Why Chef Gavin Kaysen Self-Published His New Cookbook
Nationally-acclaimed chefs can have their pick of publishers. So why fly solo?
Howdy cookbook fans!
Longtime readers know I am fascinated by self-published cookbooks. Traditional publishing produces some truly lovely books, but in self-publishing, the sky’s the limit. You can be weird, be particular, take risks. You can, as you’ll read in this interview, cut publication timelines in half. You can do it your way, top to bottom.
You also have to front all of the cash. You have to do everything the publisher would do: hire book designers, copyeditors, indexers, and more, not to mention figure out a way to actually print the thing and to get your book into the hands of readers. It’s a daunting task, but in the right hands, a rewarding one.
So why would a professional chef, who presumably has the clout to land a traditional publishing deal, choose to fly solo? A little over a year ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Austin chef Jesse Griffiths on occasion of the publication of his book, The Hog Book: A Chef’s Guide to Hunting, Preparing, and Cooking Wild Pigs. For Griffiths, self-publishing was largely about subject matter control. A traditional publisher might shy away from the detailed, graphic butchery photos he knew were necessary for the book to succeed in its mission. And it turns out his instincts were right: The Hog Book went on to win the 2022 James Beard Award for single subject cookbook.
For Minneapolis chef Gavin Kaysen and his partner, author and publisher Nick Fauchald, there were several advantages to self-publishing, as they describe below. Kaysen is the chef/proprietor of several Twin Cities restaurants, including the Beard Award-winning Spoon and Stable. His first book, though, focuses on what he cooks at home; these are dishes Kaysen teaches home cooks in his virtual cooking classes, and makes for his family on days off. It’s a cookbook any traditional publisher would likely love to get their hands on, but for Kaysen and Fauchald, self-publishing was the only way.
Read on for our discussion of their new book At Home and how, exactly, it came into existence.
This issue of Stained Page News is brought to you by Hardie Grant Publishing. Serving up the best of Sri Lankan cooking, Hoppers: The Cookbook showcases signature recipes from the cult London restaurants, while going beyond their four walls to explore the dishes, places and people that inspired them. Author Karan Gokani, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Hoppers Restaurants, explores the classics as well as exciting new recipes developed at Hoppers.
Why Chef Gavin Kaysen Self-Published His Cookbook
So tell me about this book! What is it about, and why did you write it?
Gavin Kaysen: The book is called At Home, the theme is centered around the dishes that I truly and genuinely cook at home for my family and for my friends. I had always wanted to write a cookbook, and I did have an opportunity to do that about six years ago, and I just wasn't quite ready to solidify what it was I wanted to put on paper. That was nobody else's issue but my own. And so I allowed myself time to recognize that and move on from it.
During the pandemic, obviously we lost this opportunity to do what we did so well, which was connect with our guests, and have that opportunity to talk to them and cook for them. So we started this online cooking platform called GK at Home, and the first class was paella. And I jump on Zoom and I cook paella with 150 people, and I was like, "Whoa, 150 people showed up, that's amazing!" And then I realized, well, "I could probably sell them kits of food, too, and we could make some more money on that."
By the third class, Paula, we had a thousand people on the Zoom. Sold 250 kits and we had to turn the sales off, because it was so much. We ended up doing these classes two or three times a month. And then we realized, "Okay, now we have all of these recipes that have been tested with people who have genuinely screwed up these recipes really badly, asked us questions, and allowed us to help them. What are we going to do with it?" And the idea was to create this book.
Nick and I have known each other a lot longer than people realize. When I won Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chef in 2007, Nick was one of the people that came to San Diego to taste my food to deem if I could get that award or not. So we've always sort of been around in the same world, and it was a perfect opportunity for us to get together and create this book.
Why self-publish instead of going through traditional publisher? It sounds like you were approached at some point, and so you probably got a little bit of a taste of what that process is like, or how it begins at least. What advantages did self-publishing give you over a traditional publisher?
GK: I'm an incredibly curious person, and so when I went through the traditional publishing route, what I loved is that they had this roadmap of what you need to do in order to publish the book. What I didn't love was that I couldn't look at the map. I wanted to know, I wanted to see the map, but I wanted to understand it and I wanted to learn about it.
Why self-publish it? We knew that we had had the majority of the content already created and done and ready to go, and we had the resources and we had the time in front of us in order to do it. And I thought it would be a really incredible opportunity for us to educate ourselves on how to do something like this.
And usually, to be honest, when people say to me, “Don't do that,” that's probably not a good idea. Great, that's perfect, now I'm going to do that thing. And that was part of the process for me too.
