BookPeople Q&A with James Beard Award Winner Jeff Scott

The James Beard Awards were announced this week and among those honored (Christina Tosi, Heidi Swanson, Gabrielle Hamilton, and many others) is Austin’s own Jeff Scott. Jeff’s Notes From a Kitchen earned the prestigious James Beard Award for photography.

We’ve been fawning over this incredible two-volume set ever since Jeff brought it into the store. This is unlike any cookbook we’ve had on our shelves. You’re likely to be more inclined to put this on your coffee table than in your kitchen. Its innovative design and, yes, incredible photography make this book a veritable work of art. What’s even more impressive is that Notes From a Kitchen is entirely self-published – Jeff put the whole thing together with Chef Blake Beshore, and it’s through their efforts that the book has made its way onto shelves and gained the notoriety it has (see the “Press” page on the Notes From a Kitchen website to see how many people have been raving about it).

Jeff was kind enough to talk with us this morning about the book, his collaboration with Chef Beshore, and what it was like to win the big award.

Jeff Scott

BOOKPEOPLE: Notes From a Kitchen is an innovative, dynamic cookbook. What inspired this project? How did it come about? And how long did it take to put together?

JEFF SCOTT: The idea with Notes was literally to reinvent the genre of what a “cookbook” really is, beyond the standard formula of some cool photos and lists of ingredients.  I wanted to totally reinvigorate what would be creatively possible within a book on cooking and how one could gain a far deeper understanding of heirloom food, how it’s nurtured by passionate farmers and the overall process of great creative cooking.  You then have to ask yourself the essential questions: What do the world’s best chefs know that we perhaps do not?  How do they approach ideas, flavor, dish-development, utilizing sense memory to allow a dish to really go into our subconscious?  What is their daily process of creativity, what does it “look” and “feel” like?  How do great chefs nurture their personal and professional relationships?  Do these relationships inform their cooking? Notes sets about to find the answers to these questions, and perhaps provokes us to ask more questions.  And the only way that I know to answer some of these questions is to spend a lot of time with these obsessive creative souls, to spend more time than makes sense so that you then become invisible, really, and to carefully and accurately document their daily lives.

From ‘Notes From a Kitchen’.

BP: Chef Blake Beshore is your co-author on the book. How did you two meet and come to work together? What were your different roles as you created the cookbook?

JS: I met Blake at a culinary demo he was doing in Dallas.  He was cool under fire and was illustrating to people how to make awesome food at home without a lot of stress, which is something of a personal mission for me. A lot of the intent of Notes was to find ways to get people to chill out in the kitchen, to enjoy the ” process ” of the never-ending kitchen action and the flow of doing organized tasks, and to experiment with an understanding of flavor … even just to get into the zen of understanding heat. The fun for me is always in the process of making things, and not to stress out on the results.  The project I was working on at that time was to make a book similar to my previous book on the private life and artifacts of Elvis Presley, but this time focusing on the inner life of a chef, but this was just going nowhere. I spent literally hundreds and hundreds of hours in his beautiful kitchen, months and months working and shooting and learning ….  totally digging the talents of the awesome team in the kitchen, documenting the setting up of the mise en place during the day and then the beauty of line action and the perfectly organized chaos that went down during the rush of service …. it was beautiful and totally thrilling.  But the “featured” chef was out working the floor 99.9% of the time, shaking hands and playing host and was just so disconnected from the busy kitchen, it was really strange to me.  This well known chef was not behind the line cooking, he was not even  “expo’ing” his own plates. This process felt non-authentic and corporate to me, it felt non-creative, way too safe and was just totally frustrating because I couldn’t even shoot the chef in the kitchen, which is kind of important. So this vibe with this one well-known chef just fell apart ~ and I was so beyond happy!

Blake had some personal funds, and we decided to put our efforts together and he would basically back the project and I would go out in the field and get into the world’s best kitchens and document the worlds best chefs.  I was only going to focus on chefs who were passionately and obsessively behind the line cooking, who were innovating and pushing out at all the edges of what’s possible with perfect food and wild creativity ~ this is where I’m most comfortable, getting lost in the trees of uncertainty and in then trusting that something great will come out of it.  So we built a publishing company from the ground up, we named it Tatroux, and went about to self-publish what would then turn into this massive 2-Volume, 932pp document to the ongoing act of creative culinary obsession.

