Clockwise from lower left, Deborah Jones, David Hughes, Dave Cruz, Jeff Cerciello, moi, Amy Vogler, Thomas (yes, first name only now), Susie Heller/Photo "by" Deborah Jones

A lot of friends emailed me last month asking what I thought about the stink bomb Julia Moskin dropped on the cookbook world in her bitter account of chefs not writing their own books (or sometimes not even reading them). Then there was the dustup that followed—Paltrow histrionic with the Times, Regina Schrambling (indefatigable NYTimes gadfly) calling bullshit on it all, time.com weighing in decorously. So this is for my friends who asked.

In Michael Symon’s book, Live to Cook, he includes a recipe of mine (naturally fermented pickles), and I wrote the headnote in his voice. How meta!

The above photograph is by Deborah Jones, a different version of which appears in Ad Hoc at Home, by Thomas Keller. But wait, that’s Deborah in the picture (I am in love with her), so how did she take it?! Wait, I wrote that book, not Keller, and Susie Heller and Amy Vogler wrote the recipes that were largely created by Dave Cruz, Ad Hoc chef, and Jeff Cerciello, who opened the restaurant with Dave (both awesome cooks—Jeff now running the excellent FarmShop in Santa Monica). And what about David Hughes (to say nothing of his wife and colleague in design, Joleen, not pictured), whose playful graphics and layout and lovely cover bring all the components of that book together? Also not pictured is Artisan publisher Ann Bramson, the book’s editor, who likewise engaged heavily, heavily, in all aspects of that beautiful book.

I lead with this photo (which was in fact set up and lighted by Deborah until it was just so—took forever!—and then she scampered, yes scampered, down the ladder, lest the light change, and one of her able assistants clicked the shutter a number of times whilst we pretended to be enjoying a picnic lunch)—I lead with this photo because these books, big volumes heavy on recipes, words, photos, and design, not to mention literally heavy, are group efforts. What do people think?! (For the record I am honored, truly, to be amongst the folks up there in that photo, whom I cherish, each and every one truly excellent in their field; I bow to you. God, did I get lucky.)

Interestingly, Lisa Abend, author and journalist who wrote the above-linked time.com piece, had been reporting her own ghostwriting story, a more intellectually driven piece on how cookbook ghostwriters work, for the NYT Book Review (it was spiked after Moskin threw her watermelon off the top of the Times building).

And I do, like Moskin, admit to being somewhat baffled when people ask me what I do for the seven cookbooks I’ve co-authored: “Did you write that little essay about the chef up front?”

There are varying tiers of ghostwriting, and I’ve done it on many of them, so much so that I can’t do it anymore. There’s pure ghostwriting: talking to a chef, crafting his or her thoughts into readable prose that sounds like the chef (and hopefully getting at least some acknowledgment within the book).

Then there’s ghostwriting in which the writer, who, from hard work and often actual experience on the line and in the field, helps to shape the material, enhancing it with his or her own hard-earned intelligence. This kind of writer deserves to be on the title page of the book, if not the cover. An example of this kind of ghostwriter is Amy Scattergood, who wrote Good to the Grain. (I hear it ended badly between her and the chef. Whoever the chef is, I’m sure she’s a talented baker and the recipes in the book are excellent, but they are accessible to a wide and diverse audience only because Amy is so talented, not the chef. With great respect to bakers and chefs everywhere: I know a lot of really excellent chefs and bakers; I know fewer great writers about food and cooking).

Moskin recounts some hilarious (and appalling) chef-ego antics—she “once took dictation in a spa from a chef receiving a pedicure”! (Julia, please name names, so I can make fun of this person! How does the Times let you get away with not validating that sweet gossip with a name? I’ll bet it was a guy!)

I have one thing to say about chef cookbooks and ghostwriting or collaborating and where the line is, and it’s important: I am aware of only one, one, chef cookbook that was written word by careful word by the chef herself in the solitude of her home. Judy Rodgers. Her Zuni Café Cookbook is fabulous. If there is any other chef out there who has written every word of his or her cookbook, please email me, as I’d love to add your name to the list and buy your book. (Update: two people have commented that Mollie Katzen wrote and illustrated the phenomenally successful Moosewood Cookbook, presumably while cheffing at the collectively-owned, Ithaca, NY, restaurant in 1977, long before the celebrity chef era.)

