Q&A: Cookbook Author Kate Leahy

SPN IS BACK. Plus: Kate's smoked salmon spaghetti.

Howdy cookbook fans!

And welcome back to Stained Page News! SPN is back today with cookbook author Daniel Shumski’s interview with cookbook author Kate Leahyplus her recipe for chilled smoked salmon spaghetti with avocado and capers—perfection for a weekend in late August. Leahy’s first solo effort, Wine Style, is one of my favorite summer 2021 titles, and I can’t wait for you to read this conversation between two industry veterans. Take it away, Daniel and Kate:

Kate Leahy’s new book is Wine Style. It’s her first solo book after a long string of collaborations that started with the release of A16 in 2008 and grew to include Burma Superstar, Cookie Love, Lavash, La Buvette and more. She talked to cookbook author Daniel Shumski about her start in writing cookbooks, finding her voice, and her next book project (on Italian wines!).

Congratulations on the book. It's beautiful. How many cookbooks does “Wine Style” make for you? 

It depends! There are a couple of books that I've worked on but I'm not a co-author. So this is the 11th book I’ve worked on. But this is definitely my first solo book.

I want to pull back and go back to even before the first cookbook and ask you: You went to culinary school and then to journalism school. Did you see it all coming together in the form of cookbooks?

Well, you would think I would have in hindsight, but the longer story is I went to undergrad at UC Davis. While I was studying art, I got intensely focused on food. And this is a time where people didn't watch Food Network, you had to watch PBS to get your food programming. There was this great show called Great Chefs, Great Cities—it was the most bare-bones production. You put a camera in a commercial kitchen and chefs would do the dish, and there would be narration dubbed over because you couldn't hear what the chefs were saying over the fans in the kitchen. And I just loved watching how food was made. And in that time—this is like 2000—food wasn't seen as a very high level way of showing culture. It was just … not cool. 

It's funny looking now. Twenty years later it's such a different story. So I had such a deep interest not only the history, but also how to make food. But I felt like if I really wanted to write about food, I needed to learn how to cook. So I graduated from undergrad at a time where people were getting jobs very easily, right before the dot-com crash. Which just shows how old I am, I guess.

You're as old as I am, Kate.

Right. We’re the same vintage. So [my friends are] getting these well-paying jobs doing practical things. I moved back home with my parents and got a job at the local bakery because I wanted to get into the world of food. 

I started looking around and realized that spending a lot of money on cooking school just didn't make sense. But I found a community college program in the Napa Valley. I was cooking literally all day long and at that point, I got so interested in the restaurant world that my dreams of learning how to cook so that I could write about it went by the wayside. And I spent five years working in restaurants and working on the line.

But I got to a point where I thought, I don't know if being a chef is what I should be doing. So I tried to freelance. I tried to write a couple of articles and got turned down by the San Francisco Chronicle numerous times. I just wasn't sure how to break into the writing world. And I had an aunt and uncle who worked at the Chicago Tribune and they said to check out Northwestern. And I ended up going there for a Master’s. It’s a really overly educated way to get into food writing.

You've had so many collaborations. How did most or all of those find you — or did you seek them out?

It really came down to the first cookbook deal I got, A16. Before I moved to Chicago to go to Northwestern, I had been a line cook at that restaurant. So I left that life but I just knew that there was a great story there. And after journalism school I got a job working at a trade magazine. It gave me enough confidence to go to the people at A16 and say, “Hey, have you ever thought about a book?” And they said, “Sure. Just figure it out.” And it's really great in these situations to be naive. I asked my editor-in-chief what she would recommend. She had been a published cookbook author.

I think when you're starting out, you just need a few threads to grab onto and you pull one thread and it leads to another or starts unraveling this world slowly.

I love the idea about pulling one thread and finding a few other threads.

I mean it kind of worked that way for you too, right? You do this one thing and then you meet this one person and then hear about one thing and you get interest.

It did. And it's a hard thing to tell someone if they're looking to you for advice.

I think the big takeaway from my story is it really only takes one or two people who are the one or two people who give you that tidbit of information or connection that helps you get to the next step in this world of cookbook writing.

