Discover more from on hand
Colu Henry, cookbook writer
On her path to cookbook writing, where she gets inspiration from, the philosophy behind easy fancy food, and more.
Colu Henry is a Hudson, NY-based cookbook writer that focuses on elegant yet approachable recipes, and her work has been featured in the New York Times and Food & Wine. She published Back Pocket Pasta in 2017 and Colu Cooks: Easy Fancy Food in 2022, and as a companion to her latest book, she also writes Colu Cooks, a newsletter on Substack.
We chatted about her path to cookbook writing, where she gets inspiration from, the philosophy behind easy fancy food, and more.
Brianna Plaza: Tell me a bit about your background.
Colu Henry: I’m a cookbook author — I’ve had sort of an untraditional path. I went to school for musical theater in Boston. I’m from New York, and was born in the city and raised in the suburbs, and after college I moved back to New York, and tried to be a cabaret singer for a short period of time.
I did some shows, I bartended and worked front of house at restaurants, both in college and then in New York for almost four years. A friend of mine said, "You should get into PR," and I was like, "What's PR? I don't even know what that means." She told me she had a friend working at a small company and suggested I take an internship there. So I ended up getting an internship in a fashion PR, which was completely not my plan.
But I always had this crazy interest in food after growing up in a very food-centric family and working in restaurants in college. It was always something that I was very, very curious about. During my time working at a fashion PR agency, they started working with a lot of entertainment and hospitality clients. I was just kind of drawn to these people, because they were speaking my language. I took a food writing class during that time, and then I ended up going to work for a restaurant PR company, where I worked with chefs and restaurants, and produced photo shoots, and learned to write recipes, and was in the kitchen with these people.
Then I worked at Bon Appétit. Eventually I went to Oregon and I worked in wine — the Oregon Wine Board hired me to come out and help them do PR. Over time, I had learned so much about food, and how restaurants work, and how to write recipes, and all these things, and moving to Oregon seemed like a really good next step for me. But I am not a West Coast girl — I tried.
I came back to New York, worked in publishing, and during that time, I was just like, "I know how to do all these things. I know how to write recipes. I know how to produce photo shoots." I started a hashtag on Instagram at the time called #backpocketpasta. I really wanted to do this for myself and many stars aligned for me. Not going to lie, because of my years in PR, I knew a lot of people. I pitched a book concept, and I got a book deal, my first one, for Back Pocket Pasta.
I left publishing and I wrote that book. It came out in 2017, and then I started doing other recipe development for a number of other publications. Then, my most recent book came out of April 2022. I'm working on a third one.
So I guess I've been doing this now for almost 10 years.
Brianna Plaza: How have you navigated having a non-traditional culinary background in your professional cookbook writing career?
Colu Henry: I cooked a lot and learned a lot. I never will say I'm a chef — I don't like when people say that. I'm very much a home cook. The recipes work and I think it's because I've done them so many times.
It hasn't really come up, to be perfectly honest. I think I just I put my time in, and learned and I absorbed a lot by working with these chefs, and spending time with them, and having an understanding of what they were doing.
Brianna Plaza: With your publishing background and working for places like BA, how has that affected how you think about content, cookbooks, and writing recipes?
Colu Henry: I feel like it's actually changed quite a bit. I was sort of in the early days of Instagram, when it was something that it isn't now, and I'm grateful that it was a tool to help me get a book deal, for sure. I think I thought about content in a very Instagrammable way.
I think as I get older, and I got more confident, and I have the cred to back it up, I'm sort of less interested in trends and things like that.
I definitely come at things with an editorial vision in terms of what I want something to look and feel like when I'm putting together a cookbook. This past book, Easy Fancy Food, I knew even before I knew what the recipes were going to be that I had a certain design and aesthetic in mind.
So that piece of my background is really helpful and guides me in terms of project work. I mean, it was interesting because I was in PR, but I sat between marketing and editorial at BA. So it was really kind of a cool place to see how both sides worked.
Brianna Plaza: You live in the Hudson Valley, you also live part time in Nova Scotia, and you grew up in New York City. How does your cooking style reflect all of these places?
Colu Henry: The way I cook in Hudson is really different from the way that I cook in Nova Scotia, just because it's really based on what's available. Both the Hudson Valley and Nova Scotia are very agricultural, so I feel very lucky. I'm drawn to living near farm land. The abundance of and the access to local produce and meat and dairy here in Hudson is quite remarkable. I'm very, very, very lucky.
It's very different in Nova Scotia. It is an agricultural community, but they're not going to have 17 varieties of tomatoes or cucumbers. It's not like going to the Union Square Farmers’ Market. If I need something in Hudson, I can get it. If I don't plan for it in Nova Scotia, it's not going to come the next day. It's going to take like a week.
