Bonjwing Lee, co-author of bluestem, the cookbook

Bonjwing Lee
Photo by Bonjwing Lee.

Food writer (Ulterior Epicure) and photographer Bonjwing Lee co-authored bluestem, the cookbook, with bluestem restaurant co-owners and chefs Colby and Megan Garrelts. The cookbook, published by Andrews McMeel, will be released in November 2011. Below, Lee answers questions about the development of the cookbook and his role. After the interview, look for information on upcoming events tied to the cookbook’s release.

Pete Dulin: Can you share some background on how you teamed with Colby and Megan Garrelts on the cookbook?

Bonjwing Lee: Midwest chefs (and their stories) are under-represented on America’s cookbook shelves, and so, for a few years, I had been encouraging Colby to write a bluestem cookbook.  After three years, I dropped the issue – it’s easy to underestimate just how busy chefs are (especially chefs who also own their restaurants).

Serendipitously, three months later, Colby called me. Andrews McMeel had approached him, asking him if he’d be interested in writing a cookbook. He asked me if I would write the book with him and Megan, and photograph it as well. At first, I was hesitant, unconvinced that my skills as a writer and photographer could do justice to what are essentially Colby and Megan’s life stories. But the Garreltses gave me the boost of confidence I needed. And Andrews McMeel was adventurous enough to approve me as writer and photographer.  It was one of those perfect storms that landed in my lap and from which I couldn’t simply walk away.  Of course, I said yes.

Photo by Bonjwing Lee.
Photo by Bonjwing Lee.

Pete: Was co-writing a cookbook something you wanted to do?

Bonjwing: Despite what people may think, I’ve always been a champion of Kansas City, its chefs, and its restaurant scene. I was born and raised in Kansas City, and, after a decade away for school and work, I’ve returned. I want nothing more than to see this city become a great eating town, to become a national destination for food and drink. Happily, in the past few years, I’ve seen it really burgeon and blossom. So, to have the opportunity to help tell the story of two chefs who have really changed the landscape of Kansas City’s culinary landscape was a tremendous honor. Yes, I was thrilled to work on this cookbook with Colby and Megan.

Pete: Do you have future food writing aspirations to build on your blog, past food reviews for KC Magazine, and the bluestem cookbook?

Bonjwing: My blog (Ulterior Epicure) has always been for the love of the game; nothing more. I love to eat. I love to write. And I love to photograph.  Recently, I changed careers. I left my office job as an attorney for the unscripted life of the unknown. At this time, I’m a free agent, open to what comes next. I’d love to write more. And I’ll always photograph.

This year, I’ve had some incredible opportunities in both fields. Shortly after I quit my job, I spent a month in Europe, during which I had the opportunity of photographing at the Bocuse d’Or, a prestigious culinary competition in Lyon, France. In May, photographed the James Beard Awards for All-Clad. In June, I spent a week in the Italian Alps, photographing for a friend’s company, and for Jetsetter, and more recently in Tuscany, and Honduras. In between, I took many trips, to explore the world with my camera. I’m a little sad to see 2011 end soon, as I’m sure I’ll never have another year like it. But, I’m anxious to discover the next chapter of my life, which may include more cookbooks. I’ve recently been contacted by a few chefs from around the country. Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you about one or more of them soon.

Pete: What were some of the most challenging shots to complete?

Bonjwing: Photography is a learning curve that never levels out.  The bluestem cookbook demanded a large range of photography. As you’ll see, the cookbook not only tells the story of bluestem through photos of food, but also of the restaurant, the people who work there, and the farmers and food producers who supply the restaurant with ingredients. Between farm and table, I had to stitch together a story with images, some taken in bright daylight, some taken in the sterile fluorescence of a meat locker and the restaurant’s kitchen, and others, in the darkness of night, when the restaurant is most alive. As far as food photography is concerned, the most challenging part was lighting. We decided to shoot all of the photographs with natural light.  So, on cloudy days, I had to really reach deep down for extra inspiration and ways to creatively make light “happen.”

Pete: Was there an exasperating part of the book development, editing and publishing process?

Bonjwing: I won’t speak for Colby or Megan, but for me, the process of telling the story of bluestem was a joy. Colby, Megan, and I all have very easy-going personalities, so our process was shockingly relaxed, perhaps a little too relaxed at times – it was more of a two-year play date with friends than work. That said, the process had its moments.

