just one rib

Beyond the Sauce, matt selby

Saturday, November 12, 2011
I’m a cookbook junkie. At last count, I have over 500 cookbooks. Most of them are in my home, either on a huge bookshelf, or in my kitchen where you will find my favorite books for spur of the moment inspiration. Many other books are in my office at Vesta. Most of these are either historical in nature, technique driven, or bare bones ethnic. They are good to have around when I, or the other Chefs at Vesta, need guidance, discipline, or just plain brainstorming for a dish or menu.

office collection

home kitchen collection

My collection of cookbooks runs the gamut, from the obvious; The French Laundry Cookbook, Think Like a Chef, and all of the Charlie Trotter cookbooks, to some rare, first edition cookbooks, including Adventures in Good Cooking and the Art of Carving at Home given to my grandmother by my grandfather in 1951. Others include books that are not actually cookbooks, but seem to fit well in that category. Anything from M.F.K. Fisher, Harold McGee, and Richard Olney for example. The book I’ve recommended to young cooks most is Becoming a Chef by Andrew Dorenburg and Karen Page. The first chef I ever worked for gave it to me for Christmas in 1995. I read it cover to cover in 2 days. I’ve re-read it more than 10 times since. Finally, I of course have cookbooks that fall into the “that was a very thoughtful gift” category, which are books that well intentioned friends and family have given me, assuming that the book was an absolute must for my collection. Home Cooki’n with David Letterman’s Mom and The Star Wars Cookbook are two that come to mind. Like I said, those books are well intended, so you will see them prominently displayed, along with all the others, as I try to always learn something from every book…especially when it’s a gift.

signed "to suzanne, with love, alan". gramma's book

got this one signed by madeleine kamman herself! chefs bierderman, kirwan and i saw her speak in boulder

Ultimately I’ve been reading cookbooks my entire career, and continue to learn from, and be inspired by them. I still get giddy when the latest and greatest ends up in my hands. I wonder though, is it ok to name your own cookbook your favorite? Before you read too much into that question, let me give you the brief history of writing Beyond the Sauce, by Josh Wolkon and myself.

Josh and I had talked for years about writing a Vesta cookbook. I imagine that just like us, many chefs and restaurateurs dream of writing a cook book, and I’m sure that there are as many reasons as there are chefs and restaurateurs. For us, the drive to write a cookbook was to honor the family staff members who built Vesta, the loyal regular guests and community who made it possible to write a book in the first place, and ultimately convey our passion and legacy to friends, family, and new guests. Many times the project would make it onto our to-do lists, only to find it pushed back in favor of more immediate and bigger picture goals. Regardless, the project remained something we wanted to do, when the time was right. In the winter of 2007 we finally decided that in our business, there really is no “right time” for anything, and that we should just commit to getting it going. Thus began a series of brainstorm sessions to discuss what type of book we wanted…how we wanted it to look, how we wanted it to “sound”, how we were going to do it. Many more “how do we” questions came up, and we hadn’t even gotten to recipe selection. We started simple though, and took our time. Josh would email me a list of his favorite cookbooks with reasons why, and I would return with my selections. We found as many authors, publishers, and editors as we could, and took them out for coffee to pick their brain. It wasn’t until the winter of 2008 that we sat down to actually write the book. 


dipping sauce "center fold"
While we eventually self published Beyond the Sauce, we initially began the process with a cookbook publisher. The beginning stages were to have the publishing/editing/photography staff fly to Denver to interview us, get to know us and our restaurants, and take some preliminary pictures. While this was happening, we began to write portions of the book that we knew we needed or wanted. Josh for example took on the “Vesta Vibe” chapter, which gives an in depth, humorous and entertaining look into the family-style culture that we have strived to create at Vesta, and Steuben’s. I took on the task of selecting and scaling down signature dish recipes. While we were writing these pieces, the publisher and editor would send us rough draft chapters, and personal introductions based on conversations that they had with Josh and I, our staff, and our family members. While I think that the writers did a great job of capturing who we are, and what we are about, we often found ourselves re-writing to make those pieces sound more like us. The most important thing was that those first pre-edit stories and chapters gave us direction, and structure to better find our voice and vision for the end result. 


vesta vibe funnyness...goooood times...

