Did you know that there are 16 dedicated cookbook stores across the United States and New York’s Kitchen Arts & Letters is the oldest of them? Founded by Nach Waxman (he passed away suddenly in August of 2021), it’s been a staple on the Upper East Side for nearly 40 years, housing over 12,000 titles.
Matt Sartwell is the managing partner of Kitchen Arts. He has been in the store for more than 30 years, helping cognitive professionals, especially those looking for rare books from around the world and in multiple languages. The store has grown from a brick-and-mortar location to a permanent web presence, reaching customers worldwide. In addition to new books and out-of-print titles, they have popular food magazines, hard-to-find magazines (Petits Propos Culinaires), foreign magazines (Apicius, Fool) and industry glossies (Art Culinaire) along. even unusual things found. .
Sartwell has been a member of the James Beard Foundation’s Book Awards committee and chair for three years and is also a member of the Culinary Classics committee of the IACP.
Total Food Service caught up with Matt Sartwell to discuss the state of bookstores, trends, challenges, and opportunities ahead.
Tell us about your professional life before joining Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore.
I was an editor at Penguin for six years. I didn’t work from cookbooks: I was cooking separately every day for marketing meetings and budget battles. But I was the guy who cooked for office parties.
What do you do in your role as Managing Partner?
The main thing that I do that no one else does here is to choose the new books that I will pick up. I might ask my friends for their opinion, “Have you heard of this author?” or “Are you interested in this technique or these ingredients?”, but I’m the one with over 30 years of experience selling food and drink books, so I’m the one who’s wondering.
Who is your customer base and how do you select your offerings?
The largest, most loyal part of our base is the professionals. Cooks, chefs, bakers. They need good books so home cooks don’t. Home cooks may love a new book, but professionals must continue to invest in their lives. They may come looking for practical information, such as a new book on seafood, or they may just want something to make them sit down and start thinking creatively after there are streams. Imagine running a beverage app and developing new cocktails to keep up with all the cool things people see on Instagram. The drinks may look great, but how do they taste and how well do they fit into the serving length? Books are a gateway to problems.
What role do cookbooks play now for chefs and overall, for the food service industry?
As I said, books can be very helpful: a new trend emerges and suddenly every bakery in town serves something that wasn’t on the radar last year (remember macarons?). But books can also act as creative catalysts. There is a lot of pressure on food service people. Of course, they must be quality, but they must also adapt to all the forces that are part of the larger social conversation about what is interesting in food and drink. Books that professionals talk about may go directly over the head of the home cook, but the pros recognize the fun part of their colleagues’ work—and then run with it.
Tell us about the nearly three dozen cookbooks in your Fall catalog.
A huge number of cookbooks are released every Fall: we count over 600 cookbooks, and we’re not trying to finish. In our pre-Fall selections, we try to cut through all the noise to focus on the books we think are the most useful, like the new book by Noma, or the new book by Sebastian Bras. Not all of them are intended for professional cooks, but we have focused on serious books that even non-professional books can offer something special, such as Naomo Duguid’s Salt Miracle.
What trends in cookbooks have you seen over the years?
The most common is that cookbooks and books have become attractive. The books provide more detail, more science, more culture, and exploration of regions and traditions that were considered too far-fetched a few decades ago. Another is that people want to be able to do things that they may have already bought, whether a restaurant is preparing mustard in its home and warehouse, or to treat its salumi. Some of that change comes from the desire to reduce food waste, to be more sustainable, and more seasonal. And whether a restaurant is serving its own bread or prosciutto, or developing a signature cocktail built with ingredients they ferment in-house, it’s all about standing out from the competition.
You’ve been instrumental in building specialist libraries, tell us about that.
This is always fun, and each one is a very different experience because they are purpose-built, so to speak. We always start by asking questions about who will be using the library and why they are coming there. It may be more focused on technical reference, or it may be designed to take people on an adventure, to get them to go beyond familiar boundaries and look at ingredients or foods they don’t know much about. In some cases, we were able to close two to three hundred duplicate libraries at once on our shelves. But in other cases, we spent a lot of time researching whether these types of books exist and how to get them. And by that, I mean everything from the history of Venezuelan food to a science guide to Neapolitan pizza dough to a complete list of Robert Laffont.
We have helped build specialized libraries in large universities and start-ups. and created a special collection for cooks and legends of the first edition.
There is no way to ensure that inflation does not affect the business, so how do the experts in this industry cover the increase in the national cost of food additives?
Books that help restaurants produce more food in-house, like the ones I’ve mentioned about seasoning or preserving meat or fish, help diners get more value from the ingredients they buy. And if it helps the menu look more diverse, and gives the front of house team more interesting stories to tell about the food, then it can add value to the dining experience as well.
How do you support the industry?
We are very aggressive when it comes to promoting worthy books from local chefs and restaurants. Sometimes they are our customers, but not always. But we know that a strong food service industry is good for all our customers and therefore good for us. We had a great time at the StarChefs International Chefs Congress, and we’re excited to have it happen again because it’s a wonderful way to connect with some of the most active people in the industry locally and nationally. We are always here to try to answer that question which seems to be too bad, too dark to show on the internet.
We also work with organizations such as the Museum of Food and Drink, NYC Wine & The Food Festival, and Les Dames d’Escoffier to help bring interesting books to the public. The more serious the average citizen is about good food, the better for everyone in the industry. Often that is part of the fundraising efforts of the organization’s work, or it supports worthy organizations such as God’s Love We Give.
Tell our readers about your store account and rewards program so they can sign-up.
We have a rewards program that works on our website, or in store. There is a rewards button on the main menu of the website, or just logging in will get you right away to create an account. The program tracks the purchases you’ve made, gives away dollar coupons when you reach milestones, and rewards points for doing things like leaving reviews of books you’ve purchased. In the store, we can register you at the counter.