There's Never Been a Better Time to Buy a Digital Cookbook

Proceeds of the latest releases will go towards helping communities in need.

Digital Cookbooks
Photo: Great Jones / The Lineup / Courtesy of Penguin Random House

In February, TV host and chef Elena Besser hosted a dinner at Etiquette, a café and event space in Brooklyn. Twenty guests sat at tables lined with candles, sipping on sesame cocktails, as Besser cooked alongside guest chef Matt Migliore in the kitchen. The dinner series, called The Lineup, was launched to give line cooks a platform to shine, bringing them out from under the shadows of executive chefs. Besser had several more dinners scheduled. Then COVID-19 happened.

"We always had a plan to write a cookbook," Besser said; she just didn't think it would happen so quickly. "We thought, everyone's sitting inside right now, so let's do it now. And let's reach out to every single person in the industry that we know can use the love."

In one month, Besser cobbled together a list of line cooks from some of the most celebrated restaurants in the country, like Gramercy Tavern, Republique, and Oriole. Each line cook submitted a ten-ingredient-or-less recipe inspired by what they've been cooking at home, and the finished product is a digital cookbook, On The Line, to be released in late May. Proceeds from the book will be divided between all of the line cook contributors, as well as a few restaurant relief funds, such as the LEE Initiative.

While Besser was putting On The Line together, she received an email asking if she'd like to contribute to another digital cookbook, created by the kitchenware company Great Jones. Like The Lineup, Great Jones had toyed with the idea of a cookbook sometime in the future. Yet in these strange pandemic times, they decided that a cookbook—of family recipes passed on from generation to generation—was exactly what their community needed right now.

"This is a really powerful moment to meet people where they are and give them what they're craving, which is recipe content," said Sierra Tishgart, co-founder of Great Jones, "but also stories about why these recipes have held on over the years."

Great Jones produced Family Style in less than two weeks. It has a vintage feel that nods to women-powered community cookbooks, with detailed, colorful illustrations on each page. "We couldn't produce photos for the recipes, but people were open to that," Tishgart said. "It's scrappy." From May 4 to May 31, all sales of Great Jones' Family Style will be donated to No Kid Hungry.

Two other chef-driven digital cookbooks have popped up in response to the pandemic: Family Meal, published by Penguin Random House, and Serving New York, edited by New York-based writer Kristin Tice Studeman.

Family Meal, which includes recipes from some of the biggest names in food, like Samin Nosrat and Kwame Onwuachi, leans into the reality of being quarantined. Madeline McIntosh, CEO of Penguin Random House, included a recipe for "Conference Call Cake," with steps such as, "Vacuum. Make everyone wash their hands. Walk the dog again. Wash your hands. Have another Zoom."

Serving New York draws upon some of the city's most beloved restaurants, like King and Llama Inn, that New Yorkers are really, really missing. "I hope these recipes carry people back to a few of their favorite NYC restaurants," Studeman said, "and help bring them much-needed solace through a home-cooked meal."

Like On The Line and Family Style, all proceeds from these two books will do good: Family Meal is supporting the Restaurant Workers' COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, and Serving New York is donating to Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants (ROAR) and Robin Hood's restaurant worker relief fund.

And then there's Recipes for Relief, which isn't a cookbook in the traditional sense, but has all the elements of the other digital cookbooks born of the coronavirus era: it was created quickly, with the intention of supporting a community in need.

Chef Josh Sharkey had been working on an interactive recipe app, called meez, for professional chefs. When the pandemic hit, Sharkey decided to postpone the June launch and use the existing meez technology to help out-of-work chefs. The new platform, Recipes for Relief, allows chefs to sell their recipes on a pay-what-you-want model starting at $2. Money goes directly back to the chefs, who can do what they want with the cash—whether that's paying their rent, helping out another cook, or donating to charity.

"We try to make it clear that it's okay if that money is going to them," Sharkey said. "Chefs' first inclination is to help the community and donate, but for a lot of them, this really can help. More chefs are using the money to support themselves and their staff and we love seeing that."

While sales of these digital cookbooks provide financial support to struggling restaurant workers, the books themselves are purposeful and mission-driven. For On The Line, it's about sharing the spotlight, featuring people whose names you've never heard but whose food you've certainly eaten. "These are the individuals that worked every single day in restaurants and contributed a ton and are part of the family and the ecosystem of what makes these restaurants run," Besser said. "Meet them now and remember their names."

Migliore, the chef featured at Besser's first Lineup dinner in February, said, "As a line cook, you open this book and it's like, I'm almost there. I could be in a cookbook one day. And it gives you a little bit of a push."

With Family Style, the recipes draw you in, but the stories make you stay. "You can also read it as a book," Tishgart said. "Why do certain recipes hold on? Why do they get passed down? What are the stories behind them?" Tishgart included her own family's noodle kugel recipe, since she's been really craving comfort foods, along with the rest of us.

Victoria Blamey, former executive chef at Gotham Bar and Grill in New York, has already uploaded two recipes onto Recipes for Relief: Vegetable Pithivier and Red Lentil Dhaal. For Blamey, the platform has become an important way to feel like she's bringing people joy. "I don't have a restaurant to cook for the nurses and doctors right now," she said. "But if these recipes can actually make someone feel positive or distract them from the current situation, that's good."

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