Roadtripping through the Deep South, or jetting off to France. Making note of conversational tics and mannerisms, and breaking out the calculator to scale down commercial kitchen quantities for the home cook. It’s all in a day’s work for seasoned cookbook coauthors, who partner with chefs, TV personalities, and social media stars to bring their recipes to the masses.
Some of the biggest selling cookbooks of the past year—Magnolia Table, Cravings—came to fruition thanks in part to the work of their coauthors. Here, we look at some forthcoming collaborations, and speak with writers about their behind-the-scenes experiences.
Of the cookbook writers PW spoke with, most bring hands-on culinary knowledge as well as editorial experience to the table.
Rachel Holtzman, coauthor of Pull Up a Chair (HMH, Oct.) by actress and Cooking Channel host Tiffani Thiessen, worked as an editor at Elle and then at Putnam, and specialized in wellness and pop science when she moved to Avery and Gotham. She wanted to wade deeper into food publishing and enrolled in evening classes at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education. She then began working the weekend brunch shift at Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern.
“I’d be bone tired,” Holtzman says. “I’d have to do a medium dice on my potatoes on Sunday, and then go to the office the next morning, where I would write out recipes for class during my lunch hour.”
Holtzman’s work at the restaurant acquainted her with its chef, Michael Anthony, who introduced her to the idea of cookbook coauthoring. “He told me, ‘You speak two languages—a culinary language, and an editorial language,’ ” she recalls. “That would make you really well-suited to test recipes.’”
She linked up with blogger Deb Perelman, who was working on her debut, 2012’s The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. “I tested some of her recipes, and that gave me the confidence that I could leave my job at Penguin, as a 20-something with no kids and no mortgage can do,” she says.
Soon after exiting Penguin, Holtzman got a call from Alicia Silverstone’s agent, who told her the actress was in New York looking for a writer on 2014’s The Kind Mama, and her career as a full-time coauthor began.
Holtzman’s experience as a book editor makes her a stronger coauthor, she says. “I’m a formidable taskmaster because I know all of the scrambling and hand-wringing that happens on the other end of the desk when things are late. It also helps me put my clients at ease, because I’m able to hold their hand through the process. There’s nothing scarier for a client than hitting send to the editor on the Word document.”
Katherine Cobbs, executive editor at Oxmoor House, coauthored country music star Martina McBride’s first cookbook, 2014’s Around the Table, and edited her forthcoming title, Martina’s Kitchen Mix (Oct.). Early in her career, while working at Weldon Owen, Cobbs attended San Francisco’s Tante Marie’s Cooking School. A chance conversation got her started in the coauthoring game: as she was preparing to move her young family from San Francisco to her husband’s hometown of Birmingham, Ala., she got a call from Pardis Stitt—who, with her husband, chef Frank Stitt, ran several Birmingham restaurants. Cobbs’s brother-in-law had met the pair at a party the previous evening, and they’d mentioned in passing a looming deadline on their first cookbook.
“I’d been wowed at their restaurants, so to me it was a bit like getting a call from a rock star,” Cobbs recalls. After hearing about her background and impending move, they enlisted her to help complete 2004’s Frank Stitt’s Southern Table.
“My brother-in-law was in the right place at the right time and perhaps due to their sheer desperation, I landed the job,” Cobbs says. “Working with them opened a lot of doors, and I remain grateful.”
Like Cobbs, Genevieve Ko got her start after a serendipitous meeting. While traveling for her job in college admissions and sampling cuisine across the U.S., Ko decided to pursue a career in food. She began working at a restaurant in New Haven, Conn., in the evenings to gain experience and explore the industry. She met then–New York Times food columnist and How to Cook Everything author Mark Bittman at a book signing in the area, and they struck up a conversation about her work at the restaurant. He was looking for a part-time assistant and hired Ko for the job.
“It was basically like two apprenticeships simultaneously,” Ko says of the two positions. “One in the kitchen, and the other for research, writing, cookbook organizing.”
