You open a restaurant and at some point, you publish a cookbook. It seems like a natural progression. But last year GrubStreet[LINK] published The Hidden Risks of Writing a Cookbook, a cautionary tale highlighting the costs, demands and hard cold realities from the point-of-view of several chefs. What it didn’t share was how to do it right. We spoke with two successful chef authors with experience writing several cookbooks, and a cookbook editor to learn from their experience.
Why a cookbook?
Writing a chef-driven or restaurant cookbook shouldn’t be done by default. It requires an incredible investment of time and resources and is not necessarily something that will yield an immediate tangible benefit or profit. So, why do it?
She uses the book as a gift for clients, for private events, for VIP high touch events and even as a training tool to help newer staff understand the history of the restaurant.
Kelly Snowden a senior editor at Ten Speed Press says a restaurant cookbook results in brand amplification. “If a restaurant doesn’t already have a recognized brand, a book isn’t going to do that. But if the topic is compelling enough you can gain new fans and customers. It helps get that message out.”
Steven Cook, partner and co-author with Michael Solomonov of the Zahav cookbook says “The restaurant deserved the opportunity to tell its own story for the 100 or so people who have been part of it — to have something they can hold and show. As a legacy restaurant it’s good for the brand, but really it’s a way to articulate our life’s work and memorialize family and get people excited. The connection to Zahav and the chef is magical, the book gives them another level of connectedness and that all contributes to the sense of connection.”
When should I write it?
While your restaurant may be a huge success, history tells us that good reviews and even a solid business aren’t necessarily the indicators that the time is ripe for cookbook writing. Timing is everything and writing a cookbook too soon, is a mistake. According to Pirie, the book written at year five isn’t the same as the book written at year 10.
And, Michael Solomonov agrees: “A lot of people rush to the first opportunity… wait until your ideas are fully baked,” describing how he had multiple opportunities (to write the book) but the restaurant and its role in Israeli cuisine needed further formulation. The process of writing a restaurant cookbook, whether or you not you use an outside or ghost writer, is one of self reflection. “Do expect to do a lot of soul searching, give yourself the time to do it and do it right,” says Pirie. (Pirie had written two other cookbooks before writing The Foreign Cinema Cookbook and Solomonov and Cook have recently authored Israeli Soul.
What’s the best approach?
A good cookbook takes time—a lot of time—and how you write a restaurant cookbook might be just as important as what you write. Count on a year to two years from proposal writing through to turning in a manuscript. Pirie took a year and a half to write it full time, personally taking time away from the restaurant. Not only was the recipe-testing a major effort, she also wanted to personally be involved with the cooking and shooting of every dish.
“It depends on the restaurant or the chef, if they don’t want to work with a writer, they have to be able to commit the time,” says Snowden. “If the authors work with a writer it can take less time.”
While she’s worked with chef / authors, Snowden also believes that working with a writer helps. “A writer has been through the process, knows how to interpret the recipes and how to corral the chef and see the recipe part through.” Just choosing the recipes is a big job. Says Pirie, “It took a lot of investigative work to identify the iconic dishes to capture the restaurant in two-dimensional form.”
Solomonov and Cook as well as Pirie worked with a recipe editor. For Zahav, the recipe editor worked with Solomonov and the staff to convert recipes out of metric and into servings for four people (the average for home cooks.)
“It’s a major effort,” says Cook, “You can’t just wing it. You have to be precise.” A great recipe editor helped. He also says that recipe testing is an underrated part of the process noting that many cookbooks don’t have recipes that work for readers. While publishers used to do testing in-house, it’s now fairly standard practice that restaurants and authors handle it. Sometimes the easiest recipe takes the most testing, explains Pirie recounting that one particularly simple-seeming recipe had to be tested about 22 times to perfect. And of course, everything has to be tested in home kitchens rather than the restaurant kitchen.
According to Snowden, the biggest mistake she sees even in agented proposals is lack of attention to the recipes. “If I see proposals where the method isn’t clear, it’s a red flag to me. I expect a rigor for the final project. There are certain things we look for such as a mission statement explaining why they are passionate about it, why it’s important and why it needs to be out there in the market.” Ultimately she’s looking for a really compelling narrative. It’s not enough to submit a bio, restaurant, and recipes; it’s the stories that sell her on the book.
How do I get published?
The publisher you choose is incredibly important. For Pirie the final decision was based on a letter a publisher wrote to the team, ensuring them creative control. Experience with restaurant cookbooks is important too. Ten Speed Press often puts out around a dozen chef or restaurant cookbooks per year. According to Snowden, all cookbook publishers publish restaurant cookbooks, but some of the top choices (in addition to Ten Speed Press) are Clarkson Potter, Knopf, Chronicle Books, Flatiron, Abrams and H&H. While she primarily works with agents, some restaurants do submit their proposal without one.
Writing and publishing a great cookbook isn’t enough. A great cookbook requires great promotion or it will languish. According to Snowden, “The ideal scenario is when the chef already has their own PR team and works in tandem with a PR firm that has a national scope. It helps us with the local market. It’s great when everyone works together to get the biggest amplification. When you are paying for someone to do book PR it’s usually someone who knows the restaurant who delivers the best return. Pirie agrees adding, “Your own PR team is a must. The publisher is only a little slice of the pie. We were lucky that Abrams had some budget but it’s up to you to have the PR team driving book promo events.”
Here’s a roundup of wisdom from the pros:
Gayle Pirie, Chef / Owner, Foreign Cinema, San Francisco
- Don’t expect to make a lot of money.
- Make sure you choose the right publisher; you don’t want a cookie cutter book.
- Be prepared to buy books from the publisher, it may be in your contract and even discounted it will cost you a lot of money upfront.
Michael Solomonov & Steven Cook, Owners, Zahav, Philadelphia
- Writing is a very difficult thing and takes a lot of discipline.
- If the recipe goes on and on page after page, no one is going to make it.
- It is highly important that people are able to cook from your book.
Kelly Snowden, Senior Editor, Ten Speed Press, Oakland
- You’re competing with online and video recipes, so a book has to go beyond those platforms to draw people in.
- It’s helpful for restaurants to have a platform, their brand online.
- “Cookability” has become more important, cookbooks need to be more practical these days.