How long have you and Matt been planning a cookbook?
This is honestly something I've been daydreaming about since I learned how to read; I read cookbooks like other girls read Sweet Valley High, and to this day my nightstand contains nothing but cookbooks. We've always talked about writing one in theory, but as well known as we are for our recipes and flavors, we really just didn't see a need for another cupcake book. We joked about writing a book called Robicelli's: Yes, More Fucking Cupcakes.
On top of that, the idea of just writing a bunch of recipes seemed really boring to me. I like writing to make people laugh, and three years ago "food humor" hadn't really become a thing yet. I mean, in mainstream media, people are still writing articles about Jenny Slate or Whitney Cummings from the viewpoint that they're shocked women are funny. So the thought of me going to a publisher and saying, "Hey, I want to write another book about cupcakes, but we don't use dyes and don't decorate them to look like puppies, and it's going to have a lot of French technique that most home bakers have never tried, and it's also going to be full of jokes written by a woman" sort of seemed like it would just be a gigantic waste of time.
In the meantime, I was writing the Robicelli's blog thinking no one was really reading it. Then Peter Hobbs from Nona Brooklyn emails me, saying he loves the blog and wants me to write a few articles for him. So he's really the one who sort of pushed me to stop thinking of the book theoretically. Then the part-time Nona column took off and someone from the New York Times emailed me to say that they were a fan, to keep writing. And then an editor from a major publishing house messages me on Twitter saying I need to write a book, and sends me the contact information for an agent named Melissa Sarver. I met Melissa for a blind date over matzoh ball soup at Junior's last fall. I tell her all my ridiculous ideas, waiting for her to say that I'm nuts and to just write a list of recipes and pray. She loved the concept, and the two of us hit it off like we'd known each other all our lives. We started working on the proposal the next day.
What was the process of shopping it around like?
Writing the proposal was one of the hardest things I've ever done. You send your agent 60 pages you're pretty proud of, and then you get them back with all these notes telling you that your jokes aren't funny or some of your ideas are terrible. On top of all that, I'm running our business through the holidays and being a mom to two preschoolers, so there were plenty of days where I wanted to scrap it all, hide under my bed, eat Cheetos and cry. Then a few weeks ago, she emails me and says that it's finally done and ready to go out, and I'm like "Are you sure? I mean, we can do more edits!" I had to walk away for a few days and look at it again, read my first draft and see how far not only we had come on the proposal, but how much better Melissa made me as a writer. And then you have that moment of clarity where you realize how absolutely brilliant your agent is, how she really knows what the fuck she's doing, and to just sit back and trust her.
We sent it out after Valentine's Day, and two weeks later we had a whirlwind day where Matt, Melissa and I were in cabs shooting around Manhattan for meetings with different publishers, talking about our ideas for the book, and having them tell us why we should pick them. People really loved the angle we were proposing, the recipes, the stories we were sharing. I'm still totally floored by how positive the response was. The next week we were scheduled to put the book up for auction when my agent received a call from the team over at Penguin/Viking Studio with an incredible offer. I loved the editor there when I met her, and loved not only their enthusiasm for the proposal, but how excited they were to add something new to the cookbook genre. So we accepted, and went to the Bridgeview Diner to celebrate. It seemed the most appropriate place to go—10 years ago, we'd go there for cheese fries on the way home from the bar, and now we're dining on Romanian Steak with our kids, celebrating the fact we're Bay Ridge kids who've made good.
Running in tandem with the recipes are the essays. This is really a cookbook/memoir. And what Robicelli's is, in essence, is a recession survival story. We started this business initially not to go on TV or write a book or even to make cupcakes—we started it to try and have a shot of staying in Brooklyn, of keeping our family together. When I look back at all the things we've been through and survived the past four years—even I don't believe some of it. But I get letters from all over the world not just from other bakers, but people who have lost their jobs, people who have lost businesses, people who are really fucking scared about the future. And they see us holding on and trying to make it, and they write the most heart-wrenching letters about how it's comforting to know they're not alone. So this book is going to tell the story of chasing the American dream, but it's not going to sugarcoat it. I'm embarrassed to say how many times I've been sitting at my usual table at Hom, writing on my laptop, hysterically crying. But you show yourself at your worst, your lowest, you find the humor in it, laugh at yourself, get up and keep going. That's how we've always done it.
Are there cookbooks you admire? Ones that have influenced you, or that you hope to emulate?
I have the 1974 Illustrated Good Housekeeping cookbook memorized from reading it so many times over the past 25 years. I asked for, and received, Jacques Torres' Dessert Circus for my 16th birthday, and from my birthday on August 1st til the time school started I had made every single recipe in that book. That began my love affair with French techniques and pastry as a whole. Bo Friberg's books were a huge deal for me years ago, as were Shirley Corriher, Harold McGee, Paula Figoni. It's my Stuyvesant High School nerd tendencies that got me really interested in food. I also really love books that not only give you recipes, but really tell a story and get you connected with the food. I'm Italian-Catholic, but spent a large chunk of time working in kosher kitchens because I was so inspired by Joan Nathan's work. And regardless of the fact that she's a good friend of mine, Fany Gerson's My Sweet Mexico is really as close to perfect as cookbooks come. If I write a book that's half as good as that one, I'll be happy.
Do you have any other new projects on the horizon? Any dream projects you hope to get off the ground?
About a billion of them. My ADD allows my brain to move a lot faster than Matt and I can possibly catch up, so we always have ideas in waiting. Our oldest is starting kindergarten this year, so we're seriously considering opening up a real store again. We still get a ton of requests for the scones, doughnuts, sticky buns, etc. that we used to make at the old Bay Ridge store, even though we closed it over two years ago, so it would be nice to have a space of our own where we could bring those back. Our brownies and whoopie pies are actually beginning to outsell the cupcakes, so we're working on getting them shipped around the country. We're looking for a business partner so Matt and I don't have to do everything anymore, and so we can continue growing the company without totally destroying our children's lives. We're very aware of the direct correlation between our monetary success and their eventual therapy bills, so we try to take their well being into account before we do anything. And, you know, we're actually writing the book. It's coming out in the fall of 2013, so we have a long ways to go and a lot of work to do.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart