When I first met Kate Leahy, after working at Chicago magazine in 2010, she was working with Chef Paul Virant in the midst of the Preservation Kitchen cookbook project. Michelin-starred, and Chicago-based Virant is widely known for his skill with canning and preserving, and the book is his guide and manual to techniques, recipes, and seasonal menus, inspired by his award-winning restaurants Vie, in Western Springs, Illinois, and Chicago’s Perennial Virant.
The book is finally out April 3rd, and after all the cookbook ghostwriter hullabaloo last week, I thought it might be nice to chat with her about the cookbook experience. And Kate was kind enough to offer a copy of the book as a giveaway to my readers. So read her words, leave a comment about your favorite canning recipe below, and I’ll choose a winner next Monday April 2, 2012 to receive the beautiful book!
Kate Leahy: I met Paul staging at Vie in 2006. I just went in because I was curious to see if a restaurant in Western Springs could be as good as everyone was writing it was. I called up Paul and staged there, and I was really impressed with what he was doing. In 2009, I sent him an email—I didn’t know him well at the time, but knew him enough—and I asked him if he’d thought about doing a cookbook. There wasn’t a canning cookbook on the market that was also by a chef, and he seemed interested. So we met and really hit it off; at the next meeting he wanted his wife there, and we all got along.
So it started becoming this weekly meeting that we would have over coffee, to talk shop and also talk about the book. He’s a little different than most chefs—he’s not an introvert, and everywhere you go, you run into people he knows. Being his sidekick for a year and a half, I really got to know the person, and it was a great experience. Even though he’s pressed for time and stressed like most chefs, he really does care about people and values creating relationships. After the project was over, to thank me and the recipe tester, he invited us over to his home to cook for us. It was an amazing meal, and his kids even played the cello and violin for us. It was like becoming part of his family.
KS: How did the project get off the ground? So many food writers/bloggers are interested in writing books, how did you get yours started?
KL: I pitched the book to Paul, and while he was still figuring out what it meant to write a book, I was in touch with Ten Speed about whether a book about canning from Paul would be of interest. The canning and preserving market is saturated, but if you have the chef’s perspective, that is different. We spent a long time developing the proposal before we sent it to Ten Speed, and we had a clear idea of what we wanted to create. Sometimes with the proposal, you later realize you need to change things, but because we had a lot of meetings early on, it really helped figure out how we would approach this book.
KS: What was your favorite part of working on the project?
KL: The trips we took out to the farms. Paul, Tony [the recipe tester], and I all went out to Heritage Prairie one day, and we ended up going out there nine months later for a photo shoot. I had never seen a beekeeper pulling out a fresh honeycomb, and then he handed us a piece. We also went down to Prairie Fruits farm for a shoot and spent all day there seeing the goats and the orchards and just how these farmers do it. It was really fascinating.
KS: The New York Times article about ghostwriting caused quite a stir. Do you consider yourself a ghostwriter?
KL: I think I’ve been a ghostwriter. When I did the A16 book that was like being a ghostwriter. I stayed in the background. I wrote the whole darn thing, but when it came to media attention it was Shelley and Nate Appleman. So I can identify with that article. With Paul, it really is his story, they are his recipes, but he is also such a collaborative type of guy—he would always ask me questions, “Well, what do you think, we could do this or this.” I thought that was really interesting, because a lot of chefs would just say these are my recipes. It’s still his book and it’s still his name on the front, but I feel pretty connected to the book as well.
KS: And what’s up next?
KL: This fall I’m coming out with a book with SPQR, another Italian cookbook. I’m gonna get the first page proofs next week, so the hard work is done, and it’s coming out in mid-October of this year. After that, I might need a breather after these heavy duty projects. I would like to do my own book I think, nothing huge, but you need the time to actually develop it and in this bizz we never have enough.