Ko’s work with Bittman brought her to chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose first two books Bittman had coauthored. Her boss was so “swamped” with his own work, Ko says, that she was able to step into the coauthoring role for 2007’s Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges. “That was a big break, to put it mildly,” Ko says. “It was like jumping into the deep end.”
After freelancing as a food writer and working in the food departments at Gourmet, Martha Stewart Living, and elsewhere, Ko made cookbook coauthoring her full time gig. She’s teamed up once again with Carla Hall, a Top Chef fan favorite and former cohost of The Chew, for Carla Hall’s Soul Food (Harper Wave, Oct.).
Rachel Wharton came at coauthoring from another world of words: journalism. She has a master’s degree in food studies from NYU, and after several years in the food department of the New York Daily News, became a part-time editor at local food magazines Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, where she won a James Beard Award for food writing. Her time at Edible also introduced her to one of her first cookbook projects, 2011’s Edible Brooklyn: The Cookbook, which Wharton edited. She began taking on at least one cookbook project a year, and left her post at Edible in 2013 to freelance full time.
In 2008, Wharton wrote an article about how chef Sohui Kim and her mother made kimchi at the Good Fork in Red Hook. Kim tapped her as a cowriter on 2016’s The Good Fork Cookbook, and again for Korean Home Cooking (Abrams, Oct.).
Recipe for Success
Many writers agree that jibing with a chef—and in some cases, forming a friendship—can push a cookbook into new territory.
“It makes a huge difference in the editorial process,” Ko says of her relationship with Hall, which began with Cooking with Love, released in 2012. “And it makes a huge difference in the food. We have very similar palates, and I have a very good sense of what she wants.”
Ko and Hall’s time-tested collaboration proved especially valuable in their latest project, which explores the tradition surrounding soul food. To write the book, they embarked on a road trip that returned the chef to her Southern roots—she was born in Nashville—visiting civil rights landmarks across the South, while, along the way, sharing meals and stories with African-American home cooks and professional chefs.
“It was a culmination of a decade of partnership,” Ko says. “It was a tough topic to get through together, and more significant than our first two books. We needed each other to say, ‘Yes, we’re gonna do this.’ With any scary thing that you do, doing it with a partner makes it easier, and great.”
Hall, too, found the relationship an asset as she and Ko set out to research the book. “This is the third cookbook that I’ve done with Genevieve, and this book was meant to dig deeper into my culture and Southern roots,” Hall says. “With that intention, and knowing me so well, Genevieve helped design a trip that would spark, inspire, and educate us all in what it was like to live in the South and, on returning, to discover how the food has changed.”
That personal “click” is key, says Adeena Sussman, who partnered with model, TV personality, and social media maven Chrissy Teigen for 2016’s Cravings and the forthcoming follow-up, Cravings: Hungry for More (Clarkson Potter, Sept.). “I like working with people I would like to hang out with, cook with, and talk to,” she adds.
Sussman was introduced to Teigen and her husband, singer John Legend, through literary agent Andy McNicol, who’d admired Sussman’s work on the proposal for Candace Nelson’s 2016 cookbook, The Sprinkles Baking Book. Teigen and Sussman “connected on a personal level,” Sussman recalls. “And love for tuna casserole.”
Though Teigen and Sussman have different backgrounds—Teigen is half-Thai and half-Norwegian-American and Sussman grew up in a traditional Jewish home and lives in Israel—the two women are like-minded when it comes to cooking, Sussman says.
Meredith Erickson met David McMillan and Frederic Morin when she worked as a waitress at their Montreal eatery, Joe Beef. She not only formed a friendship with the chefs but also set in motion a career as a cookbook coauthor. With their established rapport and her editorial background—she was formerly editor of a literary magazine—she was a natural collaborator for their first book, The Art of Living According to Joe Beef, published in 2011, as well as the forthcoming Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse (Knopf, Nov.).
“I live the experience, I spend time, I eat the food and talk a lot with the chef,” Erickson says of her coauthoring work. “Then we start to put things in writing and calibrate from there. It’s highly collaborative. You have to enjoy one another. One of the by-products of my work is the friends I’ve made with each book.”
