Announcing a New Book that Will Revisit the Golden Age of the 1970s and 1980s
[updated March 2014]
Alright, enough with all the ghostwriter talk: A few days ago, after some interest that came straight out of the blue, I closed a deal to write my next nonfiction book: a dream project I’ve been working on sporadically for a few years but which I can now announce will be published by one of the top impresarios in the business. I’m still pinching myself.
The as-yet-untitled book will be an oral history of the coming of age of American chefs, American restaurants, and modern American restaurant cuisine in the 1970s and 1980s. It will be published by Dan Halpern’s Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. Ecco is also home to Mario Batali and April Bloomfield, Zak Pelaccio and Andrew Carmellini, not to mention Tony Bourdain, both as an author and as overlord of his own imprint, Tony Bourdain Books. Ecco also boasts a stable of non-culinary literary luminaries that’s simply mind-blowing. Where better to publish this book than this house? Did I mention that I was still pinching myself?
Of course, other books have touched on this subject and time period, but this one will be its own animal. It will focus only on the 1970s and 1980s, will be told (almost exclusively) in the voices of the chefs, restaurateurs, critics, and other principal characters, and it has a thesis all its own: that the same societal forces that produced punk rock and independent film, pop art and the sexual revolution, also drew a band of game changers into the kitchen, where they broke the rules and redefined what we eat and how we eat it.
In other words, the focus will be more on the people than on the food, although the food is obviously central to the story. Fortunately, one of the many remarkable things about that time was how very young the players were. With a few exceptions, the major characters are still with us today, and are still vital forces in the industry. While there are dozens of interviews yet to be conducted, one thing I hope to capture is the incredible energy, spontaneity, purity, and utter lack of materialism that defined the chefs of that era, none of whom got into cooking with an eye toward book deals, television shows, product lines, or commercial pitchman gigs. All of those things were, to put it mildly, beyond imagining to a young man or woman sticking a toe in the water of professional cookery thirty or forty years ago. The chefs of the 1970s and 1980s got into the business for one reason and one reason only: to cook. Imagine that.
I’ve been obsessed with this era for some time, and so in love with this project that I was afraid to let it out the door, so I’ve been conducting interviews and starting to shape the material, on spec (i.e., without a publishing deal) for a few years now. Somewhere along the way, my friend Karen Rinaldi, who recently left Rodale and has resurfaced as a senior vice president/executive editor at HarperCollins, suggested the oral history route, which was a revelation for me. Around the time of her Harper announcement last week, Karen mentioned the project to Dan. The rest, as they say, is history.
Regarding my new publisher: I’ve known Dan Halpern for years, though not very well. We’ve done a funny little dance during that time: He’s been interested in projects I’ve been involved with, and we’ve discussed some of them in his office, on the phone, and in bars, but for one reason or another we never wound up in cahoots. This book, however, was right up his alley, and we both knew it. Once the dialogue began, the rest of it came together pretty quickly. The last few days have been a blast: as soon as the deal was done, we began talking and emailing a few times a day. He’s excited, and so am I.
As I continue to research and write the book, I’ll share bits of it here on Toqueland, both a taste of what interviewees have to say about that era, and about current events in the chef trade. (If you aren’t already following me in one way or another, this might be a good time to sign up.) A believer that interviews should be conducted, whenever possible, in person, I’ll be traveling to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans, and other pivotal cities. This will also give me a chance to expand Toqueland’s reach, filing stories and dispatches from all of those destinations. It should be a grand adventure, for me and I hope for you.
And away we go…