You had these recipes already set, but you're also doing absolutely everything when you self-publish. I don't think people realize how much goes into it. It's not just the photography, it's the design, it's the indexing, it's everything. So what was the process of creating this book like? Where did you start? You have these recipes from the cooking classes and are going to do a book, now what?
GK: Well, I was lucky because I had Nick and [designer] Rotem Raffe to help me with this process, we trusted them to be our guide in what this process looks like. Nick had the roadmap, and he let see the map and said, "Hey, let's go together with it." So a lot of it is trust. For me, it didn't feel very different than how you create a menu, and how you create a restaurant. When you create a restaurant, It might be one person's vision of what they want, but ultimately your goal is to take your vision and bring the right people together in order to execute that vision, and to make it exactly or as close to what you wanted as you possibly could.
Sometimes the universe just grants you that opportunity. And that's what was granted to us. We were able to bring everybody together and it just sort of clicked, and then all of a sudden it was like, "Holy shit, we made a book."
Nick Fauchald: That's one of your strengths, this ability to set that system up and allow things to get done. I mean, we were able to move through this pretty quickly, timeline-wise. This is a fraction of time we would've normally taken with a traditional publishing route. I think we started talking about this about a year and a half ago1.
Some of the recipes in the book were done because those classes had been produced and filmed. But a lot of them hadn't even been created yet, because Gavin continuously is doing these virtual classes every month. So new classes were getting created as we were writing the book. And then we also looked beyond what recipes had gone into those classes. What does he cook at home, or what family recipes do they have? It's part of their family's history.
We added a bunch [of recipes] towards the end in part to fatten up the book, but mostly just to help with the storytelling. A lot of the recipes and the classes are at the higher level of cooking, even though it is truly what Gavin cooks at home. He's one of the best chefs in the country, so you'd expect it to be pretty high level food. We wanted to also just add some recipes that are more approachable, and help you through the whole week versus a few banger dinners.
GK: Even pantry items. Nick would say, "Oh, what things do you have in your pantry?" I would name off five or six things that as if, doesn't everybody have that in their pantry? And Nick would say, "Stop. Those are all good recipes." One of them is the feta brine. I don't know why people don't save the feta brine and just add a little bit of oil, some peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme and lemon, and then brine your chicken with it. Nick goes, “Hold on, that’s a recipe.” Of course! That's why you buy feta with brine, not the feta that's vacuum sealed. You already have a built in brine.
That's how I cook at home, and for me, that's easy. But what I learned about doing the classes virtually—and what I've learned about going through this book—is that walking through people through that process, and allowing them to read it and feel like a confident cook who can do this at home, that filled my bucket the same way a restaurant fills my bucket. And that was a really cool connection for me to see that I had not, honestly, I had not anticipated.
I’m looking through the book now, and it has all these tips separated out as pull quotes. Things like keeping the cover off a braise while it cooks, so the sauce reduces. I imagine that came out of the classes, people asking “wait a second” and that’s the tip, right?
GK: Yeah. I remember one time we were doing a class on just something simple, seared ribeye with potatoes. And I was like, "Listen, don't put salt first on a steak. What I want you to do is crack the black pepper, give it a little protection and then add salt. Because then you don't pull all the moisture out, because if you pull all the moisture out of your steak adding salt first, then you're not going to get that beautiful crispy sear that we get in restaurants." And it was like I solved climate change for some of these folks. They couldn't believe it. That simple tip.
NF: It was illuminating to see how teaching these recipes to a wide spectrum of home cooks really can pull out information, tips, questions you just normally wouldn't get when it's a chef and a recipe tester, or a smaller group of people who already know what they're doing. I would love to crowd test every recipe I ever work on from now on.
It's such an unusual way to write a cookbook. I've been doing all these interviews recently about this fall’s cookbooks, and the question I keep getting is, "Are we getting the pandemic books? What are the pandemic books? How are they different?" And this is the first substantive answer that I have heard anyone say is that actually stems from the thing, that it entirely changed the recipe development process for you.
NF: The word pandemic doesn't appear anywhere in the book. We deliberately just try to talk around that, because we don't want it to be too locked into a specific moment. I've had to deal with that with a few books recently where it's like we wrote these books during the pandemic and the pandemic definitely shaped what we did, but we don't want to acknowledge that. Publishers don't want us to acknowledge that either.
Of course. But in terms of the process, it seems like necessity created a really interesting new way to approach recipe writing.
GK: Yeah. Being able to test the recipes in real time like that, that was pretty remarkable to watch.
So self publishing has the advantage of time. Other advantages include attention to detail. You can work with the photographers you want, you can work with the designers you want, you don't have to do the whole title and cover negotiation. Is there anything in this book that comes to mind that you're just really happy that you got to do, because it was self-published?