In Nova Scotia, I find I'm cooking within constraints, and I actually think I thrive a little bit in that way. Because it's like I have to use what I have available. Don't get me wrong. There's an amazing farm that's like five minutes away in Nova Scotia that I just discovered this summer. But it’s not New York. You can’t get whatever you want whenever you want it.
Brianna Plaza: So you kind of touched on this a little bit, but you've lived in so many places and you exist in so many places. Broadly speaking, where do you take inspiration from?
Colu Henry: I take inspiration from — this is the most boring answer — but from anywhere. It's really about talking with people. One of my favorite things that I like to do, even when I'm just talking to non-industry friends is to ask, "What are you making for dinner tonight?"
I love to ask people trying to get dinner on the table what they're making, because that helps me in terms of like, "Okay. They want something X, Y, Z." I find that a) it's fun, because I do actually genuinely want to know what people are eating for dinner. But b), I do find it helpful when I'm developing recipes.
I think travel obviously is a no-brainer. My husband and I took a big trip this past spring and went to Europe for six weeks.
We lost our dog last summer and we hadn't been anywhere in a long time. He was almost 20, so we weren't really able to travel together for many, many years, and then obviously, the pandemic.
I actually try very hard not to read a lot of my contemporaries' work in the States, and I sort of look elsewhere. I don't, almost don't want to see it, just because it's such a small, small world.
Brianna Plaza: How do you think about changing consumer tastes in your work?
Colu Henry: It's funny. I recently did a huge newsletter on beans. But I've been eating beans for a long time before the pandemic. Beans are sort of a miracle food. I mean, we all know during the pandemic, people were freaking out for beans, which I found fascinating, because they're amazing. I'm a bean club member. I'm one of those weirdos.
I wrote Roasted Tomato and White Beans Stew and Pasta e Ceci for the New York Times, and they came out right when the pandemic hit, and those recipes are, I would say, my most popular ones. The Roasted Tomato and White Beans Stew was the number one vegetarian recipe in 2020 for the Times, and Pasta e Ceci was in the top 10. I think people just really wanted easy, inexpensive, and comforting food that they didn't really have to overthink.
I think ever since the pandemic, there's been more interest in less meat. I don't want to say healthier food, but whole foods. I don't like to label any food bad. That's just not what I do, but I do feel that sometimes, if I'll post on my Substack a vegetarian dish, people love it. I think people are looking for healthy, quick, and inexpensive, I think.
Brianna Plaza: Tell me about the philosophy behind your most recent book, Easy Fancy Food.
Colu Henry: I mean, in short, anyone can make trout dip or make toast with things on it. I think it’s about giving your friends or whoever's around your table something special. It doesn't have to be fussy. It can be simple, and it can be sophisticated at the same time. I'm not just talking about preparation. It's really a philosophy where food should be celebrated and be gathered around. I just wanted people to not feel so, "Oh. It has to be this way, or this is wrong.”
And with Back Pocket Pasta, I really try with my recipes to give people the ingredients and the steps, but also try to empower them that they're not going to fuck it up if they swap something out or sautéed for a minute too long.
Also, everyone's stoves are a different temperature. There's a lot that can go on there, but I really try to approach all of my cooking that way. Easy Fancy Food was a fun way to say, “make it special.” It doesn't have to be tweezers and foam if you're just trying to put dinner dip on the table.
Brianna Plaza: Do you have a plan for the third book, or are you still thinking about it?
Colu Henry: I don't, actually. I mean, I have some ideas. I'm writing it now. I don't really know. I'm being honest with you. I really don't know yet. So Back Pocket Pasta was with Clarkson Potter, and then I got a two-book deal with Abrams. This new book is the second with them. I chose to move to Abrams intentionally, because they give me a lot more creative freedom. No other publisher would've let me have an all-text cover. It just wouldn't have happened.
They make art books. When I met with them, I was like, "I have a really strong point of view on how I want this book to look and feel," and I knew that they would let me have that artistic direction. So I feel very lucky in that respect. I mean, Back Pocket Pasta is still such a beautiful, beautiful book, but I just wanted to go in a different direction.
Brianna Plaza: You launched a newsletter, Colu Cooks. Tell me a bit about it.
I am very much trying to make the newsletter the thing. I really am enjoying it, and I feel like there's growth potential there. Eventually, it would be amazing if it could turn into something bigger than it is, but I'm really loving it. I love the Substack community. I'm into it. I've met a lot of amazing people, and I think it's got a lot of things.
For me, personally, just, I don't want to be on Instagram. I don't want to be creating content for some person that is not paying for it. You know what I mean? With Substack, I feel like there's a lot of value that Substack is bringing just by you own those emails. You're going to have those emails forever. They care about writers, instead of Instagram feeding this endless void.
on hand is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.