(Bourdain, don’t send me any emails, you weren’t a chef when you “wrote” your cookbook. But you damn sure can write. And you do make a mean cassoulet. And have a TV show! And a publishing imprint! Good god, why don’t you have your own jet?!)

My career as a “ghostwriter” began with The French Laundry Cookbook, which, being a reporter, I reported. I hung out. I interviewed purveyors. I spent hours in the kitchen. I suggested I could learn the fish station. (Thomas: “Don’t even think about it.” Oui, chef.) I wrote that whole thing in the third person. At our first meeting Thomas said, “I want this book to tell stories.” I said, “That’s my line of work.” And that’s what I did: I wrote a completely unconventional third-person cookbook. The editor insisted it must be in Thomas’s voice. It must be coming from him directly. So I rewrote it. The whole thing. Thomas and I talked about cooking and I thought, that is fabulous, we need to highlight this and call out that! Tools of refinement (Thomas’s very words!) Butter poaching lobster! The versatility of foie gras! Thomas, your purveyors are whacky! It was so second nature to Thomas, I’m not sure he saw how special it all was, but me, just out of culinary school and a brief stint on a grill station at a popular Cleveland restaurant, I thought, mother lode. From the CIA to here? Gift from God. Thomas’s knowledge and experience combined with my recognizing what needed to be out there. Then it was mercilessly, savagely edited. Good call for the book from Bramson on all counts, right decisions made in every way. Susie did all the recipes and we get billing on the title page.

Thomas is second to none. Period. I’d have never asked my rabbit purveyor to bring them to me alive next time. Regrettably, the title of that story, “The Importance of Killing Bunnies,” was toned down in the editorial process. As, sigh, I knew it would be (part of why I love David Chang’s mania, not to mention his colleague in words, the excellent Peter Meehan, and I’m hoping The French Laundry Cookbook helped pave the way for the straight-shooting, in-your-face, motherfucking Chang and Meehan and their excellent work).

The next Keller book, out this fall, is the Bouchon Bakery Cookbook. It’s a stunner, folks, as you will expect, but it was heavy sledding for me. I had to write in Thomas’s voice, the man on the cover and the top of the TKRG tower; I had to write in Sebastien Rouxel’s voice, executive chef of all the bakeries (he and I speaking in his second language, which proved very hard, even though Sebastien is one of the smartest, best pastry chefs and most thoughtful chefs, period, I’ve ever worked with). And I had to tell head bread baker Matt McDonald’s story in the first person and write the bread headnotes in his voice, which was the easiest part because he thinks and talks just like he drives his motorcycle. Oh, and I wrote a short essay about Sebastien, just because I wanted to, in my voice. So that’s four voices right there. And let’s not forget the bulk of the book, the raison d’être. The recipes—observed, tested, written, retested from the written version, copyedited (thank you, amazing Judith Sutton, the earth’s most amazing copyeditor, yet another member of this team), then rewritten again—their voices, Susie’s and Amy’s, are the voice of the recipes, intermingled with Sebastien’s and Matt’s.

So, the Moskin piece. It kind of simplified things in the wrong direction. Cookbooks are all group projects (except for that rare exception, Judy Rodgers and her editor Maria Guarnaschelli, mom of chef Alex). And who knows? I still feel new at this game. Maybe I’ve got it wrong. But if so, only in the same way Moskin did, oversimplifying it and emphasizing the personal over the useful. (Always the writer’s Achilles’ heel.)

My response to her piece?

We stay in situations with our own consent. You don’t like it, leave. If it ends badly, learn from it and share what you know. Period. Which is what Moskin did. So, thanks to her for that.

My advice to young writers lured into writing a cookbook “with” an up-and-coming-hot-new-restaurant-chef-in-discussions-with-FN-repped-by-WM with the promise of more and better work, only to find out the chef is an egomaniacal, disrespectful dickhead: Unbuckle and roll because that car’s on its way off the cliff. Bottom line to young writers and young chefs: Work hard to work with good people. They’re out there in abundance. Find and work with good people. It makes all the difference and will for the rest of your life.

