New Capri cookbook showcases flavors of Marfa

Capri’s signature watermelon gazpacho makes an appearance in the new cookbook. Photo by Douglas Friedman and courtesy of Capri and Phaidon Press

MARFA — When the Capri restaurant opened a few years back, it didn’t take long for photographer Douglas Friedman to become a regular.

“It’s no secret that I’m a huge, huge fan of the Capri,” Friedman said in an interview this week. Friedman, who has a background in architecture and portrait photography — he’s photographed the likes of Hillary Clinton — was determined to give the Capri’s fashionable and farm-to-table meals the art-photo treatment. “I said, ‘Please, let’s do a book. We have to do a book. The food here is too beautiful.’”

Virginia Lebermann and Rocky Barnette, the husband-and-wife duo behind the Capri, agreed with the plan. With a crew of around 10 people, they soon began the multi-year and painstaking process of making the cookbook — a process made harder not only by the seasonality of the Capri menu but by Marfa’s remote location, where photo crews aren’t always in plentiful supply.

The result — “Cooking in Marfa” — is now available for preorder from Phaidon, the art-centric publishing house that’s releasing the book.

“Welcome,” the cover reads, practically oozing with down-home charm. “We’ve been expecting you.”

As art-lovers and foodies surely know, getting a publishing deal with Phaidon is no small feat. The glamorous publishing house is known for its meticulously designed guides to food and art, including “The Silver Spoon,” Phadion’s massive encyclopedia of Italian cooking.

More remarkable still is the fact that Phaidon would choose an individual restaurant to showcase in a cookbook. Most of the company’s books instead showcase broader genres or themes, from Thai food to modern architecture.

These facts were surely on the mind of Capri co-owner Viriginia Lebermann when Friedman approached her about the prospect of making a Phaidon cookbook. “I thought he was wonderfully crazy,” she said. “I was totally onboard.”

But the group nonetheless decided to put together a proposal — and then Phaidon said yes.

“They called right away, to our astonishment,” Lebermann said.

For Friedman, who was determined from the outset to get the book published with Phaidon, the pairing made sense. Phaidon is known, among other things, for its full-page color photos, which Freidman thought could do justice to the elegant plating at Capri.

And while some cookbook publishers stick to recipes, Phaidon’s books are known for having long narrative passages — another detail that Friedman thought just made sense for Capri. After all, he said, Lebermann is a natural storyteller.

“You can literally sit transfixed by Virginia as you watch the ash on her cigarette get longer and longer,” he said. “Talk with her and Rocky about food — about something as mundane as salt — and the conversation becomes so interesting.”

Friedman got a good share of fun photoshoots out of the book. He flew in a helicopter to capture an aerial shot of Marfa. He took photos of Lebermann and Barnette on a ranch outside of town.

For photos of the food itself, the group built a makeshift photo studio at the Capri, where Friedman leaned heavily on natural light.

“We’d chase the light around that room,” Freidman recalled. “In the morning, we’d be on one end. By the afternoon, we’d be in the farthest corner away.”

Lebermann, who helped found Ballroom Marfa, first met Barnette after he moved to Marfa in 2008. A chef with a history of working at Michelin-starred restaurants, Barnette started cooking at Ballroom dinners and opened a restaurant, the Miniature Rooster, where the Water Stop is today.

Surrounded by the landscape of the Chihuahuan desert, Barnette was fascinated with the question of how people in the region had fed themselves thousands of years ago — and the pair soon decided to open a restaurant exploring those themes.

In the years since, Capri has become known for cooking with indigenous ingredients, from mesquite and yucca blossoms to agarita berries. They harvest wild yeast from Mexican elderberry trees to make fermented soda. A botanist from Sul Ross State University helped them set up a wildflower garden.

In an interview on Tuesday, Lebermann had conflicting emotions about the book release. She was excited, she said, but also nervous.

She also had mixed feelings about releasing a cookbook while Capri and other restaurants are struggling with coronavirus concerns and emergency orders. But “it’s also such a nice story,” she said, “and I think people are craving some access to nice stories at the moment.”