Celebrated chef Marcus Samuelsson knows kitchens better than most people, but today he is mixing them up with chickens. “I never forgot that lesson, even though as a kid we didn’t kill the kitchens we ate for dinner,” reads Samuelsson.
He says the line into a large, futuristic-looking microphone, reading from a stack of pages in front of him—chapter 4 of his new memoir, Yes, Chef, which will be published by Random House in late June. Samuelsson is a James Beard Award–winning chef, among stacks of other culinary distinctions, and a fixture of Food Network programming, and has his own popular and acclaimed restaurants, including most recently, Red Rooster Harlem.
But today he sits perched on a stool in a cramped sound booth at Beatstreet Productions in New York City, being corrected about the word he just used.
“You said ‘kitchens’ instead of ‘chickens,’” says John McElroy, a veteran audio director and owner of Eljin Productions Inc., who sits at a large desk in the main room of the recording studio, on the other side of the booth’s soundproof door. “Let’s take that again.”
McElroy is following along with his own set of pages and is broadcast into Samuelsson’s booth by pressing and speaking into a device that hangs from his neck. The chef, now narrator, pauses and takes a breath, which can be heard crystal-clear from the speakers piping his voice into the acoustically enhanced studio. He takes the sentence again. This time it is the chickens getting eaten for dinner.
McElroy has been hired by Random House Audio, which is producing the audiobook, to direct Samuelsson’s performance, ensuring that the narration is accurate and engaging. He assists when the narrator’s soft, Swedish-accented reading skips over a word or hits a verbal snag.
For example, Samuelsson’s tongue-twisting description of attika, a vinegar popular in Sweden for making pickles: “A beechwood-based product that has a sinus-clearing, eye-tearing bite to it.” He reads this as a “beechbood-based product” and “beechbased-wood product” before finally nailing it.
Sitting next McElroy is Dan Zitt, director of audio production for Random House Audio. Zitt has been with the company for 13 years and oversees the production of 350–400 books a year. His responsibilities include dropping in on recordings to see how things are going, though he stays silent for most of this session, letting McElroy do the talking and interrupting.
The dim lighting and precise temperature and sound controls give the studio a bunker-like feel, as if cut off from the outside world, even if it is just blocks from Madison Square Park. A pair of stuffed Bert and Ernie dolls sitting on top of an equalizer help to lighten the atmosphere.
Besides Zitt and McElroy, Matt Longoria, an engineer for Beatstreet, follows the reading. He sits on a swivel chair between the table and a massive console with dozens of switches, which dominates the room but is barely touched during an audiobook recording like this. Longoria is more concerned with the monitor set on top of the console, with the Pro Tools waveforms displayed as it tracks the recording, as well as the equalizer, which tells him whether Samuelsson’s volume is too soft or too loud.
“Once more for movement,” Longoria occasionally interjects when the microphone picks up Samuelsson’s shifts during the recording.
While the director listens for performance and accuracy, the engineer is what Longoria calls “the audio police,” keeping an ear out for any technical issues or sounds that are not supposed to be there. Though the Yes, Chef session goes without background noise problems, Zitt explains that he has seen the slightest things trip up a recording, from a ticking wristwatch to rustling clothing.
“If you’re wearing a shirt with too much starch in it, we’re going to hear that,” says Zitt.
They must also listen for dry-mouth. While a cup of water can usually keep the diction well lubricated, if the narrator is having a lot of trouble, the director may give him or her a green apple to chew on before recording, which restores the pH in a person’s mouth and makes it less sticky. An actor Zitt worked with years ago solved the problem by gargling olive oil.
Keeping It Personal
This is the end of the third session that Samuelsson has spent in the studio, reading for two to three hours with periodic breaks (his packed schedule makes full days of recording impossible). The chef has done voiceover work for television, but this is the first extensive project he has done in a sound booth.
Taking all that into consideration, occasional verbal slips are to be expected, according to McElroy, especially toward the end of a session. The members of the production team say they are pleased with how the session went.
But the narration challenges Samuelsson in another way.
“It gets to me—emotionally gets to me,” says Samuelsson. “Even the stories between my sister and my mother in the beginning. I stop and think about it. It’s hard to be objective with something that you’re so close to.”
Unlike his last four books, all cookbooks, Yes, Chef is deeply personal. Samuelsson tells of his early childhood in Ethiopia, where his mother died of tuberculosis when he was three years old, leading to his adoption by a middle-class family in Sweden and early years learning the basics of cooking while assisting his adoptive grandmother in the kitchen—the portion he reads during this studio session.
Samuelsson has spent five years on the book, which he describes as a “self search,” to tell of starting at the lowest rungs of top European kitchens before eventually coming to New York City to work at Aquavit, where his work first as an apprentice and eventually as executive chef brought him to national culinary prominence. Recording the audiobook is one of the final steps in what has been a lengthy and “cleansing” process, according to the chef, and he wants to get it right.
“It’s all my journey and it’s not just talking about a recipe,” says Samuelsson. “I laugh when I think about me and my sisters with our mother yanking our hair or kicking my sister’s feet under the table to share a joke.”
While the personal nature of the book can challenge a narrator, it can strengthen the performance as well. Zitt recommends that narrators imagine that they are telling a story in a bar in order to help generate the one-to-one intimacy experienced when listening to the book on headphones or in the car.
“A good audiobook reader will make you sit in your car at work for that extra 20 minutes just so they can finish the chapter,” Zitt says.
Yes, Chef is just one of dozens of productions Zitt is overseeing this season. He manages teams on both coasts, with the East Coast group consisting of five audio producers renting out studio spaces throughout the city, of which Beatstreet is one (though Random House is in the process of installing a studio in its own New York offices). In Los Angeles, the company owns eight studio spaces, overseen by two producers.
