Cookbook pioneer Croft on lunching, lockdown lessons and Chefs at Home

Cookbook pioneer Croft on lunching, lockdown lessons and Chefs at Home

If you have ever seen an advert over the years in The Bookseller for a job going at Absolute, Jon Croft’s 42-year-old Bath-based independent which turned Bloomsbury imprint a decade ago, the last line is always: “Must like to lunch well!”

This is perhaps not an unreasonable expectation for staff at a cookery publisher, particularly one whose star authors include working chefs and restaurateurs such as Tom Kerridge, Robin Gill and Tom Kitchin. Croft explains: “I can think of worse skills to acquire in our new publishing world of never-ending meetings and lunches on the go. But most importantly, all and everything worthwhile [in my career] has taken place over lunch, and the longer the lunch, the better the publishing has been.”

The process for this piece involved food and drink, with Croft pictured right insisting on an initial get-to-know-you meal at Kerridge’s Bar & Grill, his author’s London outpost; we were able to fit this in during one of the breaks in lockdowns last year. The actual interview, alas, after many postponements owing to pandemic restrictions, takes place over Zoom. This may sound like Croft is a throwback publisher from the days of yore with their fabled four-hour lunches. Not that he would turn down a four-hour lunch, but for the entirety of his career—even working within the Bloomsbury machine—he has been an outsider, a disruptor and anything but a traditional publisher.

Croft says this is not necessarily the result of wishing to upend traditional models, but being “blessed by ignorance about the profession in which I accidentally found myself in”. He adds: “I’m perhaps a convivial contrarian who has always gathered very talented convivial contrarians around myself, and the constant publishing thread has been a desire to innovate and publish in an unorthodox and fun way, trying to turn heads.”

His most recent project is trying to turn heads for a good cause: Chefs at Home is an anthology of recipes from more than 50 superstar chefs such as Kerridge, Jamie Oliver, Angela Hartnett and Heston Blumenthal. The title launches on 31st March to tie into the one-year anniversary of the first lockdown and royalties will go to Hospitality Action, the charity that gives financial, mental health and careers support to those working in the hospitality sector. The thrust of the title is what these chefs cooked at home during the pandemic, so it’s not about snail porridge, goat’s cheese foam or egg and bacon ice cream: for example, Kerridge’s contribution is a fish-finger sandwich with Monster Munch, while Hartnett’s is her mother’s apple tart.

Chefs at Home is being published under Jon Croft Editions, his newish imprint-cum-cookery book consultancy that is independent of Bloomsbury, “though Bloomsbury’s excellent teams are selling, distributing, marketing and looking after the rights for me”. Croft says that the Chefs at Home project “was a no-brainer, given how the people working in the hospitality sector have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The idea was to get the books world, the print media and TV to give back something to the hospitality industry and offer a much-needed helping hand to those who have given them so much since the arrival of cookery, cookery shows and chefs in our everyday lives.”

Falling into line
Croft “accidentally tumbled” into publishing. He initially wanted to be a writer and had a few short stories published. He also did some script television work—including for the cult classic kids’ show “Rainbow”, which “was my finest hour, but my writing career went downhill after that”. But soon after, the lifelong Bath resident hit on an idea that would change his life. He says: “I noticed that Bath had a lot of takeaways. I liked takeaways, but no one seems to have ever published a critical guide to them.”

So he produced, “without really knowing what a publisher does”, The Absolute Guide to Bath Take-Aways, which was an immediate hit. That led to a national success and a first full-scale cookery book, 1981’s The Restaurant Recipe Book, with contributions from a number of West Country chefs, including—and what would turn out to be significantly—three recipes from soon-to-be celebrity Keith Floyd. Croft and Floyd would forge a working relationship which would be Absolute’s real breakout, one which formed the bedrock of what the company has produced over the next four decades. Croft published (and co-published) a number of huge bestsellers for Floyd and, working with the chef as his agent, changed how cookery TV shows were produced and the very landscape of cookbook publishing. Before Floyd, most BBC cookery shows were bland, studio-bound affairs because in Aunty’s charter at the time, the shows had to be produced under the auspices of the BBC’s education division. Croft and Floyd’s shows were filmed on location and viewers responded to the new locales, as well as Floyd’s engaging, ramshackle and often somewhat inebriated delivery. 

Croft says: “So we changed things to the situation we have today, of independent production companies linked financially to the tie-in cookery book. It was a new strand of bestselling publishing, and the way it was brought about had been created semi-accidentally.” 

It has not always been cookery books for Absolute. “No,” Croft says, “there was a time I was thinking we would become Faber.” That included the launch in the late 1980s of Absolute Classics, a list of forgotten or neglected world drama in translation and, a decade later, of Outlines, a series of mini-biographies by prominent writers of LGBTQ+ creatives and how their sexuality affected their work.

Both lists were well received, but problems with Croft’s US distributor going into administration forced their shuttering. Croft sold the plays list to Oberon Books—which, in some kind of virtuous corporate circle, is now also a Bloomsbury imprint. And Croft’s comparison to Faber is not far off: the publisher has just reissued Jackie Kay’s Bessie Smith, which Croft originally published under Outlines in 1997. Croft says: “I was really proud of both lists. Outlines, for example, probably seems nothing out of the ordinary now but it was considered really quite special then, and probably ahead of its time.”

After three decades as a very non-traditional publisher, though, Croft decided to sell up to Bloomsbury (he is now the list’s consultant publisher). He says: “Thirty-three years is a long time, so the timing felt right. And though I might be a good publisher, perhaps I have been a bad businessman from time to time—there were some hairy moments. I mean, even now I’m constantly apologising to the Bloomsbury accountants.”

The bean counters and c.e.o. Nigel Newton may be thanking him, too, for the Bloomsbury years have been quite prolific. Led, of course, by Kerridge, who has shifted more than £15.5m through BookScan since Croft first published him in 2013—the only author to have contributed more in that time period to Bloomsbury’s coffers is J K Rowling.

In the end, Croft says “though I’d love to think of myself and what we have tried to do over the years as being a disruptor, the brutal truth is that you actually need to know what it is that you’re trying to disrupt. And as a self-invented publisher, innocent of the weird ways of publishing, and isolated as I have always been in Bath, I basically winged it from the outset.”