If you liked this post on Ghostwriters, check out these other links:

© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved

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129 Wonderful responses to “Ghostwriter Dustup”

  • Linda Griffith

    Glad to know that Zuni Cafe is really by Judy Rogers because it is one of the rare chef books I really own, love AND respect!

  • Kevin

    My beef with celebrities is not giving credit where credit is due and failing to shine light on those that do make it all happen for them. I recently ate at a noted Portland, OR restaurant where the award-winning chef was not in that night. I watched three guys painstakingly labor and cook my food, and they swelled with pride when I later told them how great their work was. As a chef, I fully understand the need for a team of people to execute my vision. I somehow wish these folk could get more recognition that they deserve.

    • Kumkum

      Many of the recipes reqiure a dutch oven and a boning knife (for meat from the chicken leg). There are over 100 recipes including stir fry dishes with melons.I am particularly happy to find recipes for steamed chicken buns including the bun dough recipe and street dumplings that were created by refugees from Shanghai who fled their city in the 1950s revolution and came to Hong Kong. They would set up portable charcoal or coal stoves in the streets and make these dumplings for people to lunch on. Later, many of these entrepreneurs went on to open restaurants. I am collecting all of the author’s titles as much for her old fashioned style as for her recipes. She makes me want to make my own pasta.In my opinion, acquiring all of the author’s cookbooks first before buying the other English language Chinese cookbooks makes an important foundation to understanding what you eat in America and how the food is cooked at home. Then proceed to the other cookbooks and hopefully to eating the more elaborate levels of Chinese cooking. I didn’t pick up the author’s cookbooks until very recently and only after learning that the author is from Sun Tak. I wish I had bought her books long ago.

  • Dianne Jacob

    Great post, Michael, and thanks for the link. I agree that Moskin’s story was “much ado about nothing.” It didn’t even make good gossip because she didn’t name names. I’ve only written one book with a chef and it was a delightful experience. We’re working on a proposal for our next book now.

  • Austin Val

    Your bottom line–Work hard to work with good people–applies to every profession. Heck, it applies to every aspect of life.

  • DJK

    That’s all very interesting.

    Are the chefs ever uncomfortable with an “I” voice that isn’t theirs? Or is there some “yeah, that at least sounds like something I’d say”-style approval process that takes care of all that?

    • Dongris

      When my mother-in-law (technically EX-mother-in-law) died a clpuoe of years ago, I cooked a family meal for her five children, their spouses and all the grandchildren and great grandchildren using her recipes all those awful but good midwestern sorts of things: a roast cooked way beyond well done with gravy made from cream of mushroom soup and Lipton onion soup, tater tot casserole, corn casserole, wilted slaw, a congealed dessert/salad called lime delight, and her famous, wonderful, ethereal cinnamon rolls. It was the greatest tribute I could have made, and it was almost as good as Sunday dinner at her house. Food as sacrament, as that which defines us as this family, not some other family. Food as history of a particular time as well as a particular place I have hundreds of recipes from my own mother and my mother-in-law, who came to adulthood and cooking in the same time frame but socially and geographically as far apart as could be imagined. They had many of the same recipes torn out from Good Housekeeping, copied off a soup label, clipped from a newspaper. It’s a history of postwar America, whether in rural Kansas or New York City.

  • pchak

    Outstanding article. While loaded with tons of facts and anecdotes, it was also humorous and a breeze to read…

  • Kendra Bailey Morris

    Great article and so true. I’ve only written one cookbook so far, and it was indeed a collaboration– editors, copy editors, recipe testers, photographers, the list goes on and on. It really does take a village…and working with “good people” is everything.

  • BTP

    I think is a fascinating piece.

    Let us all be honest: The whole celebrity chef phenom is all about marketing and making money with products attached to a name.

    Does anybody really believe Emeril and Martha Stewart are engineering their own cookware?

    That’s America, baby, and nothing wrong with it.

    I am a culinary school trained cook and I think trained cooks know if a book is legitimate or not by reading and testing recipes.

