Sunday, March 18, 2012
I Was a Cookbook Ghostwriter
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.
Despite 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 Web sites.
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?
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 Ms. Ray and others. “How many times can one person invent a new quick pasta dish?”
Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.