Chefs Don't Actually Write Their Own Cookbooks [shocking expose]
There's a pretty puffy piece in the Guardian today in which the writer discovers — quelle horreur! — that not all celebrity chefs actually write their cookbooks. I was all, yeah, old hat, where's the news in that, but I decided to turn it over to someone who actually knows the cookbook publishing world from the inside. Take it away, Emily:
"Most of the cookbooks I work with fall into one of two categories: they're written by a professional cookbook author (think Mark Bittman, Madhur Jaffrey, Sheila Lukins) or they're written by a professional something else (chef, restaurateur, tv show host) who's using the cookbook as an extension of their brand. It's never been a secret that virtually everyone in the latter category uses a writer -- your Guardian article calls it a "ghostwriter" and that's really not accurate, since the folks we bring on to write recipes for our celebrity authors are fully credited and earn a hell of a lot of respect (and cash!) doing what they do.
"The simple fact of it is that writing a recipe is a very, very different animal than cooking it. A restaurant chef isn't going to sit around timing the chicken as it cooks under the brick for exactly 7.5 minutes on a home range, he's going to do it by intuition and smell while he's surrounded by the chaos of a restaurant kitchen and their mega-BTU burners."
"But the home cook needs that 7.5-minute countdown, needs to know that a "pinch" of cumin is actually a half-teaspoon, needs to know that you should trim the woody ends off asparagus before cooking them, etc. So that's the writer's job: he generally works very closely with the "author," watching him cook or getting a good feel for the kinds of recipes he wants in his book. The writer will take a number of recipes straight from the celeb's repertoire -- some iconic touchpoints from their restaurant and TV show that will help the reader know that they're getting an "authentic" product. Then the writer will work to fill in the gaps with recipes that are "in the style of" our celeb. The celebrity himself could give less of a shit about fighting out whether the potatoes should be riced or pureed for the obligatory Thanksgiving menu section.
"There's also a huge amount of quantitative knowledge involved in writing a recipe. Not just scaling down to family-size restaurant dishes designed to feed fifty (though that's part of it), but you need to retain proportions, quantities, temperatures, chemistry. Most restaurant chefs know this stuff intuitively but have a hard time translating it into words (or simply don't care to), and in my experience most TV hosts just don't know it at all. That's not a knock against them -- most home cooks don't know, either. But the job of the recipe writer is to know everything about everything: they know that if you add the lemon to the garlic in that order it'll turn blue, so they can write (or rewrite) the recipe so the home cook doesn't freak out.
"While the recipe writer is usually credited in small type on the cover of the book and not used as a selling point, it's becoming more and more common to bring on a high-profile writer to work with high-profile chefs. Mark Bittman works with Jean-Georges, for example, and Michael Ruhlman has written all of Thomas Keller's cookbooks. Because they're names in their own right, it helps add credibility (not to mention another publicity angle) to the endeavor."
So this sort of confirms what we were suspecting all along. This isn't exactly a "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain" situation, so no need to sound the alarm —much like celebrity chefs aren't actually cooking your food, they're also not actually writing your cookbooks . The takeaway: At the next dinner party you attend where someone starts to complain that the Babbo Cookbook is bullshit because Batali didn't actually write the recipes, you can be the smarty-pants who tells them to shove it.