Tales from the ink-stained (and grease-covered) wretches who actually produce most of the words attributed to chefs in cookbooks.
“You. Girl with the notebook. Out.”
It was only my first day on the job as a cookbook ghostwriter, shadowing a top-flight chef, when the owner of a Chicago restaurant threw me out of the kitchen. I realized then that what had seemed like a dream job — helping restaurant chefs translate their culinary genius to the printed page — would hold more humiliations than I’d imagined.
In spite of that inauspicious start, I wrote nine cookbooks and many other chefs’ projects over the next five years, some credited but most anonymous. Like many others in the nebulous profession called food writing, I was really a food ghost — one of the ink-stained (and grease-covered) wretches who actually produce most of the words that are attributed to chefs in cookbooks and food magazines and on websites.
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?
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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 team behind the face is invaluable,” said Wes Martin, a chef who has developed recipes for Ray and others. “How many times can one person invent a new quick pasta dish?”
Martin, and dozens of others like him, have a particular combination of cooking skills, ventriloquism and modesty that makes it possible not only to write in the voices of chefs, but to actually channel them as cooks.
“It’s like an out-of-body experience,” Martin said. “I know who I am as a chef, and I know who Rachael is, and those are two totally separate parts of my brain.”
Employing writers and recipe developers has long been routine: Chefs, after all, have their own specialized skills, and writers are not expected to be wizards in the kitchen.
Ghostwriting is common among business leaders, sports figures and celebrities. But the domesticity and intimacy of cooking make readers want to believe that the food they make has been personally created and tested — or at least tasted — by the face on the cover. And that isn’t always the case, especially for restaurant chefs.
Food ghostwriters come in many different flavors, including the researchers who might spend days testing every possible method of cooking beans for Bobby Flay, the aproned assistants at the Food Network who frantically document everything that the “talent” does on camera in order to produce recipes for the website, and the (slightly) more literary work of writers who attempt to document a chef’s ideas, memories and vision in glossy cookbooks.
The rank beginners might be thanked in the acknowledgments of a book; the next step is being credited on the title page; at the very top of the profession, their names appear on the book’s cover. But getting up that pole can be a slippery business.
In the 1990s, when I was in the trenches, American chefs were not the thoughtful liberal-arts graduates who permeate the profession today. The idea that a chef would start an avant-garde literary food magazine, as David Chang did last year; create his own imprint at a publishing house, as Anthony Bourdain did; or appear on “Charlie Rose,” as Sean Brock of the restaurants Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C., did last week, would have been laughable.
Many were brilliant and creative, and all were incredibly hardworking. But usually, nothing of the chef’s oeuvre had been written down except perhaps a master recipe for stock, designed for a trained kitchen staff and made in 40-gallon quantities.
Still, it did not matter if the chefs had no story to tell about why and what they were cooking: Every last one of them wanted to publish a cookbook.
Andrew Friedman, who is currently writing with the chefs Michael White and Paul Liebrandt, said: “I’ve had chefs tear up reading the introduction to their own books. The job is to get them to the point where they verbalize their philosophy about food — even the ones who say they don’t have one.”
Years ago, there was a quaint trust among cookbook buyers that chefs personally wrote their books and tested their recipes, and a corresponding belief among chefs that to admit otherwise would mean giving someone else credit for the tiniest part of their work — unacceptable, in those macho and territorial times.
Today, in a content-driven media environment, the role of the writer is given far more respect, and many chefs do not pretend that they do their own writing. Last week, when Grand Central Publishing announced the acquisition of a big new cookbook by Daniel Boulud, the name of his “collaborator,” Sylvie Bigar, was featured in the news release.
In most cases, the job of a ghostwriter is to produce a credible book from the thin air of a chef’s mind and menu — to cajole and probe, to elicit ideas and anecdotes by any means necessary.
