IT’S hard to believe that before 2017, the city of Los Angeles had gone eight years without a dedicated cookbook store after Cook’s Library on Third Street closed in 2009. Sure, there are a handful of general bookstores with a shelf or more of cookbooks, or kitchenware stores that happen to carry such books.
But there had not been a retail space for books specifically catering to the food community (and home cooks too). That was until Now Serving opened at Chinatown’s Far East Plaza in September 2017.
Behind Now Serving are Ken Concepcion and Michelle Mungcal, a Filipino-American married couple who met at a Hollywood Bowl concert almost 10 years ago.
“With all of the talk of how influential and vibrant the food scene is here in LA, it didn’t seem right that it didn’t have something like this dedicated to cookbooks, food writing and food magazines,” Concepcion said in a recent interview with their 11-month-old daughter Frankie in tow.
The couple landed upon the plaza back when Fil-Am chef Alvin Cailan had his culinary incubator Unit 120 and Filipino food window Amboy. The space has since been turned over, as you may know, for Chad and Chase Valencia’s LASA.
“We came down here and really connected with the food community,” Concepcion, former chef du cuisine at Wolfgang Puck’s steakhouse CUT, said. “Chinatown still feels like a neighborhood.”
Concepcion, who has over 20 years of experience under his belt as a chef but was not formally trained, has a particular soft spot for books because he learned to cook from them, crediting titles like “Culinary Artistry” by Andrew Dornenburg, “Becoming a Chef” by Dornenburg and Karen Page,” and “The French Laundry Cookbook” by chefs Thomas Keller, Michael Ruhlman, and Susie Heller.
The latter “was the big American fine-dining book that also restarted the whole cookbook industry in a sense because it showed that cookbooks weren’t just meant to be in the kitchen, but they could be in the living room and they were beautiful enough to stand on their own,” he narrated.
When one walks into Now Serving’s 450-square-foot space, you’ll notice three groupings — books divided by general cooking, region/country, fermentation, and food writing in one area; food magazines and zines to the right; and single-subject books straight ahead. The table in the middle of the shop features a rotation of new releases.
One shelf houses some Filipino cookbooks, such as “I Am a Filipino: And This Is How We Cook” by Nicole Ponseca and Miguel Trinidad and “Milkier Pigs & Violet Gold: Philippine Food Stories” by Bryan Koh.
The couple noted that their travels and seeing other cities’ cookbook shops, namely Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York and Omnivore Books in San Francisco, were influential to them in opening up and designing Now Serving. The name itself is a reference to the restaurant and service culture and menu signs.
“The book and retail industries are new to us. This is obviously not what we’ve been doing for a long time so both of us feel like we’re still learning,” Mungcal, a professional makeup artist who grew up in Glendora, said. “We’ve been around for a year and a half but we still feel brand new. There are so many cookbooks out there.”
A distinct narrative, curated recipes and beautiful visuals are among the fundamental ingredients behind a great cookbook, the couple shared. At any given time, the shop holds around 1,500 titles, which are carefully selected to sit on the oversized shelves that were intentionally built not to maximize the space.
“The oversized shelves give more of a feeling that you’re not in a ‘bookstore,’” Concepcion added. “This could be in someone’s home. It has a different feeling than traditional retail.”
You won’t find diet or trend-driven books, either because Concepcion hopes that if you purchase something from Now Serving, “it hopefully will still apply and be relevant 10 years from now.”
“With all of the talk of how influential and vibrant the food scene is here in LA, it didn’t seem right that it didn’t have something like this dedicated to cookbooks, food writing and food magazines,” Concepcion said.
Since the time they’ve been open, the couple sees a mixture of individuals from the culinary industry, home cooks and books, cookbook collectors and even those who stumble in because they ate at one of the establishments in the plaza.
“We hope nobody feels intimidated to ask us questions,” Mungcal said. “I never want people to feel like, ‘they told me to buy this but it was crap.’”