Finding that first thread to pull is such a big hurdle, especially if you’re starting from scratch, or coming from a demographic group traditionally under-represented by the publishing industry. Where do you suggest people start?

It's a good question. Where can you find that first person who could open a door to get you to the second person?

I think one of the benefits of technology is that the doors that you need to open are more readily available online. I mean, if you build up your platform, whether that's on Instagram or Tik-Tok or whatever, you're able to access more editors in a way that you never could have in the past. So editors are out there on Instagram, following a lot more people and now they're looking for people with all kinds of backgrounds. So if you're out there and you're putting out interesting content, that's one thing, but it's not only about the content you’re putting out. It's also trying to form those connections.

One way you can do that is maybe pick up a cookbook that you really love and you start cooking recipes from that book, and you start posting pictures or videos of you interacting with that recipe and tagging that author. Chances are that author is going to be just thrilled. If someone has taken such an interest in their work and that author might also then say, “Hey, I'm looking for a recipe tester for my next book project. You're definitely somebody who is really enthusiastic. Could I send you some recipes?” I mean you can create these sorts of communities that I don't think you could have even just five years ago.

I think if someone did that, I would pay attention. That could be a good step on the ladder.

And then if someone tested recipes for me and they wanted to pick my brain a little bit about their idea, I would give them the time. So, if somebody reaches out to someone like me, that’s great. But then keep in touch! Tell me what you did with that information. Were you able to meet somebody? Did you keep pulling that thread? Keep on it.

I would just say that there's no one way to be a cookbook author. No one way to write a cookbook. So anybody whose dream is to write cookbooks— ust start. Just start putting your ideas together, start cobbling together your favorite recipes. They might sit on a computer or in a drawer. But when you're ready, you'll have them.

So after all the collaborations that began with “A16,” how did you decide to strike out on your own with “Wine Style”?

I saw that there haven't been very many books with food and wine connected recently. There had been a bunch about a decade ago. I was going into it thinking, “Would that work again with a more modern wine world?”

To back up a bit, when I was working on the La Buvette book, I realized how much the wine world had changed. This whole subculture around natural wine had started and that has really pushed the conversation. There was just so much more. And so while the older books did a great job at breaking down some of the fundamentals, they were really geared toward a more traditional wine world and a very European-focused wine world. So I was really just thinking, hey, is there a market for this book? A small, easy-to-use book.

I like the idea of the wine world not being static; you saw an opening for a new take informed by changes in the wine world. You mentioned your work on La Buvette. Did that provide part of the impetus for this book?

I think La Buvette was still in the early stages of writing when I got the deal to write Wine Style. But they were with the same publisher and I knew I was already going to be spending a lot of time in the world of wine. So the freedom it gave me is that I might have tried to push La Buvette in a direction that it didn’t need to go by trying to make it more like Wine Style.

Wine Style really goes back to the basics and helps explain what wine is.

I'm glad you mentioned that because Wine Style is very informative that way. And it's a good read. What was the thought process behind the organization of the book?

I wanted something that would be easy for people to use and it was important that people didn't get hung up on “I can't make this recipe because I only have this wine.” I didn't want for somebody to feel that they either needed the recipe or needed the right wine to use the book. I wanted it to be: If you have a bottle of white wine, you can flip through the white wine sections and see what grabs you. If you instead like a recipe, then you can read the headnote and see what kind of wine you want. So I wanted it to be user-friendly.

You throw out a phrase in the book that I think a lot of people have heard which is “what grows together goes together.” How do you approach that?

I think sommeliers use this a lot with the idea that if a particular cheese or maybe a classic dish comes from a specific region that the wines of that region are going to be the ones more tailored toward that dish. So it's an easy way to think of the wine world if you don't know what to drink with what you're eating. But it only can go so far because the idea was all well and good when wine was only really consumed in the traditional wine-making parts of the world. But there’s wine all over the world now! It would be too limiting to stick with that. I think it's a good rule of thumb, but it's not the only way to approach wine.

And now that our pantries are so much more global than they used to be, you can feel free to experiment a little more and just see what works for you.

