In this cookbook behind the scenes post, we share a look behind the curtain, from the messy reality behind each beautiful food picture in the book, to our fun lifestyle shoot with Christine Han!
Our cookbook, The Woks of Life: Recipes to Know & Love from a Chinese American Family, has been on bookstore shelves since November 1!
It’s been so fun spotting it out in the world, even better sharing our excitement with you in person, and of course seeing all the delicious things you’ve been cooking up!
There is nothing more thrilling for us than seeing your food turn out exactly the way it does in our kitchen. So many of you have been enjoying the food and the stories, and we’ve absolutely loved talking with you one-on-one on our Cookbook comments page and on Instagram.
Which brings us to…
Review the Book on amazon or goodreads!
If you’ve been enjoying the cookbook, it would mean the world to us if you left a review on Amazon or Goodreads! Amazon makes it really easy to leave a review with your thoughts and even photos on the book and what you’ve cooked from it!
All these little things help new folks who may not be familiar with our blog find the cookbook.
You’ve all been dazzling us with your cooking photos on Instagram. Tag us in a post or in an Instagram story! We love to see them :)
Get Your Copies for Holiday Gift Giving!
Our newest shipment of books was delayed coming from the printer in Malaysia (those pesky supply chain issues again), which is why you might see the book sold out or backordered at some retailers, and why some international readers are still waiting for their copies.
We’ve heard from our publisher that the ship carrying our books will arrive tomorrow, Dec 5. The warehouse should be shipping books out to Book Depository and other booksellers soon. Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and many other retailers (including perhaps, your local independent bookstore) still have good stock!
If you’re planning on getting a copy of the book for a holiday gift, get your order in early. If you’re a reader outside of the U.S. or Canada, and you’re still waiting for your pre-ordered copy, thank you so much for your patience! You can also check to see if Amazon in your country carries the book.
Behind the Scenes: Making the Cookbook!
Now that the book is out in the world, we thought it would be fun to walk down memory lane to the summer of 2021, when we were taking photos for the book (Yes! We did our own food photography!) and working with Christine Han to capture the lifestyle shots.
One of the biggest challenges and expenses of writing a cookbook is the photographs. We grappled with the decision of whether we wanted to take on that kind of pressure. Trickier still would be finding a publisher who would give the green light, especially to first-time cookbook authors.
Happily, Clarkson Potter was supportive of us doing the photos from the get-go, so we embarked on what would be a long, wayward—sometimes triumphant, sometimes frantic—journey of photographing our very first cookbook.
How We Work Together
Sarah is our photographer-in-chief. She works the camera and edits all the photos, with the peanut gallery chiming in liberally (though we try not to do that).
My mom / Judy is our resident food stylist, with Kaitlin serving as something like a second creative eye.
In fact, early on, Kaitlin had an entire spreadsheet with detailed staging ideas so that we’d all be ready to go when shoot day came along.
As for dad/Bill, he supplies his opinions on how he thinks the food should be served (e.g., with / without rice, etc.), and his past restaurant experience helps make sure that all the food is picture perfect—especially for tricky dishes like steamed crab with sticky rice or classic Cantonese roast duck!
Finding Unique Props
One important aspect of the cookbook was making sure it felt connected to but different from the blog.
We immediately started hunting down new props and photo backdrops that would help us capture all the nostalgia and wonder behind the recipes we’d been working so hard to perfect.
In fact, some of the fabrics you see in the photos are from our travels, or are old qipaos that belonged to Bill’s mother.
We delved deep into the depths of eBay for unique china and fabrics. Conveniently, we found ourselves constantly on Facebook marketplace—decorating a new house in the middle of a global supply chain crisis requires some shortcuts!—so we picked up odds and ends there too.
Cookbook Behind The Scenes: A Jam-Packed Summer
Most cookbooks are shot in the span of a week or two with a bigger team dedicated to cooking and cleaning, styling, and photographing 100-120 recipes!
With no ‘professionals’ in the picture, the four of us all had to pitch in to help with all aspects of the shoot—simple enough, except that we also had to continue developing and photographing recipes for the blog at the same time!
We spent the whole summer doing photoshoots, with everyone stepping in to take on different roles depending on the day, and whose recipe we were photographing.
It was challenging to say the least, and we can’t imagine getting all of that done in just 2 weeks. Sarah blocked out 3-4 day shoots from mid-June to mid-September 2021. There were moments where we had major crises of confidence, and there were lots of pep talks to help us stay inspired.
We also did things like taking pictures of empty staging scenes to see how they looked before adding food, and waking up early to capture the exact right light coming in through our kitchen window. There was also a lot of holding our breath, so that hands holding chopsticks wouldn’t have any tremors.
I remember quite a few instances of contorting into strange positions so that Sarah could have a clear view of the food while I held up a piece of tofu or ladled a bowl of soup.
From there, we reviewed the photos with our publisher multiple times to make sure we were getting the right shot, did some pickup photoshoots to fine-tune a few dishes we had already shot and, of course, tried to nail the cover shot!
The Lifestyle Photography
We quickly learned that “lifestyle photos” is industry lingo for pictures of people rather than just of the food itself.
For this of course, we wouldn’t be able to be in front of and behind the camera at the same time. By the time September rolled around, we were TIRED. So we rather gleefully looked forward to having a break from worrying about capturing the right shots and lighting.
We spent three days with Christine Han and her photography assistant Alex Medina! There was actual hair braiding, lots of laughs, and pauses for snacks and meals. Christine did a great job keeping us all loose and making sure to capture our best angles!
We had a few different shooting locations. First, we did some cooking at Sarah’s apartment. You’ll see a photo of all four of us cooking from this day on the back cover of the book.
On day 2, we walked around Manhattan’s Chinatown together, heading to some of our favorite spots (check out our Manhattan Chinatown Guide)!
On day 3, we spent the day at our parents’ house. (This was before we moved into our current house.) We took a family portrait and Christine helped us orchestrate an entire spread of dim sum recipes from the book!
The best part was digging into it once we’d wrapped up the photos.
And of course, we had to get a portrait of the full crew at the end!
After all the photo shoots were done, it was time to edit them, choose our favorites for the final print, and to look at proofs for color correction.
From start to finish (from getting our publishing contract to the book going off to print), the process took TWO years. All that work and waiting has made the release of the book—and seeing all of you make these recipes—that much more exciting.
We hope that you enjoyed this cookbook behind the scenes post and that you’ve all been enjoying the cookbook!
If you haven’t yet grabbed yours yet, here’s a list of retailer links (not exhaustive—look for it wherever books are sold):
How to ORDER:
If you’re in the U.S., get your copy from any of the retailers below, or your local bookstore!
Want a signed copy? The following independent bookstores have limited numbers. Check to see if they still have one in stock, and get it shipped to you:
If you live outside the U.S., check Amazon in your home country, or try the links below, where we’ve seen the book available internationally. It’s also available as an eBook!
*We’ve heard from many readers that Book Depository has been having issues keeping the book in stock or reliably shipping out to customers. However, they’re one of few retailers that will ship internationally, so we’ve kept them on this list. As of 2/28/23, they have books in stock.