Rob Jennings: How did you get into this business?
Jonathan Cheung: I grew up in the restaurant business in Vancouver. I’ve always been around it and exposed to it. I’m the only cook in the family. My dad is more of the management side of it — he lives in Hong Kong and owns a restaurant there. I went to cooking school in Vancouver in 1999… and then I moved to Hong Kong, working in restaurants. In 2004 I moved here, and I’ve been here ever since. When I first moved here, I worked at the Nelligan for over a year (before quitting) in May 2015, wrote a business plan in July, and by the end of November we were open.
RJ: Where did you get the idea for Appetite for Books?
JC: There was a really great store in Vancouver called Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks, and it was the same format: a cookbook store with a kitchen in the back. I figured that it would be a good idea to have one here. So I stole the idea, but in my defence, she stole the idea from a store in Notting Hill (London) called Books for Cooks.
It was either that or opening a restaurant, but I was really young at the time and new to the city. The odds of surviving were much greater doing this and I could still cook by doing classes [in English]. Also, I always enjoyed teaching and talking to people about food. Of course, talking to home cooks is very different than talking to professional cooks.
RJ: How so?
JC: First of all, home cooks don’t usually know as much as even the least knowledgeable professional cook. They have to be spoken to in a different way. Restaurant kitchen culture is a little bit more rough and crass, which I was never really into. Talking to home cooks, there’s this respect, and you have to talk to them in a way that isn’t intimidating or condescending, like normal people. There’s no stupid questions.
My style of cooking is also very different than someone who works in a restaurant. When you work, you’re cooking one style of food. Chances are, when you quit that restaurant, you’ll move on to a place with a similar style. Here, I’ve had to expand that because I offer many different cuisines from one night to the next. Tonight I’m doing Indian vegetarian. Tomorrow night I’m doing global Jewish cuisine. It keeps it interesting for customers, but also for me.
RJ: How do the lessons work? How do you pick the menus and what’s the set-up?
JC: I don’t go into anything really complicated. I keep it simple, because I’m teaching people to cook at home. I don’t pull out any special restaurant tricks or ingredients. When I designed the kitchen it was really important that we make it feel like home. I don’t have professional equipment here. Anything you see here you can buy at a regular store. So I take 10 people and I demo everything. They just sit back, bring their own wine and I do all the cooking and explain it as I go along. They don’t have to exert any effort except eating, and they usually get fed really well! I typically do a four-course meal, and we’re eating throughout the night. It’s a lot of fun.
RJ: Let’s talk about the cookbook side of things. Isn’t it difficult to run a bookstore in the age of ebooks and Amazon?
JC: Well, there’s no market for ebooks in the cookbook world. Cookbooks are like art books — people like to have a physical copy. And online recipes are good for a quick reference, but they’re also a never-ending void of possibilities. It’s so easy to get lost and there’s just so much thrown at you. People enjoy books and they keep going back to them.
A lot of cookbooks come out, but if you don’t get it the day it comes out, it’s no big deal. The book world is analogue, right? People have no problem waiting an extra few days for it to arrive. And in 20 years, certain books may go out of style, but there’s always something good in them. There’s a lot of books out there that people have had for 30, 40, 50 years and they’ll even buy a new copy because the other one is falling apart! So the cookbook world is thriving.
Jonathan’s favourite cookbooks of 2017:
• David Tanis Market Cooking: Recipes and Revelations, Ingredient by Ingredient by David Tanis
• Jeremy Dinner: Changing the Game by Melissa Clark
• On Vegetables: Modern Recipes for the Home Kitchen by Jeremy Fox