Former Bon Appétit senior food editor Alison Roman’s stint as cookbook coauthor, like Erickson’s, is rooted in friendship. Roman, who in 2017 released her own cookbook, Dining In, was asked to write A Very Serious Cookbook (Phaidon, Oct.) by its chef-authors, Jeremiah Stone and Fabián von Hauske of Manhattan’s Contra and Wildair. The coauthor role is a one-time endeavor for Roman, she says, but her existing relationship with Stone and von Hauske—she’s a regular at their establishments—convinced her to come on board.
“I hadn’t thought of taking on any projects like this, but I like spending time with them and I felt like I could help them tell their story,” Roman says. “This type of collaboration is not something I do regularly and likely will not do again—only for these special guys. For this to work, your personalities have to click, and ours did.”
Process Makes Perfect
Once an author and a chef have teamed up, then what? Cowriters have varying approaches to crafting a cookbook.
“I always start in a place of learning,” Sussman says, “trying to take any assumptions I have about a dish or the cook across from me off the table.” Every recipe begins, she notes, with a basic idea—like a stuffed tomato. “Then, Chrissy will remember that she’s craving cheddar-broccoli soup, then I’ll suggest combining those two ideas and bam, we’re off to the races.”
Sussman and Teigen then test the recipes, sometimes together, sometimes individually. “It’s a dialectical relationship based on respect—and a commitment to deliciousness,” Sussman says.
Amelia Levin acquired a taste for cookbook writing and recipe testing from her mother, Karen Levin, a cookbook author who worked in the test kitchens at Kraft and Quaker Oats in the 1980s. Now a food writer in Chicago, Amelia approached Ellen King, co-owner and head baker at Hewn in Evanston, Ill., to write Heritage Baking (Chronicle, Oct.). She knew of King through Les Dames d’Escoffier, an organization for professional women in food and hospitality, and learned more about her bakery through a recipe King shared for 2018’s The Lake Michigan Cottage Cookbook, which Levin compiled.
With Heritage Baking, Levin worked from rough drafts of recipes, and also built them from the ground up. For the master bread recipe, for instance, she watched as King went through every step, took notes, and wrote out the recipe herself.
James O. Fraioli, coauthor of more than two dozen cookbooks, paired with Derek Bugge, chef at Ascend Prime Steak & Sushi in Bellevue, Wash., for September’s Charred & Smoked (Skyhorse). Part of the process, Fraioli says, is translating the language, technique, and equipment of professional chefs for the home cook. Because most authors he works with cook at restaurants and in large volumes, as a coauthor, he breaks recipes down to servings of four to six, and revamps the language.
Informational chapters and sidebars—such as, in Charred, those on essential equipment, properly preheating a grill, and types of smoking woods—are particularly useful in making a book user-friendly. “I want home cooks to feel like they’re getting a personal cooking class from the featured chef,” Fraioli says. “This is just as important as the recipes.”
In bringing professional material to the amateur cook, Ko often pinpoints potential problems during recipe development. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, that’s a lot of pots and pans!’ ” she says. “But the best chefs, in their souls, have hospitable spirits. They want to feed you and they want to make your life better through food. In the restaurant, that may require 20 pots and pans; in the cookbook context, they want to make the dish doable in a home kitchen.”
If recipe development is the science of cookbook writing, the art happens when a cowriter channels the chef’s voice. Doing so involves abundant one-on-one time and side-by-side cooking—and, sometimes, a bit of investigative work.
“The experience of writing for yourself is extremely different than writing with or for other people,” Roman says. “Getting inside someone else’s brain requires a lot of time spent together—working, drinking, eating, cooking—to truly understand what they’re trying to say without them having to say it.”
For A Very Serious Cookbook, Roman traveled to France with Stone and von Hauske, and she says that spending time with the chefs over the course of the weeklong journey was illuminating when it came to putting pen to paper.
