Years ago, at the launch party for Amazon’s kitchen store at chef Jimmy Bradley’s dear, departed Red Cat restaurant, I saw that a veteran cookbook editor was about to leave. I was just transitioning from a conventional day job to writing full time, with a focus on collaboration, and this editor had always been nice to me, so I wanted to tell him the news.
“Frank [not his real name]!” I called out. He stopped and turned to me, bleary eyed and red-faced. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized he was deeply in the bag. He had also just lit an unfiltered Marlboro in anticipation of being outside in mere seconds.
“I quit my job. I’m going to write cookbooks full time!” I excitedly told him.
“WHAT?” he demanded.
His seeming anger shocked me.
“I’m going to write COOKBOOKS!” I said louder.
Again came the reply: “WHAT?!?”
Was I speaking a foreign language?
“I’M GOING TO WRITE COOKBOOKS!” I screamed over the not-very-loud music. “CAN YOU NOT HEAR ME?”
“I hear you fine.”
“Why do you keep saying ‘what?'”
“Not what,” he slurred. “WHY?!? Why do you want to do that?”
At which I immediately burst into laughter.
He shook my hand, nodded nobly, said, “good luck,” and disappeared into the night, taking a long-delayed first drag on that cigarette.
The exchange gave me a moment of buyer’s remorse, but as things turned out, I had a pretty good run of collaborating on cookbooks. It wasn’t my main goal–I was pulling all-nighters writing screenplays in those days and I’ve since mostly transitioned to writing my own books. (Although I remain open at all times to occasionally jumping back into the cookbook pool if something really grabs me.)
But for the better part of 20 years, I earned a goodly part of my income collaborating on chef cookbooks, more than 25 of them. (The list on this site’s books page doesn’t include a few that, contractually, I’m not allowed to talk about.)
I kind of loved collaborating on these projects: The money was good. I made great and lifelong friends. I accidentally developed an expertise about chefs that’s become the focus of my own work. I can (let’s be honest) score tough tables. And though I was never a professional cook, I became a much better home whisk along the way. All while making a living and staying out of an office job.
As with any profession, the gig has its ups and downs. Since it’s such a specialized little world, I thought it might be fun to share a few of the more idiosyncratic quirks here, presented as a sort-of advice-to-a-young-collaborator column. Here you go:
Know your place. In your collaboration role, are you going to be spending time in the chef’s restaurant kitchen? Are you going to be there during service? Then do yourself a favor: In every kitchen there’s one, sometimes-elusive spot where you can observe and not be in the way. Often it’s leaning against a post, or planting yourself right next to the chef at the pass, or sometimes in a corner off to the side. Wherever it is, find it and stay there. Nothing will make you personna non grata to the cooks and front-of-house team faster than getting in their way. If you have questions, hold them until a sous chef or cook (there’s usually at least one of these kind souls) invites you to fire away any time–make them your main resource for information and advice and leave everybody else alone.
Bring a book. This one always gets a laugh on industry panels but it’s true. If you’re going to be working with a chef then you’re going to spend a lot of time waiting. They might be late. They might have to taste and give feedback on dishes-in-progress from their sous chef. They might need to drop into their pre-shift gathering or take a call. They might step out for a smoke, or to do a lap of the dining room. Twice, chefs have left me seated in at a table, returned less than five minutes later, and told me they had just fired somebody. (I guess I’ve developed an emotional callus; the speed with which some can do this used to shock me, but now I take it in stride.) The point is, the book you are writing with/for them is almost certainly the least urgent thing in their life, by a factor of roughly 10 billion. You’re delivering a manuscript to your editor way off in the future; everything else is happening right fucking now. That’s just the way it is. So you can quietly simmer about your time being wasted as they light or put out fires, or you can bring a book.
Bizarre Love Triangle. Does the chef you’re writing with/for have a significant other? If so, then guess what–you might have a new nemesis. Don’t worry: You haven’t done anything wrong; you’re just doing your job. But this is what you are to the significant other: You are the person who is taking up the chef’s already infinitesimal free time. You are the person who is coming into their home on off days or off hours. You are the person who is telling their story. So you might find things a little frosty–not always, but it does happen. Don’t take it personally. Oh, and there’s at least a 60% chance that you will think your manuscript is done and ready to be delivered, only to discover that the significant other has just read the damned thing and has a roster of changes for you to make at the 11th hour–it might be anything from taking out the curse words, to adding a recipe the chef forgot about, to writing more (and more glowingly) about their courtship in the biographical section up front. (I used to joke that I wanted a Significant Other Clause added to my contracts that outlawed such feedback within one month of the delivery date.) And if you didn’t have the good sense to proactively put your unintended rival in first position in the acknowledgements, be ready for that revision to come your way, even if it means knocking you down a rung on the ladder. Just roll with any and all of this–there’s simply no other way.