From ‘Notes From a Kitchen’.

BP: This book (incredibly) is self-published. What has that process been like? What were the pitfalls and bonuses of doing it all yourself?

JS: Self-publishing is incredibly intense, expensive and there are thousands of details that you have to get absolutely right. It was much harder than we had imagined it would be.  We had an amazing team we worked with in making this massive book.  We worked pre-production and proofing with iocolor in Seattle and printed the book with Artron in China, which is the same team that produced Modernist Cuisine, so we were in great hands with Kim Christianson and Gary Hawkey at iocolor.

The awesome upside of self-publishing is that I had total and absolute creative control of every single aspect of the book’s content, presentation, all the detailed creative elements, design and production details, right down to inserting my wild multi-plate photogravure artwork as part of the creative inside the book, as well as shooting film footage and then editing those frames into the final book design as well, that was really cool!  I also was able to use these beautiful clear vellum sheets to layer the chefs private notebook pages and my fine-art images onto, so the public would have this very rich, layered, emotional and tactile interaction with the physical book object itself. This level of detail was especially cool on the etched cover and slipcase treatments, which is something I don’t think has ever been done before on a book, let alone a book about the emotional nature of cooking; using layers and layers of actual texture so you could “feel” both the narrative and graphic elements.  It was simply critical that this book be an emotional and new form of creative experience for the reader ~ this had to be a wild, provocative and fresh look at the art and intense craft inside the culinary world.

From ‘Notes From a Kitchen’.

BP: How does it feel to be recognized with a James Beard Award?

JS: So this is just a few days now that I have this beautiful new object … and I have to admit, people say it’s just cool to be nominated, and of course it is such an beautiful honor, it’s very very humbling to be recognized as having done something unique, but to win is just totally surreal. It just makes you feel like you have affected people in a positive, real and tangible way ~ and it affirms for you again that you can trust yourself that much more in the future, that you just have to trust deeply in your instincts and move further ahead, break down more barriers, don’t ever play it safe, that’s such a major force of action for me, to always take wild risks.  I will always risk total creative failure and always push much further into the unknown in order to possibly make something more and more beautiful ~ to make people’s lives better, to inspire others creatively or to ask more interesting and probing questions.  I don’t get too attached to finding perfect answers, there are no perfect answers. I just find that pondering questions far more enigmatic.

From ‘Notes From a Kitchen’.

BP: Are you working on any other projects right now, or is Notes From a Kitchen still a full-time job?

JS: I just came back from a pretty wild trip to Paris with Sean Brock, and will be going back in a month or so to work with some local chefs there, and probably spend some time in London, possibly Italy. I know that I need to spend more time overseas these next few years. I feel such a deep connection with the European spirit of … well of love and the quiet poetry of daily life. I spent years in Paris and Italy when I was younger, and it feels more important now than ever to interact with European culture. You can’t just isolate yourself, you have to keep exploring your internal and romantic life.

I’m also working on my next book project, which is going to also be pretty wild and beautiful, and I’m about to direct a feature film based on Notes From A Kitchen. These projects are already in pre-production.  These new larger projects will take several years and are going to be just as wild and provocative as Notes has now become.  I’m also working on a traveling museum exhibition of large new works, and I love working in my studio at Flatbed Press … that always brings me into such a quiet, easy peace, spending hours and hours deciding how a color ” feels ” or how a texture’s emotional quality can change and then inform the next aesthetic decision we make.  What’s so cool is that all these elements play off each other and interact with each other perfectly and are totally in sync,  one media simply informs the other.  It’s all about the journey we might take of going where we haven’t gone before ~ the thrill to excite people with new ideas and new forms of delivering content … and to expose ourselves to ever wilder questions.

From ‘Notes From a Kitchen’.

Signed copies of Notes From a Kitchen are currently available at BookPeople. Stop by the stove in our Cooking section to take a look at the display copy. You can also order the book via our website.

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