Katie Workman tells IgoUgo how she went from a food-allergy-plagued little girl to a cookbook editor and food writer willing to roam the world for a taste of its culinary offerings.
IgoUgo: How did you become involved with the culinary beat as a writer and
Katie Workman: I have loved to cook since I was a little kid—brownies, chocolate chip cookies, deviled eggs, and Bisquick coffee cake are things I remember making a LOT. I went through a massive homemade-pasta phase where my parents used to come home to strands of pasta drying on the back of all the chairs, flour everywhere.
I have also had severe food allergies since I was a baby, and basically while growing up had to learn about food and ingredients and how things are made in order to not get sick. I ended up becoming very interested in food and cooking, and fell in love with cookbooks. I read cookbooks constantly, in particular the Silver Palate Cookbook (which my dad published) cover to cover like it was a novel about 10 times. I started a job in publishing with the idea of becoming a cookbook editor, and did end up editing cookbooks for over 12 years. Now I’m segueing into writing and other areas of the food industry.
IgoUgo: As a cookbook editor, have you focused on any particular types of cuisine? And is traveling part of the job? For example, would a trip to Italy accompany work on a book about Italian cuisine?
Katie Workman: The very best trip I ever got to take as part of my job was a trip to Brazil. I had edited a book called Brazil: A Cook's Tour, written by the wonderful Christopher Idone, and he organized a press junket over there for 10 days. He brought me along, and the food—the whole trip—was like nothing I'd ever experienced. It was so lush and lavish and so much fun—we'd have breakfast at noon, lunch at 4pm, and dinner at 1am, and then go dancing, and do it all over again the next day.
Otherwise, there's usually not all that much exotic travel when you're on the editorial side—maybe for photo shoots, on occasion, or to meet with an author. I edited many, many books for Pillsbury, which is located in Minneapolis, and suffice it to say that traveling to Minnesota for a meeting in January is a far cry from glamorous. And while not at all lavish, I also had a great time in Des Moines at the Iowa State Fair for three days, working with an author who was a blue-ribbon winner and judge there. For a native New Yorker, it was quite an amazing experience. I got to bring home a slice of the grand-prize-winning pie for my husband. The woman who baked it kept saying, "My pie is going to New York City!" I carried it the whole flight home on a plate in my lap.
IgoUgo: What are your favorite food projects or pieces on which you've worked?
Katie Workman: I just wrote a piece on dining out with allergies that I’m very excited to see in New York Magazine.
I loved working on the Blue Ribbon Country Cookbook, which had pages and pages of wonderful, classic, old-fashioned recipes, and also tons of information like how to make perfect butter curls. Most of us city dwellers don’t know much about Midwest cooking and the traditions of that part of the country. I also loved a book called Almost Vegetarian. It was probably the first book idea I ever had, and I had been eating that way for years. It was published in 1994, so already 14 years ago, and it really has become the way so many of us are eating today—little red meat, more fish and poultry, and lots of produce.
Home Food: Great American Chefs Cook on Their Night Off was a project I did with a wonderful charity called Share Our Strength. They are the largest hunger relief organization in the country, and they have strong relationships with chefs all across the US who support their work. We asked these chefs to give us a menu that they might cook at home, for family and friends, as opposed to their more complicated restaurant food, and put them all together in this book. The proceeds went to S.O.S. That was a very labor-intensive but very satisfying project.
I also loved a cookbook that was definitely the least successful, sales-wise, of all the books I've ever worked on. I came up with the concept and the title Chicken Parts, which was a chicken cookbook organized by part. The recipes were, and still are, so appealing—I just love them—and the writer, Charles Pierce, was a dream to work with. But I guess the title was a little too graphic for some. The reading line on the front was, "The best part of the chicken is the part that's on sale." I thought it was funny, but clearly I was in the minority.
IgoUgo: How many times is a recipe tested before you include it in a book? And how do you decide which ones to include?
Katie Workman: It is the author’s responsibility to test a recipe—they may test it many, many times, or if it’s simple and works easily, only a couple. Food editors can spot many issues with a recipe without actually testing it—overlong cooking times or too much seasoning, for instance. And most of us do spot-test recipes, not just to see if the recipes work well, but because cooking from the manuscript is part of the fun of editing a cookbook. Sometimes we’ll make dishes to share with the salespeople at our company, or to do some kind of advance promotion for the book. If recipes need to be cut, it is often because of space—sometimes a book ends up being longer to include more material, sometimes some material needs to be cut to achieve a book of a certain size (and price).
IgoUgo: When writing cookbooks, who are you writing for? Who do you see as your audience, and what do you want to achieve?
Katie Workman: I’ve only edited cookbooks, so I think this is less applicable to me, in the sense that my job has been to help the author identify their audience, and speak most directly to them. Every cookbook has a different audience. Some books need color photos to appeal to their audience; some need very basic recipes and instructions; some need cutting-edge recipes, or lots of supporting background material. Some of the books I worked on relied on a trusted brand—like Pillsbury or Whole Foods—to reach their audience. I guess one thing I think is true of all the really great cookbooks out there—the ones that become classics—is that the authors have a firm point of view.
IgoUgo: What's the worst mishap you've ever had when creating or testing a
Katie Workman: I once fried doughnuts before dawn in my apartment, to bring to work for a sales presentation. I made them in just a bra, because I couldn’t find my apron, and didn’t want to get grease stains on my shirt. That was a bad idea.
IgoUgo: When you travel for pleasure, how important a role does food play?
Katie Workman: Big. But it’s for sure not always about the big-name restaurants or fancy dining experience. In fact, while I love eating out—from high end to low—I always really want to visit places where the ingredients are sold: farmers’ markets; specialty stores; even supermarkets. I love going to supermarkets in different cities and countries, seeing what the staples of that kind of food are. Going to a fancy restaurant may not tell you as much as walking down the aisle in a supermarket and seeing 45 different kinds of packaged rice, or 20 kinds of salted, preserved fish. I love bringing home things to cook with from other places (yes, I am that person you stand behind in the customs line who is sometimes nervously bouncing on her feet), and bringing home little gifts for other people. The one thing is that if I’m staying in a hotel, I actually get kind of frustrated because I want to cook things, and I have no kitchen!
IgoUgo: What is your favorite food city? Is it the same as your more general
Katie Workman: I think my favorite food city is really New York, where I live! There’s an awful lot here. In terms of favorite general places, so far, Paris is my favorite destination in the world. There’s an awful lot of amazing food there, of course, but I think I actually am so amazed by the scope and breadth and depth of what NYC has to offer that there’s always a new and incredible culinary experience waiting to be had.
IgoUgo: What—and where—is a dish you'd cross an ocean to have again?
Katie Workman: This is a completely unrevelatory statement, but I fall into that group of people lucky enough to say that I have never had a more memorable meal than the one at Per Se. So...there’s no body of water between me and the restaurant, just a couple of subways and a park, but if there WERE an ocean I’d cross it.
Other meals I think about: fried seafood at the Edisto Motel on Edisto Island in South Carolina; in Paris, I think of the perfectly cooked fish at Le Duc and any of those monster plateaus of raw and chilled seafood in one of the many gorgeous, classic brasseries. I remember a shrimp cooked in cream in a pumpkin in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I am dying to go to Japan, as I can eat sushi morning, noon, and night and never tire of it. The best sushi I ever had was just a week ago at the Sony Club in New York City. I hear they fly it in fresh from Japan and other parts of the world every day, just for them. It was so good I may now try to be a music executive, just so I might be able to eat there again.
Photo courtesy of Katie Workman