The work load was very much equally distributed, with Josh focusing on such chapters as “Vesta Vibe”, “Steuben’s” and overall tone, while I continued to re-write recipes. Something that I’m particularly proud of is that with just about each recipe I provided a sort of background, or introduction to the recipe. I very much enjoyed lending my voice and character to those recipes, and letting my enthusiasm and passion come through. Funny thing is that Josh and I learned new things about each other through this process. I learned more about how his childhood and education turned him into an insightful and hospitable restaurateur, and he learned more about how my mind works around food and recipes. “Even after working together for 15 years I was able to learn so much about the inspiration of Matty’s dishes in the creation of this book. I had always been amazed at how dishes came together so easily for him, but understanding where the inspiration came from had always been a mystery. One of my personal favorite parts of the book are Matty’s recollections and stories of what brought certain dishes to life.” That was the easy and fun part. The difficult part was actually testing the recipes. I finished rough drafts by June 2008. We were scheduled to fly to the publishers studio for food photography the first week of August, so really, I was on a very tight timeline to get the recipes tested, and edited. With Josh’s suggestion, I started by handing recipes to our Vesta cooks, and asked them to simply prepare them. The idea was great in theory, but did not take into account that professional cooks would take the recipes and either improvise, cut out steps, or take liberties. I needed every day, home cooks to follow the recipes, show me the finished product, and then circle back to make adjustments as needed. I began to pass out recipes to friends and family, supply them with the ingredients, and figure out when we were going to make them. While I was pretty excited to see many of the recipes work to perfection, many of the pre-edits resulted in disaster that brought us right back to the drawing board. Eventually though, we finished them with confidence, in just enough time for the food photography sessions.

Something I loved about the process of writing this book was having the ability to share the process with our staff and family. Our home cooks were thrilled and honored to test recipes, much like our chefs were thrilled and honored when one of their recipes made the book. When I received the rigorous photography schedule, I realized that I needed to fly someone with me to get the job done. I asked one of my best friends, and the Vesta Executive Chef at the time, Wade Kirwan, to join me. Our first day on the job started with checking to see that all the right ingredients were there, and source missing ingredients. We then immediately jumped into a 12-hour straight photo shoot, right into the day two, 15-hour non-stop session. Seriously. No breaks. We hauled ass, and found ourselves able to cut out day three, and relax. The experience was incredible, exciting, and adrenaline fueled. At the end of it all, I was blessed to have Wade there to keep me centered, and keep the train moving. I could not have done it without him. Check out the video! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nMX6eYC-SA

Once all of the individual parts are mostly complete, the next step in writing a cookbook is putting it all together, seeing how it fits, making preliminary edits to make the book flow smoothly, and then ultimately move onto final edits. In the spirit of sharing, we asked Emily Biederman, Chef Biederman at Steuben’s wife and Josh’s assistant, to help with the editing. Josh and I read and edited, read and edited some more, but it wasn’t until the rough draft made it into Emily’s hands that the book began to actually sound cohesive, articulate, and of course grammatically correct. All in all, I’m pretty sure the book went though the publishers edits, Josh and my edits, and Emily’s edits, for total of 4 rounds. Then there was the final final edit…Josh and I sat in his office with disk and PDF proofs, re-reading every single page, scrutinizing every single picture, and obsessing over each word. This then lead to the final, final, final edit, after the publishing editors made our final edits. Lot’s of editing in writing a book…I’m sure you get the picture.

chef biederman

josh wolkon
Very few things in life are as exciting as holding in your hand the very first copy of your very first book. I liken it to seeing your child born, or opening a restaurant. Still there are significant occurrences after holding that first copy that give off that sense of pride and accomplishment. Giving a book to your mom. The first copy you sign. Attending your own book signing. A local chef who you love and respect emailing to say just how great the book is. The first in house guest who loved their Vesta experience so much that they had to bring home a signed copy. Josh explains it like this, “I love hanging at the Tattered Cover or Peppercorn in Boulder where the cookbook is prominently displayed and just listening to the shoppers who notice it, talk about Vesta and flip through the book. It’s an unexpected way to hear how Vesta has touched people’s lives. Regardless of whether they ultimately buy the book or not, it’s very cool to have Vesta taken out of the normal context of the restaurant.” Beyond the Sauce hit the shelves in November 2010, just in time for the holiday season. We were certainly pleased to see it sell well during those gift giving months, but even more pleased and even humbled to see it move for the rest of the year…”Like any new project, writing a cookbook was an incredible learning experience. It was the realization of a long time goal and dream. For years we mailed out and e-mailed out recipes, techniques, and sometimes the sauces themselves to guests who wanted to do Vesta at home. It is a true compliment that we have been able to sell so many cookbooks to so many people for whom Vesta is more than a restaurant” says Josh. With the return of the holidays, Josh, myself, and the Vesta/Steuben’s family are happy to share a piece of our restaurant with you and your loved ones. So yes then, I do think it’s ok for your favorite cookbook to be your own…besides the writing process, the project sharing, and reader enthusiasm, it’s pretty gratifying to see Beyond the Sauce in a cooks hands, on a shelf in a bookstore, or merely sitting aside my highly regarded cookbooks in my home kitchen.

vesta roll

korean bbq cured foie gras

golden ponzu shrimp
Beyond the Sauce is available for $29.95 at the following…
-Vesta Dipping Grill, and Steuben’s, or online at http://www.vestagrill.com/_product_121647/Vesta_Dipping_Grill_Cookbook
-Tattered Cover
-Barnes and Noble
-The Perfect Petal
-Cook Street School of Fine Cooking
-Boulder Bookstore