Cookbook Expose

“I was a cookbook ghostwriter.” The headline caught my eye because I like flipping through cookbooks. The writer of the New York Times article, Julia Moskin, revealed that most cookbooks by celebrity chefs aren’t actually written by them. It’s impossible for them to churn out so many in such a short time. She should know because she was a ghostwriter for many such chefs.

Here are some excerpts from the article.

Many real-world cooks have wondered at the output of authors like Martha Stewart, Paula Deen and Jamie Oliver, who maintain cookbook production schedules that boggle the mind. Rachael Ray alone has published thousands of recipes in her cookbooks and magazine since 2005. How, you might ask, do they do it?

The answer: they don’t. The days when a celebrated chef might wait until the end of a distinguished career and spend years polishing the prose of the single volume that would represent his life’s work are gone. Recipes are product, and today’s successful cookbook authors are demons at providing it — usually, with the assistance of an army of writer-cooks.

(The authors most likely to write and thoroughly test their own work are trained cooks who do not work in restaurants, like Molly Stevens, Deborah Madison and Grace Young, and obsessive hobbyist cooks like Jennifer McLagan and Barbara Kafka.)

Some chefs have great respect for the work of a writer.

“It’s not easy to find a good one,” said Mr. Flay, a chef who has worked with many writers, including me. “They have to put their ego in their pockets.”

“I consider myself an ‘author,’ in quotes, but not a writer,” Mr. Flay said. “I have skills in the kitchen, but the writers keep the project on track, meet the deadlines, make the editor happy.”

He added: “I know a lot of chefs who write their first book themselves. Then they say ‘I’ll never do that again.’ It’s just not worth it.”

But for other chefs, a writer-for-hire has about the same status as a personal trainer; the relationship is friendly but not always mutually respectful. I was frequently stood up, always kept waiting and once took dictation in a spa while the chef received a pedicure.

As I read the article, I thought to myself really? Chefs don’t write their own cookbooks? What a shocker. I guess that’s like saying Posh Spice doesn’t really design the clothes she peddles under her own name. Celebrity seems to be the name of the game these days. If you’re smart enough, charismatic enough and shameless enough to peddle yourself, the sky’s the limit. When you have money, you can pay the minions to do the work. I wish I were smart enough!

Anyway, thinking about celebrity chefs also made me recall my first experience with a cookbook. It was given to me by a friend in university (really long ago) and was by Delia Smith. I suppose she could be considered the predecessor of the celebrity chef. Now I wonder did she come up with the book herself?

Delia Smith

Delia Smith

I tried out some of the recipes, including an apple crumble, which just didn’t turn out right. But I didn’t really know much about baking, and I thought it was just me. Maybe my oven wasn’t right, I measured the ingredients wrongly etc etc…However, the piece de resistance were the scones! I thought I’d followed the recipe accurately but they turned out like rock buns! I was sorely disappointed and for many years never baked another thing.

Until one Christmas not too long ago a colleague gave me another cookbook called the Big Book of Baking (people seem to like giving me cookbooks). I looked all over but I couldn’t find a writer. Now I know that’s a good sign! No one taking credit for someone else’s work. I don’t even know whose work it is.

The Big Book of Baking

Anyway, I tried out the chocolate chip cookies and hey presto! they turned out just fine. Next I tried the oatmeal cookies and my children declared them delicious. Suddenly I could bake. I realised it’s not the human, it’s the recipe! If the recipe works, the cookie or cake will turn out fine.

Most of the recipes I’ve tried from the book have worked, from cakes to cookies to bread. There were some duds, such as the ladies’ kisses and a lemon meringue pie. But hey, what’s the Internet for? I found another recipe for the ladies’ kisses and realised that my trusty Big Book probably had a typing error, one of the ingredients should have been doubled.

Oh, and the scones didn’t turn out right either. Another typing error, the butter had to be doubled. So I’m still in search of the perfect scone recipe.

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One comment

  1. haha, that should teach us to read the fine print – literally!

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