Concepcion and Mungcal — who are the only ones manning the store aside from the latter’s sister occasionally — try to tailor everyone’s experience to address their needs and ask questions to gauge their skill level, and what they want to cook and eat. Perhaps a food magazine might be better suited versus an actual book.
“It’s like saying, ‘I want to learn how to play music.’ You have to know what you want first,” Concepcion said. “If you look at somebody’s books they have at home on food and cooking, I can look right away and know how to help them.”
The store also has a few ceramics, utensils, cooking devices, textiles and aprons for sale to “warm up the store,” Mungcal said.
“It’s important that when someone comes in from the [food] industry…they’d look at the collection and not feel like this isn’t anything they would cook out of…or inspire them,” she said. “I always love when people come in and say ‘I have that, I have that.’ I also believe that if you’re going to buy something…really trend-driven…you’re going to go online to buy that. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re going to come into this store, I want to show you some stuff you may not know about or… that’s unique. There’s a sense of discovery that maybe you don’t get online.”
While a recipe for a certain dish can easily be found via an internet search nowadays, there’s still a craving for hard-copy cookbooks. The first half of 2018 saw a 21 percent increase in cookbook sales compared to the same period the year prior, according to data from the NPD Group.
The number of cookbook sales has been driven by a host of reasons including the preference of dining at home, learning about regional cuisines, or to keep the book on a coffee table or kitchen shelf for display and aspirational purposes.
“What’s also interesting — and no one really talks about — is that a lot of these food bloggers who have let’s say, a recipe on salad, that original recipe comes from a cookbook and it just keeps getting adapted, doctored up and mutated,” Concepcion said. “That’s my opinion on most of the food bloggers out there who post their own recipes. They’re actually just adaptations of recipes that have existed already. A [cookbook] is a way to get to the original voice.”
Beyond printed books, Now Serving gathers a community for conversations around different cuisines and the art of cooking. Ticketed events, featuring talks and signings from some of the best culinary authors and personalities around the world, are held nearly every week and sell-out.
One of the first gatherings they ever held was a screening of the 2017 documentary “Wasted! The Story Of Food Waste” and a dinner by 10 chefs who used food waste and scraps.
In the past year, Now Serving has had talks from René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s two-Michelin-star restaurant Noma, and former Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons in conversation with Dorie Greenspan and her book “Everyday Dorie: The Way I Cook,” to name a few. Ponseca and Trinidad had a signing for “I Am Filipino” back in November, which Mungcal said is “a great book if you want to learn how to cook Filipino food.”
Now Serving has six events lined up this March, such as Elisa Callow discussing her book “Urban Forager,” and a signing and talk about “Vietnamese Food Any Day” by Andrea Nguyen moderated by Evan Kleinman, host of KCRW’s “Good Food.”
A priority for 2019 is to get an online store up and running, which will help the couple further engage their digital community (over 10,300 followers on Instagram as of this writing).
“That’s the beauty of social media — you can connect with anybody, anywhere. We’ve done a ton of events with authors and chefs where we’ve basically reached out to them on Instagram and shot them a [direct message] and they replied just as quickly,” Concepcion shared, adding that people will also message them with cookbook suggestions that they may not have heard of.
The couple also owns the space next door, which is currently separated from the main bookstore by a temporary wall of collaged restaurant menus.
They have plans to convert it into a luncheonette that “would mimic the same hours so the spaces would be open to one another so people dining can come and shop, while people shopping can go dine and eat,” Mungcal said. At night, they could fit more attendees for their usual events and have pop-up dinners.
Though the couple says that they are still learning the business side, being in LA’s creative and food-curious environment has brought in a lot of customers and attention their way (like features in Bon Appetit and the LA Times). “Maybe it’s not a ‘restaurant’ city but it’s definitely a food city,” Mungcal noted.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have some big names in the food world come in,” Concepcion said. “If we’re regarded as a part of the food community here, then we’re very happy.”