Writing a book with two authors had its challenges, but it crystallized once they decided to keep both voices as “pure as possible,” Roman says. Each author has his own section of the introduction, and throughout the book, their voices are distinguished by their first initials. “It wouldn’t have made sense to have all the words come from both of them,” Roman says, “since they have unique experiences, perspectives, senses of humor, and opinions.”
Fraioli discovers a chef’s style and mannerisms through a building block of cookbook writing. “I always tell them, ‘I want you to write the headnotes,’ ” he says. “After I read 75 headnotes, I have an idea of how they talk and how they write, and their style and tone and voice.”
For Sussman, everything she needs to know about a person comes out in the kitchen, and from cooking alongside each other. “Typically, my coauthoring motto is, ‘cook first, write later,’ ” she says. “By the end of a recipe developed together, you’ve established a little piece of who that person is and what they’re about. Multiply that, on average, by 100 recipes, and you’ve got an edible dossier to work with.”
Several writers, with backgrounds at newspapers and magazines, use journalistic skills to access a chef’s voice. “I liked to pull out my reporter hat and tape-record King during the time we spent together in the kitchen, and on the road visiting farms,” says Levin, who worked as a crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune’s 24-hour newswire. “I used a lot of her words and mannerisms from those conversations in the copy for the introduction, headnotes, and more.”
Cobbs also relies on the trusty recorder and says that in her work with Martina McBride and others, she would be “lost” without it. “It’s imperative to get comfortable with your client’s turns of phrase and manner of speaking, so you can craft the narrative in their voice, not your own,” she says. “I record all my meetings and take notes, too, which may seem like overkill, but it allows me to highlight the important points I want to go back to when it comes time to draft copy. The recorder is like a lifeline.”
Holtzman finds that tapping into the mind of a chef isn’t that dissimilar from conducting an interview for a magazine article. “I ask a lot of questions, teasing information from their brain,” she says. “Some clients are natural storytellers, and are a [wellspring] of really wonderful anecdotes. Other clients need a bit more coaxing, because it’s not their primary medium of expression.”
For Wharton, when it comes to channeling a cook’s voice, less is more. “It’s the same way I’d listen to people to capture a good quote and the real story for anything I’m writing,” she says. “With most of my coauthors, I just have to get out of the way and listen.”
Cookbook collaborator Ann Volkwein says that, in general, the coauthoring process is more straightforward when she doesn’t have to acquire a whole new culinary vocabulary. For instance, the longtime Austin resident addressed a familiar topic, South Texas barbecue, in 2018’s Cowboy Barbecue by Adrian Davila.
But, Volkwein says, she’s also fascinated by diving into new cuisine. Such was the case with her work on Ramen Otaku (Avery, Nov.) by Sarah Gavigan, owner of Otaku Ramen in Nashville. The project was like “going down a ramen rabbit hole, in the absolute best sense,” Volkwein says. “After we’d nailed our outline, we spent three very rainy days together in New York eating bowl after bowl after bowl of ramen, and talking for hours on the most esoteric aspects of the art of layering, building, crafting, and loudly slurping a proper bowl.”
With Joe Beef set for its fall release, Erickson is working on a cookbook with chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey, co-owners of Boulder, Colo.’s Frasca Food and Wine, to be published by Ten Speed in 2020. “I was excited to get a crash course in the wines of Friuli from Stuckey,” Erickson says of the Italian region whose cuisine the restaurant specializes in. “It’s like an accelerated wine school. It’s really meaningful to me, these kinds of Socratic conversations that my job allows. If I can’t learn from the subject, I’m not interested in taking on the project.”
For Sussman, too, getting an education is a vital part of the process and a major consideration in deciding whether to take on to a coauthoring gig. “The few times I’ve taken a job solely for the payout have been the ones that weren’t as seamless or stimulating,” she says. By contrast, working on both Cravings books has been a “constant reminder to be slavishly devoted to flavor, to be true to your instincts, and to trust that if you stand behind a recipe and share your passion with your audience, they’re likely to follow you.”
Fraioli concurs, equating the experience of coauthoring with attending a private culinary school. “Before you know it, you become a really good cook,” he says. “I’ve had 30 chefs each teaching me something new.”
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