May 03, 2017
Behind the Cookbook: Q + A with Michelle Ishay

Michelle Ishay was a key force in making The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School cookbook happen. An early champion of Haven’s Kitchen, she convinced Ali that a cookbook would be an important medium to translate her philosophy of cooking.  

And Michelle would know. Michelle is the Creative Director for Artisan books and has been in the publishing industry for over 20 years. Her vision has been important in the design of many of the cookbooks that were inspirational to Ali. 

 AC_Photo-Shoot_700She doesn’t like to be photographed, but Michelle Ishay’s (center) deft touch makes each dish look desirable. The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School author Alison Cayne (left) and photographer Con Poulos (right). 


Can you tell us a little bit about your history with Ali?
I was working and living within two blocks of Haven’s Kitchen when the carriage house was being renovated. I was praying that it wouldn’t become another bank or Verizon store. So when a crisp white awning was installed, I was relieved to have a fresh spot in the hood. On opening day, I popped in to get my morning coffee.

The space was perfection: steel, glass, subway tile, stocked wooden shelves. I knew I found a place where I could escape the bustle of the city. In addition to Bellocq teas and dark chocolates, there was a smart selection of well-worn, much-loved cookbooks on the shelves, many of which I had worked on in my 20 years in publishing. So when the pony-tailed barista handed me my crafted cup of love with the brightest smile, I asked, “Excuse me, whose books are these?” She lit up, and with the wag of her ponytail, Ali said’ “Oh, they’re mine!” I knew then that I not only found my place, but I also found my person. On that first meeting, I knew we would someday make a book together. I think we even said so.


What do you do at Artisan? Michelle-Ishay_web
I am the Creative Director at Artisan. I help to shape the content and build the visual teams that brand our authors. Each author has their own story and thus each author needs their own singular look, feel and voice. The photography, illustration and design all shape that voice so the object itself reaches the largest possible audience.


What are some books that you’ve worked on?
They range across categories and decades. Some recent work: John Derian, the Remodelista series, Paula Wolfert’s Food of Morocco, Sean Brock, and Burma and Persia by Naomi Duguid.


Camus-The-StrangerHow did you get to where you are in life professionally?
I was nine years old the first time I inhaled the ink on the pages of my sister’s copy of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Only one of the illustrated characters was spot gloss, and I remember being in an utter state of wonder staring at that cover.

After majoring in photography, writing and design at the School of Visual Arts, I got a job in design at Penguin and moved through the large publishing houses until finally focusing on art books at Abrams, and now at Artisan.


What do you find the most interesting part of your job?
The authors and the creative team of people I get to work with to break through the challenge of shaping the content and capturing each author’s personality into a visual language.


How was the process of putting together The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School cookbook different than others you’ve directed in the past?
Knowing Ali, the team, and the vibe at Haven’s Kitchen meant I had been thinking about this book for years prior to the actual making of it. The concept and guiding force behind our work was how to represent a cooking school in the form of a book. I knew it should be a manual with Ali’s guidance and personality as the voiceover. Teaching through the photography was critical. At the photo shoot, I kept repeating to myself and sometimes aloud “we must teach through the beauty.” The headnotes and the team really had to tease out the teaching moments for us.


Do you have a favorite recipe from the book?
The Chocolate Cake to Commit to Memory! I’ve made that almost every week since the manuscript.


What’s your morning routine?
My kids wake me up anywhere between 5 to 7am with a snuggle in bed. Then, it’s a kid marathon before I get to my coffee (black with cinnamon) and an egg over medium. By eight, I’m out the door, dropping off the kids, drinking a matcha from Haven’s (if I’m lucky), and biking through the West Village to work.


Where do you find serenity and inspiration when you’re in a rut?
Serenity: Turning off my phone. Music. Yoga. Friends. Cooking with my kids. Running by the Hudson. Writing it out.

Inspiration: Deep dives. Books. I really lucked out in the friend department. Hashing it out with them always unlocks something.


Where do you practice yoga?
Laughing Lotus, Modo, Printing House — I’m loyal by location.


What was the last book you read?
Pablo Neruda. always good for a shift in perception.
When Breath Becomes Air. I have been really focused on how death can inform the living after my dad died in June. Most days, it makes me more grateful and productive. Other days, I’m just pissed (but that’s between us).
And the Krishnamurti books I bought in India have been my bedside bible for years.


What was the last thing you cooked?
Haven’s Kitchen romesco sauce with roasted potatoes and Naomi Pomeroy’s cauliflower.

For more information on The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School cookbook, including where to purchase and upcoming tour dates, click here