    I have tested some recipes in some of these books, including yours Mr. Ruhlman, and some are abysmal failures and some are successful. For example, I tested to see if some of the recipes in the Ratio book worked and they didn’t.

    What is fascinating to me is how one classic recipe of one chef can be the opposite of another chef technique wise.

    As far as the back stories go, I couldn’t care less. The only one I really enjoyed reading for pleasure was David Chang’s Momofuku.

    But I have to admit that I enjoy chef biographies on their own.

    Just finished Marco Pierre White’s “Devil in the Kitchen” and that was a glorious read.

    He is the Elvis of the celebrity chef world, as far as I am concerned.

  • Carol

    I own (and read) a lot of books, including many having to do with food and cooking. To me, content is everything: If it is well-written, and all authors are properly credited, I have no problem with the book. I was aware that several of my favorites (such as The French Laundry) were co-written by several authors, including you, Michael. This fact dies not bother me in the least, as the words, photographs, and recipes of these books are so good. I basically learned to bake from Baking With Julia, which was beautifully ghost written by Dorie Greenspan. Of course, Judy Rogers’ Zuni Cafe Cookbook is also one of my all-time favorite reads, and I am most impressed that she wrote, every word, herself.

  • Dan @ Casual Kitchen

    Don’t forget Mollie Katzen, author of the original Moosewood Cookbook. Not only did she write the words and create the recipes, but she did the illustrations too. Leaving her off any list of cookbooks written “word by careful word” would be a gigantic oversight.

  • Randy Martinez

    I think this is a good posting and you did a good job of explaining this topic. To me, it is a fart in the wind. All that matters to me is whether the recipes are good! I really do not care one way or the other. There are a lot of good books about athletes that have either a ghostwriter or someone to flesh things out. It is a known fact this happens and the fact that maybe a chef hires someone to help them smooth out the rough edges and make the recipes flow better means nothing to me.

    • Ameera

      I’ve been toying with doing a food-based moemir, and my niece and I have been emailing back and forth about meals we have prepared, meals we have eaten, meals we remember sort of as an exercise to see if we can sustain the momentum to do a book or a blog. I’m a pretty fine cook and a competent writer, as long as I don’t have to venture into fiction. My whole family is into food and many of us have earned at least some of our living as writers. I took a personal history-writing class from Fran and used food as the theme for many of the writings I did there. I participate in a writers’ group and find myself gravitating toward food as a topic there as well.

    • Binnur

      I began an HcG diet about 6 months ago and was imedmiately impressed with the results. I was able to drop about 15 lbs. in the first month and was very encouraged to go forward. My only hindrance was the lack of variety and flavor in HcG recipes. As HcG dieters know, you can’t have food prepared in a way that adds fat and you can’t have too great a variety of foods in a meal (for example, you can’t mix different types of vegetables). This book was great about exposing me to dishes and cooking ideas I couldn’t even find online. The wide variety of delicious recipes really helped to compensate for the restrictions of the diet. I found this book not only to be a tremendous aid to my understanding of HcG and a great help to my diet, but full of tasty meals that I’d be happy to eat no matter what my weight loss plan! The chile spiced beef roast is the best!

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    I hope my comment is the reason for this excellent post. The world has become such a large Social Networking world that it is absolutely impossible for any one person to be on Twitter, Facebook, Blog, do carpool, have a sex life, eat dinner with the family and enjoy the weekends. Especially if you write for a living.
    Gwyneth honey (Paltrow) you are a fabulous actress and I understand your rush to quash or try to quash the implications that imploded the media. Unfortunately you should have listened to your Publicist and have said nothing. We will still buy and read your books so long as you continue your travels with Mario.

  • karen downie makley

    Thanks, Michael. Interesting reading, and well-written. I thank God for the unknown recipe testers…who take voluminous quantities for 250-seat restaurants and make it palatable for the lowly sum of 4. I have a lot of cookbooks featuring recipes that I KNOW were not written by the star chef on the cover, but I am grateful, nonetheless, for a creative and tasty idea.

