The moment I entered the door, I felt something akin to what poet Paul Claudel must have experienced upon setting foot in the nave at Notre Dame Cathedral.
Mine was not strictly speaking a religious conversion — where food is concerned, I’ve always been a believer — but Kitchen Arts & Letters, the Manhattan bookstore devoted exclusively to food, had a profound effect on me nonetheless.
Yes, it’s been there for 35 years and I should have visited sooner; no, it’s not strictly speaking located in Newsday’s coverage area. It is a place, however, that simply cannot be ignored — not, that is, by anyone who truly loves food.
“Over here we have food memoirs and food writing, and out-of-print titles,” said the Upper East Side store’s Laura Jackson, pointing to walls of books that reached up to the sky as I slowly turned in a circle in the cozy space. “The American regional section is to the right of that, then vegetarian, vegan. That’s baking and pastry on the left shelf, spice- and flavor-oriented volumes over here, professional pastry along the back wall …”
Rare is the cook who will fail to be moved by Kitchen A&L’s wares, a carefully curated collection of 13,000 titles representing centuries of cooking wisdom. Small wonder it’s regularly visited by Michelin-starred chefs and other professionals for whom it’s a constant source of inspiration.
Home cooks are just as welcome, however, and will find themselves just as impressed. The walls are jammed with wisdom on such topics as sustainability, Iranian cooking, cookies, even cannibalism. (“I don’t think there’s any recipes in it,” Jackson reassured me.)
Kitchen A&L is also a great way to gauge which way the culinary winds are blowing. The store’s biggest seller last year, for instance, was “The Noma Guide to Fermentation,” and popular new titles include a cookbook by the chef at Rosetta, a Mexico City hot spot. Other recent arrivals include a “scientific guide” to Neapolitan pizza and an entire book devoted to okra.
The one genre you won’t find? Diet books. What Barnes & Noble devotes vast acres to would be almost heresy at a place like Kitchen A&L. On the other hand, “we’re always willing to find stuff for people,” Jackson said.
Kitchen Arts & Letters is at 1435 Lexington Ave. in Manhattan, 212-876-5550, kitchenartsandletters.com. Hours are Monday 1 to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 12 to 5 p.m. Of note: the store is closed on Saturdays in July and August.