No one gets rich from writing cookbooks, but I’ve always assumed that Hugh Amano wrote his way off unemployment benefits.
Amano is best known as the inaugural sous chef at Fat Rice, co-writing the acclaimed after leaving the restaurant in its first year The Adventures of Fatty Ricefollowed by two standout comic cookbook collaborations with artist Sarah Becan: Let’s make ramen! and Let’s make dumplings! I’ve covered each of these books in its time, but I first wrote about Amano long ago during the Great Recession when he started Food on the Dole, a painfully personal blog about life as an unemployed chef (with a degree in English) , whose survival plans predated the pandemic pivot points I’ve been covering lately.
I know better, but I still cheered up at the idea that it would be possible for mass publishers to pull an overhauled chef off the production line. It turns out that Amano could only have written one of those books because in 2013, from 9 to 5, he prepared lunch for a few dozen employees at a low-key commercial real estate firm.
“When you’re a chef, your identity always belongs to your restaurant,” he says. “It’s programmed into you like, ‘Where do you work? Who do you know?’ Ride or die and you dedicate your life to this pirate ship. For me it just has to be: ‘Fuck it. I don’t give a fuck. I just want to cook.’”
Amano’s new, relatively predictable and reduced workday allowed him to research, travel, and write, even when his place of work grew into the often reviled development Juggernaut known as Sterling Bay. “It was just kind of like a frog in boiling water,” says Amano, who now cooks a family-style lunch for 100 every weekday in a kitchen he designed at the company’s Fulton Market headquarters. “For the last nine years I’ve been the only one standing in the kitchen and relying on my own curiosity. This is a great place for me. I learned more here than anywhere else.”
He found fulfillment in introducing his captive, mostly Midwestern colleagues to foods they might not seek for themselves (Haitian pork with pikliz, Filipino adobo). “I try to push them – and myself.”
“I send out a menu every week so they know what’s coming and serve lunch on time at noon. It’s like the ringing of an evening bell. I send an email and it’s like this rush of wildebeest coming down.”
Amano remained on the payroll even after the office closed in spring 2020. “I just thought, “They take care of me. I have to contribute somehow.’” He started out by mailing out a daily prescription to the company Email (homemade granola, crying tiger, harissa). “‘Food is starting to suck because no one can cook, so I’ll send you a new recipe every day.’ It was really well received and just nice to look forward to, a little bit of light at an uncertain time.”
This summer, Amano compiled most of them into a 238-page cookbook, building taste, photographed and designed internally and given to employees and partners as a gift at the end of the year. “It’s basic stuff, and then there’s some more aggressive stuff that I’ve done that people might not know about or might not want to explore unless it’s free and right in front of them.” (Like smoked tofu in red curry and beef kalbi.)
According to Let’s make dumplings! published last summer, Becan and Amano agreed to take a break from graphic cookbooks, but he still had many ideas to pursue. building taste was so well received internally, and the process of bringing it to life was so free from the financial and creative pressures inherent in mainstream publishing, that it made me wonder if the company could do more outward-facing food writing projects would sign. To this end, he proposed the idea of a biannual culinary travel journal.
“I love the experiences I’ve had writing cookbooks for Ten Speed Press, but what if I could be a kind of free agent and do these kinds of things the same way I talk about how have I learned a lot here? There’s the same level of freedom to explore without the pressure of selling stuff. And what creative person wants that pressure as opposed to just creating?”
last October Sterling Bay published the first issue of Bon Vivant: A Culinary Diary, focused on Amano’s obsession with cooking over a wood fire. At 102 pages, lavishly documented by in-house photographer Kevin Hartmann and designed by graphic designer Alexis Teichman, it’s a tech-heavy collection of recipes that includes a play on John Manion’s El Che Bar as well as travelogues of hunting and cooking along the Provo River in Utah ( Johnnycakes, Ember Braised Pork Guiso) and a visit to an old buddy from Montana Cooking School (sausage with elk and venison, trout on a willow skewer). There is also an article about cooking paella on the banks of the Chicago River along a flattened section of Lincoln Yards in Sterling Bay.
The second issue, released on Memorial Day, explores the food of Mexico’s two states on the Baja Peninsula, with a focus on what and where to eat in Tijuana, Ensenada, Valle de Guadalupe and Todos Santos. The 16 recipes (birria de res, fish tacos, ceviche, aguachile) also include an in-depth look at tortilla making with Aaron Harris of Molino Tortilleria and Jonathan Zaragoza.
Until now, Amano had been reticent in his day-to-day work, but different building taste, bon vivant anyone can buy online. He also wants to get it into neighborhood stores on commission, “but that’s kind of a challenge because it’s like, ‘I’m here from Sterling Bay and I want to sell that in your tiny shop.'”
What’s in it for the company? “Hugh’s contribution to the company goes well beyond his food,” CEO Andy Gloor said via text message. “He’s always been a huge part of Sterling Bay culture and he broadened our perspective through a culinary lens, well, when he struck bon vivant It made perfect sense to us in so many ways, including as a great gift for employees and friends of the company – many of whom Hugh has almost nurtured over the past decade.”
Amano wants bon vivant Being self-sufficient, if only to keep one’s patron on board for more. In future issues he wants to focus on Toronto or Miami food, regional grilling and a worldwide overview of pasta production, just to name a few. “It’s just the mind to take care of things,” he says. “Doing things with your hands and doing things with your gut – and what’s close to my heart, which is understanding other cultures about food, is the best way to do that.”
And it’s a way to keep learning at the company’s expense. “Every time you write a book, it’s like taking a college course.”