The hardest part, by far, was coordinating our schedules. During the year-and-half that we were writing the cookbook, I was working as a full-time attorney. Colby and Megan were working chefs, business owners, and parent to a young child (with one on the way towards the end of the writing process). We crammed the majority of our work onto the weekends and Monday nights, when the restaurant is closed. I would edit photos and recipe at night on the days in between.

Towards the end of the process, I did become slightly exasperated, but by no one’s fault but my own. My travel schedule having increased significantly after I left my job in January of this year, I found myself scurrying towards the finish line from far-flung corners of the world, sending the final parts of the manuscript, piecemeal to Colby, Megan, and our publisher when I could find Internet access. That was a little frustrating for all, and I can’t thank the Garreltses and Andrews-McMeel enough for their patience during those last, stressful weeks. Other than that, I can only say that the Garreltses; our agent, Jane Dystel; and our editor, Jean Lucas at Andrews McMeel, made the writing and editing process a sheer pleasure, truly.

Pete: Favorite recipe in the cookbook?

Bonjwing: “Sophie’s Choice” has always haunted me, and so does this question. From Colby’s half of the cookbook, the butternut squash risotto with nutmeg is one of my favorites. After we made it, Colby and I nearly ate the entire batch, spooning it directly from the pot. There were many such ugly scenes from our recipe testing session. From Megan’s half of the cookbook, I absolutely love the white coffee panna cotta with passionfruit foam. But ask me on another day, and the answers would probably change.

Pete: What inspires you to write about and photograph food?

Bonjwing: Travel. I’ve been incredibly blessed with the ability to eat the world, and I want nothing more than to share my experiences with others. It’s not so much an inspiration as it is a way of life, an outlook, really. I grew up at my grandmother’s table, which was always brimming with the flavors of China – such a dichotomy from the middle-American surroundings in which I was brought out; chopsticks and rice at home, bologna sandwiches at school. The ability to show and tell others about the wonderful foods and ways of eating of this world that I’ve experienced – that is a blessing for which I am thankful every day.

Pete: Do you cook much? Preferred type of cuisine or dish?

Bonjwing: I used to cook a lot, and I enjoy it very much when I still do. But, in the past few years, between recipe testing with Colby and Megan, and my increased travel, most of which are embarrasingly gluttonous eating trips, I barely cook at home because I’m barely at home. But when I am, I usually crave fruits and vegetables. In fact, with the exception of cheese, I’m pretty much a vegan at home. I’ll make huge salads.  I love popcorn – air-popped with no salt or butter. In the summer, I’ll often have half a watermelon for dinner; nothing else.  In the winter, it’s apples. I love apples.

Favorite cuisine?  Chinese, the kitchen of my youth and heritage, always comforts. But I love the reliability of classic French cooking – there’s a reason why, after centuries, it remains relevant. The cleanliness of the Scandinavian and Japanese flavors impress; I never tire of them.

Pete: What food writers inspire or influence you, if any?  And food photographers?

Bonjwing: I love the dry wit of Jeffrey Steingarten, the long-time food writer for Vogue Magazine. Gael Greene, the doyenne of irreverent food writing, is always a thrill to read. Ruth Riechl was born with a pen in her hand – her words flow like water. I think I devoured all three of her recent memoirs in the course of a weekend. And I love the quirky thoughts of Joseph Wechsberg, an Czech essayist and food writer from the early part of the 20th century.

As far as photography is concerned – there are too many to list. For modern photography, Vincent LaForet is a genius of a photojournalist (and also a fellow alumnus of mine). Maria Robledo did a magnificent job capturing the food of David Waltuck in the Chanterelle Cookbook. I love the saturated colors of Ditte Isager’s photographs, which capture texture and mood so well in cookbooks like John Besh’s My New Orleans cookbook, and Rene Redzepi’s noma cookbook. But I also draw a lot of inspiration from artists in other fields as well.

I love the portraits of John Singer Sargent, the magnificent line-drawings and paintings of Hans Holbein, court painter to Henry VIII of England, and the incomparable style of Diego Velázquez, court painter to Phillip IV of Spain. Most of modern art eludes me, but I do love the works of Jasper Johns, the pop art commentary of Roy Lichtenstein, the slowly vibrating vibrance of Mark Roethke’s canvases, and the unsettling vignettes in Cindy Sherman’s photographs. I was a film major in college (with a focus on screenwriting), and so I draw a lot of inspiration from the cinema as well. And books – they have taken me around the world, and to faraway places that only exist in one’s imagination.

