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There's No Simple Recipe For Writing a Good Cookbook

In the white, well-lit kitchen of her Atlanta home, cooking expert Nathalie Dupree dons a floral apron and places three pots on the stove. Today she and four kitchen assistants are preparing a meal for thousands.

The menu is simple - a shrimp boil consisting of plump gulf shrimp, potatoes, corn, and sausage; basil-and-tomato-sprinkled foccacia; and honey-mango ice cream for dessert.

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But this is just a test - no one will be knocking on her door anytime soon. The thousands she's cooking for are the future buyers of her new cookbook.

Most have no idea that the glossy, book "Nathalie Dupree's Basics of Entertaining" (Viking) that will be published in September 1998 is a four-year project that involves testing recipes at least three times; a cast of about 30; and monthly grocery bills that total well over $1,000. Indeed, a behind-the-scenes look illustrates it's more than just compiling recipes from Aunt Bessie.

"It takes a lot more work to publish a cookbook than one might think," acknowledges Ms. Dupree, a popular PBS cooking show host and past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. "The recipe for a good one is knowing your subject and being willing to do the research and testing."

For Dupree, who has written seven cookbooks over the past 11 years, the process starts with a theme - in this case home entertaining. After she came up with the idea, she wrote a proposal outline, found a publisher, and assembled a team of food consultants, editors, and testers to help put it together.

The hardest and most time-consuming part is deciding on the recipes, which Dupree does in several ways. Sometimes she and kitchen director, Sara Levy, create them from what they've seen in a restaurant, book, or during their travels, then adapt them. In other instances, a recipe evolves after discussions about certain foods.

"One day Nathalie said, 'Let's do Cornish game hens.' I started putting together things and she said it needs this or that," Ms. Levy says. "Or we can spend a whole morning talking about rib roast. Then once we decide where to go with it, I'll try cooking it a couple of ways. We'll talk about which we like and analyze every detail about it."

Dupree says that in the cookbook world it is easy for writers to unknowingly plagiarize, particularly if they don't have a strong background in food or cooking. "One of the mistakes people make when they're novices is they don't understand where they got a recipe. They clip it from a magazine and cook it for years thinking it's their own when it's really Julia Child's," she says. "When you're in the industry and you see a recipe ... you want to be careful to acknowledge it properly."

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One of her rules is to include any book she or her assistants used, in the bibliography. But when Dupree does use someone else's recipe, she often adapts it and adds information. "I want to say exactly what pot to use and I want to give them an alternative for freezing and making ahead and want to explain what the ingredients are, so the different parameters I have might be different from someone else's," she says.

After she gathers recipes, the testing begins. Then they're often retested, rewritten, then typed up for the editor.

To help her, Dupree relies on many people, including an agent, editor, kitchen consultants, food stylist, and recipe testers who are novice cooks. For instance, a flight attendant who loves to cook often visits Dupree's kitchen to test bread recipes. A woman in Oxford, Miss., also does testing and makes sure ingredients are available in grocery stores there. "My criteria is that most of the recipes are doable by the average home cook," she says. "Our mandate is that everything is available in the local grocery store."

Such guidelines are not industry requirements for writing a cookbook. Ever wondered why when you try a recipe it doesn't turn out? Though it may be you need to polish some kitchen skills, it may also be attributed to the cookbook. Many cookbook authors are professional chefs whose recipes are complex and difficult to duplicate. "Chefs [often] have four or five people putting together a dish," Dupree says. "The recipes are not really suitable for home cooks, and they often call for exotic ingredients, last-minute cooking," and equipment - like an 800-degree oven - that most people don't have.

How much does it cost to put a book together? In Dupree's case, thousands of dollars, money that comes out of her book advance. "And $20,000 is nothing for groceries," she says. Thousands are also spent for photography, and food styling. "It might take 30 people to do a good book - and that doesn't necessarily mean it's a best-seller."

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