  • Lisa Petrie

    Julia Child! How can you forget Julia Child…?! “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is Julia’s blood, sweat and tears in print. Not only did she test and refine every recipe “in the solitude of her own home”, but every “word by careful word” is hers. Bravo, Julia! :)

  • Stephanie

    Mr. Ruhlman: while she opens the book mentioning that many of the recipes in the book were handed from housewife to housewife for years before ending up in her hot little hands, Peg Bracken absolutely wrote every word The I Hate To Cook Book. I don’t think anyone else could have.

  • Jeanne

    Moskin’s article was confusing for me–because ghostwriting is about being the “invisible” writer. The fact that ghostwriters aren’t known is part of the agreement. If someone doesn’t like that, then don’t do it, as you say. Also, she muddied the waters of the argument because she kind of veered of course and seemed to lump recipe testers and editors into the concept of “ghostwriters,” which is inaccurate and strange. In my upcoming book, I thank my recipe testers and my editor for the excellent work they they did, but they didn’t write the book–I did.

    • mantonat

      My wife and I looking forward to your book and have been successful “recipe testers” of many of your online recipes. Everything we’ve tried has been top quality!

  • MARCY GOLDMAN

    Ummmm – I am a chef and I’ve written all my (own) cookbooks. It’s hubris perhaps or fussiness. I want what I want how I want it – and then to share it. I create the recipes, write up the recipes, test them and then it goes in a cookbook. Did I correct all my own grammar and syntax? Got me there ;) ,.Thank goodness for editors of all sorts and proof readers. For me, the joy of writing cookbooks is that it takes both my skills – those of a chef and those of a writer/author.I can’t imagine I am a minority in cookbook authors that does it all. As for ghostwriting -kudos to any and all of us that contribute various skills to the cookbook pot.

      • Idamelya

        Basically, yeah. They’re just a milder fvolar and don’t need to cook as long. They also can be used to make fantastic pestos (blended to a puree) or a simple fast pasta sauce (quickly chopped and tossed) in combination with your favorite herbs, nuts, and oils.

  • TK

    I think it’s really cute that you even bother to address Bourdain, as if he’d reply to this.

    I love my cookbooks, and as others have said above, all I care about is that the recipes work, and are tasty. Who wrote them is mostly beside the point.

  • Colleen Bates

    I recently finished editing a cookbook I’ll be publishing this fall, Christine Moore’s “Little Flower,” and she most certainly wrote the introduction, the headnotes and the recipes. Naturally, as you pointed out, it’s a group effort. Without the wonderful recipe tester, some of the recipes wouldn’t work in a home kitchen. Without my editing, the chef/author might not have sounded so much like herself. Without the photographer’s work, they wouldn’t be so immediately appealing. But they are her words. And that is true for a number of more modest chef cookbooks. It’s the A-list chefs that are the issue.

  • kate hill

    Rodger’s Zuni Cafe cookbook is one of the very few I recommend to every student, not just for her homage to SW France, but because I like hearing Judy’s voice, as if she was leaning over my shoulder telling me to pay attention to how the food was cooking. Hearing the chef’s voice is the important bit no matter who wrote it. Funny, I always assumed she had a writer work with her and marveled that they captured her voice so well. Thanks for setting me straight. As a writer/cook I can attest that publishing is a team sport and building that team is the most important job of all- whether an editor, chef, writer, or photographer is the team leader. I can think of good examples of them all.

  • Jewel

    Like Kate above, one cookbook I love to recommend to friends is Tyler Florence’s Real Kitchen. After watching him on FN for so long, the voice seems (to me) spot on in the book. He does acknowledge his writer on the title page, and many kudos to JoAnn Cianciulli for capturing his style so well. Every recipe we’ve made out of that book has worked perfectly and tastes wonderful – much more than I can say for a few other celebrity chef’s whose recipes we have tried quite unsuccessfully.

    There’s a polenta recipe in the book that I love to site – in the directions the book says “The liquid will be absorbed and the cornmeal will lock up; don’t freak, just whisk through it.” That line cracked me up because I can so easily see Tyler saying that on one of his TV shows.

    Ghostwriter or not, my most important requirement of a cookbook is the recipe. Thanks for bringing up this fun discussion.

