Monday, August 15, 2011

Interview with Author/Illustrator Brian Biggs

Besides being an amazing illustrator and now children's book author, Brian Biggs is also an agency-mate (Writers House represent!) and my neighbor in the Northwest section of Philly. I first met Brian at our friend Sara Goddard's annual soup competition party, and he and his fiancee Sacha blew everyone out of the water with their winning pumpkin-peanut soup. So good that I remember it, years later. So he seemed like a natural for a Pots 'N Pens interview.

About Brian
I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1968. When I was eleven my family moved to the Houston area where I lived until I went to college. I lived in New York City and Paris during the college years attending Parsons School of Design, thinking I’d be a fine graphic designer. In 1993, I moved to San Francisco where I worked in Silicon Valley. I was writing and drawing graphic novels at this time and when it came to balancing “real life” as a designer with a paycheck and health benefits and being an “artist” with none of the above, the latter won out. In 1995, I quit my last real job and decided to make my way in life drawing pictures. I work out of an old garage in Roxborough with a barbecue restaurant directly behind me, which forces me to keep the windows closed if I want to get anything done.

I’ve been drawing children’s books for the last several years, starting with Shredderman (Wendelin Van Draanen, published by Knopf) in 2004. Now I have my first book, which I both wrote and illustrated coming out September 13. It’s called Everything Goes: On Land and it’s full of cars and trucks and bikes and trains and stuff.

What sort of snacks do you keep around your studio? Have you noticed your diet impacting your work in any way?

I have several bananas there currently. And beer is in the fridge. Is beer a snack? My diet has not impacted my work in any way that I am aware...

Does this the way you eat change when you’re on deadline?

Yes, somewhat. If I’m pressed for time I’ll “forget” to go out and get some lunch, and will often work through dinner as well. Having a couple of kids keeps things relatively routine, however. In the days before parenthood I might go several days without eating real actual food in certain time-crunched periods.

What’s your favorite type of cuisine to cook? Do you have any can’t-live-without ingredients stocked in your fridge?

My first favorite type of food to cook was Chinese. More generally, Asian stir-fry. The first items I bought when I moved to San Francisco at 25 was a real nice wok, some bamboo steamer trays, chopsticks, and some bowls. It was pretty much all I had so even if I was cooking a burrito, it was cooked in a wok. (Yeah, don’t ask; I was 25.)

Now I can’t think of any favorite, really. My fiancée and I like to cook together and it often depends on what’s available through our farm-share or what she stops and picks up at the supermarket. I’ll cook anything, and I enjoy cooking everything. I suppose the best answer is that I like a complicated cuisine where there is a lot going on and she and I and the two kids can all find jobs to do in preparing and cooking. Maybe the daughter batters something while the son creates some kind of sauce while I cut and cook and Sacha makes some kind of rockin’ salad and gins and tonics. Whether it’s Italian or Mexican or Asian or Portuguese doesn’t matter much to me.

Is there a link for you between the creative processes of cooking and writing/drawing? Has a meal ever inspired a specific story or image or vice versa?

I think the closest I can come to saying yes to this is that in 1997 I spent two weeks at a comic book festival in Portugal. The hosts of the event spent a lot of energy showing us around and making sure we got to try the local dishes. I had a lot of trout and bacalao (salt cod) on that trip. When I got back home, I invited a bunch of friends over and spent a couple of days preparing and cooking. I think there were about fifteen dishes involved and a lot of alcohol. It was pretty amazing.

Otherwise, the food in my work is pretty limited to chicken fingers and PBJ lately.

Eating while reading: Yay or nay?

Not so much, unless you mean reading the news while drinking coffee and having breakfast.

If you were marooned on an island and Pots & Pens granted your wish for only one book and one food, what would you choose?

Where the Wild Things Are, and soup.

About Brian's Recipe:

At this point in a summer I can usually look back and see some theme or particular dish that has recurred. A few summers ago, for instance, I found that I was making a pile of chicken salad every week, trying variations and different ingredients. Other times it’s been smoothies, fishes (not fish smoothies; that’s gross), and so on. This year Sacha and I were getting a lot of potatoes with the farm-share and we came across a recipe for roasted potatoes cooked on the BBQ grill. The basis of this comes from Stephen Raichlen’s The Barbecue! Bible published by Workman, on page 397 and he calls it “Greek Garlic and Lemon Roasted Potatoes.” (The BBQ! Bible is one of the cookbooks that I use regularly to find an idea on which to riff. I have a lot of really great cookbooks but I find that I go back to the ones that lay down a basic idea of something that can then be elaborated upon. If I have some combination of veggies and critters that I want to eat but don’t know how to make it all work together, this book is one of the three or four with an index that I can often scan and find something that might work.)

I’ve made this dish in some form or fashion probably ten times this summer. I like it best with those little Yukon Gold potatoes, a little more olive oil and garlic than the recipe calls for, and two lemons at the end rather than one. I also don’t use hickory chips in my fire the way the recipe calls for. The hickory overwhelmed the potatoes and it made the fire too hot. I use a Le Creuset french-oven style roasting pan for this. We tried using Pyrex once but the pyrex exploded on the grill, which kind of ruined the potatoes…

3 lb. small red potatoes, scrubbed, cut in half. (As I mentioned, I like Yukons though any small potato is awesome.)
1/4 cut extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. dried oregano
kosher or sea salt and ground black pepper to taste (I use plenty of both)
1 lemon, halved (two for me)
2 tbs. butter, optional (not optional—awesome)
2 tbs. fresh dill (sometimes I forget this, but I like it best with)

If you’re gonna use wood chips for that flavor thing, soak them in water for an hour and drain them.

Light up your grill. If it’s big enough, get only half of it going off to one side. It’s best to be able to have the roasting pan in the grill but not necessarily directly over the fire for the duration.

Put potatoes in the roasting pan. Toss with oil, garlic, bay leaves, oregano, salt, pepper. Squeeze lemon all over this pile, and toss the rind halves on top. (I sometimes wait til the last fifteen minutes of cook time for the lemons.)

Toss the wood chips onto the fire, if you’re using them. Set the roasting pan on the grill uncovered and cook for 1 to 1.25 hours. What I do here is cook indirectly for fifteen minutes or so until the potatoes are softer. Then I stir it all around and cook directly over the fire or another 20-30 minutes, stirring after fifteen. This gets most of the potatoes nice and crispy on their bottoms. If you don’t like crispy crunchy potatoes (what’s wrong with you?), keep the pan indirectly over the fire.

The potatoes should be browned and awesome after about an hour. In the last ten minutes, stir in the butter. (This is where I add the lemons as well.)

Remove and toss out the lemons and bay leaves. Add salt and pepper if desired and serve. Fantastic with kababs or pretty much anything else.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. He is as lively as his artwork. Exploding Pyrex and beer for snacks. I love every bit of this post;^)

  3. Nice interview. I'm always looking for another way to snazz up potatoes. I'll toss some on with the burgers tonight!

  4. Yum, any recipe that includes dill is great. I still want that soup recipe though!!! My little boy loves cars buses etc. So I will definitely be checking out Everything Goes On Land! Awesome illustrations!

  5. Thanks, guys. Looking forward to trying this myself!

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Brian Biggs taught me that pasta water needs salt. Thank the gods!

  8. Oooh, great interview and delicious looking recipe too!

  9. Terrific interview! And I can't wait to get the book. My son will LOVE it.

  10. Sorry I'm late to comment! The interview is wonderful, and I cannot wait to try the potatoes! They include some of my favorite flavors.