When Julia Child published the first volume of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," she was 49. The cookbook was the culmination of more than a decade spent in cramped home kitchens studying the properties of goose fat and puzzling out the mysteries of creamed fish quenelles. Yet by today's standards, Child was long past her cookbook-writing prime. Cookbooks are now viewed as building blocks, not capstones, of successful culinary careers.
Although the current list of top-selling cookbooks is dominated by authors with popular blogs and QVC platforms, the publishing buzz around restaurant chefs who have just recently emerged as potentially singular talents is deafening. Three of the five chefs nominated in 2013 for the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef of the Year award, a prize restricted to chefs born on or
after Jan. 1, 1982, already have landed cookbook deals.
"It's almost a requirement for a major award," says Sheri Castle, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based cookbook author who doubles as a recipe tester and developer. The result, Castle suggests, are brand-cinching cookbooks that reflect a trendy perspective rather than a lifetime of kitchen experience: "It's kind of like people writing their autobiographies at 25."
Writing a cookbook, though, isn't a mere exercise in narcissism. When done correctly, it's an extraordinarily difficult task, especially for chefs caught up in the urgent business of running an overbooked restaurant.
"If you open your doors at 5 o'clock and you have to turn 250 covers, or you can work on your book, guess which is going to come first?" Castle says. "There is no one less prepared to write a cookbook than a chef. It's not the coin of their realm. You're not taking your kitchen notes and stapling them together: It's cooking, it's writing and it's constructing a book. I don't know of a soul who would say it was easy. "
Translating the magic
A cheffy perspective can make the endeavor even harder, since chefs accustomed to dealing with wholesale deliveries and a corps of staffers don't necessarily know the standard size of a cream cheese package or understand the aggravations associated with a recipe that calls for 18 pans.
Husk and McCrady's chef Sean Brock, whose first cookbook is scheduled for release this fall, once Tweeted a cornbread recipe that required readers to heat their ovens to 800 degrees.
"Chefs very much need an interpreter," Castle says.
A cookbook project typically requires a costly team of editors, designers, photographers and food stylists. ("They need to understand that everybody is on their side," sighs Castle, referring to chefs' propensity to chafe at consultants' input. "Nobody's telling them their baby's ugly.") According to Castle, the best cookbooks come from chefs who have carefully scrutinized their reasons for investing so much money and time in consigning recipes to print.
Beyond the desire to knock another item off their celebrity chef checklists, they might want a souvenir of their work experiences or a tangible statement of their artistic visions. Or they might want to permanently capture a fleeting sensation they've labored to create in their restaurant dining rooms.
"Most chefs feel like what they're doing is special," says cookbook author Matt Lee, who with brother Ted Lee won the James Beard Foundation's 2007 Cookbook of the Year award for "The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook." "They want it to go on forever. If only they could express it in words and pictures, and have it be heavy, they can die comfortably."
The Lees last year launched their Cookbook Boot Camp, a two-day Charleston retreat for professional chefs grappling with the hows and whys of publishing. The camp is convening three times this winter in a rental house on Broad Street, where the living room's furnished with upholstered settees and armchairs for the six campers and gracious wooden tables piled with tall ziggurats of extravagantly illustrated cookbooks. At a recent session, participants could pluck inspirations from acclaimed books celebrating regions, seasons, restaurants and/or ingredients.
With 359 cookbooks submitted this year for James Beard award judging, the right storyline can make a book stand out. "It has to have something to anchor you," Ted Lee explained between readings of cookbook introductions.
Determining a cookbook's theme is a central preoccupation of the program, which the Lees designed after friends - hoping to inherit their insights on how to draft a proposal, find an agent, select a publisher, recruit recipe testers and manage a book tour - repeatedly asked for just an hour of their time. Putting out a cookbook, the Lees say, is an oddly inscrutable process.
So the brothers begin by focusing not on the quirks of the publishing industry, but on the chefs. They pose all manner of probing questions, starting with a pre-camp questionnaire, to help the would-be authors figure out what kind of cookbooks they'd most like to write.
"Sometimes it approaches psychotherapy," Matt Lee says. "There's inevitably that point where you have to ask 'Are you religious?' 'Do you have siblings?' Sometimes it takes them awhile."
Shaking his head, Lee adds, "For Peter (Dale, chef of The National in Athens, Ga.), he didn't even mention he was obsessed with airplanes."
Cathy Whims, a five-time James Beard Foundation award finalist, arrived from Portland, Ore., with a collaborator lined up and the sense that she wanted to write. "I feel like it's almost past time," Whims said of the book's timing. "But my hurdle is not wanting just another pretty book."
It took hours of chatting about signature dishes and kitchen strengths before Whims realized her cookbook could guide readers through the Italian techniques she showcases at Nostrana. She toyed with the phrase "hand-driven," envisioning photographs of gnocchi rolling.
"That's a great addition to the canon," Ted Lee says. "I want that book."
Chicago chef Paul Fehribach, who attended a 2013 Boot Camp, this month signed a deal with Univer- sity of Chicago Press to author its first cookbook release in 40 years. But the Lees say they'd be just as pleased if chefs left the program with the certainty they didn't want to write a traditional cookbook. That's the conclusion Hominy Grill's Robert Stehling reached after poking around the publishing world.
"It was at the height of Southern popularity," Stehling recalls of the overtures he investigated. "They were all in their heads going pickles and pigs and barbecue and bourbon. That's not my message. I don't quite know my message, but I shied off."
For years, the restaurant had mailed out recipe postcards, but the list of recipients had grown so long that a single mailing cost $4,000. Stehling in 2005 decided to instead invest $5,000 in a cookbooklet featuring Hominy's most-requested recipes "and a few other things I felt needed to be included." A graphic designer lobbied for elaborate illustrations and assorted curlicues, but Stehling insisted on simplicity.
The book, priced at $12.95, is sold at the restaurant and on its website. Stehling estimates he's sold 17,000 copies. (Those figures help explain why the Lees advise prospective authors interested in turning a profit to self-publish: While a writer with a strong proposal might reasonably expect to receive a $30,000 advance, the Lees estimate development and photography costs at $2000 a recipe.)
"Every third or fifth table buys one or two copies," Stehling says. "Some people just sit there at the table and copy a recipe out of the book, but that's OK."
Stehling isn't much of a cookbook fan. He guesses he's at a stage of his career where cultural histories are more informative than cooking manuals, and he's not among the 50 percent of cookbook buyers who plow through cookbooks like novels. "Nobody writes very interesting cookbooks anymore," he says. "Now it's everybody's stories about grandmas' knees and 'I went on this trip and met this old person.' "
Still, Stehling hasn't ruled out writing another cookbook. Hominy servers, who long ago tired of reciting the same sales spiel, are pushing for it. He's asked the Lees to write a cookbook for him, but they've declined.
"I'll be alive for a few more years, and I might find the time," he says. "There's more of a story to tell, but I'm not sure that story's over yet."
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.