Manhattan Bookstore Whets an Appetite

Posted July 22, 2018 7:22 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Kitchen Arts and Letters doesn’t present as one of the world’s great bookshops. It has no library ladders or espresso bar, no smell of bookworm or brass polish, and nowhere to sit. It has only slightly more bookish allure than the nail salons and hardware stores that surround it on a commercial block of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But since opening in 1983, it has been a destination bookstore for chefs, cooks, academics and eccentrics from around the world.

Kitchen Arts and Letters is not where you go to find all the cookbooks. It is where you go to find the right cookbooks.

What the small storefront does house is a very deep knowledge of a very narrow subject: books about food. And that knowledge is rewarded by the kind of loyalty that induces customers to drop thousands of dollars at a clip, mostly based on the recommendations of Nach Waxman, its founder, and Matt Sartwell, the managing partner.

“People come to us to cut through the noise,” Sartwell said. Which means that no matter the food vogue of the moment, you won’t find a paleo-keto-InstantPot book here, or narrowcast volumes with 50 recipes for toast or taffy or tarragon, or scantily ghostwritten cookbooks from minor celebrities. (Although Waxman, who specializes in rare and out-of-print books, is occasionally asked to track down collectibles like a 1982 Johnny Mathis work, “Cooking For You Alone.”)

Rarely crowded, the store sees a constant stream of seasoned home cooks who know what they want: the new Ina Garten book, or a tip on who the next Ina Garten will be. (Deb Perelman and Diana Henry are in a dead heat.) Curious culinary novices find their way in, and are tenderly guided through a series of diagnostic questions to a suitable starter book. “People are novices for different reasons,” Sartwell said, describing three types: those who have simple taste and want to cook for sustenance; those who already love to eat but never learned to cook; and those who are recipe-resistant but believe in mastering the kitchen through science. (For those last, the evergreen “On Food and Cooking,” by Harold McGee, $40, is prescribed.)

But most of the store’s customers, though not present in the flesh, are the professional and aspiring chefs who routinely order whatever new volumes the owners are stocking, whether from Catalonia or the Carolinas. If they actually use the books, or even read them, is not pertinent; they act as a window into how the world’s most influential chefs are thinking, dreaming and plating. For more specific cravings, Kitchen Arts and Letters is often the only place to find the latest, deepest thinking on subjects like caramelized nuts (“Praline,” by Pascal Caffet, $55), Scandinavian fish roe (“Caviar,” by Jacob Stokkebye, $98) or the regional cooking of the Philippines (“Milkier Pigs and Violet Gold,” by Bryan Koh, $125).

In 1983, when I had an after-school job helping set up the store — we recorded the stock in blue ballpoint pen, in spiral notebooks — I was mystified by the constant arrival of large-format books from European publishers. They had giant photographs of multistep recipes, contained almost no words, and cost the equivalent of hundreds of dollars today. Who would ever buy them? The cookbooks I knew intimately — “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” “The Moosewood Cookbook,” “The Silver Palate” — were packed with detailed instructions, and illustrated with line drawings or not at all. (Soon, Martha Stewart would revolutionize the field with her first book, “Entertaining,” which featured glossy photographs of her in full-1980s prairie-glamour wear.) Fortunately, I was a shopgirl and not the chief financial officer, because from the outset, according to Waxman, chefs have generated more than half of the store’s income.

By determining which cookbooks to pull from the torrent of global publishing and send into our kitchens, they might be the most quietly influential figures in American cuisine. Even more quietly, Waxman has squirreled away in the basement thousands more historic and reference titles, some of which are the only known copies in existence. “If a young chef wants to come and copy a recipe and put it back into the world, we love to have them do that,” he said. “But those books are not for sale.”