WRITTEN BY KATHERINE MARTINELLI
There was a time when the word ghostwriter only appeared in splashy news stories that exposed celebrity authors for not writing their own books. But the truth is there’s nothing controversial about being a cookbook ghostwriter, and the world is finally catching on. These behind-the-scenes gurus do a good chunk of the grunt work without the glory, which is often the way they like it.
There are plenty of reasons that chefs decide to work with ghostwriters (whose names do not appear on the books) or with credited co-authors. Just as it takes more than being a good cook to run a successful restaurant, it takes more than having a successful restaurant to produce a good cookbook.
“Making books is always a team project,” says Andrew Schloss, who has ghostwritten eight books and solo written and co-authored many more including Salt Block Cooking with Mark Bitterman. “The author is working with editors, with designers, there are all sorts of people who are putting their imprint on the book. ” Chefs and authors get hooked up in all sorts of ways. Most often gigs come through the writer’s literary agent, but sometimes chefs tap their own co-authors or get recommendations from others in the industry.
The cookbook ghostwriter is part writer, part recipe tester, and part project manager. They help the chefs put their stories and recipes to paper, while also making sure that deadlines are met and publishers are kept happy. One of the pros is writer and cookbook collaborator JJ Goode, who has co-authored about a dozen books with the likes of April Bloomfield and Masaharu Morimoto (and a few where he is only mentioned in the acknowledgements). As Goode points out, chefs are incredible at working under pressure, “but the idea of a project that takes a year or two to complete makes them want to die.”
Though giving credit to the co-author is becoming increasingly common—if not on the cover than on the title page—there are plenty of reasons people opt for ghostwriters instead. It can be confusing to readers to see another name alongside the chef's. And there are certainly times when ego is involved. “Some chefs with different personalities don’t want to need help, they want to appear self-sufficient,” notes New York Times food columnist Melissa Clark, who has authored, co-authored, and ghostwritten dozens of cookbooks with celebrity chefs. “I think that’s silly, personally.”
There are times, too, when the collaborator is the one who opts not to have their name associated with a project. Jess Thomson, who has ghostwritten and co-authored cookbooks with chefs like Renee Erickson and has a food-related memoir upcoming, says she takes her name off not because she’s not proud of the work, but rather because she doesn’t want to become pigeonholed in that particular category of cooking.
“For example I wrote a cookbook about donuts,” she explains, “and suddenly I was the donut queen.” She was traveling the country making donuts everywhere she went and realized she didn’t want to get stuck in such a specific niche.
Even more than writing, one of the biggest jobs of cookbook collaborators is making sure that the recipes work in a real kitchen for a home cook.
“I make this important distinction,” says cookbook author and collaborator David Joachim, “between dishes—which is something that chefs create—and recipes, which is not necessarily something that chefs create.” Chefs employ skills, equipment, methods, and serving sizes that are drastically different from what is available to your typical cookbook audience, and so the recipes need to be translated accordingly.
“I would say I have never done a book where I have been given good material for original recipes,” agrees Schloss. “They are always a mess.” That’s not to say the person can’t cook; they just aren’t accustomed to writing recipes, particularly for a home audience.
As an example, Schloss ghostwrote a cookbook for a YouTube food sensation who made great food and videos but whose written recipes were essentially nonsensical. “With that person I knew they just had no interest in accuracy of amounts,” he recalls. Between watching their YouTube videos and using his own kitchen common sense, however, Schloss was able to make the recipes work. “Each time I got a recipe,” he recalls, “I went through amounts and added stuff up and said how much food will this make, will this make sense for this number of portions?”
Sometimes there’s no written recipe at all to work from. When Joachim was working with Marc Vetri on his Italian pasta cookbook, he had to observe Vetri making fish ravioli in his professional kitchen so he could write the recipe.
Depending on the chef, there are various levels of involvement. “In some books I do everything, I mean everything,” says Clark. “So the chef will be like, I want a recipe for pasta with anchovies and eggplant and that’s all they do and I create the recipe and do everything. And then sometimes the chef will give me the perfect recipe and they are so articulate that they will give me the headnote.”
On the other side, Goode recalls handing a draft over to a chef who responded with, “Yo, I can’t read that well. Do you want to read this out loud to me?” So he did.
However tightly the chefs are holding onto the reins, the co-authoring relationship can be a bit like dating. “I think the first step for any co-author is to spend time sniffing out the chef and figuring out whether you are a match,” says Thomson. “If my blink reaction is no, I run. Because if there is any doubt in my mind in the beginning it will be magnified 10 million times in the process of writing a cookbook.”
More often than recipes not working, though, collaborators say they are pleasantly surprised by chefs’ unlikely creations. “Whenever I go to a restaurant I always order the least likely thing on a menu,” says Clark. “I’m like really, you’re going to put rutabaga and caramel with prunes? OK. It’s the same thing with recipes. If you look at a recipe and you’re like there’s no way this is going to work, it probably is going to work!”
Schloss agrees. “Sometimes these people will put things together and you think ‘what the f*ck were they thinking?! This is stupid.’ But then you make it and it’s delicious. It’s great.” For example, the watermelon ham recipe in Salt Block Cooking that he worked on with Mark Bitterman. “Curing watermelon between salt blocks seemed crazy,” he recalls, but “it did transform the fruit into something more like cured meat…completely remarkable and unexpected.”
Since they’re not doing it for the fame, most collaborators would say that the biggest perk of working on cookbooks is learning from the chefs. “I always say it’s like a private tutorial from some of the best chefs in the world,” says Clark.
“The best part for me,” Thomson concludes, “is that I learn a ton because it’s always a new topic, and it’s always something in which I am not an expert at that point. Chefs are, by nature, experts in their field and I think sometimes it takes a non-expert to get the right information across.”