New Zealand Cookbooks: Coming of Age by Staying Close to Home

A glance over the list of nonfiction authors who traveled from New Zealand to Frankfurt in celebration of the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Guest of Honor reveals a decidedly gourmet bent: of the 18 authors listed, eight are food or wine writers–almost 45%. This skew toward one particular category, says Kevin Chapman, MD of Hachette New Zealand and President of the Publishers Association of New Zealand (PANZ), is due to a relatively new addition to the Frankfurt Book Fair program: The Frankfurt Culinary Festival, founded in 2011 as a joint venture between the Book Fair’s Guest of Honor team and chef Leon Joskowitz.

Even if the Culinary Festival did “skew” demographics, New Zealand has become a global culinary force with remarkable speed. Much like the San Francisco Bay area, New Zealand’s entire cultural and economic landscape was impacted by the emergence of its globally respected wine industry in the 1970s and 80s. As in San Francisco, gourmet food culture was a direct consequence. Gone are the days when readers would write cookbook authors “in desperation asking where to buy white wine vinegar…and when not many people knew where to find [olive oil,” says Julie Biuso, a mega-bestselling cookbook author and Cordon Bleu-trained chef, who has been on the Kiwi food writing scene for the past 30 years.

The thriving foodie culture has produced an equally thriving food writing industry. In addition to the 8 authors who made up the delegation to Frankfurt, Anne Scott, the President of the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers, notes that the NZ Guild has 214 (150 individual, 64 corporate) members to a national population of 4 million, while the UK Guild of Food Writers has a membership of 400 to a population of 150 million.

On the publishing front, Alison Brook, Head of New Zealand Publishing with HarperCollins, agrees: “the cookbook market is very robust in New Zealand, and has bucked against the general trend of a flat or slightly declining market.” Brook attests that, even when going up against all the usual suspects—Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and other international megabestsellers—“the biggest sellers are often the local brand names–cooks and chefs that New Zealanders have grown up with.”

New Zealand’s poster-child of “local,” Annabel Langbein, has made celebrating New Zealand’s seasonal cycle and local eating her trademark. Although her platform is inspired by a connection to New Zealand’s unique geography, she’s sold rights in Australia, the UK, and various European countries and has an internationally syndicated television show. As she was preparing to leave for Frankfurt, her most recent book, The Free Range Cook, was the #1 non-fiction bestseller in New Zealand. Al Brown (published in New Zealand by Random House) has also sold well internationally, and is known for fishing the open sea–another natural resource that is never far from any New Zealander.

As a “Father of Fusion Food,” Peter Gordon, from HarperCollins NZ, has helped shape, multiculturalism, a second global food trend, by reflecting New Zealand’s recent history, where Polynesia, Western Europe, and newer waves of East Asian immigration mingle in a very young country. Kevin Chapman of PANZ believes that the associations of multiculturalism and being “the world’s fruit-basket” have become New Zealand’s global brand, to the benefit of cookbook publishers: “I think because we are seen as having fresh tasty ingredients (which we do) and a very eclectic food style, our cookbooks are well-regarded in the rights market.”

But as well-regarded as Kiwi cookbooks themselves might be, “the international market is looking for names really, and that means television,” says Jenny Hellen, Deputy Publishing Director at Random House New Zealand. Indeed, what Langbein, Gordon, and Brown all have in common is some international television syndication, and Gordon has additional exposure through his two London restaurants. In the US, though, television space for all three chefs has been limited to occasional guest appearances. Correspondingly, Kiwi cookbook sales haven’t gotten much traction.

Susan Maruyama, a Publishing Consultant with US-based Round Mountain Media, worked to introduce Langbein to American publishers three years ago. The insurmountable issue, says Maruyama, was the same as it’s been for many a US-based author: platform.  But there’s an added obstacle of enormous distance, which turns any real publicity effort at all into “a huge logistic and financial undertaking.” Things being what they are, some of Annabel Langbein’s biggest US sales numbers have come from a partnership with Williams-Sonoma.

Just as “local flavor” has been the great success in what Alison Brook at Harper Collins terms this current “coming of age of New Zealand food,” the greatest opportunities ahead for New Zealand cookbooks and food writing may lie closer to home, as gourmet tourism and the country’s popularity as a travel destination are both on the rise. Individual food writers are finding new, hybrid opportunities within this context. Robyn Martin is one example, an author whose books on what she calls “British traditions in the baking department” have sold in the millions. Currently, though, she runs a small pinot noir vineyard and pension that hosts epicurean tourists from around the world. Just to show how eclectic New Zealand’s food culture remains, even in the age of international wine tourism, Martin says that “none of these people head home with food and wine books. These international travelers who are deeply into food and wine…are much more interested in my baking books!”

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One Comment

  1. Nov 6, 20129:59 am
    Christine Jones

    Nice piece. One small point – UK population is 62 million, not 150 million, although the point she is making about ratios doesn’t really change.

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