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Introducing ckbk, the "Spotify for cookbooks"

Kate Welsh
April 27, 2018

Have you ever found yourself standing in a grocery store aisle, frantically googling that one recipe you really wanted to make but can't remember the ingredients for? That's me, like every time I go shopping. But fortunately, there may be an end in sight. A cookbook subscription service called ckbk is set to launch in late spring and is tailor-made for people looking for a better way to discover recipes.

The service, brought to you by Matthew Cockerill, a pioneer in open-access publishing, and Nadia Arumugam, a food writer and editor, will offer its users total access to 500 cookbooks and more than 100,000 recipes.

For the monthly fee of $8.99, you'll be able to enjoy an ever-growing collection of content and explore recipes via filters, particular ingredients, and categories. You'll also have the ability to build recipe collections, interact with a community of fellow home cooks as well as chefs and cookbook authors by sharing comments and photos, and benefit from a profile that becomes more personalized the more you use the service. (You can also join for free if you just want to browse the cookbooks, but not whole recipes.)

I spoke with Nadia on the phone and over email about creating community, working with famous chefs, and why it's the right time to bring ckbk into the world. 


Extra Crispy: How did you come up with the idea for ckbk?
Nadia Arumugam: So much of the best food content is in cookbooks. Cookbooks are tested, they’re put together by publishers that really invest a lot of resources to insure that the recipes are correct, that they’re edited, they’re curated. And obviously, they’re written by people who have a genuine interest and commitment to making sure that their recipes work. There was a huge disparity between what was available in cookbooks on our shelves and what was available online. For the most part, what was available online was user-generated recipes. But [even with my background], when I get home and have 20 minutes to get dinner on the table, even I go online. So the realization was, wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to access all the cookbooks that we have on our shelves, so that when we’re at the grocery store, you can immediately pull up [the recipe you want]. 

What makes now the right time for CKBK?
Suddenly, everyone’s in the kitchen, everyone’s taking an interest in where their food comes from, the provenance of the ingredients, wanting to eat more healthfully, wanting to eat meals made from scratch, and yet they didn’t have that immediate access to the best recipes.

There was a time when people were really excited to have everything for free online. But, I think you get to a point where you realize free content isn’t always the best content. It takes resources and investment to create [good content]. You have to test recipes three or four times; ingredients cost money. Developing recipes and testing recipes is a real skill set. In general we found there was a readiness among the public to invest, to pay a little bit more for quality content and quality food content.

It sounds like, too, this is coming on the heels of people being willing to pay more for good food.
Exactly. There came a point when consumers were not just going to put up with anything. They’re questioning the ingredients of their food, and they were willing to take a stand. And the same goes for the content that you ingest online: People were not willing to make just any old recipe. At the end of the day, when you’re having a dinner party, and you spend money on quality ingredients, the most disappointing thing is pulling a recipe online and it failing. 

I read that you will kick off with about 500 cookbooks.  
Yes. We are constantly adding new titles to our collection. We’re constantly working with publishers to license content. So, we’ll be launching with 100,000 recipes and 500 cookbooks. But that’s the base starting point. It takes us some time to add content to the platform. By no means are we simply a portal for ebooks. We actually do a lot of work to every title that we license. We make sure each all our recipes, all our content is instantly searchable and explorable. There’s a consistency of layout and font throughout all the recipes, and that makes it very intuitive for the user. When you are using your mobile device to explore, that’s what you’re after: the easiest and most intuitive experience.

I know there are going to be a lot of really cool features, like being able to search by ingredient and perhaps commentary from the chefs who created these recipes, but I’m curious about the feature you’re most excited about.
One of the things that we have been fostering over the last few years is our relationships with the authors of the books we have licensed and the publishing houses. So many authors and so many food influencers and big-name chefs are so excited about this concept. We’re confident that once we’ve launched, and we build a community, not only is the community engaged among themselves, but our authors will engage with our users, and answer questions, and comment on recipes, and comment on other cookbooks that they love. As much as it’s a site to find great recipes and discover new cookbooks, it’s also a place you go to enjoy sharing thoughts about cookbooks and new recipes that you’ve created and engaging with the creators of those recipes, too.

ckbk's website
Photo via ckbk

How do you hope to generate that community feel?
In order to have access to all of the recipes, you have to become a premium member. We really want to foster that atmosphere of membership. We’ve become known as the “Spotify of cookbooks” and in much the same way you can create a playlist of songs, you can create a playlist of recipes and you can share those. Being able to share, and post photos of recipes you’ve made, and rate recipes. Giving people all the tools that enable them to communicate and share and feel proud of their creations will really enable them to share that sense of community feeling.

One of the things that we did when we started off is create this dynamic list of the top 1000 cookbooks of all time in the English language. We now have a list of over 800 panelists that span Ruth Reichl, Nigella Lawson, Yotam Ottolenghi, Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud—people who have real authority when it comes to food and cookbooks. We asked them what their top 10 most essential books were, and from these 800 top-10 lists, we compiled that dynamic list of the top 1000 cookbooks. This is actually the basis from which we compiled our content. We don’t license any old cookbook. That’s integral to the premise—that we’re very selective about the content we license.

One of the things that we’re proud of is that our content is very expansive. We took great pains to ensure that we really covered a great expanse of global cuisine, different techniques, different genres of recipes, and we have really great collection of classic titles and contemporary modern titles. 

It seems like this service could be especially good for people who follow very particular diets.
We’re offering a personalized service, which means we’re building up a profile of you as an individual user: How you like to cook, what you like to cook, what you like to eat. And the more you use the site, the more you look at recipes, the more you cook from recipes, the more sophisticated this profile is, so when you search for recipes, and you are lactose-intolerant, the front page of results isn’t full of content that isn’t good for you. What you see is very much geared toward what works for you.

I was wondering if you could explain the business plan in broad strokes. How will writers and publishers be compensated?
Being a food writer, I was especially cognizant of the changing of the tides when food writing suddenly went from being a well-paid and legitimate profession to everyone expecting you to work for free. Certainly, we are extremely respectful of the value of our content. That’s precisely why it’s a subscription platform, because we realize that good quality, professionally-created, curated content has a value, and you should pay for it. Our premier source of revenue is subscription revenue. There will be no advertisements on the site. We as a platform will keep a percentage of the subscription revenue, and then a percentage of the revenue is then divided up among all of our publishers and authors, so it’s a very democratic model. The more a recipe gets used, the more royalties the content owner will see.

One last question for you: Of the cookbooks available now, what are your favorite cookbooks for breakfast?
1. Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce

- Strawberry Barley Scones

- Carrot + Corn Waffles

- Cherry Hazelnut Muesli


2. Seductions of Rice by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid 

I am Malaysian and so have a soft spot for savory breakfasts such as rice porridge or congee and the traditional Japanese breakfast of miso soup and rice with a variety of savory accompaniments. 

- Chinese Rice Congee with all the fixings - pickled vegetables, scallions, peanuts, soy, fried onions ...

- Thai - Latenight Chicken Congee

- Morning Miso Soup served with rice and accompaniments such as Crumbled Grilled Fish, Kombu Relish and Miso Grilled Eggplant


3. Apples for Jam by Tessa Kiros

- Pear Butter Cake

- Greek Yoghurt with condensed milk and oranges

- Zucchini omelet

- Semolina Puddings with Caramel


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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