GK: Let's just take the photography for a second. The photography is done by a woman named Libby Anderson. And Libby started to work for me while she was still in college. She was a host at Spoon and Stable eight years ago, and three months into our restaurant being open, I noticed her Instagram was really beautiful and had this great artistic flare to it, and the pictures were gorgeous. And I said, "Hey Libby, is there any way you could do Spoon and Stables Instagram?" And she's like, "Sure, chef, no problem." And so she picked up the Instagram. Well, over the years she then became a graphic designer and so she started to do all of our design. She started to build logos for us. She started to do all of our photography, all of our Instagram. And she just has this incredible innate ability to capture what it is that I want her to capture without us having to have a 45 minute, an hour long meeting. And I think Nick was always even surprised too—
NF: Holy cow, we got through so quickly, amazing.
GK: —we would set up photo shoots for the book and the team, we'd prep it all the day before, and then Nick and Libby and everybody would come in and I'd say, "Okay, we're going to do 13 dishes, let's go. We'll get it done in a couple hours."
NF: And then we'd do 20.
GK: And then we'd do 202.
NF: It would be done by lunch time. So it was a dream scenario in terms of how photo production went.
I will say, one of the hardest parts about writing a cookbook or working on a cookbook in the traditional system is at some point, or at many points you, have a disagreement with your publisher, usually a creative difference. And you rarely win those battles. We didn't have to have those fights. We could put whatever we wanted on the cover. I've had insane stories about title, cover image, things that don't even make any sense, but it always comes down to that with publishers. And we didn't have to deal with that. So we cut out a lot of time arguing about stuff too.
Well, just the sheer number of photos in this book to start. No arguing with the publisher to get all of your photos in.
NF: We were able to shoot every recipe in the book.
And every single recipe has, or I don't know if it's every single, but most of the recipes have these breakout technique step-by-step shots.
NF: That we ripped from... Because we had all the videos of these classes. We were just pulling stills from those videos. That was my wife's idea, I think. And it ended up creating hundreds of hours of extra time for her editing each of those things. But it was cool. It worked out. I like step-by-step photography in cookbooks and it's not done enough.
I agree. And I think that's a really smart way to do it too, because you don't have to go through and do a photo shoot of each dish.
NF: Yeah, if we were going to do it again, I would still videotape every recipe even if it wasn't for a class. I've done books where all of the photos were pulled from ultra high definition video and they looked just like anything else.
One of the biggest hurdles in self-publishing is actually figuring out how to print the dang thing. How did you approach that?
NF: Most printers won't talk to you, if you're self publishing. So then you look around the internet, you find these self-publishing solutions that are extremely expensive. Everyone I talk to who has looked into it as an individual, they're like, "Yeah, it's going to cost me $20 a copy to get it printed." And there you go, that's not going to work. So we were able to work with a printer that prints a lot of mainstream cookbooks and get the same pricing that a large publisher would. I think a lot of it has to do with just my experience and knowing who to talk to.
We were also looking back and forth between printing in Asia, in China, and printing in North America, and that's what publishers are dealing with all the time, too. We decided to print here in North America because one, the pandemic has messed up a lot of timelines and shipping and all that stuff, it would've taken a lot longer to print in Asia. And the pricing wasn't that different, to be honest. It was a little bit cheaper [in China], but in the long run, it kind of nets out.
Especially if you end up dealing with delays on the other end.
GK: That's the big thing, too. Before our publication date, we're essentially going to be sold out. So we're reordering. And then we'll have them them by January. Versus if we were to do that overseas where it's 6, 8, 9 months. And to your point, Paula, we also don't know if that's true.
So should we talk about distribution a little bit? How does that work for y'all?
NF: I've helped other folks publish books before and put on the publisher hat for a lot of books. But for every, let's say, 30 people that I talk to who are interested in self-publishing, 29 of them I talk out of it. Or let's say 99 of a hundred. It's really rare that you have all the things you need to successfully self-publish. Distribution is the biggest one, the ability to sell and distribute books yourselves is really the missing piece, and that's what publishers offer.
Can you go out and sell the book that you made and get it into people's hands? And that's where most people just can't do it. They don't have the reach, they don't have the means, they don't have the wherewithal, the time, whatever.
GK: Our distributor is kind of a crazy story. So we had trouble figuring out and finding ways to get the books through distribution. And we went down a couple of different rabbit holes that led us to nowhere. And anytime we felt like we got a little bit closer, we would have the final meeting with the person, and then it felt like we got farther away. So there's a guy, there's a young man, his name is Zach Windahl, and Zach worked for me at Bellecour Bakery. Couple years ago, he wrote a book called The Bible Study, and a study of the bible through the eyes of Gen Z. And it's wild. He wrote it in his parents' basement. He's got a remarkable story and a remarkable life.
