Noe Valley Voice November 2011

Celia Sack’s Recipe for Success

Bookstore Owner Creates a Keeper for Cooks

By Corrie M. Anders


Spice Girl: It’s been a delicious year for Omnivore Books owner Celia Sack. Not only has she been courted by dozens of famous chefs and food writers, but she’s brought out her first book, a recipe organizer.    Photo by Pamela Gerard 

elia Sack remembers a time in her 20s when she used to make some awful-tasting meals. One notable failure was a bacon and pasta dish.

“It was just terrible,” says Sack, reflecting on the early cooking experiment. “It was just not a good recipe.”

Sack, 42, can laugh about it now. Today, the owner of Noe Valley’s Omnivore Books on Food is considered an expert in the food world, and last month she hosted a coming-out party for her own contribution to the culinary bookshelf.

A standing-room crowd of 60 fans filled her small shop at 3885 Cesar Chavez St. near Church Street for the Oct. 7 fete. They enjoyed hors d’oeuvres, champagne, and a cake from the Noe Valley Bakery, and chatted in line as Sack signed copies of The Omnivore’s Recipe Keeper.

Sack sold 30 books immediately, and a hundred more in two weeks. “I’m very pleased with its movement,” says Sack about the $19.99 recipe organizer.

The party was an early celebration for Sack, whose store marks its third birthday this month. With the shop’s enormous inventory and popular author appearances, Sack has transformed the independent bookstore into a business that some call the most influential cookbook outlet in the country.

“In three short years, Celia has made Omnivore a vital stop for every cookbook author, chef, cook, and food lover visiting San Francisco,” says Brett Emerson, chef and co-owner of Noe Valley’s Contigo, the Spanish cuisine restaurant on Castro Street.

Former pastry chef David Lebovitz, who got his start at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, calls Sack “an important force” in the culinary world.

“She is proving that cookbooks are still a dynamic part of publishing, which is such a big issue these days, with the situation of printed books versus the e-book,” writes Lebovitz in an email from Paris, where he now lives.

It has indeed been a sizzling three years for Sack, who melded her food fascination and expertise as a rare book specialist (from her days working for a San Francisco antiquarian auction house) to carve out a special niche. She has been featured in theNew York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other media. Until recently, she hosted an Oprah-style Book of the Month selection for upscale retailer Williams-Sonoma, and she continues to select rare books for the company. She also operates a mail-order club that for $160 annually provides members with new, signed cookbooks.

Omnivore Books on Food, which had 1,800 titles when it opened, now boasts some 2,500 contemporary and vintage books. They cost from $25 to $1,200 for collectors’ editions, though most are priced around $35.

At a party in October, Celia Sack was feted with a cake from Noe Valley Bakery decorated with the cover of her new book, The Omnivore’s Recipe Keeper.

But Sack is best known for her cookbook author events, held several times a week. The extensive guest list has ranged from local luminaries like Chris Cosentino of Noe Valley’s Incanto Restaurant and Mustards Grill chef Cindy Pawlcyn to food gurus like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman. Alice Waters appeared at the store in September.

Sack scored her biggest coup—and held her most exhilarating event, she says—on Oct. 10, when 1,400 devotees showed up at the Castro Theatre to hear Spain’s celebrated chef Ferran Adri speak through an interpreter.

“He’s probably the most famous chef in the world,” Sack says of the El Bulli restaurant owner, who is credited with inventing molecular gastronomy. “We sold out in 72 hours. It was crazy.”

Omnivore has 14 authors scheduled this month, including an appearance Nov. 17 of Chef Mitch Rosenthal, of Town Hall, Anchor & Hope, and Salt House restaurants. (A sold-out program Nov. 8 with Jacques Pépin was cancelled in late October because the popular French chef needed an emergency hip replacement.)

Sack says she prefers to holds events “as much as possible” at her 500-square-foot store, where gatherings are free. Despite the crowding, she has no plans to move to a larger storefront.

“I’ve been offered to open in so many different places, to move to a bigger space,” says Sack. “But I love my landlord, who lives upstairs, and I love this neighborhood. So I don’t plan to leave or expand. It’s been so lucky for me.”

Sack tries out her own recipes in the kitchen of the Douglass Street home she shares with her partner, Paula Harris. But she won’t be writing a cookbook, says Sack, who admits to minimal cooking experience in her youth.

“When I was a teenager, I was always trying to avoid being in the same room as my mother, and that room was in the kitchen,” she says. “I didn’t get into cooking until I was an adult on my own.”

