Blasta Books - Q&A with Kristin Jensen

The brain behind the brand - we talk to cookery editor, and now publisher, Kristin Jensen about her new cookery imprint, Blasta Books 

Q1: As a pandemic project, Blasta Books would take some beating. It has burst onto the Irish food scene like the proverbial blast of fresh air this year - but when did you first come up with the idea and how long was it actually in the making?

A: I came up with the idea during the summer of 2020, though it’s always been my ‘if I ever won the lotto’ dream to start my own publishing company one day. One of the outcomes of the Black Lives Matters protests that summer was the start of a long-overdue conversation about diversity, inclusivity and representation (or rather, the lack of it) in publishing in general and that trickled down into food media more specifically. These conversations were happening in the US and UK, but I didn’t see them happening in Ireland. As an immigrant myself (I’m originally from the US but have lived in Ireland since 1999) I’ve been increasingly frustrated that the modern, vibrant, diverse food scene in Ireland wasn’t being reflected in the mainstream media, not to mention the outdated, cliched image of Ireland that persists abroad. I also knew that it was almost impossible to get a cookbook deal from traditional publishers since cookbooks are so expensive, and therefore risky, to produce. I was convinced there had to be another way and I hit on the idea of a series of short, small format, illustrated cookbooks. It took a full year between the time I had the idea and when I launched my Kickstarter campaign in June to get the project up and running.

Q2 With their vibrant, colourful design, short titles and - as you put it yourself - being ‘what street food is to restaurants’, the first four Blasta Books convey a strong message about the diversity of modern Ireland. Did that theme influence your choice of the authors you wanted to lay the foundation of the project? Or was it perhaps that the theme developed naturally from the authors themselves?

A: The whole point of the Blasta Books series is to provide a platform for the rich diversity of writers, cuisines and topics that aren’t being published in the mainstream media here and to do it in a fun, approachable, inexpensive way. I think our series 1 books and authors perfectly reflect the voices and faces of modern Ireland: three of our first six authors are immigrants and the authors of book #2 are a gay couple. I will continue to prioritise diversity and new voices and readers can expect a similar mix of authors going forward.

Q3: Your creative director, Jane Matthews, and series artist, Nicky Hooper, have created a stunning brand that will be instantly recognisable from across the floor of a very large bookshop. How did you pick your team and how important was this particular dynamic to your grand plan?

A: I worked with Jane Matthews for several years on the SuperValu Fresh magazine and already knew how talented and hardworking she is and that we work well together. I first came across Nicky Hooper on Instagram (@nickyhooper) and instantly fell in love with her gorgeous watercolours of food. From our very first conversation knew I’d found a kindred spirit and we’ve got on like a house on fire ever since. I’m proud of the fact that this project is being done by only three women. We are a small but mighty team, just like our books.
I had some initial ideas about the overall feel of the books and knew I wanted a nice big chunky font, but Jane steered us towards using one single, iconic image for each book and keeping the colour scheme bold and punchy. Nicky ran with that to brainstorm lots of different options for the covers and then it was a tough process of elimination to choose just one. We also had the advantage of being able to design the covers of the first series all at the same time so that we could make sure they all work together as a family.

Q4: You mention a steep learning curve when talking about bringing the project to fruition. What have you enjoyed most about it so far? And least? Any advice for others on moving that big idea from dream to reality?

A: I’ve worked in publishing as a freelance editor for over 20 years and know that part of the business inside out, but I’ve had to learn a lot about the more technical, behind-the-scenes parts of the industry in a short amount of time, from things like metadata and how important it is in the book supply chain, to working with printers and a distributor.
My favourite part, hands down, has been working more closely with authors from the very start of their publishing journey and developing their books with them. I come away from those conversations positively buzzing from all the creative energy.
My least favourite part has been the nitty-gritty business things like having to look up the different VAT rates charged for books in all the EU countries and getting thrown in at the deep end in how to run an e-commerce website – the kinds of things that you don’t really think about when you dream of starting a publishing company but are all part of the package.
As for making a dream a reality, I mentioned earlier that it took me a year to launch the project. But to be perfectly honest, five or six months of that time was spent doing almost nothing because I was so overwhelmed and thought I needed to have everything figured out before I told anyone about the project. But in the new year I decided to just go for it and reach out to my first four authors, because once I did, it made me accountable to them and I’m one of those people who never likes to miss a deadline or let anyone down if I’ve said I’m going to do something. My attitude was that I’d figure it out as I went along, and so far, so good! I also read two books that were just what I needed at the time and would highly recommend:
The Practice by Seth Godin and Dream First, Details Later by Ellen Bennett.