Reality check. This is still pretty surprising to me, but most professional chefs have been at it so long they have no idea what life is like for a home cook. This is true even of chefs who cook at home themselves. But book recipes have to work for home cooks, and the more accurate and user-friendly they are, the better. The most tense conversations I’ve had with chefs are around their resistance to testing every recipe, changing out obscure proteins for commonly available ones, and finding or at least offering substitutions for hard-to-find ingredients. This isn’t as black-and-white as it was in the pre-Internet era, but still, most readers don’t want to order ingredients online and still more don’t plan their cooking far enough in advance to depend on that. Also–and this will sound crazy, but I swear it’s true–most chefs who are at a place in their career where they can sell a cookbook haven’t measured small quantities in forever, either because they don’t cook in their kitchens anymore, or because recipes are scaled up for large quantities. And at home, they usually don’t measure, because they don’t have to–their intuition is sufficient. That’s all fine, but the upshot is that their sense of a measly tablespoon or cup has long been defunct. So don’t let them casually tell you to “add a teaspoon of vinegar” or “a half-cup of flour should do it.” And, no, scaling down restaurant recipes doesn’t always work either, especially where cooking times are concerned. Make them test, let you test, or or hire somebody to test.
Oh, and all testing should happen on a home stove, which doesn’t operate at the rocket-ship-level BTUs as a restaurant stove. I’ll never forget when Alfred Portale, the first chef I ever collaborated with, sold the proposal for Gotham Bar and Grill cookbook to Doubleday–he installed a home stove right in the corner of the Gotham’s subterranean kitchen and did all testing there. Every single recipe in that book works. It matters.
The Tripe Conversation. This doesn’t just apply to tripe. It could be sweetbreads, or kidneys, or hearts. What I’m talking about here is foodstuffs that, plainly put, skeeve most people. But I call it The Tripe Conversation because most every chef I know loves tripe out of all proportion to your average civilian. So they naturally want to put it in their cookbooks. But, generally speaking, at a time when publishing is losing altitude, editors want bulletproof books, and offal in a proposal is a big red flag that screams, “I don’t care what the people want!” My general advice: Leave those dishes out of the proposal, slip one in during the writing process (you can usually get away with one), and move on.
Be a Corleone. I understand how it happened: You know a chef. You got to be pals. You were out drinking one night, or to dinner. You decided to do a book! You start working on a proposal. You … ok, this is where we need to pump the brakes. Before you do any work on any cookbook, or even on the proposal, you should have a deal in writing, and that deal should be negotiated by an agent or a lawyer. The deal should outline what, if anything, you’ll be paid for the proposal; what work you will do versus what the chef and/or their team will do; whether or not you are guaranteed the right to write the book if the proposal gets sold; what you will be paid to write the book (usually a flat-fee or a percentage of the advance and possibly any royalties beyond that); and what your credit will be and where it will appear. I literally cannot tell you how many times a young writer has come to me for business advice after writing a proposal, when it’s often too late to get the deal right. Line it all up at the outset. (Bonus nugget: If you’re working on a memoir or anything more than a recipe book, you might also figure out if you will share in any riches that might come with a film or television deal.) Don’t feel bad for asking to get all of these things squared away: As they say in The Godfather–it’s not personal; it’s strictly business.
It’s Called Ghostwriting for a Reason. Your name might be on the cover of the book (preceded by “with” or “and”); it might be in the press release; it might be on the Amazon listing; it might even be on the invitation to the book party. But your name will for sure be left out of a substantial amount of media coverage, podcast intros, even some reviews. This can be painful for newly minted collaborators because if you’re doing the job right, you are invested in the project as if it were your own, even though technically it’s not. It’s just part of the deal and one of those things that’s best accepted as soon as possible, for your own happiness. But if it really bothers you, well, that’s a fine time to fire up the laptop … and get to work on your own book.