After years of perfecting your recipes, you’re toying with the idea of writing a cookbook – but where do you start?
Maybe you thumb through your old favorite, the one that inspired you to become a chef, looking for ideas. Its stained, dog-eared pages have seen better days, but it’s what made you realize working in the culinary world was what you wanted to do. Whether it’s Keller’s French Laundry, Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine, or that copy of Joy of Cooking your mom gave you in the hopes you’d eat more than pizza when you left home, it’s the one that got you started. Now you’re thinking about how you can write your own inspirational tome and be a part of the next generation of cooks.
To help get you on your way, we talked to three culinary authors and figured out the mise that makes for writing a successful cookbook.
“With so many books out there the biggest challenge is creating something completely unique,” said Meredith Erickson, co-author of Olympia Provisions: Cured Meats and Tales from an American Charcuterie. “And as there are only so many ingredients in the world, this is usually achieved by one thing: Voice.”
Before embarking on an author’s journey, ask yourself this vital question: What do I want to say, what’s my story and how does that set me apart?
Food cart pioneer and sweet-treat peddler Kir Jensen found a voice for her book, Sugar Cube: 50 Deliciously Twisted Treats from the Sweetest Little Food Cart on the Planet, thanks to something she heard on a near-daily basis. “A lot of people say to me, ‘I can’t bake. I can’t cook. Baking’s too hard.’ My overall mission was to say ‘Hey, if I can bake out of a tiny little food cart, you can bake at home.”
Bottom line: Good recipes are only one ingredient for a memorable cookbook; your voice is another.
“No. Fucking. Way.” That was Olympia Provisions founder Elias Cairo’s response when asked if he would have written a cookbook on his own. Like any book, cookbooks undergo multiple revisions and edits. They need trained eyes to format and design the physical book, and will require more time and editorial skills than you probably have. You’ll need help.
According to Cairo, Olympia Provisions: Cured Meats and Tales from an American Charcuterie exists because he partnered with a visionary co-author and a talented photographer. Author Meredith Erickson and photographer Eric Wolfinger loved Cairo’s story and helped bring it to life with three years of collaboration, cooking and conversation.
“Make sure there’s some sort of natural bond between you and your co-author – and your photographer, too – because you’re going to spend a lot of time with each other and you’re going to have to make some very big decisions together,” said Cairo. “You want to enjoy [the process].”
“People are investing their time and money to go buy ingredients and make one of your recipes,” said Jensen. “And if the recipe fails, that’s going to be a real disappointment.”
Your average home cook isn’t going to have the natural instinct of a trained chef or the tools of a fully stocked restaurant. Adding a little dash of this or that can result in disaster – so your recipes have to produce consistent results. For your book to be reliable, you must deconstruct, rebuild and cook every recipe multiple times. (And don’t forget about scale.)
“To go from making 9000 lbs of sausage to making a 4 lb batch of sausage with a hand crank — it’s hilarious,” recalls Cairo. “My recipes are extremely dialed in, but the technique that it goes through is much different when you’re scaling it down.”
According to Meredith Erickson, what surprises her author-chefs the most is the amount of time a book takes. The average cookbook can take over two years to complete; Olympia Provisions’ took three. Writing a rich narrative is a complex process, but our authors agree that it’s worth it.
“Everyone I’ve worked with has felt proud of what they have written in a completely different way than other achievements,” Erickson said. “The narrative, whether it be in long essay or unique headnotes, is the key way to express yourself and set yourself apart.”
For cookbooks, success isn’t measured in money or fame – it’s measured in personal growth and reader feedback. “You should never go into it thinking you’re going to be successful or going to make a lot of money,” said Jensen, “because generally that’s not the case. You do it as a learning experience or because you want to share your knowledge. To create something out of nothing, to me that’s a success.”
You don’t have to be a famous chef or the owner of a well-known restaurant to be a successful author; you just need the time, the help and the passion to share your knowledge with the world. Everyone has at least one treasured cookbook. Follow this recipe and with luck, yours could be inspiring the next generation of chefs.