Q5: The Blasta Books series will be made up of short, affordable books - smartly presented but fun, maybe a bit quirky and each with only about 25 recipes. How important was it for you to keep them short and accessibly priced?

A: One of the reasons it’s so hard to get a cookbook deal is that the big, 250-page cookbooks are incredibly expensive to produce. My thinking was that if I could keep the books short and therefore affordable to both publish and to buy, it would be a win for everyone. Readers would get to try something new for the price of a few takeaway coffees and because there are only two dozen recipes, the brief for my authors is that every single one has to be a winner. I’m also hoping that these small books will be a springboard for my authors to go on to publish the bigger, full-size cookbook – which is why I didn’t stop at the Blasta Books series. I founded the Nine Bean Rows publishing company so that I could provide that very pathway for my authors.

Q6 As an editor, you’ve played a key role in the production of leading Irish cookery books for two decades and it will leave a big gap in our national skill set in this area if you step aside - will you keep up some freelance editing, or do you see your future as a full-time publisher now?

A: At the moment I’m still doing a bit of freelance work, but I very much hope that by this time next year I can be working full time on all my Blasta Books and Nine Bean Rows projects. I have so many ideas for books and collaborations that there aren’t enough hours in the day.

Q7: Funding books - even little ones - is always a challenge for small publishers. Did you have any previous experience of the Kickstarter programme and how did it work out for you?

A: I had never run a Kickstarter campaign before, so that was another steep learning curve. There was a lot of work that went into it behind the scenes before it launched, and it was an intense four weeks while it was running. I did debate whether to go the Kickstarter route or just ask the bank for a business loan, but Kickstarter had lots of advantages. Perhaps most importantly, it allowed me to test the market for the project. I was so delighted – and relieved! – at the overwhelmingly positive reception to the idea from day one and humbled that almost 1,000 people funded the books, sight unseen, to make them a reality. I also hope that it inspires other people to look at crowdfunding as a viable option to make their own book a reality.

Q8: Any favourite recipe(s) from the first batch of Blasta Books?

A: Books #3 and #4 are still being written, so I haven’t seen all those recipes yet. But I’ve been making Lily Ramirez-Foran’s pork pibil tacos for years from her blog, but she updated the recipe for her book, Tacos, and it’s even better now. I couldn’t wait for the lockdowns to lift earlier this year so that I could make it for anyone and everyone who came over. I also think the buttermilk fried chicken from the GastroGays’ book, Hot Fat, is the kind of recipe where you’d buy the whole book just to have that one recipe in your repertoire, but I suspect their spice bag recipe might be the one that goes viral. Being able to cook recipes from books before they’re published is one of the perks of the job.

Q9: The new website is brilliant – what was the thinking behind it?

A: I worked with the Ovo Creative Agency to relaunch the Blasta Books website earlier this month, where you can now pre-order any of the first four books or buy the entire series at a discount. We also have some merchandise available: the modern Irish pantry art print that Nicky Hooper created for our Kickstarter campaign as well as a wall calendar and greeting cards that she designed just for us and some fun fridge magnets.

Q10: I notice that you are making a donation of 1% of your net sales to the UN Refugee Agency - how did that come about?

A: I was inspired by authors Jess Murphy and Eoin Cluskey – who are donating all their author proceeds for their book, The United Nations of Cookies, to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency – to also give back. Starting from the launch of my new Blasta Books website earlier this month until the end of 2022, I will be donating 1% of all net proceeds of all sales of our books and merchandise to UNHCR.


Blasta Books #1: Tacos by Lily Ramirez-Foran
Lily Ramirez-Foran has spent years sharing how fun, vibrant and convivial Mexican food is and how easy it is to make at home, and what better way to do that than with tacos? But there are tacos, and then there are Lily's tacos. These are the authentic flavours of Mexico, from real corn tortillas to smoky chillies, matched with the best of Irish produce. There is something for everyone here, whether you're a carnivore, vegetarian or vegan. Your taco night is about to get taken up a level.

