James Fraioli leads a dual life. Take for example, earlier this fall he coauthored and released multiple cookbooks ranging in topic from bycatch seafood to recipes from a Las Vegas steak house frequented by Nicolas Cage and Britney Spears. Then, within a few weeks’ time, he flew to New York to finish development on a great white shark special for the popular Discovery Channel series Shark Week. His whole professional life has developed in this dichotomous way—part cerebral writing and part extreme adventure.
To better understand the diversity of his work, it’s easiest to look toward his two companies. Vesper Entertainment is his film production company that makes award-winning documentaries for National Geographic, the Discovery Channel and other adventure filmmaking outlets. The other is Culinary Book Creations, a company under which Fraioli has produced more than 25 cookbooks, collaborated with some of the best chefs in the country including Emeril Lagasse and Tom Douglas, and won a James Beard Foundation Award (yes, they give those to cookbook authors).
“What I do is develop ideas. I get an idea and then get access to the right people, package it and sell it,” Fraioli says. He’s referring specifically to his filmmaking side, but it’s pretty much the crux of both operations; it just depends on which hat he happens to be wearing at the time.
In early September, he was in full cookbook publishing mode. He, along with the Michigan-based chef Matthew Pietsch, released Sea Robins, Triggerfish & Other Overlooked Seafood: The Complete Guide to Preparing and Serving Bycatch. Fraioli also wrapped up Golden Steer Steakhouse: Recipes, Tales & Celebrities from the Legendary Las Vegas Restaurant, while simultaneously working on another book all about charred foods with local chef Derek Bugge from 99 Park. And he’s got a list of other similar ideas and projects waiting in the wings.
“The cookbooks really started years ago in California when I met Jean-Michel Cousteau. He is the son of Jacques Cousteau, who I watched growing up. I got to know him really well because we had an instant bond over our love for the water,” Fraioli says. “And he said we should work on something together.” That partnership turned into the 2005 book Ocean Friendly Cuisine, which explores ideas behind sustainable seafood practices and incorporates recipes from notable chefs from all over the country.
From there, Fraioli tackled a wide range of gastronomic subjects including Italian cuisine, Alaskan seafood, cocktails, Bloody Marys, and cooking using foraged foods, among others. And throughout the years, his books have been featured on the Food Network and popular TV shows such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show. The biggest feather in his publishing cap, however, came in 2014 when his book Culinary Birds earned him the James Beard Foundation Book Award for a single subject.
“It’s typical for the publishers to submit for a James Beard Award, but it’s like winning an Academy Award. You never think you’re going to win,” Fraioli says. In fact, he figured he had such a slim chance of winning that he didn’t even go to the ceremony.
“I was sitting at home watching TV, but I had my iPad next to me because I knew the event was going on in New York. Sure enough, at about 10 at night, they announced Culinary Birds had won. I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
The glamour of winning awards and working with celebrities is nice, says Fraioli, but sometimes it’s the unexpected projects that can bring the most joy. For example, in 2016 he worked with Chase Bailey, a young man with autism and extremely picky eating habits. Together they produced The Official Chase ’N Yur Face Cookbook.
“That was really cool. At the time, he would only eat three or four foods and his mother was worried he wasn’t getting a balanced diet. Then she got him interested in helping in the kitchen, and their story went viral because they started doing YouTube sessions. He went on a bunch of talk shows, and then his mother contacted me,” Fraioli says. “I really liked it because it was about having fun in the kitchen and the concept of families eating healthily.”
He says another current point of passion is working with his favorite local spots. He’s done books for Seattle- and Eastside-based places such as Bis on Main and Canon, and hopes to do more with the rich culinary scene. After all, the Pacific Northwest is where he has roots.
Fraioli, age 48, grew up in Bellevue (“Back when it was just a small town,” he says) and then went to the University of Southern California where, surprisingly, he didn’t major in either filmmaking or writing. Instead, he studied business entrepreneurship.
Drawn first to filmmaking by some of his college friends and a childhood passion for the art form, he got his start working as a storyboard artist for major studios like Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros. However, he quickly realized big, commercial movies weren’t for him.
“I saw how Hollywood movies are made, and it wasn’t really filmmaking the way I liked,” Fraioli says. “Then I met the pioneer of Shark Week, and we had a great rapport. He sent me to South Australia and South Africa, and I realized that is what I like—a small crew of four or six people where it’s clear who is directing it. It was simple filmmaking with real stories.”
Fraioli went on to produce award-winning pieces including Alaska Wing Men, Hawaii Air Rescue, Alaska Aircrash Investigations, and Inside Death Row, a documentary about inmates waiting to be executed in Texas. But all the while, his knack for cookbooks kept simmering.
“Getting something on television is a slow burn,” Fraioli says. “And that’s where the books come in, because I’ve always loved food and I’ve always loved to write.” Eventually, he was able to find just the right balance.
“It’s nice because after a cookbook, which from concept to completion is about eight months, you’re mentally fried and you want to take a break. That’s what I like about having both. I can then go focus on a documentary and clear my head. Then once I do that and am exhausted with that, I come back to the books.”
Recently, Fraioli has enjoyed a little crossover between his two worlds. Over the summer, he worked with Fabien Cousteau (Jean-Michel’s son) and an illustrator on the first graphic novel in a series dedicated to educating youth about ocean conservancy—and, of course, sharks. It is being published by Simon & Schuster with a 2018 release date.
Want to hear more about sharks, Fraioli’s time at a Texas prison, and other stories from his life behind the camera? He will be sharing his adventure stories in an upcoming Adventure issue.