Nobody gets rich writing cookbooks, but I’ve always assumed that Hugh Amano wrote his way off the dole.
Amano is best known as the opening sous chef at Fat Rice who, after leaving the restaurant in its first year, cowrote the acclaimed The Adventures of Fat Rice, followed by two outstanding comic cookbook collaborations with artist Sarah Becan: Let’s Make Ramen! and Let’s Make Dumplings! I’ve covered each of these books in their time, but I first wrote about Amano long ago during the Great Recession when he launched Food on the Dole, an achingly personal blog about life as an unemployed chef (with an English degree) whose survival schemes predated the pandemic pivots I’ve reported on in recent times.
I know better, but I still cheered up at the fantasy that it was possible for mass-market publishing to lift an overworked chef off the line. Turns out, the only way Amano could’ve written any of those books was because of the nine-to-five gig he took on in 2013 making lunch for a couple dozen employees of a low-profile commercial real estate firm.
“If you’re a chef your identity is always with your restaurant,” he says. “It’s programmed into you like, ‘Where do you work? Who do you know?’ It’s ride or die, and you devote your life to this pirate ship. For me it just got to be, ‘Fuck it. I don’t give a shit about that. I just wanna cook.’”
Amano’s new, relatively predictable, and shortened workday allowed him to research, travel,and write, even as his place of work grew into the often reviled developmentjuggernaut known as Sterling Bay. “It’s just been sort of this frog in boiling water,” says Amano, who now makes a family-style lunch for 100 each weekday in the company’s Fulton Market HQ, in a kitchen of his own design. “In nine years it’s just been me in the kitchen, and I rely on my own curiosity. That’s a great place to be for me. I’ve learned more here than anywhere else.”
“I do try to push them—and myself,” Amano says of his Sterling Bay colleagues.
Credit: Kevin Hartmann
He found fulfillment in introducing his captive, largely midwestern coworkers to foods they might not seek out on their own (Haitian pork griot with pikliz, Filipino adobo). “I do try to push them—and myself.”
“I send out a menu every week so they know what’s coming down the pipe, and serve lunch at noon on the dot. It’s like ringing a dinner bell. I send an email out and it’s like this stampede of wildebeests coming down.”
Amano stayed on the payroll even when the office closed in the spring of 2020. “I just thought,‘They’re taking care of me. I need to contribute somehow.’” He started by sending out a daily recipe over companyemail (homemade granola, Crying Tiger, harissa). “‘Food is starting to suck because no one knows how to cook, so every day I’m gonna send you one new recipe.’ It was really received well and it was just a nice thing to look forward to, a little bit of light in an uncertain time.”
That summer Amano compiled most of them into a 238-page cookbook, Building Flavor, photographed and designed in-house, and distributed as a year-end gift for staff and associates. “It’s basic things, and then there are some more aggressive things I’ve made that people might not know of or care to explore unless it’s free and right in front of them.” (Like smoked tofu in red curry and beef kalbi.)
After Let’s Make Dumplings! published last summer, Becan and Amano agreed to take a break from graphic cookbooks, but he still had lots of ideas he wanted to pursue. Building Flavor was so well received internally, and the process of bringing it to life was so free of the financial and creative pressures inherent in mainstream publishing, that he wondered if the company would underwrite more outward-looking food-writing projects. To that end he pitched the brass on the idea of a biannual culinary travel journal.
“I love the experiences I’ve had writing cookbooks for Ten Speed Press, but what if I can kind of be a free agent and do this kind of stuff in the same way that I talk about how I’ve learned a lot here? There’s that same level of freedom to explore, without the pressure to sell stuff. And what creative person wants that pressure versus just creating?”
Last OctoberSterling Bay published the first issue of Bon Vivant: A Culinary Journal, focused on Amano’s obsession with wood-fire cooking. At 102 pages, lavishly documented by house photographer Kevin Hartmann and laid out by graphic designer Alexis Teichman, it’s a technique-heavy collection of recipes that features a piece on John Manion’s El Che Bar, as well as travel stories about hunting and cooking along the Provo River in Utah (johnnycakes, ember-braised pork guiso), and a visit with an old culinary school pal in Montana (elk and venison sausages, willow-skewered trout). There’s also a piece on cooking paella on the banks of the Chicago River along a flattened stretch of Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards development.
Issue two comes out Memorial Day and explores the food of the two Mexican states on the Baja Peninsula, with a focus on what and where to eat in Tijuana, Ensenada, Valle de Guadalupe, and Todos Santos. The 16 recipes (birria de res, fish tacos, ceviche, aguachile) also include a deep dive into tortilla making with Aaron Harris of Molino Tortilleria and Jonathan Zaragoza.
Until now Amano had been low-key about his day job, but unlike Building Flavor, Bon Vivant is available for anyone to buy online. He wants to get it into neighborhood stores on consignment too, “but that’s kind of a challenge ’cause it’s like, ‘I’m here from Sterling Bay and I want to sell this in your tiny shop.’”
What’s in it for the company? “Hugh’s contribution to the company goes well beyond his food,” according to CEO Andy Gloor, via text. “He’s always been a big part of Sterling Bay’s culture, expanding our perspective through a culinary lens, so when he pitched Bon Vivant to us it made perfect sense in a lot of ways, including as a great gift for employees and friends of the firm—many of whom Hugh has fed for the better part of the past decade.”
Amano wants Bon Vivant to be self-sustaining, if only to keep his patron on board for more. In future issues he wants to focus on the food of Toronto or Miami,regional barbecue, and a world survey of noodle-making, to name a few. “It’s just the spirit of giving a shit about things,” he says. “Doing things with your hands and doing things from the gut—and the thing that is super near and dear to me, which is understanding other cultures via food, which is the best way to do it.”
And it’s a way to keep learning on the company dime. “Anytime you write a book it’s like taking a college course.”