Q&A: Previewing Todd Kelly’s Orchids at Palm Court Cookbook

Donna Covrett’s full interview with Todd Kelly and Courtney Tsitouris, a portion of which appeared in the August 2011 issue.

To write his first cookbook, Orchids chef Todd Kelly teamed up with food blogger Courtney Tsitouris of Epi-Ventures.com. Todd Kelly’s Orchids at Palm Court will be published this fall.

Donna Covrett: How did you two hook up for this project?

Todd Kelly: The project originally started about two years ago. A company approached me and the [Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza] about doing a cookbook. They had the whole shooting match of start-to-finish players: ghostwriters, photographer, etc. There were options available about how to be part of it.

DC: So this was a company or publishing house with a cookbook template?

TK: Yes, they had done chefs all over the country. The big part is ownership. I told the general manager of the hotel about the project and he replied that he had been thinking about the same thing for years, which then got me to thinking about the whole history of the hotel and its food. Just as we were about to write the check for the project, they came back with a new number, which didn’t meet our expectations, so we backed out and just dropped it. But the idea was something we didn’t want to let go of, so we decided we would pursue it ourselves. We hooked up with Stephen Kidd [the publisher of Black Tie Productions], who was new to the cookbook genre. The writer he assigned had difficulty translating my words into good food terminology, so we began looking for a new writer. Courtney had written an article about me for her blog [Epi-Ventures]. I liked her style and thought it would be a good match for the vision we had. We contacted the publisher with her info, they contacted her and worked out their deal.

DC: Courtney, you went from a full-time graphic designer to a part-time blogger based on an idea you had about recording your adventures while attending culinary school. From there an impressed reader offered you a marketing job. And now on top of that you’re a cookbook author, all in…a year?

Courtney Tsitouris: Well, that’s how I kind of live my life now. I was terrified to go to culinary school. I was terrified to start a blog. I was terrified to start this job I have now. I was terrified to start this cookbook.

DC: So fear is a big motivator…

CT: [laughs] That’s exactly right. I live in constant fear. I need to be challenged and don’t feel complete unless I am growing or doing something that’s scaring me a little bit.

DC: What has been the most fearsome aspect of this project for you? You already had a simpatico relationship with Todd, so that must have eased some concerns.

CT: Just not having done one before, I guess. But when you break it down into pieces, it’s stuff I can do and have done before. We’ve had very few hiccups. It’s been a smooth process.

TK: When we started this cookbook we put together a pretty strict timeline. But starting in late summer, early fall we didn’t figure in the photography of seasonal ingredients: ramps, morels, figs. We had to have the photographer come in just to shoot chanterelles. Since all the seasons were important to what we do, we decided not to keep the pace we originally set. One of the things I originally thought was going to be the easiest was producing the recipes. But translating how someone is going to understand that recipe in a book is a real challenge.

DC: How so?

TK: Like the way I record a recipe—the shorthand language, symbols, fonts—every single aspect of it needed to be changed. “Blanch and shock” turns into “Bring water to a rolling boil, drop asparagus in for 60 seconds, and transfer to an ice bath.”

DC: Because you’re writing a book for the home cook, not a restaurant cook.

TK: Yes, but this isn’t a book you’re going to pick up and learn how to cook. We’re not teaching you how to make fish stock or veal stock. It will be a book about what we do, how we do it, and why we do it—with awesome photography.

DC: Cookbooks make up a substantial portion of book sales in North America; I think something like 60 million are sold each year. So there are a lot out there. How are you going to distinguish yours?

TK: It’s more about owning it as another amenity for the hotel. We have 561 guest rooms to put it in. We can send up a great cheese plate to a guest for a special occasion, but it doesn’t hold as much value as the brand itself. Giving this book as an amenity is more meaningful for the guest—something they can take with them. We’re not trying to get rich off the book, we’re not trying to be the next French Laundry Cookbook. It’s just really a fun project.

DC: Courtney, are you acting merely as Todd’s translator, or have you had input as to how to format the book?

CT: He’s been open to input, but I’ve really wanted it to be his vision. I’m writing the introduction where we talk about the hotel’s history, what his culinary style is, the intros before the recipes, and all that kind of stuff. So certainly my writing style is going to figure into that—and my perspective—but he’s not one of those people who nitpicks, he’s generally pretty easy to please. That’s where a lot of my own perspective comes in.

DC: Are you being fed the recipes, or are you part of the creative process?

CT: I get fed the recipes, and my job is to take them and put them in normal language. So that’s a really time consuming process.

TK: And just imagine…I’ve already done that too [laughs].

CT: [Chefs] really do speak a different language. He’s talking about tamis [a fine sieve] and chinois [a mesh sieve for straining sauces] and the like—and some of that language remains because this is a cookbook for people who like to cook.

DC: You’re a perfect person for this job in many ways because you have an understanding of the professional kitchen from attending culinary school [three semesters at Midwest Culinary Institute] and interning at Nectar. And from the looks of your blog, an enthusiastic home cook…

CT: Aggressive I would say…

DC: Do you test the recipes to make sure they work for the home cook?

CT: Yes. I’ve cooked several of his recipes at home, but not all of them. I’ve added some things; I’ve made a few suggestions. He’s got things in there like porchetta where you take a pig’s head and roll and cure it and poach it—I’m not doing that, but it still in there because it’s interesting to read about.

DC: What’s been the best part of this experience?

CT: It’s been one of those really rare things for someone who is enthusiastic about food; that I can walk into a kitchen of this magnitude and reputation and sit with the chef for three hours on a Saturday. And if I don’t understand something he’ll make it for me and give it to me. It’s been really interesting from that perspective. And also just to hear him talk. He’s incredibly articulate, he’s inspired by everything and everywhere he goes. He stands in the line at Starbucks, looking at muffins, and comes up with a dish.

TK: It’s funny that she says that, but I really do. My brain doesn’t shut off and I am in Starbucks and thinking: Those panettone rolls are awesome, we should do this.

CT: His veal sweetbreads are based off of fried chicken. He’s always riffing off of something that something you and I may be familiar with.

DC: Has there been a worst part?

CT: Sure. It starts and stops a lot. Coordinating schedules. It’s a big project with a lot of people in it.

DC: And fitting it around a full-time job…

CT: Exactly.

DC: What’s been the best part of this process for you, Todd?

TK: I think the best part is yet to come, when we really see the finished project. But as far as a learning curve, it’s completely unlike anything I’ve ever done, yet it’s exactly the same thing I do every day of my life. I cook food. I write recipes, but when you’re trying to translate it and narrow it down to a yield of four, it’s really challenging. Six months ago I saw the project as easy. I thought, I’ll be done with this in two weeks. But six months later, I’m not done yet. We’ve narrowed it down to a base of 60 finished dishes. With the volume and quantity I cook for a hotel, 60 seemed like a breeze! But then each recipe and all of its components must be cooked and tested as a small yield.

DC: So the learning curve has been bigger than you expected.

TK: To piggyback on what Courtney said, I have a full-time job. I have so many side projects going too. And a family and kids! This week alone I have to be in Columbus on Monday for the ACF [American Culinary Federation] Chef of The Year thing [Kelly won the northeast division shortly after this interview took place, and the national title in late July]. I’m a runner and run the Heart Mini Marathon on Sunday morning, then have to be in Columbus by 3 p.m. I have a cooking class to prep for at 8 a.m. Tuesday morning.

CT: He is the busiest human being I know. You should have seen the man around Christmas and Thanksgiving. I didn’t know if he was going to make it.

DC: Good thing you’re a runner. It probably helps to keep your energy level up and from going mad. Courtney’s got a Cheshire cat grin. Maybe you have gone mad?

CT: No, no…he’s very calm.

TK: I try to wake up at 5 a.m. every morning—before the kids wake up—and spend an hour or two on the cookbook, because if I try to do it at work there is always someone who needs something.

DC: How did you format the book? How does someone who is super-creative—who’s inspired by muffins in Starbucks—narrow it down to a theme?

TK: That’s a good question. We didn’t. I wasted a lot of time. We determined the size of the book, what it was going to look like, the page layouts, etc., and we really thought we were going to be able to pack a lot into that. We started with a base of a 100 to 120 dishes. We could have had 15 different categories, it could have ended up being 500 to 1,000 pages, easy. Eventually, we broke it down to first courses, entrées, and desserts.

DC: You’re also a chef who follows seasonal flavor. Are you trying to capture that as well?

TK: We thought about it, but in the end we’re not breaking it down into seasons or it would just be too big.

CT: But there’s a lot of seasonal references.

DC: How are you using photography?

TK: Every page will have a photo of the finished dish. And some techniques will have photos because they explain the technique more clearly and quickly than I can describe with words.

DC: Todd, what is the basic operating procedure between you and Courtney?

TK: I send Courtney the recipes. She formats them and translates them. We sit in an office and she records the conversation as we talk about the recipe: the idea; where it came from. As I ramble on she may ask a question like What does it taste like? We’ll take three or four hours to talk about 10 recipes.

CT: He goes into very intense detail about all of it.

TK: And this is just for the introductory aspect of each recipe.

CT: The challenge is, I’ve got 25 minutes of Todd Kelly commentary on one recipe and three sentences to fit it all into.

DC: What do you hope people take from this cookbook?

TK: I want a book that could sit and hold its weight for five to10 years; nothing too trendy nor a flash in the pan. Something guests can take with them and share that experience of their time here.

CT: I want all of those things too, but I also want it to be clearly stated and to be understood. I read a lot of cookbooks too and know what it’s like to stand there and not know what to do next. It has to be like someone standing there guiding you. If we can tell a good story from beginning to end, that’s great too, and if I can do it in a way that when his wife reads it, it would ring true for her. That’s what I want.

DC: Did being under a brand influence the book’s development in any way?

TK: No, because we’re a franchised hotel under local ownership. The Hilton has zero input. It will be Todd Kelly, Orchids, Netherland. In that order.

DC: When it’s all done, how many hours do you think will be between those two covers?

CT: OMG. So many.

TK: Thousands. Our first photo shoot we did, our first goal was to have three or four photos per dish. So I had myself plus two others prepping Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday just for four dishes. There’s an army of people that have a hand in this. There are photos of action shots, and there will be lots of acknowledgements.

CT: It’s one of the most awesome things that have dropped in my lap.

DC: Would you do a cookbook again?

TK: You know, I really would, but I’d have to change how it’s done. Not so piecemeal.

DC: What’s the last thing you’ll do before signing off ?

CT: For me it’s proofing. That was something I had to argue in with the publisher. You would think that would be a given, right? When I know every T is crossed. When every em dash is right where it needs to be. That’s when it’s done.

TK: I am cooking the book from beginning to end here in a couple of weeks to make sure it works. I’m going to mise it out with two guys and cook every single recipe myself. But for me it’s done when it shows up at the door.

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