Q&A: Cookbook Author Matt Rodbard

The TASTE Founding Editor announces an upcoming project!

Howdy cookbook fans!

Today I interviewed Matt Rodbard! Matt is the founding editor of TASTE, a fab source for all kinds of food and cookbook coverage (you may have noticed I link to them a lot). Matt’s here to talk about the other hat he wears, though: cookbook author. His book Food IQ: 100 Questions, Answers, and Recipes to Raise Your Cooking Smarts, written with chef Daniel Holzman, is out in February from Harper Wave.

He’s also here to announce his next upcoming project: a companion project to 2016’s Koreatown: A Cookbook to be called Koreaworld: A Cookbook, again written with chef Deuki Hong. That’s coming out from Clarkson Potter, Spring 2024. We talk about all that and more below. Enjoy!

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Q&A: Cookbook Author Matt Rodbard

Tell me about this new book you’re working on!

We did Koreatown in ‘16, but we wrapped the book in ‘15. So it was over five years ago [that] we started writing together. “We” is [chef] Deuki Hong, who is now based in San Francisco running Sunday Hospitality and running several operations there. I joined TASTE in 2016. So it's almost as old as five years of all I've been at TASTE.

We were doing our own things, but we always were watching and listening and reading what was happening with Korean food and culture. It's the story of a lifetime, covering Korean culture in the world, but also how in America, Korean culture has crystallized in so many cool ways. Obviously looking at film alone, with Parasite and Minari as two examples of films that hit the mainstream. Same with K-pop, which is absolutely a juggernaut. But then the biggest story, of course, for us, is food.

When we sold Koreatown, it was not a slam dunk. We had a lot of rejection. And I think a lot of people, a lot of editors did not think Korean food would be big, so we got that “no” a lot: “Korean food is not big enough. It's niche. We don't see it being like Japanese food.” And of course this is not the case: Korean food has become even more ubiquitous in the media than Japanese food. So we really have seen this rise of Korean food culture in America and around the world. And we knew, okay, well, there's another story here for us here to tell.

This book is a broader look than Koreatown. It's not just based on the US, it's about how these flavors and traditions play out in different countries around the world. Right?

The idea is that there will be more of a global approach. Absolutely. We're going to focus a lot on Korea, what's happening [with food] in Korea, that will be a big part of this book. We have two years of reporting ahead of us.

So you’re going to spend a lot of time in Korea?

Yeah, we are. We're both trying to get there this year. A lot of the book is about what's happening in Korea, what's happening in America in some Koreantowns that we went to [for the first book]. LA, New York being the big ones, but adding to those—Houston and Honolulu are two places I’d really like to visit. We’re also looking at how Korean food is playing out in countries like Iceland and Germany and France and Australia. But I think, just to be clear, it's not like an anthology where we're going to 25 countries and seeing what Korean food is in 25 countries. Right now, it's structured in multiple sections, and the world is one of the sections.

You mentioned that this is a reported cookbook. That's something I'm seeing a lot more of recently, these cookbooks that are pitched and then the authors go and report it out. What does it look like when you report a cookbook?

I think the distinction is that we are not writing our families’ stories. There are a lot of really cool Korean cookbooks coming down the pipeline. Eric Kim's book, Korean American, is one which I really look forward to reading, it's more personal. We're not doing that. I'm not a chef at all, I am a more of a journalist or editor, writer type. I run a recorder like you're running now. I interview people. Deuki is the same way, we love going out and meeting people and talking to people about their stories. And then Deuki reinterprets the recipes through these conversations. And for us, it’s the fly on the wall, third person, reportage style for cookbooks.

Those have been the books that I loved the most. I love Beyond the Great Wall. I love James Oseland’s books. I love Black Sea, Caroline Eden's books. And those may be a little more memoir, but they're still very much reported. These people who are out there reporting and writing about things they're seeing. So when we're building Koreaworld, it starts with: let's figure out the people we want to talk to.