J.J. Goode, who wrote the just-released “A Girl and Her Pig” with April Bloomfield, describes the process as “25 percent writing and 75 percent dating.”
And though each project begins as a love affair, it rarely ends that way; disillusion is part of the job.
“In every book, there’s a point where you just can’t stand the sight of each other,” a veteran writer said.
In his first assignment, another writer I know had to produce a book on Japanese cuisine based on two interviews with a chef who spoke no English.
“That,” he said, “was the moment that I realized cookbooks were not authoritative.”
“Write up something about all the kinds of chiles,” one Mexican-American chef demanded of me, providing no further details. “There should be a really solid guide to poultry,” a barbecue maven prescribed for his own forthcoming book. (After much stalling, he sent the writer a link to the Wikipedia page for “chicken.”)
At the most extreme level, a few highly paid ghostwriter-cooks actually produce entire books, from soup to nuts, using a kind of mind-meld that makes it possible not only to write in the voice of another human but actually cook in his or her style — or close enough. One recent best-selling tome on regional cooking was produced entirely in a New York apartment kitchen, with almost no input from the author.
“Those are the cases where you are pretty sure the chef never even reads the book,” the writer said. Another ghost told me that sometimes the only direct input he gets for one chef’s books is a list of flavor combinations.
(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 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,” 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.
My previous job, in the genteel precincts of cookbook publishing, had prepared me for part of ghosting: bundling the voice, knowledge and vision of a chef between the covers of a book.
But I was unprepared for the chaotic reality of the job: the natural enemies, like paranoid restaurant owners who blocked me from kitchen meetings; resentful assistants, often offended at being deemed insufficiently literate for the job; chefs’ wives, who were generally not delighted by the sudden appearance of a young woman whose job it was to find their husbands fascinating and drink in their every word.
There is the uncomfortable fact that wherever you stand in a restaurant kitchen, trying to shrink into a fly on the wall, you are always in the way of someone with a more important job to do. There are impossible deadlines, hours of waiting around for tardy chefs and off-the-map assignments, like the two days I spent under armed guard in a walled compound in Bogotá, Colombia, while the chef I was working with disappeared into the countryside.
During those two days, with no cellphone or email and only a Dora-the-Explorer ability to communicate in Spanish, I was essentially a prisoner, with plenty of time to think about my next career.
And though that was the scariest moment, it was not the lowest. That might have been the time a chef took my name off the cover of our book because, he explained, it would hurt his wife’s feelings.
There was also one rising culinary star, soft-spoken but elusive, whom I prodded into producing a book with me. Flushed with gratitude, he insisted on cooking at my forthcoming wedding, promised a space inside a New York City landmark and then — quite soon after the invitations had gone out — stopped answering the phone, forever.
Another young chef came to my rescue and catered the wedding. I then spent six months writing a proposal for his book — until he signed with the most notorious bullying book agent in the industry, who told me that a writer should be so honored to work on this project that money would not be a factor.
Because cookbook ghostwriting brings low pay, nonexistent royalties (most writers are paid a flat fee, or a percentage of the advance doled out by the publisher) and only a few perks, most ghosts don’t last long. When a ghosted book is successful, watching someone else get credit for your work is demoralizing. And when books do not sell, which is usually the case, it is tiresome to play and then repeat the roles required: muse, publicist and interpreter.
But it can also be a gateway to better things. Julia Turshen, who is writing a second cookbook with Gwyneth Paltrow after their collaboration on “My Father’s Daughter,” began as the ghostwriter for the ghostwriter on a book by Mario Batali, tagging along with a notebook as the chef filmed a culinary romp through Spain.
“The guy I was reporting for ended up off the project, and that’s how I got started,” she said. Turshen, like many younger ghosts, is generally thrilled to be paid for the combination of writing and cooking.
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 teach to a home cook in the text of the book. The best ghosts are the ones who anticipate the reader’s questions.
“It actually helps to be an idiot,” Turshen said. “A hungry one.”