Lily Ramirez-Foran is the founder of Ireland’s first Mexican boutique grocer and cookery school, Picado Mexican in Portobello, Dublin 2. She’s also the author behind the popular Mexican food blog A Mexican Cook. Lily has been living and cooking in Ireland for 20 years with her Irish husband and business partner, Alan Foran. She’s a woman on a mission to showcase Mexican food beyond its clichés and misconceptions. When not busy with work, Lily can be found in her kitchen experimenting with recipes, writing at her kitchen table and learning to grow food in her tiny urban garden. Shopkeeper, food writer, storyteller, mad dreamer and lover of all things Irish.

Blasta Books #2: Hot Fat by Russell Alford and Patrick Hanlon
Russell Alford and Patrick Hanlon are fried food aficionados – they are absolutely obsessed with anything that can be put in a deep fryer or a pot full of dripping. They've taken familiar favourites, chipper classics and the flavours we can’t get enough of these days and have created the ultimate version of every recipe, from the perfect chips to spice burgers, corn dogs and Korean fried chicken. Their style is all about fun, casual and approachable food, which is exactly what this book delivers.

Patrick Hanlon and Russell Alford are the food and travel writer duo behind GastroGays. Begun in 2013, GastroGays has grown into an internationally recognised and award-winning brand and website, specialising in food and travel through recipes, features and guides as well as highly engaged social media channels, all served with a unique tone of voice, style and vision. The pair co-produce and present the popular Chew the Fat podcast series and regularly contribute to the media landscape, from appearances on RTÉ radio and Newstalk to writing for The Irish Times, Lonely Planet, RTÉ Lifestyle and other publications, both in print and online. Based just outside Dublin, the pair are also brand ambassadors for the Boyne Valley Flavours region of food and drink producers and venues around their home area of Louth/Meath.

Blasta Books #3: The United Nations of Cookies by Jess Murphy and Eoin Cluskey
Who doesn't love a cookie? But there's more to this book than just a sweet treat. Jess is an official High-Profile Supporter of the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), with whom she works to raise awareness and to advocate for refugees. She will be working with refugees around Ireland to collect and share their recipes for this book. The book will also include recipes from people from up to two dozen different countries who have made Ireland their home. This is a little book with a big heart.

Jess Murphy, the chef and owner at the beloved Kai Restaurant in Galway (kai is the Maori word for food), is well known and highly regarded in the food industry for her work with refugees and her advocacy for women in food. Eoin Cluskey, a carpenter turned baker, is the founder and owner of Bread 41, an organic sourdough bakery on Pearse Street in Dublin with a cult following that puts community at the heart of its work.

Blasta Books #4: Wok by Kwanghi Chan
Born in Hong Kong but raised in Buncrana, Co. Donegal, Kwanghi Chan’s book, Wok, will break new ground as the first Irish-Chinese cookbook to be published. The book will be broken down into eight sections – dumplings, beef, pork, poultry, fish and shellfish, vegetarian, rice and sweet – with three recipes in each section. Kwanghi wants to bring Asian food to a wider Irish audience and this book is just the approachable introduction you need.

Kwanghi Chan, born in Hong Kong, moved to Buncrana, Co. Donegal, when he was eight years old. Kwanghi trained in traditional Chinese cooking in the family restaurant and takeaway, then studied at the Killybegs Culinary College. As soon as he graduated, he ventured further afield. ‘I felt it was important to learn, which I did from chefs such as Ross Lewis, Derry Clarke, Aidan Byrne, Fergal O’Donnell and Martijn Kajuiter. They all taught me crucial lessons, including that ingredients are to be respected, to be creative with, not just used as fuel but also gratification.’ All the skills and lessons that Kwanghi learned have been applied to his own burgeoning culinary empire: Bowls, Bites by Kwanghi food truck and ChanChan Asian Sauces. Regularly featured on Virgin Media TV’s Six O’Clock Show, Kwanghi’s unique culinary style and affable personality make him one of Ireland’s leaders in the Irish food scene.


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