Cooking the books
By Richard Ehrlich
Here's a true story. A famous chef is persuaded to write a cookbook, but he isn't a native English speaker, so a specialist translator/editor is hired to help him polish up his work. When translator gets manuscript, he sees that the recipes, such as they are, are completely unusable - mere notes, often scribbled on scraps of paper. The translator spends the next seven or eight months clarifying, rewriting and repeatedly testing the recipes, in addition to writing introductory texts from material supplied by the author.
Result: the book is a bestseller and prize-winner. But the translator/writer/recipe tester does not have his name on the cover, even though he wrote the book. The chef, meanwhile, is hailed as a genius - which he happens to be, in his own kitchen, but he can no more convey that genius in print than my cat can explain how to catch flies. Welcome to the murky world of culinary ghosting. Or rewriting or co-authorship, as it should sometimes be called.
When you buy the memoir of a sporting or showbiz personality, chances are it will have the words "with XXX" on the cover. The name after "with" belongs to the person who did the writing, from taped conversations with the subject. And no one objects. It's taken for granted that someone who can serve four aces in a row may not possess the ability to write 75,000 words of graceful, analytical, well-organised prose.
The same principle often applies in recipe writing. Many cookery writers write every single word and test every single recipe that gets published under their name. This was certainly taken for granted in the old days, when writers such as Elizabeth David and Richard Olney were not just excellent cooks but writers of exceptional talent. Others need help, which may range from heavy editing to full authorship: the writer writes every single word on the "author's" behalf. But publicity machines usually try to hide these vital workers from view. And the workers themselves are rarely willing to talk on the record.
One example of a completely transparent co-authoring relationship is that between Gordon Ramsay, London's only three-Michelin-starred chef, and cookery writer Roz Denny. They worked together for about eight years, on five books, and Ramsay insisted from the start that Denny's name be on the cover. "When a chef does a first book," says Denny, "he's often writing for his peers. My job is to translate that kind of cooking into home cooking. A lot of my work was done with digital scales and a calculator, so I could divide their restaurant-size recipes to a domestic scale." All the recipes came originally from the Ramsay kitchens. Ramsay no longer works with Roz Denny, however, and publishes all his work under his own name.
While there are other examples of such open collaborative relationships, it is far more common to draw a discreet veil of silence over the subject. Some of the most famous cookery writers in the US and the UK couldn't publish a usable book without extensive help. Of those who do write the first draft, about a third need substantial rewriting. This figure comes from a highly experienced source who has worked with many of the most famous namesin UK food publishing -and who stoutly defendsthe practice. "These people have something importantto contribute: their own unique way of cooking. Their recipes are original. The words are not; that's what we contribute."
Not everyone in the field agrees. Jill Norman, long-time cookery editor at Penguin (she was Elizabeth David's editor) and now a distinguished author herself, would never have taken on an author who needed such substantial rewriting. "People who need this help should stick to cooking," she believes. If it's argued that their cooking is unique, she would want to see "how good they are". And there's no law that says chefs can't be good writers.
Normanhas recently edited a book (The Cook's Book, Dorling Kindersley) with chapters contributed by more than 20 distinguished chefs, of whom the great majority did all their own writing.
It's hard to understand the reticence about owning up to ghostwriting. If tennis players aren't assumed to be good writers, why should we expect that skill of cooks? The problem is that in our celebrity-obsessed age, readers of cookbooks don't just want recipes that work. They also buy into a dubious notion of personality. They're not just looking for minestrone, they're looking for X's minestrone. Eager to have their kitchen touched by his magic, they probably don't realise that authorship of the recipe is sometimes debatable. This question wouldn't make a bit of difference if the personal imprimatur of the celebrated author weren't the unique selling point of the recipe.
Who's to blame for this deception? The blame may lie with you, if you've bought into the absurd notion of personality as a central component in recipe writing. A recipe is rarely a personal statement, like a poem or a painting. True originality in recipe writing is exceptionally rare. Nearly every cook relies on other people's recipes as a starting point for experimentation, and the best recipes often come from collaborative effort. We readers should stop demanding the stamp of spurious authenticity from every single recipe writer.
One step towards shedding the illusion is accepting the existence - and often the necessity - of co-authorship. If every co-author were fully credited, perhaps the rest of us would stop expecting famous chefs to be the all-powerful heroes of the food revolution. We would still appreciate what they do for us in sharing the skills and ideas they've gained through years of gruelling work. But we'd shed the misconception that their dishes are the expressions of solitary, unaided genius. And in the process, we'd also learn something essential about cooking: it's a matter of skill and experience, not of personality.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006