Transforming memorable food from literary works into Instagram art, Kate Young has developed her love of books and baking into an award-winning career - and most recently sealed a deal with Waterstones to host a series of literary suppers over the next year. Julie Vuong talks to the 'influencer' with her fingers in many pies.
From Bruce Bogtrotter’s unforgettable chocolate cake in Roald Dahl's Matilda to the spiced cookies wafting up from the pages of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, food in books can be as memorable as the characters themselves. This thinking has served as the idea behind Kate Young's Baking Fiction blog and Instagram page, which have trawled the pages of our favourite novels to bring notable dishes to life.
Starting out four years ago from her kitchen, Young has developed her online presence rapidly, taking her beyond blogging and into the realms of an "influencer" whose work crosses a number of boundaries. She was signed up by the Guardian and the Pool as a guest columnist, and has published a debut cookbook with Head of Zeus, with a second due next year.
More recently, Waterstones saw in Young a mouth-watering prospect for its live events, and snapped her up to create a year-long seasonal literary supper club at its Tottenham Court Road store, serving up novel-inspired experiences to satisfy the most discerning palates.
"The collaboration with Waterstones is something I’m hugely excited about," she enthuses. "I hosted a dinner at Waterstones TCR last year when The Little Library Cookbook was released, and loved working there, and jumped at the opportunity to do so again with Olivia Potts, my catering partner at Feast, who is also the Spectator’s vintage chef columnist. We’re able to pick books we really love (the Cazalet Chronicles next month, Danny, the Champion of the World in autumn, and then two more next year), host events in a brilliant space, and work with an enthusiastic and inspiring team - it’s a complete joy."
The two supper clubs next year will be a dim sum menu in honour of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club in January, to coincide with Chinese New Year, while in spring Young will evoke the Florentine landscape of EM Forster’s A Room with a View.
Food and books: the perfect pairing
Held in the basement of Waterstones Tottenham Court Road, the first club meal will be served in June, inspired by Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles series. For £45, attendees receive a four-course meal and cocktail. To get a flavour of the night, an elderflower cocktail will be the tipple of choice on arrival, followed by a menu around the theme of an English country garden.
"I think food and literature are both deeply rooted in emotion," Young says. "I have found that my connection to both of these things - the rich nostalgia that they invoke - is not at all unique. So many people have shared their own memories of books that have connected with them, and of meals they wish they had shared: midnight feasts in Malory Towers, the extravagant Sicilian meal in The Leopard, and Japanese breakfasts in Norwegian Wood. I do think, with the world such an extraordinary political mess, things that bring us comfort - books and food among them - are more important than ever."
Literary events with a unique flavour
Under the stewardship of Rosie Beaumont-Thomas, events manager at Waterstones TCR (who alongside Riot Communications’ campaigns director Katy MacMillan-Scott also runs The Bluestocking Club, which screens books to film adaptions), the store is known for its basement bar and culinary experiences. It has hosted boozy beer tasting evenings on bank holidays and pop up supper clubs with literary guests at the table.
A unique personality for each flagship store is at the heart of Waterstones’ live events strategy, as Elizabeth Morris, events manager and "salonniere" at Gower Street nearby, explains: "The idea is that every Waterstones bookshop should have a real identity, like a good independent bookshop. It’s about generating footfall and creating a culture, bringing people in and turning each store into a destination."
Devouring digital’s potential
With almost 9,000 followers on Instagram, Baking Fiction is all about beautiful photography paired with literary soundbites. It’s a fertile recipe for drawing likes by the hundreds and giving fresh flavour to well-known books. "I think the more people there are discussing and sharing books, the better," Young says. "I’ve loved becoming a part of the books community and have found publishers and the wider book industry entirely receptive and supportive." With a feast of meals she’s created online, does she have any favourites? "I have so many! Especially the honey cakes from Winnie-the-Pooh, bread and butter from I Capture the Castle, kedgeree from The Camomile Lawn, the chicken and tarragon from Anna Karenina."
Young has capitalised on three b’s: books, baking and blogging, and owes a healthy slice of her success to the advantages of social media, including its flexibility and instant exposure. "I started writing about food and literature about four years ago," she recalls. "I was writing for just family and friends for the first year - very few people were reading the blog, but I posted a recipe a week regardless. Having a structure and timeline was useful for me; I worked full time as a theatre producer, but would cook and write late into the night."
Outlining how her book deal came about, she says: "About 15 months after my first recipe, the Guardian featured my blog, and I started thinking that there might be a bigger future in the idea. I signed a deal to write a 100-recipe cookbook, The Little Library Cookbook, six months later. It features recipes inspired by my favourite novels: a crab and avocado salad from The Bell Jar, spaghetti and meatballs from The Godfather. I am now writing a second book: The Little Library Year, about eating and reading seasonally."