Creating an appealing cookbook requires passion, patience — and lots of testing
Special to The Seattle Times
When Braiden Rex-Johnson moved to Seattle 15 years ago, she was astonished that no one had ever done a Pike Place Market cookbook. She started interviewing vendors and collecting their recipes. She took a course on how to write a cookbook and persuaded her architect husband to sketch some illustrations.
A chance encounter with an editor at Sasquatch Books led to the publication of "The Pike Place Market Cookbook" in 1992. Now in its second edition, it launched a series of Market-related books by Rex-Johnson that have sold collectively more than 100,000 copies.
Once upon a time, a cookbook could launch a career and a good idea was enough to get your book into the hands of booksellers. Today, unless your name is Jamie Oliver or Rachael Ray, you will have to work hard just to pique publishers' interest, even though some 24,000 cookbooks were published around the world last year — double the output of just 10 years ago.
Those lucky enough to land a publishing contract then face the task of developing and testing the recipes, a process that can take many months, or even years.
For all that work the payback is slim. According to Lisa Ekus, whose Massachusetts public-relations firm specializes in representing culinary talent, the average advance against royalties for a first-time author is perhaps $12,000-$20,000. After the publisher sells enough copies to recoup that advance, the author gets royalties of somewhere between 50 cents and $1.25 per copy. But since expenses for the recipe testing usually come out of the advance monies, no one is getting rich quick.
"Cookbooks are a huge category and publishers are being cautious, but there's still a lot of room for new voices," says Jane Falla, literary associate at Lisa Ekus Public Relations.
A good proposal alone is not enough. Publishers want authors with built-in name recognition, what the industry calls a "platform." But even a brand-name chef needs "rock-solid recipes that work," says Falla. "Successful cookbooks are the ones people can use."
That means cooking with a pencil, paper and a timer, testing recipes over and over and over again.
Authors like Rex-Johnson take on that task themselves. Busy chef/restaurateurs often enlist co-authors. Tom Douglas, owner with his wife, Jackie Cross, of the Dahlia Lounge, Etta's Seafood, Palace Kitchen and Lola, relies on Shelley Lance. Thierry Rautureau, owner of Rover's in Madison Valley, is co-authoring "Rover's: Recipes from Seattle's Chef in the Hat," due out in October, with Cynthia Nims, a prolific cookbook author and editor herself.
All three women talk about how they make a cookbook work.
Shelley Lance, Tom Douglas' co-author and tester-in-chief
You would think a restaurant would have recipes written down somewhere.
"That is so not true," says Shelley Lance, a co-author and tester-in-chief of Tom Douglas' cookbooks. "In a restaurant, people know how to cook things. They know how to cook a rabbit or a duck. If we have a recipe, it's for a bucket of sauce. Or we'll have notes written down on stained and tattered pieces of paper."
Lance has worked with Douglas for 20 years, since they cooked together on the line at Cafe Sport. She has had a hand in developing many of the recipes used at Douglas' four restaurants. "All of the chefs here, including Tom, are developing recipes all the time. But many restaurant recipes are unfriendly to the home cook."
It is Lance's job to transform those incoherent scraps of paper into cogent instructions for those who have never cooked a rabbit or a duck. "Personally I think it's so frustrating at home when a recipe doesn't work," says Lance. "It's horrible and disappointing, a waste of time and ingredients."
She tests at the restaurant because she likes the access to so many expert tasters, but to mimic conditions in a typical home kitchen, she cooks on a regular four-burner range installed at Palace Kitchen just for her use.
Usually she cooks a dish once to write the recipe, then tries it a few more times to fine-tune it, all the while taking copious notes.
"She is the best palate and smartest food person at the restaurant," Douglas says of Lance. "It's kind of creepy really, she always knows what will and won't work. She has a great food sensibility."
Douglas and his staff talked for years about the first cookbook, "Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen," a collection of recipes from the restaurants.