How do you get and stay organized to tackle an entire book’s worth of recipes? How was that different on the solo book versus your previous collaborations?

Well, I think for how I organize the recipe testing, I probably should have used your spreadsheet example because I had a hard time. 

The challenge was also that I was developing recipes right when the lockdowns happened. And what was tricky is I ended up writing a lot of the recipes and not being able to test them for a few months because nobody’s mind was in the place where you would just go to the grocery store to get these ingredients. You go to the grocery store to, like, stock up on a year's worth of pasta and marinara sauce. It was sort of a frenzy, right? 

And then the photo shoot was scheduled for June 2020 and it was the first photoshoot that Ten Speed was doing during Covid for the 2021 books. So I knew I needed to get the recipes that were going to be shot for the book in a good working order. And at that point things were loosened up enough that I could get ingredients. But I did change recipes because of thinking about shortages. So that was something that forced me to edit and that's actually an okay thing.

When you read recipes and see a long ingredients list, it can be daunting. And even if it is only 1/4 teaspoon of a certain spice it just makes the recipe list look longer. So I did do some self-editing.

Is Wine Style your first time writing a cookbook with just your own voice—not coordinating with someone else's voice, or trying to adopt their voice?

The only one that I think is also my voice is most of the “Lavash” book. But it's true after you write in somebody else's voice, it's a little tricky to figure out where you fit in. Early in my career writing, I thought that people who talked about voice in cookbooks were snobs.

People would come to me asking cookbook-writing advice and they'd say, “I'm really concerned about getting the voice right” and I would look at them and say, “You have so many other concerns!”

“You should be concerned about what's on the recipe list. How are you going to finish the recipes?” I was thinking more from a managing editor’s perspective rather than a big-picture story perspective and I’ve softened my stance on that. I do think that voice is important especially in a world where you can get so many recipes online. Where does a book fit in? 

I mean, Dan, you have a great voice. It's fun to read what you're writing because you can see your personality through your words. So I do think voice is important. 

On one level, it seems okay for other people to have a voice — that doesn't seem so highfalutin’. But then when you go to write your own stuff, if you think of yourself as “Oh, I have a voice” that seems a bit pretentious. But there's not really anything pretentious about having a voice, right? I mean you just have it — you have to have it!

It's so true. I think it took probably writing “Wine Style” to figure out that it can also be fun to have your own voice and have your own perspective and share that.

Now that you’ve done your solo cookbook, what's next for you?

The next project is already in the works. I'm in the process of writing an Italian wine book with Shelley Lindgren, the owner and wine director of A16. So I reunited with my A16 roots there. That's supposed to be out spring 2023.

So you already have your next book in the works before the last book even comes out? That's super impressive to me and it explains how you racked up your book count too!

Sometimes I don't know if it's the smartest way to do it, but it just evolved that way and you cross your fingers that you don't have two books due out in the same season.

Are they all with the same publisher?

Working with the same publisher does make it a lot easier to have realistic deadlines. The ideal world would be writing one book while you're promoting another book and so you always have a constant flow of books, but it doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes a book is moved into a different season or in a different year, so some of that's out of your control. But I was listening to a podcast where some romance writers write five books a year and I'm just like, “Wow! Now this is impressive!”

Well, I do like the point that, despite the best of your intentions, it's not up to you when the book comes out. My next book has had the release date changed maybe three or four times. And I think every book of mine has changed release dates at least once. I would be surprised at this point if there were no changes.

I think the thing about having experience working on multiple projects is it gives you a little bit more—and you probably feel this way too—if you've done a lot of books you kind of intuitively know where the buffers are. You know if an editor requests the manuscript, you actually have probably an extra couple of months there to perfect it. You know intuitively where the actual time you're going to be needed to work on something is.

If I know the published book is coming out in spring 2023, I know that it's not going to go to the printer in winter 2021. You know, I know that there's going to be time in 2022, where there’s work done to design and edit it. So knowing how long it takes for certain processes to happen in the publishing world is really helpful. 

I agree 100 percent. The deadline for the manuscript is extremely important. But there’s so much work that happens between then and the printing. And if you’ve done this before, you know there’s a lot of back-and-forth.

