Five Questions for: Diane Imrie

FoodService Director - Five Questions for Diane ImrieRecipe development is a big part of everyday work for Diane Imrie, director of nutrition services at 550-bed Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vt. But she never really thought it would become a part of her after-work life. After hearing an off handed remark at a dinner party, Imrie and the hospital’s executive chef, Richard Jarmusz, decided to produce a cookbook. FSD talked with Imrie to find out the process of becoming a first-time cookbook author.

How did the idea to make a cookbook come about?

It started as a joke. I was hosting a dinner party and it was a potluck so everyone brought food. The party was for a long-time manager who was leaving so all my staff was there. Somebody said as a joke, you guys—myself and my executive chef Richard Jarmusz—should write a cookbook. Writing a book had been on my life list. We laughed but a couple of weeks later we talked about it and we said, why couldn’t we write one.

There are so many new cookbooks published every year. What makes yours different?

Richard and I are both very committed and interested in sustainable foods. The theme of the book is seasonal and has to do with your local environment. There is a little bit of an educational aspect in terms of how to do this because those were the questions we were getting at work all the time. The book is called Cooking Close to Home.

This woman who works at an organic farm said, “This is the book I’ve been waiting for.” It’s real food and for every recipe all the core ingredients are found at the same time of year. If you have a farm share or you like to shop at a farmers’ market, it uses things that you would find at the same time. So you don’t have to run to the store for avocados or something that you wouldn’t have on hand.

It’s called Cooking Close to Home, so we wanted it to look approachable and warm. We wanted it to be used in the kitchen and not as a coffee table book. We have a harvest hint on many of the recipes. The harvest hints are what to look for in sustainable beef, how to talk to your farmers about what they put in their animal feed, how to freeze blueberries for the winter.

What was the publishing process like?

It took about three years from start to publish. This is self-published. We made that decision early on. We toyed with getting a publisher. We sent out only three proposals and decided that we have such little change of getting picked up by a publisher because we don’t have a book and we are not well-known celebrities. I had gone to a conference and learned a little bit about publishing.

In every season we would test new ideas. We would come up with an idea that we had tried on our own at home and then said this is a recipe that is worthwhile and this is why and then we would test it together. So he might bring one or two recipes and I would bring one or two and we would finish them together at one of our houses. We decided we wanted the chapters to go by season. We wanted the ingredients to be basic what you can find in your local region plus some of the basic exotics like olive oil and seasonings. There is nothing too exotic because the idea is to use what’s local and in season. There are about 170 recipes in the book.

We decided we wanted color photographs. We started looking around for a photographer and we used our network and hooked up with a friend of a friend. He had not done a full cookbook before, but he had done some food photography. We planned out what we wanted the photos to say in terms of background and how we wanted them to feel for each photo. We would find all the props for the photo. We would show up at his studio and work a full day with him and at the end we would come out with about five photos. It took a lot of time, but we ate really well. We wanted the photos to look like real food, so we didn’t use a lot of shoe polish or things like that to enhance the photos.

Then we found a designer. Our first meeting she said to bring cookbooks that we loved and ones we hated and we told her why. We gave her a sense of how we wanted the book to feel and then we sent her a bunch of recipes and photos and she did some sample pages.

Then we took on the printing process. We bid out to a few printers. We chose a local one. It was really important to us that we do everything in Vermont or very close. We printed a little more than 2,000. Now we are marketing it.

At this point, we have a Web site and we are still in our local region. We are doing events, like book signings and we go to the stores and do samples. We went to a fair amount of farmers’ markets in the fall. We’ve been on the radio a few times. It’s selling really well.

What was the hardest part of the publishing process?

The hardest part of the whole process was the editing. It was brutal mostly because we couldn’t hire an editor and it was hard to bring two voices together. You have to say how to sauté something similar because you might be sautéing in 25 different recipes.

The tasting was the best part. On some nights we would save up and do four or five recipes each and we would have our spouses there to taste test with us. The photography, while it was a lot of work, was quite fun. I definitely learned a lot.

Not having done any of this before, there were so many surprises. The time to do every step took longer than we thought. At one point we thought we would have the book on the market last summer and it took a whole other year.

What are some of your favorite recipes?

Right now, I really think that the Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Crunchy Pumpkin Seed Brittle is really delicious. For the spring, my favorite recipe is the Hot and Sour Spinach and Dandelion Green Soup. In the summer I really like the Butterfly Pork Tenderloin with Maple Blackberry Barbecue Sauce.

Another recipe I love is the Savory Cheddar Apple Turnovers.