The second, "Tom's Big Dinners," is a more personal book about entertaining at home. Lance talked to Douglas and his wife about the way they cook, harvesting their favorite memories of meals with family and friends and transforming them into recipes doable for others.
"I've worked with Tom so long I know his taste, I know him," says Lance. But still there are times when she says, "Tom, you have to come and make this with me so I can get it right."
This summer they were on a tight deadline for the next Tom Douglas cookbook — working title: "I Love Crab Cakes." Lance, who has been hard at work testing the 50 recipes it will include, says, "I think I'll be really sick of crab."
Cynthia Nims: Capturing Rover's "essential spirit"
When Thierry Rautureau went looking for a co-author who could help him interpret for home cooks the haute, Northwest- influenced French-inspired cuisine of his restaurant, he was fortunate to find Cynthia Nims right here in Seattle.
A graduate of France's La Varenne cooking school, Nims learned the finer points of research, recipe development and testing from the school's owner, Anne Willan. Early in her career, Nims served as Willan's assistant on several cookbook projects including 10 volumes in the "Look & Cook" series. Since then Nims has edited a long list of cookbooks and written several of her own. But she calls working with Rautureau "my master's degree in cooking." Their collaboration began with brainstorming the proposal nearly seven years ago.
"Thierry had very little written down," recalls Nims. To come up with the 100 recipes that appear in the book, they would spend a couple of days a week in the restaurant kitchen, he cooking and she madly taking notes on a laptop protected with plastic wrap, snapping occasional pictures. Then she would head home to write the formal recipes and test them in her "pretty much average" kitchen.
She sees herself as an interpreter. "I try to retell his story in a language that home cooks speak. Some of the recipes may not follow exactly what they do in the restaurant, but they capture the essential spirit. Some are surprisingly simple."
When Nims develops recipes for her own cookbooks, she first plays with combinations of flavors in her mind. Often she'll start with flavors she knows work well together then tweak the idea. Saffron and fennel, for instance, are reminiscent of bouillabaisse, so she adds a pinch of saffron to braised fennel. For chowder she pairs salmon and sunchokes.
"You strive for originality," she says, "But it seems as soon as you think you've thought of something unique, you'll find it on the Web."
She usually tests a recipe twice, unless it's very elaborate or a new technique. "If a recipe gets to a third test, it's almost like it's on probation. I use Anne Willan's rule: If you test three times and it doesn't work, you have to let it go."
For her own cookbooks, Nims asks others to test the recipes so there's some objectivity. When she cooks for family and friends, though, she avoids any and all recipes. "I like to wing it. Otherwise it feels like work. Following recipes is what I do for a living."
Braiden Rex-Johnson: Market author's 7th book to be built around wine
With six cookbooks to her credit, Braiden Rex-Johnson would seem to have a solid enough platform for any publisher. But when she signed on last year with the Ekus
agency, they suggested she brush up her demo tape and start a Web site. Within six months she had a contract with a leading international publisher, John Wiley & Sons, for a book titled "Northwest Wining & Dining," to be published in 2007.
Like her Pike Place Market books, this one will be a compilation of other people's recipes structured around 15 varietals of Northwest wines. "It's a wine-driven book," says the author, "but I always come to the wine through the food. I'm not a cork dork."
She will spend much of this year on the road visiting wineries and scouting recipes, which have to be formatted then tested.
Once in testing mode, a process that takes several months, she'll try three or four recipes a day, requiring multiple trips to the Market. "I cook so much my fridge can't hold all the ingredients. "
"Each recipe is like a child," Rex-Johnson says. "Some need more attention than others." And there's always one tough nut. A recipe for shrimp quiche came out with a soggy crust no matter what she did. The trick, she eventually discovered, was to substitute tiny cooked bay shrimp for large, fresh, uncooked shrimp.
Her only complaint: "Washing all those pots and pans. The fun is in developing the ideas and the collaborative process. Then it goes out in the world and you never know how it will do."
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company