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Q&A with chef, illustrator & cookbook author Letitia Clark

Q&A with chef, illustrator & cookbook author Letitia Clark

By Claudia Besant |

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

When it comes to the art of food writing and creating a concept for a recipe book, Letitia Clark is a great person to talk to, having published not one, but two incredibly beautiful and successful works. Her first book, Bitter Honey was inspired by the food culture of Sardinia, while her second, La Vita è Dolce, focused on Italian desserts. Letitia is skilled at carving out her space in a saturated market and connecting with her audience to produce books they want to buy and treasure. whitefox speaks with Letitia to find out how she has accomplished this, and what tips she has for others.

When and how did you discover your passion for cooking and writing recipes?

I inherited it from my maternal grandmother, who was a force of nature in the kitchen. She taught me to love food, rather than to cook, necessarily, and through a love of eating I began cooking. I learnt through watching her and asking lots of questions. She didn’t have many cookbooks, strangely, but when I lived with her after I graduated I would go to the local library and pore over Nigel Slater books. I don’t love writing the actual recipes, as such – that’s the driest part of it all as naturally I’m pretty slapdash and tend to make things up as I go along – but I love describing food, trying to capture flavours and textures in words, and I love the stories behind the recipes, the people that made them, etc. My grandmother was full of stories too.

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Can you describe the process behind imagining and writing your recipes for your books and blog? What key elements need to be included in your recipes that ensure readers have the best chance of achieving the desired results?

I am quite random in the way I work, and tend to find inspiration in all sorts of odd places. It usually starts with something someone says, a memory, a remembered recipe, which sends me off down a rabbit-hole and then finding one recipe leads to another and then another. Or often it’s ingredients, beautiful or odd vegetables/fruit which prompt me to start researching ways of cooking with them, and then finally I will probably come up with a recipe at the end of it, after looking at maybe 4/5 different recipes by other people (or looking through other recipe books, of course). I think recipe-wise I hope that the description (or introduction) gives an accurate idea of what to expect, warts and all, as photos don’t say everything. I always try to tick off texture/flavour/aesthetics in my descriptions so people hopefully know what will happen and are not disappointed/surprised.

As the author of two incredibly successful cookbooks, Bitter Honey and La Vita è Dolce, both voted as best cookbooks of the year by The Times, what do you believe are the most important aspects of creating a cookbook that people will buy and truly treasure?

Wow, that is a very hard question. I think I’ve been very lucky, to some extent. Something I have always tried to put across in all of my writing is the inherent joy of food and eating. I think if you can translate that into your writing then people will sense it, be attracted to it, feel motivated by it. That’s also one of the reasons I fell for Italian food; there is so much pride and passion in Italian cuisine, it is such an integral part of everyday life. Managing to translate joy and enjoyment, that’s key for me. I like the personal aspect of food writing; I want to speak honestly, humbly and directly to readers and, while not everyone loves that, I think lots of people do relate to it. Then, of course, there’s the food, which must be delicious but doable. And the aesthetics… I wanted both books to be imbued with colour and sunshine, fruit and images of abundance, light and shadow. I love colour; it cleans my mind.

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How did you ensure your cookbooks would stand out in such a saturated and competitive genre? What is it about them that makes them unique?

I always talk about the three pillars of food writing — or perhaps really there are four — which are important for me: place, people, produce and the personal. Both my books are about a place, Sardinia and, more widely, Italy, which gives them a specific setting and thus something unique. Then there are the people that make up that place and play their parts in the stories and the recipes. Following the place and the people is the produce which inspires the recipes, and which is specific to the place too. Finally, I think your personal interpretation is hugely important. I write in a very personal style, as if talking to friends over the table, and that I hope draws you in and makes you feel welcome. I hope it is the happy balance and combination of all of these things which makes my books appeal to people. As you say, the cookbook market is very saturated, so I think it’s important to be yourself, and be passionate and proud about what you have to say and why it matters. All writing is about making people care. So, make them care.

How do you go about choosing the recipes to feature in your cookbooks? Are there any particular recipes that have a special place in your heart?

So many! There are plenty that don’t make it in, and plenty that get added at the last minute. I am not very organised or systematic, and my tastes are quite fickle: I’ll love a recipe for a few months then hate it after a while. The dishes I create tend to be seasonally lead and also mostly inspired by fruit or vegetables, cheese, grains and wheat, because they are my favourite things. And olive oil, of course. I am always drawn to recipes which have a specific story, or a specific someone behind them. The pasta with butter and sage in Bitter Honey is always a favourite, as it was one of the first pasta dishes I learnt in Italy, and in discovering it I learnt how to make a proper creamy pasta sauce. It’s the ultimate comfort food. Then there’s the minestra di patate, a pasta and potato soup which Luca’s nonna Giulia taught me and I love her, so I love that recipe. It all comes back to people, really.

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How has publishing two cookbooks helped build your brand and reputation within the food & drink industry?

I am always a bit wary of the word ‘brand’. I’m just a writer and cook (and sometimes an illustrator). I’m probably a bit old-fashioned about it. The books have been amazing, I feel very lucky to have been able to do them and that they have spoken to people in some way. It is an endless source of encouragement and satisfaction every time someone says they like them. That’s what really motivates me. I want to be known for what I write, paint and cook, so I’ll just keep doing that and hoping that people enjoy it!

What advice would you offer to businesses and individuals looking to write their own cookbook? Is there anything you wish you’d known before you began your first book?

I could write a book on that — Advice for First-time Cookbook Authors. I wish I’d known so many things. I think I would urge people to stick to their guns, specifically in terms of what they want to do with the book, stay true to what they believe in, etc. all the old clichés. I wish I had been a bit braver/bolder in what I wanted to do, and had more faith in myself. When I wrote Bitter Honey I kept on second-guessing myself, thinking ‘people won’t care about that, don’t bother putting it in’, and that voice needs to shut the hell up, essentially, because you can make people care about a flea if you really want to. To a certain extent, it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. So, stick to your guns, write from the heart, be yourself, make delicious food. Make people care; make people hungry. Believe in your project, and ‘push, push push’, as they used to say in the professional kitchens I worked in. That’s it.

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