It takes a lot of hard work and experience to be a good chef, and create awesome recipes to share with the world. Writing a cookbook is a whole different thing. It takes an ability to put your knowledge into words that anybody without culinary experience will understand, to engage them, and make them want to create in the kitchen.
Read on to find out what it’s like to be a writer in the world of recipes.
Different players with different skills
Shall we expect perfectly polished and luminous, clear prose from a chef? Of course not. Would we expect a tastefully seasoned meal from a writer? Not necessarily. Are there writers who are chefs, and chefs who are a writer? Of course there are, but they’re the exception - and even when they exist, how will they find the time to sit down and create a tantalizing recipe book? This is why most cookbooks take two or more people to create. The pair is typically a writer and a chef, but there usually are more people involved. Graphic designers, marketing agents, editors, publishers, photographers, interpreters..for a fully in-depth exploration of the required team work, check out the story of Nick Kokonas.
Most of the time, the team on a book requires many different talents and can be expensive. A great way to solve this is working with talented freelancers who can do diverse pieces of the work (photographers, designers, editors), and together craft a masterpiece at a more reasonable price.
Most chefs grew up in a world that is vastly different from the current one, because all adults did. It is no longer enough to be a master chef at a prestigious restaurant. If you want to be a figurehead in the culinary world, you must have a presence, available for massive public consumption. To differentiate themselves from their competition, chefs need to be willing to be in the public spotlight in some form. This can include TV and radio appearances, media interviews or - in most cases - creating a scintillating cookbook. But because they are so busy in the kitchen, chefs do not often have the time to design and create the ideas for their books. It is mainly a publishing company, or a ghost writer, who sees the niche and wants to take advantage of it. According to some writers, while they may create some of the content, they don´t even read the final book.
To be a writer is to tell a story. Stories have characters and come in many forms. It’s the selection of information, the words used to describe it and the beauty found in the rhythmic prose that makes a writer different from others. Some chefs respect and favor one writer over others. Such is the case of Bobby Flay, the NYC star chef who admitted that although he considers himself an "author," he´s not a writer. In his own words: “I have skills in the kitchen, but the writers keep the project on track, meet the deadlines, and make the editor happy.” In this scenario, the relationship of mutual respect and admiration for each other´s craft is more visible. Similarly, ghostwriter Julia Moskin, in an incendiary note to the Dining & Wine section of the New York Times, gives detailed examples of the harsh times she had to go through when writing each of the nine cookbooks she has completed. From jealous wives and angry restaurant managers, to even receiving dictation in a spa where the chef was getting a pedicure treatment, the job can be tumultuous. She narrates her worst experience when staying in Bogota, waiting for a chef who had been lost in the countryside for two days with no phone and no email.
The ignorant observer
What are the requirements to be a cookbook ghostwriter? First and foremost, you need to have the writing skills to get the job done. Here are some tips:
- Clarify the steps - According to ghostwriter Julia Turshen (ghostwriter for Gwyneth Paltrow´s My father´s daughter), the best way to approach the steps of a recipe is by not knowing anything about cooking. It helps to be an idiot. A hungry one. (Read more here). Julia Moskin adds: Oddly, one of the best qualifications for the job is ignorance: the tricky steps and specialized skills that a chef will teach the ghostwriter as they work together are the same ones the writer will have to explain to a home cook in the text of the book. She claims that if you know nothing at all, you’ll begin your explanation from zero, and that will suit all readers.
- Capture the soul - A good chef is also an artist, a food philosopher in most cases, and the trick is to capture it all between covers of the book. By listening, and spending time understanding and talking to the chef, we might bring the chef’s real voice to life. According to a recent interview, JJ Goode (the man behind several books including A girl and her pig) says the best moment to talk to a cook is at the stove, when they are cooking, happy, and remembering how they learned the craft.
Why is the cookbook design more important than the content
This polemic sentence has proven to be true more than ever in the last ten years. People cooking new recipes are looking for information on YouTube, where they can find videos of a mother cooking, while her children are screaming in the background and the image is going out of focus. From the consumer´s perspective, a video is very easy to understand, plus they can be found and seen for free. According to Prue Leith, “Today, if we cook, we Google it. New cookbooks just lie on the coffee table.” This is a challenge the whole book industry has to face and hopefully overcome: how to beat video. There are plenty of reasons why consumers choose image and motion over words, and the immediate connection to the brain is one of them. The truth is that many aspiring cooks will want the real mother to show them how to do it, with her kids screaming, because it demonstrates that anybody can make the recipe in question and you do not need to be a chef to do so.
As hard as it may seem to live the life of a writer behind the closed doors of a kitchen, there are some great moments too. For those with a combined pleasure in writing and cooking, this is the best job as it joins areas of interest into one income-raising activity. If you are looking at ghostwriting cookbooks, not because you love it but because you need the money, chances are you’ll end up getting more skills too, and that is always a bonus.
As a final treat, we´ll leave you with the top 20 cookbooks that every food lover should have at home, as an inspiration for your new journey as a cookbook ghostwriter.
Did we miss some important insights or little details you want to know? Don´t hesitate to tell us all about it in the comments section below!