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The Multitalented James McNair

From developing recipes to styling food and photographs, the cookbook author does it all for his new series on world cuisines

GIVEN the opportunity, James McNair could make a piece of burnt toast look good.

With a keen sense of design, Mr. McNair has established himself as a cookbook author extraordinaire. He is not only the author and recipe developer for his books, but also the graphic designer, food stylist, photo stylist, and photographer.

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``Some people think I'm nuts,'' McNair says during an interview, ``but I feel I'm doing what comes naturally.''

McNair was in Boston to talk about his latest cookbook, ``James McNair Cooks Italian'' (Chronicle Books, 168 pp., $24.95). The book kicks off his new series on world cuisine.

Most people recognize McNair as a master of the single-subject cookbook. His 22 works - with such titles as ``James McNair's Pizza,'' Fish, Salads, Chicken, Rice - have sold more than 3 million copies; some have been translated into several languages.

In a world where many people ``eat with their eyes'' before picking up a fork, it is no wonder that McNair's creations are so appealing.

His latest book on Italian fare, for example, features 70 elegant and imaginative photos, where the dynamics of color, shape, space, and form complement food without being distracting.

Specifically, he chooses backgrounds, plates, utensils, and props that work together to bring out food's glamour - and even whimsy. It's all in the spirit of inspiring the cook, pleasing the eyes, and teasing the taste buds.

Glazed oranges shine brightly on a green glass plate graced by a cherub's smile. Spinach dumplings (gnocchi) in gorgonzola sauce are accented by a background tapestry of purple grapes and leaves. Even Venetian-style liver and onions take on a dazzling sheen with gold-leaf props.

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Such dishes are photographed from above - as if they were set before you, ready-to-eat. In fact, McNair and his assistant often make a meal of the food after photo shoots.

``I'm sort of self-trained in food styling, which is good because I didn't learn all the tricks, the phony baloney that so many people use,'' McNair explains. ``So I've always consequently done real food and made that look as glamorous as possible.''

McNair's education in table design stemmed from his interest in interior design. While looking at design schools in New York, friends convinced him to manage their Fifth Avenue plant and flower shop instead. The shop happened to cater to Tiffany & Co. - specifically its table-design department.

``That was a great education for me as to what worked together,'' McNair remembers. ``We had a lot of clients with unlimited funds, so we got to play with fanciful flower bouquets and table settings.''

Through that experience, McNair met the garden editor for ``House Beautiful,'' who was starting up a series of books for Ortho garden products. McNair moved to California and completed a series of Ortho and then Sunset Books, all along doing much of his own photo styling. Then he ventured into food.

Although McNair is often recognized for his design prowess, he is quick to stress that a cookbook must be more than just pretty pictures. ``The recipe has to be the real backbone of the cookbook,'' he says. Once the recipes are written, tested, and perfected, then the concentration on the look begins, he says.

For McNair, the design process goes something like this: ``I know what the food's going to look like. So when I'm shopping, I try to keep that image in mind in choosing the plates. Also, for everything I look at, I'm thinking of a potential background,'' he says. (McNair has been known to stop his car on the side of a road and load up with such items as rocks, weathered wood, and mosses.)

Back in his Napa Valley (Calif.) studio, he plays with various combinations of backgrounds and props, using unusual stand-ins for food: either a roll of masking tape (it approximates a lot of finished food in height and size) or crumpled-up tissue paper in different colors. ``Why waste real food?'' he says.

Once he gets everything looking just the way he wants it, he prepares the food, takes it into the studio, arranges it (using a magnifying glass), and shoots. With deadlines looming, he averages two to three book photographs a day.

Other cookbook authors are often surprised when they learn how much control - or rather talent - McNair has in creating cookbooks.

``Some of them are quite envious because they would like to have a publisher that would allow that,'' McNair says. ``Others wish they knew how to do [their own styling, photography], because when they turn it over to someone else, it may not look like their food by the time it's done.''

He adds: ``It's a lot of work, but I feel really blessed to be able to do it all.''

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