If I do nothing else in this post, I have to issue an apology to Nach Waxman, the infinitely wonderful owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters, for taking (count them) eighteen months almost to the day to publish an article about his awesome Upper East Side store. I could have had two babies in that time. And it’s especially especially since I promised (I kid you not) that I would get it up the weekend after our interview. I haven’t been back in since, because I told myself I wouldn’t until I finished the article. You have no idea how hard it is to stay away from a place like that. Shame drives me to do crazy things. So I’m sorry Nach. Your store is amazing, and you’ll be seeing me again soon.
There are a million things to say about Kitchen Arts and Letters, but I’ve taken so long to write this post because I just couldn’t figure out what I had to add to the mix. When I found this store on my way to babysitting all those months ago, I naively thought I had discovered something, and I was totally ready to scoop the world. I very quickly found out that Eric Ripert (head chef at Le Bernadin) had named Kitchen Arts and Letters one of his top three things about New York he couldn’t live without. And that because of that NBC did a special on them that had run in every taxi in New York. Nach said that after this, people began pouring in from everywhere. “We get a lot of overseas customers, and about a year ago this woman came in,” he told me. “Marvelous looking, distinguished looking woman with some inscrutable accent I couldn’t make out and she started asking me a lot of questions, and I said, ‘Sure, I’m happy to talk with you, what is this about?’ She was the editor of the leading food magazine in Finland. So an article ran in Finnish.” So much for scooping the world.
So I thought about writing a simple article where I just talked about the amazing and eclectic selection of New and Used books he carries, on every topic, by every author, in every language I don’t speak. Or about the staff who will help you find anything from The Joy of Cooking to topics so specific you can’t even imagine them. Take this quite for illustration: “We used to carry, and unfortunately it’s not in print anymore, but we used to carry a book on kayak cooking. It was just food that served people on Kayak trips.” So I thought about telling you about all that (so hard that it would appear I just did) (clever, no?). But as I thought back on our conversation, I realized I was missing something much bigger.
You see, the thing about Kitchen Arts and Letters is it tells us something awesome and important about food: there’s something in it for absolutely everybody. Nach, who doesn’t much care for cooking from recipes, is very adamant that his store is not a cookbook store, despite how many they carry. “Actually less than half of the store is cookbooks,” he told me. “The other half is books about food: food culture, food science, food economics, agriculture, fiction with food themes, we carry a book called Food and the Theater of Moliere. We carry books on restaurant accounting; we carry books on almost anything.”
As I perused the store I really did find books on every subject imaginable – ethics, art, farming, eating and so much laughing. There’s no reasonable person who couldn’t find something of interest in a store like that, even though it seems like such a specific theme. And since this brilliant store specializes in only the one thing, everyone who works there is a wealth of knowledge and can easily talk to you for just about forever on whatever it is that floats your culinary boat. “Very very few books ever sell here without conversation,” Nach told me. This, he says, is one of the most important parts of his business. He has a website, but it is distinctly not for mail-ordering. “We decided quite specifically to not have online ordering because it forces you to do things that we don’t want to do, like canned descriptions of books,” he said. And so even if you don’t know what part of the food world you fit into, Kitchen Arts and Letters can help you figure that out, in a way that the internet, for all its good points, never could.
Kitchen Arts and Letters, as a store, pretty much sums up our entire life philosophy. When we tell people we want to help them Find their Inner Gourmet, we mean we want to help people find the part of food that sings to them. Food is the only art we have to encounter every single day, several times a day, and since we don’t get a choice about it, it’s a good thing there’s something for everyone to love, whether it be good writing, photography, community service or, yes, cooking. If you’re in New York, you really have to check this place out. The store is located at 1435 Lexington Avenue (between 93rd and 94th), and you can find out more at their website www.kitchenartsandletters.com.