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And then it's not just you and Deuki working on Koreaworld. You're also working with [photographer] Alex Lau, right?

Alex is somebody I've had tremendous respect for and really enjoyed his work at [Bon Appetit] and in the Times and his documentary approach. He went to Seoul and shot a story for BA about chicken. And I saw the photos and I fell in love with the imagery. He said he spent some time in Korea and has a fascination in Korean culture, as Deuki and I do as well. Alex is game to travel and he's game to tell the story with us, he's going to be part of the process. That's another part of it. We really want his feedback. He's a really passionate and smart diner, and I just want him there as much as possible, as much as we can afford, to be honest. There to weigh in on the actual book itself, not just the imagery.

I want to get a little bit nitty gritty about how the co-authoring works. You already wrote another book with Deuki and you have another co-authored book that’s coming out with chef Daniel Holzman. If I'm a chef that you're working on a cookbook with, how does that process work?

My approach to co-authoring is that we are co-authors, that I'm not a “with” credit, I'm an “and” credit, we're both together on the journey. [Ed. note: this refers to the cover credit. For example, Koreatown’s cover says “Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard,” not “Deuki Hong with Matt Rodbard.”] And I think of it as, I'm the one who's project managing the piece a little bit more. I'm making sure that everything's happening. The deadlines are being met, that we have an outline and we're following through with what the editor wants to do.

With Daniel and I, we're writing it in third [person]... That’s a style choice to write in third, and not use “we,” “our,” “us.” It's our experiences as a movie, as a documentary film. So you can think of it as this experience that we share together. The hundred questions we answer [in Food IQ: 100 Questions, Answers, and Recipes to Raise Your Cooking Smarts] is us, together, answering these questions. We both jump in and offer our feedback.

In Koreaworld with Deuki, it's also in third. We are interviewing people. For Koreatown, that was the case and it will be the case for Koreaworld, where it's third person reported. Let's get their voice, let's set the scene, let's make it more documentary movie style. This is to make the distinction that this is not me writing the book in their voice as their collaborator, as someone like a JJ Goode would do, as Joshua David Stein would do, as Genevieve Ko would do. There are a lot of amazing collaborators out there whose role is to translate the book into a chef’s voice.

That's literally what I did this morning, was translate a bunch of stuff into a chef's voice.

I have never really tried that… It's very difficult for me. And I give a ton of credit to you and others who do the work, but for me, it's just the way I look at books, as a joint effort as opposed to ghostwriting.

So you’re running the spreadsheets, project managing, do you do recipe testing or do you outsource that?

We do outsource recipe testing, absolutely with all our books. We do get somebody else cook it. Through my work at TASTE and other places, I’ve been editing recipes for a long time, nine years or so. But also I do cook a lot and I enjoy cooking through our recipes. I wouldn't call it testing because it's not like I'm objective. Some subjects, I'm very biased. And I have opinions and I'll like text Daniel or Deuki, "What's up with this?" As opposed to saying like, okay, it doesn't work. But yeah, I'm absolutely in the kitchen a lot. And it was really important that the writer is in the kitchen, cooking and getting your hands dirty.

Yeah, for sure. I've done interviews before where people talk about the process of recipe testing as a type of editing. And what you're talking about is more the writing of the recipe, the development.

Yeah. The recipes in Koreatown, I would go and cook with Deuki and write it down on the laptop. I did not do that with Food IQ, Daniel is a really, really smart recipe writer himself. Deuki actually is a great recipe writer, too, and has evolved as somebody who can knock out a recipe. But I think early on, it was just easier [for me] to write it down.

Do you want to talk about cookbooks? Because you see a lot of cookbooks and coming through TASTE. What are you seeing coming out that you're excited about?

I think there's been an absolute, absolute, absolute, absolute boom of books for Sub-Saharan Africa. And In Bibi’s Kitchen is just one—many are coming down the pipeline and just unannounced as of now. I think that is an incredible moment, these voices and these recipes that maybe can be executed in the kitchen or maybe just tell the story of the food culture. Both are happening.