Right. And for me it means that it's better to have an imperfect first draft that I'm submitting than to delay submitting the manuscript.  Because I know that while the editor is doing a developmental edit, I can still go back to that recipe. I might have to change 1 cup to 3/4 cup, so I can do that. I think if I were a first-time author, I wouldn't feel like I could do that.

Are there any recipes in Wine Style that you're particularly excited to share? 

There's a smoked salmon spaghetti with capers and avocado. It's a fun dish. One of the ways I started getting my initial recipe list was going through a lot of old cookbooks. And one of them was, I used to be a line cook at Terra, a restaurant in the center of the Napa Valley. It was definitely my best restaurant job by far. We’d sit down at 4 p.m. every afternoon in the dining room for family meal, all together. We just did it right. 

The restaurant closed a couple of years ago, but I still have the cookbook. And there was one dish with angel hair pasta that had caviar and flying fish roe and it had smoked salmon. But I thought: You could make this more of a home-cooked dish just by simplifying the ingredients and making this nice, fresh take on chilled noodle salad. It seems very fancy in a way, but it's also made from ingredients I can get at Trader Joe’s.

This interview took place over two phone calls and has been condensed and edited.

Chilled Smoked Salmon Spaghetti with Capers and Avocado

There’s something luxurious about having smoked salmon in the refrigerator waiting to be draped over bagels or avocado slices—or both. This chilled pasta dish, a tribute to chefs Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani, takes smoked salmon in a new direction. From 1988 to 2018, the couple showcased their modern California cooking at Terra in St. Helena, California, a restaurant in the center of the Napa Valley. Hiro pulled inspiration from all over the world in ways that few chefs were doing in the valley. When I worked as a line cook at Terra, we often prepared a chilled angel hair pasta with smoked salmon, caviar, and a soy-caper-lemon vinaigrette. This rendition of the dish is perfect with brut rosé from California, Oregon, or France. The original recipe, in all its caviar glory, is in Hiro and Lissa’s cookbook Terra: Cooking from the Heart of Napa Valley.

Serves 2 to 4. | Serve with sparkling rosé and champagne.

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons capers, drained and chopped

4 green onions, white and green parts, thinly sliced crosswise

2 teaspoons soy sauce or tamari

2 teaspoons rice vinegar

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, plus 1 lemon wedge

2 teaspoons honey

3 to 6 ounces sliced cold-smoked salmon

1 avocado, slightly on the firm side

Kosher salt

12 ounces spaghetti

Herb sprigs (such as dill, parsley, or chervil) for garnish

  1. In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, warm the oil until it shimmers. Add the capers and green onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to soften, no more than 1 minute. Pour the contents of the pan into a small heatproof bowl and let sit for a few minutes. Stir in the soy sauce, vinegar, lemon juice, and honey. Set the vinaigrette aside.

  2. Cut the salmon into ½-inch slices, trimming away any gray or brown bits. Cut the avocado in half lengthwise, remove the pit, and dice the flesh. Squeeze the lemon wedge over the pieces to prevent browning.

  3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat and have a large bowl of ice water ready. Add the spaghetti to the pot and cook according to the package instructions until slightly past al dente. Drain the spaghetti and plunge it into the ice water, using your hands to mix the strands and ensure they get evenly chilled. Drain again and press to squeeze out any excess water.

  4. Put the spaghetti in a serving bowl and stir in the vinaigrette to evenly coat. Gently mix in the avocado and lay the salmon on top. Sprinkle herb sprigs over the top and serve.

Notes: For a lighter dish, use 3 ounces of salmon. For a more substantial main meal, I recommend 6 ounces. I use cold-smoked salmon (pictured). Hot-smoked salmon has a different texture; if using, flake into bite- size pieces. Gluten-free rice noodles from brands such as Jovial also work well in this dish.

Daniel Shumski is a cookbook author and an editor. His first book, Will It Waffle?, won praise from the New York Times, People, and Food52. His fourth book, How to Sous Vide, is due out in November. He lives in Montreal.