AS CHEF JOHN SUNDSTROM guides me through the app version of his new cookbook, flipping between step-by-step slideshows, videos, and interactive recipes on his iPad, I can tell he's preoccupied with sales figures for its hardcover brother. Lark: Cooking Against the Grain is self-published, it's relatively expensive ($50, but printed locally), and though its Seattle author is a Beard Award recipient, a major distributor doesn't carry the book. He goes into some production details, but all I can think about is how much I want him to hand me the tablet so I can drive. I've never seen a "cookbook" like it, and in fact, I feel like I'm experiencing the present bridging into the future. He's concerned about his hardcover sales, but he's got a pioneering "killer app" on his hands and, in my mind, needs to be way more excited about it.
Not that he isn't aware of its potential. Sundstrom, Seattle restaurant Lark's founding chef/owner invested a year in developing the interactive app simultaneously with the book, which was always part of the Kickstarter plan that funded the project last April. The app is available for purchase separately from the book (at an introductory sales price of $4.99 this month; the final price will be under $10), it contains all 144 of the recipes in the hardcover, plus a variety of features (see our info box) that make genuinely good use of the medium. It's highly intuitive, gorgeous, and, as I discover later in the kitchen, a far more information-rich and reassuring companion than a print book. The only drawback I can think of is that an errant plume of morel cream means you're out a few hundred dollars for a new tablet.
The hardcover itself is impeccably designed and produced. A gilt-embossed cloth spine, a satisfying ratio of slick photography to useful information, and even a pull-out map of Northwest ingredient-producing regions make it handle like a preciously crafted McSweeney's volume, but it's no heartbreaking work of staggering vanity. The recipes and techniques within played out well in real-world testing, with accurate volumes, cooking times, and practical ingredients (the only shopping trouble I had was with obscure cheeses, but the funk wonks at New Seasons can always get you something comparable).
Every bit the regional product, Lark's recipes are divided into what Sundstrom calls the three Northwest seasons: mist, evergreen, and bounty. The dishes feel cohesively American, though many are based on a wide Western European repertoire (heavy on Italy and France, with nods to Switzerland and Spain). Technically, it favors the beginning and intermediate cook, with a respectable assortment of handmade pasta, charcuterie, and sweetbread recipes that require long and fairly complex production.
Roasted, cheese-stuffed, guanciale-wrapped medjool dates wound up filled with some nose-blistering cheese remnant from my fridge, rather the recommended Fourme d'Ambert, but the devils on horseback emerged from the oven tightly bound, with unified flavors. Mustard-roasted chicken with drippings potatoes was carefully calibrated so that the potatoes roasted to doneness in time with the 3.5-pound bird, which had a golden and fragrant shallot, white wine, and dijon crust. A "white salad" of winter greens with a salty pecorino sardo featured a thyme-flavored white truffle vinaigrette, though it did need a surprisingly large amount of "to taste" seasoning to bring it to life. Relative to cookbooks as a species, the recipes are thoroughly articulate and reassuring.
In Lark: Cooking Against the Grain, we have not just a viable cookbook from a decorated American chef, but also a glimpse into the near future as it becomes standard procedure to include a robust companion app. (Sundstrom is also in the final stages of developing an ebook, not available at press time.) Sundstrom's offering is an excellent model, serving as not just a rich kitchen tool, but also extending the cookbook's potential as a multimedia platform for education and entertainment.
Approximately a dozen beautifully shot step-by-step photos for each recipe, far more than can fit in a print book
The ability to easily email a recipe's ingredient list to yourself from within the app
High-definition videos that give a window into Sundstrom's world of purveyors and foraging in Seattle, and also show him preparing several of the recipes in the book. For meticulous cooks who find too many gray areas in print recipes, these (as well as the wealth of detailed photos) leave far less up to reader interpretation.
A bug and issue reporting tool
Hyperlinked index, clear navigation
Measurement conversion toggling