Mario Batali just took me on a guided tour of his latest cookbook, America Farm to Table—and he’ll happily do the same for you.
“All the recipes in this book are inspired by farmers in appreciation of the incredible amount of work they do to bring quality food to our table,” Batali says. “Let’s take a walk through this amazing interactive ebook and explore the tools I’ve developed to guide your cooking.” He ends with an endearing encouragement, “Let’s cook farm to table,” and a spirited “Wheeee!!!!”
Batali is among the first chef-authors to embrace Hachette Digital’s pioneering tools for computerized cookbooks. These interactive iBooks (compatible with Apple iOS devices) offer video, audio, and programming components to enhance the reading—and cooking—experience, and retail at the same time as their print counterparts.
The first title to get the treatment—Isa Does It, by vegan chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz—won the 2014 Digital Book Award for best fixed format non-fiction eBook. Since then, Hachette Digital has released interactive versions of cookbooks by Michael Anthony, Dale Talde, and Dr. Andrew Weil.
“An ambition of our team is to reinvent the reading experience—where it makes sense,” says Neil De Young, executive director of digital development at Hachette Book Group. “While digital offers lots of wonderful and cool features, not everything needs an interactive edition.... We settled on cookbooks because, one, we have a passion for it here; two, we have great content around it; and three, it’s a category where the print book itself competes with free online apps. If we don’t reinvent, or think about how we can develop that content differently, we’re going to eventually lose out on it. So our goal is to do something different in the medium that’s going to improve how people use it.”
Cooking with a sleek digital edition is a far cry from thumbing through grandma’s batter-splattered Fannie Farmer. In addition to the occasional author-narrated tour, Hachette’s features include: comprehensive step-by-step recipes (no flipping back and forth required); embedded timers for certain steps; the ability to email an ingredient list for seamless shopping; and the stories behind the recipes, told in words and images. Batali’s cookbook, for example, contains an embedded video, “Table to Farm: Tomatoes,” showing the reverse journey of an heirloom tomato: from an ingredient in a Focaccia Panzanella prepared by the chef, all the way back to the plant on the farm where it was grown.
Digital product development manager Fred Urfer cites the filtered search mechanism, “Explore the Recipes,” as his favorite feature.
“The thing that really makes these books feel different from a print book, or even a regular ebook, is that filtered search mechanism,” Urfer says. “It really mirrors the way an at-home cook goes about trying to find what they want to cook, and we thought a lot about that. Most people, especially if it’s a Monday through Friday, want to spend less than five minutes to find [a recipe] ... Being able to search by ingredient or search by season is a really great quick win for us in the market tasting we’ve done. We’ve gotten some positive feedback on the ability to have that embedded as a web-like feature.”
In Talde’s Asian-American cookbook, readers can search by chapter, ingredient, culture, restaurant, or “bad decisions.” The latter yields Root Beer-Glazed Pork Banh Mi with Bacon and Mickey D’s-Style Fried Apple Pies. (“The tone of that book is pretty playful,” Urfer says.)
The team has several projects in the works for 2016, and plans to approach Gwyneth Paltrow and, again, Batali with fresh ideas for their forthcoming cookbooks. Meanwhile, they’re working with partner corporations to ensure that their product will soon be available on more diverse devices.
“We focused on this genre because we think it’s ripe for growth, and that the interactivity is acting as a remedy for certain limitations that you have in the print experience,” Unfer says. “We’re at the very initial step of this change in the way that publishers create this kind of content, and I would just encourage readers to send us feedback—to fill out our survey [at the end of each cookbook] or send us an email—because the way to for us to continue to refine and create even better tools is to hear from readers as much as possible.”Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.