Pete: Describe an ultimate food experience over a weekend.

Bonjwing: Recently, I took a one-month eating trip through Europe. One long weekend, I found myself alone in Monte-Carlo, with the Cote d’Azure stretching with an embarrassment of riches to both horizons. Unattached and unhitched, I zipped along that breathtaking coastline to Mirazur, a restaurant perched on a cliff just meters shy of French-Italian border. There, I had two amazing meals, with a view of the Mediterranean from my table.

Mauro Colagreco, the chef, is half Argentinian. His food focuses on the natural flavors of the sea and land around him. I had carpaccio of fish straight out of the waters outside of the restaurant’s window, a stunning cut of suckling pig with a crackling crust and polenta, and a generous slab of foie gras wearing a perfectly pressed checkered suit of grill marks.

In Nice, I had a hearty, home-style Nicard dinner, with stuffed vegetables and thick tripe stew. I sat out on the terrace at Chateau Eza on the Moyenne Corniche – a rocky rise that juts out into the sea on which is the perfectly preserved medieval town of Eze – with a breathtaking view of the French Riviera coastline below, and had a beautiful pistou soup over which was spooned an avalanche of freshly grated Parmesan.

In Monte-Carlo, I dined twice at Joel Robuchon’s two Michelin-starred restaurant in the posh Metropole Hotel. There, I had an amazing cocotte of purple artichoke hearts, lightly stewed with squid, and a rich plate of calves kidneys and sweetbreads with chanterelle, and the most incredible meat jus, sticky with collagen.

And, for one afternoon, I was the king of France, dining on that fabled marble terrace at the Hotel du Paris, Alain Ducasse’s temple of gastronomy, the Michelin three-starred Louis XV. With a view of the famous Monte-Carlo casino, the birthplace of James Bond, and the mountains and the sea beyond, I supped for five hours on sea bass with baby vegetables, tomato riso with Parmesan, pigeon with foie gras, among many other courses, all brought to my table on china gilt in gold. At the end, there was an amazing display of cheese – 60-month aged Gruyere and Comté – and a generous turn of mascarpone ice cream topped with a forest’s worth of fraises du bois. Of course, there was also Ducasse’s famous baba au rhum, with your choice of rums from a carousel of a dozen bottles. It was excess at its finest.  That was a good weekend.

Pete: Any other thoughts to share about the cookbook or working with the Garreltses?

Bonjwing: As you will read in the preface I wrote, this cookbook is not about Colby, Megan, or the food they serve, although it tells the story of both of them and tells you how to cook the food they serve. It’s about the restaurant, which exists in a specific time and place, creates a specific mood, and offers a specific experience. The cookbook is organized by season, each one spotlighting the best of what it has to offer. So the cookbook also is about a way of life, and a way of eating – eating with the seasons, while emphasizing local ingredients and supporting the community around us. Most importantly, we wanted to avoid making this cookbook too sleek or too pretty, insisting instead that it convey the approachability and ease of the Midwest, and the table that Colby and Megan have prepared there. It was very important to all of us that the reader feels comfortable picking up the book, treating it like a tool instead of an ornament, and, ultimately, cooking out of it.  We hope that we’ve accomplished that goal.

Bluestem cookbook
About bluestem: The Cookbook

A repeated nominee for the James Beard Award for “Best Chef Midwest,” chef Colby Garrelts and highly respected pastry chef Megan Garrelts offer their culinary techniques inside bluestem: The Cookbook. From Warm Eggplant Salad and Potato-Crusted Halibut with Herb Cream to delectable desserts such as Honey Custard and Peanut Butter Beignets with Concord Grape Sauce, the Garreltses showcase local, Midwestern ingredients and artisanal producers through 100 seasonally driven recipes.

Including a full-meal lineup of recipes, from amuse-bouche to dessert, bluestem offers helpful tips from a professional kitchen alongside seasonal wine notes and 100 full-color photographs that capture the simple beauty of bluestem’s composed dishes. Guided by their childhood memories and inspired by the world around them, the Garreltses offer a Midwestern sensibility inside bluestem: The Cookbook.



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