Ellen Jackson graduated from New England Culinary Institute and spent 12 years as a pastry chef in some of the best kitchens in Portland, OR. After her stint in restaurants, Ellen combined her love of food and words to create a new career for herself. She writes about and styles food for books, magazines, websites and television, develops and tests recipes and consults for local, sustainably-minded restaurant and food service clients. In addition to writing The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook, she is the coauthor of The Grand Central Baking Book and developed recipes for The Paley’s Place Cookbook and Weber’s Way to Grill. Ellen is a longtime Slow Food Portland steering committee member and a Portland Farmers Market board member.
What made you decide to write the book with Chefs Collaborative?
When I learned about the project, I felt like it would be a perfect fit for my experience as a cook and writer, and my passion for advocating for a more sustainable food system. I’ve been involved with Chefs Collaborative on and off for around 15 years. Greg Higgins, who sat on the national board and led the Portland chapter, introduced me to the organization when I was his pastry chef. At the time, local meetings took place in the bar at Higgins one Sunday morning per month, when I was working. I would try to arrange my day so that everything was out of the oven and I could sit in on the meetings.
When I left restaurant kitchens to focus on writing, I quickly realized that I am drawn to food issues and the broader implications of what and how we feed ourselves. At that point, I reengaged with Chefs Collaborative, this time from a slightly different perspective. To view food through this lens feels most meaningful to me, and gives me a sense that I might be able to make a difference in the social, environmental and economic challenges facing our food system by educating others about them.
What was the process like working with 115 different chefs from all over the country and Canada?
Organizing 115 chefs and their recipes was a bit like, well, herding chefs. Definitely a challenge. Between the chefs on the cookbook committee, CC executive director Melissa Kogut, our editor Carolyn Mandarano and myself, we came up with a vast and dynamic pool of culinary genius from which to draw content for the book. There were lots of spreadsheets involved, and endless emails and phone calls made by myself and others. We had to be patient and persistent when requesting recipes, clarification and feedback on suggested changes. And yet it was rarely as frustrating as you might imagine, in part because I realized how much better prepared I was to do the job having worked in professional kitchens. I knew what to expect, how hard to push and when to give up and move on. The list of chefs and recipes evolved and changed over time, to create a balance. We wanted the recipes to be representative of Chefs Collaborative regionally, of foods seasonally, and to strike a nice balance between very straightforward preparations, and recipes for more advanced and/or adventurous cooks.
How does this book differ from other cookbooks on the market?
The greatest difference between this book and most other collections of recipes from professional chefs is the amount of complementary information. There are loads of lists and practical tips that provide a framework for participating in a food system that respects the environment and all of its inhabitants. Yet none of the information overshadows the appealing recipes and gorgeous photos, which celebrate the bounty of delicious foods around us, and–hopefully–make readers want to cook and eat.
What kind of feedback are you getting?
The feedback we’re getting has been very positive, and so gratifying! I suspect that those of us who were especially closely involved lost our perspective on occasion–I know I did. There was never a time that I didn’t believe in the project, or feel extremely proud of the shape it was taking. To hear from our contributors and customers who’ve purchased the book that it’s everything we hoped it would be is thrilling. We’re fortunate to have the seemingly limitless support of our publisher, The Taunton Press. Everyone there is absolutely committed to marketing the book and getting recognition for it. They’ve done an awesome job, and knowing how much is still in the PR pipeline, in terms of appearances, reviews, reprints and the like, I’d say we’re in a strong position.
You tested all of the recipes. What was that like?
Again, I’m glad I went into this with my eyes open, and a good knowledge of kitchen equipment, techniques used by professional cooks, chef-speak and their inclination to put off writing a recipe. It’s contrary to what most chefs do, sitting in front of a computer, trying to convert something that comes together organically into a very specific set of ingredients and instructions. I relied heavily on my own experience in the kitchen and developing recipes, to translate techniques, ingredients and kitchen tools into a familiar language, one that resonates with home cooks.
But there were also plenty of recipes from chefs who have published their own books, contributed recipes to magazines and newspapers, or make a habit of providing their cooks with recipes. So, for every recipe that sent me or one of my testers back into the kitchen to double and triple check, or that needed a major editorial overhaul, there was one that worked beautifully out of the gate, and read more or less as a well written recipe should.
The photographs are beautiful. Tell us about the photo shoot.
As a food stylist, I was thrilled to have the chance to go New York for the photo shoot. The week was beautifully orchestrated, from a crack team of cooks and assistants led by food stylist Rebecca Jurkevich to the photography team of wife Andrea Gentl and husband Martin Hyers, to tables piled high with of gorgeous linens, vintage cutlery, delicate glassware, interesting surfaces, plates and platters. There was a team from Taunton Press there, who kept everything true to the artistic vision for the book, and I made sure the food was just so, since I’d tested and formatted the recipes we were shooting.
It’s no small feat to gather that number of people, unite their goals and meet an aggressive deadline–especially since New York City labor laws around overtime required us to be out of the studio space we were renting by 5:30 pm each day. All-nighters weren’t even an option. Over 5 days, the team came up with 50 recipe shots and all of the other photos you see in the book, like the cover and end pages, chapter openers, etc. The experience certainly made me aspire to reach for greater heights in my food styling career!
What were some of your favorite recipes from The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook?
I’ve probably made the Miso-Marinated Black Cod the most–it’s super simple and delicious–but I love Indian food and flavors in all forms, and think about the Pumpkin Curry most often and most fondly though I’ve made it fewer times.
Last question – what would you choose for your Last Meal?
Given the above, it might not surprise you that my last meal should include a simple masala dal with naan bread and a spicy tadka, the braised mustard greens with cilantro and ginger from Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors, and peach pie for dessert. I never seem to get much beyond that, in terms of menu planning, but I’d be perfectly happy if that was it. And maybe some cooling full fat Greek yogurt on the side.
A few more images from The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook. Photos: Gentl & Hyers.