“How are you feeling, Angela, still sick?” he asks with genuine interest. “You lost a bit of weight, I can see it in your face. I didn’t see you for a few weeks, I was worried.”
Eric runs Books for Cooks, a cookbook shop with a twist in West London’s trendy Notting Hill neighborhood of ‘90s rom-com fame. He speaks with a strong French accent, wears a white apron, and knows 70% of the people walking through the door. Angela is a sweet octogenarian local to the area, and one of the many regular customers who visit 4 Blenheim Crescent multiple times a week.
“I lost weight because I’ve not been having lunch here,” she laughs.
“Do you want to eat outside?” he offers. “It’s sunny, it’s not cold, you’ll be alright.” To Angela’s delighted surprise he adds, “Well, you still need to eat something.”
The secret formula behind the shop’s success is a simple and delicious twist: at the back of the store is a small café area where Eric and Tana, the Greek chef, “cook the books,” putting recipes from their favorite cookbooks to the test. Every day from Tuesday to Saturday, they welcome neighborhood regulars and curious tourists to share a meal at one of the white-and-red-gingham-cloth-covered tables. With first-come-first-serve service beginning around noon, lines in front of the shop start forming at 11:30 AM and by 1 PM the food is gone.
Sandwiched in between the bookshelves and the open kitchen, customers can “sample splendid lunches, fantastic home-baked cakes, and the best cup of coffee in Notting Hill” until everything runs out, which never takes more than an hour. Eric Treuille and Rosie Kindersley have been the co-owners of Books for Cooks since 2001, when Heidi Lascelles, who founded the shop in 1983, swapped the UK for the sunny hills of Tuscany.
Heidi was neither a trained cook nor a professional bookseller, but she had a passion for good food and an original idea: she didn’t want to only sell an exquisite collection of new, old, vintage, and antiquarian cookbooks, but she also wanted to bring them to life. She installed a kitchen at the back of the store, started sampling a new recipe every day, and it didn’t take long for the shop to draw a faithful following. The once-improbable venture has proved a lasting success, with the best dishes and recipes ending up in the One Year at Books for Cooks, a collection of proof-tested recipes the shop publishes every year.
Today, Tana is serving pear & blue cheese salad, lamb Philo, and three different cakes for dessert: chocolate, blueberry, and plum. I brought my friend Fabrizio along to get a native Roman’s take on the food, and we both agree that each dish is somehow more delicious than the last. I save the chocolate cake for last because I already know it’s going to be my favorite, and when Eric notices that it’s the only thing left on our table he tells me, “you can’t leave it, it’s good!” In fact, it’s so good I finish it in two bites and scrape the yogurt sauce off the plate with my finger. I’m in heaven and Fabrizio knows better than to judge me.
Had we visited yesterday, or tomorrow, we’d have found a completely different menu up on the blackboard by the entrance. Each day, Eric decides on a few recipes he wants to try, writes them on the board, and tweets his choice so people know what to expect. On Tuesday it’s always a vegetarian dish, which attracts the yoga crowd and on Friday, they serve fish.
“A lot of people don’t cook fish at home because of the smell or they don’t know how to,” he explains. “Friday is extremely busy with tables everywhere, outside and inside.”
They don’t take bookings nor requests (“I can’t be bothered with vegan, special diets, I don’t do skim or almond milk,” he says, “if I come to your house, I don’t ask for the dressing on the side”) but that doesn’t deter the crowds. It’s the main reason Eric is apprehensive about travel guides, and why he wants to make it very clear that they’re a shop, not a restaurant. “I don’t wanna be cocky,” which is a funny sentence on the lips of a Frenchman, “but it’s hard to say no if people are queuing and starving and I’ve got no tables, it’s not a good way to start an argument.”
Books for Cooks is a lively spot and a precious jewel for the community, and Eric knows it’s up to him and Rosie to preserve its magic. “This is not commercial for me, it’s pleasure,” he reminds me. “I came here because it’s fun, and I’ve been with the shop for 25 years.”
The shop stocks around 8,000 titles, but there’s a lot of books he doesn’t sell. “I don’t like books with numbers on the jacket, like 101 best ice creams, or anything with the author’s picture on the cover, because I don’t think people want that in their kitchen. I have to sell the books, and I have to like them.”
In the rapidly changing world at the intersection of publishing and retail, this doubles as a clever way to leverage uniqueness rather than trying to be everything to everyone. These days, “you can get anything so easily, there’s no point fighting it,” Eric explains. “You could get books online, at the supermarket, at the petrol station, I’ve got less and less. But we try the cookbooks so we can sell the cookbooks.” I walk away with Alison Roman’s 2019 juggernaut Nothing Fancy, even though I could get it faster on the internet. When I find a place for it on my kitchen counter, it feels very special.
The pandemic didn’t help, and its effects were deeply felt among such a tight-knit community. The shop has a special place in his customers’ hearts, but also their daily lives. “I’ve got a lot of regulars, and if they don’t come here, sometimes they don’t talk to anybody,” he tells me. “I did minimum service and maintained social distancing, but you have to do what you have to do.” French Résistance, you know?
I ask for recommendations, but he says I don’t need any since I’m Italian. I ask what his favorite book is, and he says all of them. I try a different route. Does he still get excited when a new book comes in? “Of course, I still get excited!” he cries. “The quality of books is incredible these days.”
He picks up a cardboard box under the register and opens it to reveal the latest additions to the shop’s impressive inventory: Korean American – Food That Tastes Like Home, Eric Kim’s debut cookbook, and The Sourdough Whisperer by Elaine Boddy. “I’m very excited about this one, Korean American, maybe on Friday, I’ll try it. And this one is a good book, too, everyone is sourdough-ing at the moment.”
It’s now 11:45, so I leave Eric to prepare for today’s lunch. Angela is already sitting outside, in the gloriously warm March sunshine, when several other locals walk in. The whole thing is well-rehearsed and, as with a good theater play, you can’t help but get lost in the characters. Tana is setting out the pear and blue cheese salad next to some warm bread, two men order red wine in quick French, Eric unties and re-ties his white apron a little tighter. The show must go on, and it’s a wonderful one to behold.