So he is having dinner at Spoon one night with six people. And his friends leave and Zach comes back and sits at the bar with his CFO, Caleb. And he's like, "Chef, you'll never believe how many of those books, those bible study books I've sold in the last two years." I said, "How many?" Like 400,000 copies.
GK: You sold 400,000 copies of your Bible study book? He's like, "Yeah, I just sold the publishing rights to that book, but I get the royalties and perpetuity and now I'm moving on.” And it's self-published.
NF: We're in the wrong subject matter.
GK: Our next book is going to be called At Home with Gavin Kaysen and Jesus Christ. Anyway, I said to him, "Wow. First of all, blown away." He sold 400,000 books in two years.
GK: And then I said, "How did you do your distribution?" And he said, "Well, there's a company in Golden Valley,” which is 10 minutes from the restaurant, “called Tristan Publishing. They mainly publish and distribute books that for a Christian base." And he said, "Let me get you connected."
That was it. The rest is history. We signed a deal with them within four days. Zach had an old pallet of boxes, tape, packaging, equipment, labels, all this stuff he gave me as a gift for the new book. So now I didn't have to buy any of that stuff. And we went from literally not having a publisher on a Friday to signing a deal by a distribution to signing a deal on Wednesday. And they have been nothing short of absolutely remarkable to deal with.
NF: It's one of advantages of living here, I think too. We live in a big city that's a small town as well, where you talk to enough people and you'll find a solution to most problems.
Yeah, that's incredible. So the book will be available in most bookstores or... Ideally?
GK: Yeah, so we're not doing Barnes and Noble or anything like that. But we're doing a lot of local bookstores here. Now Serving in LA is going to carry it. Kitchen Arts and Letters in New York will carry it. There's a whole stock list of places, I think on our website.
NF: Our strategy was to start small. We knew we could sell a lot of the books directly, and we have. We essentially sold through our first print run immediately, and we're ordering another one right now. The strategy was to sell through it around the end of the year and to have more books coming in right behind it, but it only took a matter of days. So that was both exciting and surprising, but not shocking.
The plan was to start small and do mostly direct-to-consumer. And then because everyone here knows Gavin and loves Gavin, we knew there was going to be enough local accounts to take the book on. And then we still are going to look more broadly down the road aways, so we might end up finding a distributor.
We haven't tried reaching out to anyone. I didn't want to try to sell this idea to a distributor before we had a book in our hand. And the books are still on the way. We have a box that we got over-nighted to us, but the rest are showing up in a few days. So yeah, that's still, I think open ended like how we would do distribution in the longer term.
Well, it doesn't sound like you're having a lot of trouble with this, but what does publicity and marketing look like for a self-published book?
GK: We have been lucky with that. And I think part of that too is past relationships. When I lived in New York, I had a great relationship with all the people at the Today Show. So it wasn't a huge challenge to call them and say, "Hey, we'd like to be on the show and do the book." Williams Sonoma not only bought a thousand books, but then generously came on to sponsor our tour. So we can do five cities in New York, Chicago, Houston, LA, San Diego, hit all different William Sonomas. And then I called friends in those cities and said, "Hey Daniel [Boulud], can we do a dinner at Boulud Sud? Hey Grant [Achatz], can we do a dinner at Roister or Aviary?” So we're doing all these dinners too elsewhere, to add to that mix.
I think PR has changed a lot with social media and how you communicate to people. People want to hear from you, what you are doing, as opposed to hearing it from a publisher. And so I think for us, our strategy has always been that. I mean, I've always felt, even from moving back home when I came back home eight years ago, I always kind of felt like this is our story to tell. We own it. How do we want to tell this story versus sending out this big mass press release?
NF: And to me, it's actually not that different than marketing PR with a publisher because they don't do that anymore anyway. So it's usually up to you, at least most of it. So this is not too big of a departure.
So this book is published with a logo for something called Spoon Thief Publishing stamped on its spine. Are you planning on setting out to do more publishing in the future under that name? Or is it a one off for this project?
GK: Let's keep it open, see what happens.
NF: We needed a name. We had a logo already done. So same logo as Gavin's Catering Company. It's his dog who features prominently in the book.
Well, hopefully you sell enough books we can see more titles from you in the future! Thanks y’all.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
That’s all for today! I hope everyone has a great weekend and takes a good long think about what cookbook idea they’d love to self-publish. Let us know in the comments!
The traditional publishing route, from signing a deal to on-sale date, is generally at least two years.
I have been told by various food photographers that the max plated food shots one can accomplish in a day is between 6 and 10 shots, so this is a lot.