    • Galuh

      No, I’m not that keen on them myself to be henost (much to the despair of my Italian wife!). Alternatively, you could head to the Pasta Made Easy’ website and check the pasta salads section there are a couple of good alternatives there

  • Carri

    Cooking and running a commercial kitchen for a living is hard work. Writing for a living is also hard work. Doing both well is an amazing accomplishment. No person is a one man show, it takes help on every level to succeed. The key is in acknowledging the contributions of others along the way, a point true in both cooking and writing and pretty much every other aspect of life. (I’d love to hear Heidi Robb weigh in on this subject!)

  • victoria

    I believe Scott Peacock wrote his and Edna Lewis’s “The Gift of Southern Cooking,” which is by some margin the cookbook that’s gotten the most use in my house.

    Interesting article — very insightful!

  • Nick (Macheesmo)

    I wrote every word in my first cookbook, Cornerstone Cooking. I also took every photo, tested every recipe, and did all the layout and design.

    It also took me 16 months… I’m really happy with how it turned out, but would LOVE help on book two. It’s just too much for one person to realistically handle and you also have to realize your strong points and get help for the other stuff.

    I don’t see the problem with collaborating on cookbooks. It can be a community effort and still be in the voice/theme of the book.

  • Nick (Macheesmo)

    I wrote every word in my cookbook, Cornerstone Cooking. I also took all the photos, tested all the recipes, and did all the design and layout. It was exhausting! It also took me 16 months.

    I don’t see any problem with getting some help when writing a cookbook. I would’ve loved some frankly… as long as credit is given to the helpers.

    I do have a problem with books that have a completely fabricated voice though… like… you can tell that a team of marketers basically wrote the book and a test kitchen pushed out all the recipes and they slapped a chef’s name on the cover. That bothers me for some reason.

    • Love

      I learned to cook from the btteer homes and garden cookbook great recipes that disclose nutritional values. The ingredients are pretty simple so you don’t have to shop at gourmet stores or purchase stuff you are not use to.

  • Jd

    Rhulman,
    Australian chef and author Stephanie Alexander wrote her 1100 page tome, The Cooks Companion. It is truly impressive, highly approachable and surely the most ambitious cookbook project ever taken on by prof chef. Her legacy in Aus cooking is phenomenal, not only did she influence generations of restaurant chefs but is also the most pervasive force in the home kitchen too! I’m not sure if you have heard of it in the US, but here is a link to an article she wrote for a Melbourne daily about the process of writing the book while running a successful restaurant:
    http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/restaurants-and-bars/the-seductive-companion-20120319-1vfcq.html

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  • David

    I find the idea of celebrity cooks and chefs as pop stars to be tasteless.
    When a chef receives notice, in the absence of promotional activity, for the quality of their work it is a great thing.
    For me to be expected to be interested in someone because they have a spot on Food Network is about as meaningful as being expected to respect the manufactured importance of the mainstream music business’s latest offering.

  • Astorienne

    Love your advice at the end: “Work hard to work with good people.” True for all industries, not just the culinary arts & sciences. Good read!

    • Mohamed

      Hi Lisa When does an editor beomce a collaborator? My son Michael has been editing my book about my 40 years as a Maine pediatrician. I asked him to help me. Michael has worked as a textbook editor. He has made the book more readable via change in format, culling of unimportant passages and even whole chapters, suggestions for new material, and tightening of the manuscript. Michael has not added any new material. He has been fairly paid. Profits will go towards nursing scholarships.I may cut him in just s bit on profits.I plan a book page acknowleging his role and thanking him -and some funny bits regarding s child editing his father. Should his name appear on the cover? Have not asked him. Publisher dos not care. I think local sales will be strong will with Michael Moore dampen this. He may say no anyway. Thanks CMM

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  • Carly

    I was surprised this caused such a flap. I’ve always assumed cookbooks were the work of many, but I guess other people assume differently, as other people are wont to do. What did rub the wrong way is how Paltrow and Ray reacted, with their faux outrage and their claims that they do everything and how dare anyone question them. I don’t care if those two write books, just like I don’t care about much else either of them do, but the reaction was that of some seriously simpleminded and reactionary people.

    What does Rachael Ray have now, like 12 shows? Why does she think it’s so important to maintain this fiction that she does it all herself? It’s pretty insulting to everyone who works so hard for her.

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