I think it will be really interesting to see the books that come out of the pandemic. We’re going to see those over the next two seasons, so spring of 2022 and fall of 2022 are all books that were written during the pandemic. We wrote Food IQ during the pandemic. We sold ours, we wrote ours, shot ours, and designed ours during the pandemic. We're basically going to ship it and I've never met my editor. Basically, I'm going to go see her next week, I think, for the first time. Daniel and I've seen each other only one time, and that was like 14 months ago. We did it all on Zoom.

These are going to be very unique books. This is a very challenging time to do cookbooks. Ed Anderson shot Food IQ and we did it in Venice. I was on Zoom in New York, Daniel and Ed were in Venice, California. Man, it was hard, really hard.

I can't imagine spending all day on Zoom, trying to art direct a food photo shoot.

It was 14 days. Just getting products was hard. And we wanted to go out and shoot reportage but…I'm sure you're going to hear from a lot of authors as you interview them, the same story. Like, “we couldn't' shoot in this location, found a compromise, et cetera.”

My long-winded point is that these pandemic books—I think at least our book—are written with the soul and heart of a real home cook. Because we really were cooking, we weren't going to restaurants. We were thinking about cooking and food and culture, and what was really in front of us. These hundred questions we answered were the ones presented day after day on the internet, on Twitter, on Instagram, in the food media, on TV, in magazines. All based on real home cooking, because we were actually doing the cooking. ‘19, ‘18, ‘17, ‘16, those years were way more restaurant going, less home cooking. And maybe these pandemic books are being written with a little bit more of the soul of home cooking.

Right. You don't have a chef’s staff testing the recipes and fudging the fact that they're actually being tested in a restaurant kitchen. I think we'll see a lot of different ways people got around it. I'm already starting to see, for example, more books that are illustrated with line drawings or watercolors instead of photography. I think that's just one of a bunch of ways we'll see that people got around things this past year.

You're going to see also just a lot of styling, I think, that's going to be much more minimal, much more pared down. As an aesthetic choice, as well, I think it's cool.

Not as much reportage, maybe, the books we did in pandemic will not have as much sense of place. For the ones that were able to sneak it in, though, I think that should be celebrated. I don't think rules are broken, but I think people were creative.

And just in terms of the topics that people dreamed up and sold during the pandemic…so far people have shied away from the quarantine cooking cookbook, but...

I hope so. And I think while we're on the topic, it’ll be, if anything, cooking to live and cooking to not be in quarantine.

Right? Cooking to bring people together and cooking, like you were saying, from parts of the world that maybe haven't been covered as much as they should have been and all of that. Totally agree.

I think New Zealand is going to have a moment. I think [Monique Fiso’s Hiakai] is really special. And I think that food culture is simply undercovered, way undercovered. There is way more Iceland and Denmark out there than New Zealand.

I'm seeing a lot of Australia too. I don't know as much about New Zealand cooking, but the Australian food sensibility seems to be compatible with how Americans eat. And there's just a whole variety of different flavors and cultures contributing to that, I think it's going to be really intriguing for people.

For sure. Also coming up… I'm in a lucky seat because I get to hear about books early at TASTE and I think Bryant Terry and his new imprint 4 Color…it's really exciting to see that happen. People don't know how fucking cool that guy is and how thoughtful and multi-dimensional he is. So he's going to surprise a lot of people, I think, who might not already know him. These books are going to be very cool and special.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

In case you missed Tuesday’s issue: A new indie publisher publishes first-time authors in Ireland! A super fun self-published cookbook from Australia! Book deals for all kinds of faves like Gaby Melian, Kenny Gilbert, Urvashi Pitre, and not-sure-he’s-a-fave-but-sure-is-a-famous-guy Gordon Ramsay! St Vincent didn’t write a cookbook in quarantine! Become a paid subscriber to read: