Even If You Never Met Him, Nach Waxman Changed the Way You Cook

The Kitchen Arts & Letters founder died this week at the age of 84. Longtime KAL patron and F&W Test Kitchen Assistant David McCann pays tribute to the man who made cookbooks his life.

portrait of Nach Waxman
Photo: Roberta Guerette

Have you ever entered a place, a place you've never been, and experienced that thrilling and slightly unsettling feeling that you had somehow come home? That's the way many of we cookbook and food obsessives describe our first time at Kitchen Arts and Letters, the bookstore- cum- library cum- treasure filled temple founded in 1983 on Manhattan's Upper East Side. It's a small space, filled to bursting with so many books about food that you feel you could get happily lost for days.

I think that feeling explains why this week's news was so shocking and dispiriting: Nach Waxman, the founder and force behind this one of a kind, only in New York, store had passed away. Coming on the heels of the past 18-plus months of closures, quarantines, and deaths, it seemed, well, too much. My first reaction, upon hearing the news, was, "No. Not him. We can't lose him." I don't imagine I'm alone in that reaction.

The food media world is surprisingly small. Many of us know one another, but even if we don't actually know one another, we have our love of food to connect us. We all know what the last two years have cost us. We have all suffered, in various ways and to various degrees during this pandemic, but KAL (as it's fondly known) was an oasis. We could go there and forget, for however much time we browsed, the troubles of the outside world, as we lost ourselves in descriptions of, and recipes for, the desserts served at Versailles in the 1700s, or at Jefferson's Monticello after he left the White House. We could even discover what the Maillard reaction was, and the scientific reasons it makes food taste better.

Like all great teachers, he knew that there was no point in having knowledge until you gave it away. 

And we knew that in Nach Waxman, we had a man with the answers. A wise sage with more culinary knowledge in his head or at his fingertips than all Google searches combined. And if he didn't happen to know the answer to a specific question, he could always lead us to the exact book that contained it. Like all great teachers, he knew that there was no point in having knowledge until you gave it away.

Speaking of Google searches, he understood that for many of us, holding an actual book in our hands, feeling the weight, smelling the ink, made us feel we had gained a somehow more complete knowledge than a computer would give us. Yes, I fully appreciate, and often avail myself of, the immediate answers I can get from my computer. But, if I'm being honest, when I really want to get to the bottom of something in the realm of food, I go to my bookshelves. I find a book, or 20, on the subject, sit in a really comfy chair, and settle in for a reading and researching marathon. And if I don't have a book with the answers I'm seeking, I know just where I can go to find that very book, Lexington Ave, between 93rd and 94th Streets.

Nach Waxman understood that impulse. And he also understood that the answer would not necessarily be found in a best-selling book published this year. He knew we needed access to food books from decades or even centuries ago. And if he didn't happen to have the book, he would get it for me.

When I moved to New York, in the early '80s, the city was a very different place. Small shops were everywhere. They were run by passionate people whose encyclopedic knowledge of whatever it was they loved—from cookbooks to antiques to theater ephemera to spices—made their shops the places to go, to share in their knowledge and passion. As we lose shops like this to chain stores and big box megaliths, our lives become poorer. Will Kitchen Arts and Letters remain? Of course it will. It must. The passion of the folks there is as strong as Nach's. And they know they are not just the guardians of his legacy, but of an extraordinary amount of culinary knowledge.

The world is a little less today, without that gentle man who knew so much, shared his knowledge so freely, and animated KAL with his smile and wit. Do yourself a favor. Go out and buy a book. A book about food. From a small shop. And next time you come to visit us in NYC, do what all of us who love food do whenever we can. Go to Kitchen Arts and Letters. Lose yourself in all of that glorious knowledge. And give thanks that once upon a time, a man with a passion, opened a little store so he could share all of that with you. Godspeed, sir. And thank you.

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