Nonetheless, Sack says she saw a need for a recipe organizer because the ones in print were “not of great quality and I felt we needed something better.”

The Keeper, published by Ten Speed Press and designed by Oakland artist Susan Fleming, is not so much a book as it is an album in which people can file their own or family recipes. There are pockets to hold recipes clipped from newspapers, blank pages for the home chef to use for writing down personal favorites, and handy references such as conversion charts and temperature guides. Sack includes a fish substitution list, charming art from old cookbooks, and her recipe for zuppa di pesce(fish stew). The book also features recipes contributed by eight chefs and authors, including former Greens chef Deborah Madison, Moroccan food expert Paula Wolfert, and New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni.

Dining and mingling with the crme de la crme of the culinary world can be heady stuff. But Sack says she stays grounded.

“My girlfriend keeps me in line,” Sack says. “But I’m glad I’m 42 and not 22.”


New Cookbook Picks

Asked to select the best cookbooks this fall season, Omnivore Books owner Celia Sack came up with a list that includes several books by local chefs and restaurants. Here are her favorites, accompanied by descriptions adapted from her website,

 Bi-Rite Market’s Eat Good Food, by Dabney Gough and Bi-Rite owner Sam Mogannam, features 90 recipes for the dishes that have made Bi-Rite Market’s in-house kitchen on 18th Street a destination for food lovers.

 The Food of Morocco, the latest from author Paula Wolfert, and Mourad: New Moroccan, by Mourad Lahlou of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Aziza Restaurant, reveal the riches of Moroccan cuisine, both traditional and modern.

 The Fearless Baker by renowned pastry chef Emily Luchetti is a beginner’s baking guide written to empower home cooks with spot-on advice and a cache of go-to recipes.

 Kokkari: Contemporary Greek Flavors: Chef Erik Cosselmon, of San Francisco’s Kokkari restaurant, and co-author Janet Fletcher have taken great care to make their recipes approachable, and every single one is absolutely delicious.

 Mission Street Food, by Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, is the story of an upstart restaurant in the Mission District that has become one of the most popular dining spots in San Francisco.

 Mozza Cookbook by Nancy Silverton: Chef Nancy Silverton has elevated traditional Italian cuisine to a whole new level at her Los Angeles restaurants Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza, co-owned with restaurateurs Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich.

 Cooking My Way Home by Mitchell Rosenthal and Jon Pult: These recipes from Chef Rosenthal’s Town Hall, Anchor & Hope, and Salt House restaurants reflect his passion, great talent, and his love of cooking. From elegant and delicate to earthy peasant fare, his dishes have one thing in common: amazing taste. (Rosenthal will appear at an Omnivore book-signing Nov. 17.)


From Celia Sack’s Kitchen

Celia Sack says what started with a yen for a crusty loaf of French bread ended with her creation of this hearty fish stew. The recipe is included in her book alongside eight others contributed by well-known chefs and authors.

Zuppa di Pesce (Fish Stew)


1 glug of olive oil

1 chopped yellow onion

4 garlic cloves, chopped

2/3 cup chopped parsley

1 tablespoon fennel

4 fingerling potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1 cup chopped tomato

A few drops of fish sauce

Chili pepper flakes to your taste

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 pound opah or halibut

8 clams, 8 mussels

Salt and pepper to taste


Heat olive oil in large Dutch oven or heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until soft, about 4-5 minutes. Add parsley and stir 

2 minutes. Add potatoes and let them brown and soften, about 7 minutes. Add tomato, chili flakes, fish sauce, fennel, salt and pepper, and cook 2 minutes more. Now add the fish and clams and let them stew about a minute, then add the wine and water. Simmer about 10 minutes. Ladle into bowls and serve.

A nice crusty bread will add immensely to your enjoyment. Serves 2-4, depending on your appetite!


Here’s a recipe for Celia Sack’s favorite dessert, which her mom makes every year for Thanksgiving.

American Heritage Persimmon Pudding


2-3 large ripe persimmons

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

1 cup whole milk

4 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled (plus 

extra for buttering baking dish)

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Heavy cream


Peel persimmons and work through a sieve or blend in a processor. Measure one cup persimmon pulp and combine with brown sugar, milk, and butter. Sift dry ingredients together and stir into persimmon pulp until smooth. Pour into a buttered 1-1/2-quart baking dish and bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for about 1 hour or until pudding pulls away from sides of dish (surface should be soft). Serve warm or room temperature with whipped cream. Serves 4-6.