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Talking Cookbooks with Rakestraw’s Michael Barnard

Rakestraw Books owner Michael Barnard talks great cookbooks, feeding a crowd, and the Bay Area’s obsession with food.


Michael Barnard and Chef Gabrielle Hamilton.

Courtesy of Michael Barnard

Michael Barnard opens a small jar of Italian fennel pollen and asks me to smell it. He couldn’t help picking it up with his morning coffee on the way in to work, and not just because we’re talking cookbooks. The owner of Danville’s Rakestraw Books is a true gourmand, and he’s found several ways to bring his love of food into his bookstore.

Rakestraw’s cookbook section is front and center, and the shop is a popular stop for renowned cookbook authors and chefs promoting their new tomes. In addition to autographs and Q&As, there is often food prepared by Barnard and friends—from the new cookbook, of course.

Here, we get the scoop on Barnard’s favorite titles, the cookbooks he gifts, and why food makes book events so much more fun.


Courtesy of Michael Barnard

Q: What does eating food at a book event add?

A: It’s more casual than going to a restaurant but more random than going to a friend’s house. It gives you a chance to talk to new people in a way that you don’t necessarily get the opportunity to very often. And that’s fun. You have to engage because you’re eating. Sitting in a row of chairs, you sit back and cross your arms; you’re holding the whole thing at arm’s length. That’s hard to do with a fork in your hand.

Q: What have been your most memorable food events at Rakestraw?

A: I think one of the best was when Jacques Pépin came. It was to promote his memoir, and the stories he told were just so much fun. When Cindy Pawlcyn came, we borrowed a customer’s backyard and served a late lunch to 60 people. Cindy got there and jumped right in making aioli. It was just terrific. When Joyce Goldstein came, there were 80 people. She had a new antipasti book and a new tapas book out that summer, and we cooked from both. Eighteen different dishes went out, and it was nuts, but it was also really, really fun.

Q: What makes a great cookbook?

A: I like a cookbook with a strong point of view, some story, and good personality. Because I like reading them as much as I like cooking from them, I want something that is fun to read! It’s such a pleasure, and it’s such an antidote to the digital world.

Q: What are some of your all-time favorites?

A: One of the first was Country Food: A Seasonal Journal, by Miriam Ungerer, which I got at the library as a teenager. It wasn’t a soup-to-nuts cookbook. It was: It’s August, and we have a ton of peaches. What can we do with peaches?

I’ve cooked a lot over the years from the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. It’s very much the way I like to cook, which is great-ingredient centered. It’s simple and friendly and not overly worked. David Tanis’ A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes and Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys have produced more staples for me than anything else over the last few years.

And Nigel Slater’s Appetite—I just love. He writes about food the way I like thinking about food: “It’s cold out, and it’s wet. What’s going to feel good this evening?” The seasonality of food seems like it’s as much a function of what the weather is like as ingredients. What’s in season right now matters, of course, but what’s the season? That matters, too.

Q: The holidays are near. What is your go-to cookbook for gifting?

A: A Platter of Figs and Heart of the Artichoke are two that I love to give. They’re useful and beautiful; David Tanis writes well; and the food’s good. I also like the arrangement—in seasons and in menus. I like menus where the parts talk to each other so you’re not serving deviled eggs followed by chow mein followed by brownies. That’s beyond silly—even if I like eating those things individually. That shows up at restaurants a lot, where you can’t draw a straight line through the menu.

Q: What is the most intimidating, the Moby-Dick of cookbooks?

A: There are definitely some restaurant books out there where it seems almost impossible that you would ever do this at home. But even The French Laundry Cookbook is one that people will often set up as impossible to use; and it certainly is oversized and expensive and very glossy, and you don’t immediately think of it as something to bring into the kitchen. And yet even then, there are different components of a bigger dish. You don’t have to make the whole thing to make something that’s wonderful.

Q: I hear you’re a big fan of fantasy novels. Would you rather have Elven bread from The Lord of the Rings or Turkish delight from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

A: Ooooh. Probably Turkish delight because in the story, it was partly about the pleasure of food and temptation of food. The Elven Lembas bread I’ve always imagined as a weird power bar. It’s purely functional, and the pleasure of it was sort of nonexistent.

Q: It seems as though interest in food just keeps rising. Has there been an increase in the number of people buying cookbooks?

A: The cookbooks do well. I think there is definitely a lot of interest in cooking and in authentic experience. It’s not possible to say we’re going out to eat every night at all these great restaurants—and that we’re all cooking at home. I was at Tacolicious in the Mission last week, and the wait was 90 minutes—at 9:00! These are not people who are sitting at home cooking. We want to cook; we want to have that life where we have that kind of time and friends just drop in. I think we love the idea of it a lot. And I think cookbooks sort of cater to the daydream.

For more information on Rakestraw Books, including upcoming food events, visit rakestrawbooks.com.


By Yoko Takahashi

Books for Cooks

Looking for an inspiring new cookbook? Barnard recommends these new fall releases.

—1 My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life By Ruth Reichl

—2 Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix: More Than 700 Simple Recipes and Techniques to Mix and Match for Endless Possibilities By Mark Bittman

—3 My Pantry: Homemade Ingredients That Make Simple Meals Your Own By Alice Waters with Fanny Singer

—4 This Is Camino By Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain, with Chris Colin

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