from the photo set, which allowed her to get a sense of how the pagination was progressing. Zizka imagined readers flipping through the pages and experiencing a subtly shifting field of color—a concept that the creative team held in mind as they worked. Holden designed a simple recipe template with photographs setting consistently on the right page to facilitate the rainbow flipbook effect, and refrained from adding any other colored elements. “I didn’t want there to be any distraction to the continuity of the spectrum, just strong, bold, confident color in the food,” asserts Holden. A set of gorgeously styled ingredients photographs that were originally intended as chapter openers was moved to the frontmatter (in the “Color by Color” section, pages 20 to 27), so as not to interrupt the progression of color. “I really love the ‘Color by Color’ ingredient images in the beginning of the book,” remarks Malosh. “I'm glad they still made it in, even if they are not full page images.”
A unique element in the recipe design is the very short headnote, tucked quietly into the bottom left-hand corner of the page. Zizka explains that traditional headnotes were cut from the book to save space and ensure that all recipes are set on one page, facing a photograph. However, publisher Lia Ronnen and editor Bella Lemos felt that the color commentary that Zizka provided to assist Andrews during the photoshoot belonged in the book—and was transformed into these unconventional headnotes. Holden remarks that their simple and visually consistent design treatment provides the reader a little extra insight, without imposing itself onto the page.
Holden’s eye-catching cover design came together quickly from a set of test shots provided by Andrews and Malosh. “I think I developed about fifteen draft design sketches…the actual cover is one of those first sketches.” The cover was swiftly approved, and its bold and simple grid-like composition guided the development of the interior design, and helped inform Andrews’s and Malosh’s decisions as the photo shoot progressed. “Often, you have to pull a cover from book content that’s already shot, or shoot something specific for the cover. In this case, the solution was in the initial design—that rarely happens, and when it does, it’s very satisfying,” remarks Holden.
Cook Color made its debut this month, capping off a little more than two years of work from Zizka and her team. Zizka anticipated gleefully the delivery of her first copy, noting a feeling of deep satisfaction when holding it in her hands. The supremely playful food on display within its pages is refreshingly unique, its beauty inspiring us—and sometimes daring us—to experiment a little in the kitchen. “I hope these recipes encourage people to try new flavor combinations,” she explains. “I hope Cook Color leads to tons of menus and parties based on color, with plenty of food that’s both beautiful and delicious.”
I reflect upon the creativity of Zizka’s vision—and the mighty effort in realizing it—as I continue to gaze hungrily upon those blue-green dumplings, feeling ever more drawn into their peculiar and tantalizing spell.
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.