(Photo by Paige Green)
Four-time cookbook author and food activist Bryant Terry loves to perform, whether addressing a conference crowd, singing, or demonstrating how to cook a dish. It’s all part of getting his message across that good food should be a right, not a privilege. At all of these events, he’s also selling cookbooks.
I’ve attended a few of my fellow Oaklander’s events and enjoyed the innovative ways he gets his message across while selling books:
Q. You seem to have more creative ways to sell books than the average cookbook author. You read from your book during a pop-up dinner by another chef, for example.
A. Philip has been a supporter of my work for a couple of years. We came up with the idea and co-planned the menu together. I did some speaking between courses, some rapping and some entertaining.
I have done events with chefs before. On a book tour, a restaurant hosted me for a book event. The kitchen made recipes from Afro Vegan and they did a bad job. There’s no other way to say it. It was pretty traumatic for me. But most other events went well. Now I’m reluctant to have chefs make my food.
Q. When you spoke at a school and did a cooking demo, parents cooked your dishes from Afro Vegan for a free buffet for the crowd. Was that unusual?
A. They decided to do that! I’m a control freak and micro manager. That’s the dark side to it. It made me nervous that home cooks were making my food. I’m trying to let these things go, but as an artist I’m protective of my work.
Q. You were the Artist in Residence for Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, creating menus for events and speaking at some of them. How did that come about?
A. Grace Cathedral has been active in social movements since the 1950s and food and sustainability is a big part of their mission. They invited me to be the keynote speaker at their annual fundraiser, and I struck up a friendship with the bishop. He invited me to be their third artist in residence.
In many ways it brought my book to life. The nice thing was that I curated meals at the church, and they hired caterers to execute the food. I brought in poets and music. I always try to bring together food, culture, art and food.
Q. You’re represented by the Lavin Agency for speaking. How does that benefit you?
A. They increase my fees significantly. They help me get gigs I could never get myself, like corporate gigs such as the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association. That event was one of the highlights of my career as a speaker because it was a room full of older, white, right-leaning men working for the interests of the food industry. It was exciting for me, to challenge myself to connect with them.
Q. You seem to find out about grassroots events and get involved. How does that work?
A. My work started as a grassroots activist. I founded an organization in New York working with young people. Even though I’m not necessarily working on the ground in that way, I stay connected to what’s happening on a grassroots level, and so many of my friends and colleagues are in that world. I see myself as a food activist, using cookbook writing and my role as a public figure to illuminate issues people in the grassroots movement are working on.
Q. How do you arrange to speak at nontraditional places such as the New York Academy of Medicine conference?
A. A lot of my speaking engagements come about through personal connections. I met someone at the New York Food Book Fair who connected to that organization. She thought it would be an interesting conversation between Michael Twitty and me.
Q. I went to a book event where you sang at the beginning. How long have you been doing that?
A. Pretty much since I’ve been writing! I’ve always had some kind of singing, rapping and storytelling component to the reading. Coming from working with young people, youth workers have to be creative. I’m built for making my talks exciting. On the college tour circuit, most of the speakers are academic and intellectual, so my goal is to impart the knowledge with some heart and soul. It’s different. The response I get most often is “I had no idea. This is nothing like I expected.”
Q. In what other ways do you mix it up in appearances?
A. I do rapping, singing, and cooking demos, which are important at places where people don’t cook or are intimidated by cooking. I need a technique-driven demo where people have an immediate takeaway, like showing them how to do a chiffonade.
Q. How does networking help you get appearances?
A. I get a lot of events after conferences. I went to IACP and made a lot of connections because I cooked at the fundraiser. People contacted me about going to other conferences and schools. I went to a black urban farmer conference and not only did I get speaking engagements but I’ve had people contact me about buying books in bulk. One guy gave two cases of my books to his staff.
Q. Anything else you want to say?
A. Whatever the publisher does, in terms of promoting my work, is a bonus. I’ve never seen them as the primary source. I’m in charge of my destiny. That comes from doing a start-up. You just have to bust your butt and make it happen. I just want to get the work out there!
Publishers are used to authors putting the work out at the front end, but I come in with a detailed vision of what my tour is going to look like. I have the connections with organizations, restaurants, and supper clubs. I’ll make the calls and establish the relationship, then I hand it over to the publisher. They want to meet you halfway and support you.
The person who really inspired me to have that attitude was Kanye West. I was in a hotel in Bakersfield, and I couldn’t sleep, so I watched his biography on television. In the beginning, no one saw his vision for being more than a rapper. Finally he said, ‘I have to invest in myself.’ He started paying for the production of video for his album and paying for his own promotion. I invest in the things that push me forward.
When Grub came out in 2006, I did 90 events that year! I was single and childless. I wanted a buzz about the book and a buzz about me. I wanted to know that I did everything in my ability to make it happen. It took me a year to recover.
One big lesson I learned, whether it’s three people or 300, you have to respect the audience and give it your all. You can’t phone it in. Something amazing can come out of a small audience. One person hooked me up with a bigger event, and another wanted to buy books in bulk. You never know.
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