Changes in technology as well as in consumer expectations have driven up demand for audiobooks, keeping Zitt and his team busy. When Zitt started in the industry 16 years ago, three-hour abridgments of books were the norm. Now the market demands many more titles, almost always at unabridged length, leading to eye-popping numbers like the 4,000 hours of finished audio that Random House’s Los Angeles studios produced last year.
A seasoned actor working for an eight-hour recording session can deliver about three hours of finished audio, though this can vary from one narrator to the next. Some performers might take a 15-minute break every hour, while others prefer to go as long as they can until they start losing their focus. Zitt recalls a recent recording with Bob Costas in which he stood up and read for six hours straight with minimal retakes.
“The process for us is very organic,” says Zitt.
Before Setting Foot in the Studio
Though all recording happens during these in-studio sessions, every person involved has done plenty of work before entering. For example, Samuelsson listened to other audio memoirs to get a sense of the tone and performance qualities that worked well for other authors.
“I read Bill Clinton’s book, but I also listened to it this summer, and it was great to hear his voice throughout,” he says. “It just felt very close.”
For actors who may not be familiar with the book they will be reading, Zitt sends them the work weeks in advance to familiarize themselves. A performer like Jim Dale, who narrated all the Harry Potter books, will highlight sections to specify the different characters and voices he needs to shift into, even recording samples of his character voices to access during the session.
Others may take the project less seriously, like an actor Zitt worked with recently who showed up with the book in hand, still in its wrapping, and asked, “So what’s this book about?”
McElroy also has to research the book before production begins, confirming how words are to be pronounced and what accents the narrator needs to hit—not such a problem here, since Samuelsson knows how to pronounce the various words in his own book, whether it’s an Ethiopian spice mixture or the Swedish city of Göteborg.
Zitt believes that over the past two decades, authors have become more involved in the preparation of their audiobooks, even when they are not narrating them.
“Sixteen years ago, you would call an author about the audiobook, and they would say, ‘What is this?’” says Zitt. “Now I have authors who call me months in advance before we start to produce their audiobook, saying, ‘What are we going to do with this?’ ”
Elmore Leonard, for example, suggested actor Steve Buscemi narrate his novel Pagan Babies. Zitt loved the idea and Buscemi signed on. For World War Z, author Max Brooks worked closely with both Zitt and McElroy to cast for the book’s multicharacter “oral history.”
As director, McElroy’s involvement with this production ends when he exits the studio. The recordings go to the post-production team of editors, who go through it and determine if there are any misspoken words, muffled lines, or other bits that they need to retake. But the editors’ jobs are made much easier—or harder—depending on what happens in the studio.
One of the skills in directing is listening for pauses—hunks of sound where editors can cut easily and drop in narration from another part of the recording. At several points McElroy asks Samuelsson to retake a line because it needs clearer edges.
If the recording does have clear divisions between words, an editor may try “Frankensteining”—taking parts of words or sounds from the narration and splicing them together to create whole new words. It is in these cases when a flat delivery from a narrator can actually be a benefit.
“If you get an animated read, it can be very difficult to do a substitution,” McElroy explains.
The engineer’s work is also crucial to the later editing process. As Longoria listens, he makes notations on his copy of the pages, writing a vertical line from where each take begins down to where it ends, or where the author makes a word change, creating a map for the editors to follow as they go. Some pages look relatively clean, others are covered in streaks.
At the end of the session, the stack of pages are scanned and put on an FTP site, from which Zitt’s team of editors in Los Angeles will retrieve them and get to work.
“Without the map, you’re in trouble,” says Zitt. “You’re not sunk, but if you get a 12-hour audiobook with no map, you’re sitting there listening to every little bit of it, cutting out every little take.”
Once the editing is complete, a third-party quality controller will listen through the entire recording from start to finish using a clean script, listening for any mistakes in the edit or technical flaws. These notes are sent back to the executive producer and editor, where they decide what needs to be fixed.
No matter how skillfully recorded or edited, there may still be need for a few retakes, or “pickups,” once it is all patched together. When working with a schedule like Samuelsson’s, this will usually just mean McElroy asking the narrator to do the few pickups needed for the previous session at the end of the current one. But then, Zitt says, there are those celebrities who tell Random House, “You’re getting me these two days, and don’t even think about calling me again.” In those cases, the production team just has to work with what they have.
Like Making Soup
In Los Angeles, Zitt estimates there are about 25 directors who work specifically on audiobooks, with more than that in New York City. When selecting a director for the Yes, Chef production, he not only had to consider his or her experience, but how the director would interact with Samuelsson.
“The worst thing you can have is an actor and a director who don’t want to work together,” says Zitt. “You see it in Hollywood; it’s the same thing in audiobooks.”
Zitt and McElroy have to be aware if Samuelsson’s energy starts flagging, something that even the narrator might not notice.
Samuelsson puts it in more philosophical terms.
“It’s trust—I’ve never met these people. You’ve got to go into this and trust whoever’s hands you are in,” says Samuelsson. “If this is going to work, I’m going to be in their hands. I have to add my passion to it, but I’ll be in their hands.”
He compares it to the collaboration in a kitchen, and how the various chefs and assistants must jell if they are going to create something of which everyone can be proud.
“The great thing about being a chef is that it’s process-based and it takes time,” says Samuelsson. “This is what we have to do now, and I’m doing it.”
The right choices have allowed for this level of collaboration and smoothness on display at this session at the Beatstreet studio.
“We’re a tribe of people putting this book out—it’s my team, it’s Random’s team, and collectively together, and now it’s my job to do this part of it,” says Samuelsson. “Just like you make a soup in the kitchen.”
And this time, he definitely means “kitchen.”
Alex Palmer is a freelance journalist who lives in Brooklyn.