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I'm a chef. I'm also a writer. It's inevitable that I would want to write a cookbook. In fact I've probably started a dozen that I just never got around to finishing. Partly because I'm not sure how to.

Before I even get to my question I think it important to distinguish between two types of cookbooks. One is sorta a how to cook tutorial with a few recipes sprinkled in. There other is a reference book. It's mostly recipes with very little superfluous writing. I want to write the second.

And that's the problem. There's very little room for any creative flair. Surely, I can inject a little personality into it, but I'm not sure when the best way to do it is.

During the introduction that most people won't read and those that do read once? During the recipes themselves? That seems unlikely to work well. Should I write a description of each dish before each recipes. Will this be to much reading for people who just want to jump straight to the technical details? It's there perhaps something I haven't considered.

6

Your cookbook's primary function is being a reference book: providing clear recipes. My personal preference is to always have a picture of the final product, and preferably also intermediary stages, especially if the process is complicated. Everything else, every bit of writing creativity, is secondary to the cookbook's primary function.

Now, secondary doesn't mean it has no place at all. That introduction, which you treat with disdain, you can do quite a lot with it. The introduction is in fact the part that should make people want to cook from your book. Not just in the general sense of "I might find a recipe from here useful", but in the immediate way of "I want to make something from here now".

How do you do that? Tell your reader, in the introduction, what your book is all about. It's not just a random selection of recipes, is it? If it's the food of a particular region, tell about that region, about the part that food plays in local culture, about local flavours. If it's all about one particular kind of food (meat, or bread, or whatever) - talk about that. If it's about recipes being easy, talk about how everyone can cook and what a delight it is. Cooking is something you love, and you love this particular selection of recipes, right? Show that.

If there are sections to your book, you can treat the introduction to each section just as you treat the general introduction, only briefer.

And then, there are the recipes. To each, you can add a note about what makes it special for you: "my mother used to make this for special occasions", "my children love helping me with the making of those, as much as with the eating", etc. Add a personal touch, help people see themselves making the thing. Encourage people to make new things - stepping outside one's comfort zone is not easy, make people feel you're right there with them.

Just don't let the creative part overwhelm your cookbook. If I'm being sold more "talk" than actual recipes, I feel I'm being swindled. I bought the book for the recipes, after all - the rest is a bonus.

17

I recall "Two Meatballs In The Italian Kitchen", by Pino Luongo and Mark Straussman. It was two chefs with different styles of Italian restaurants that got together for a cookbook.

The basic premise is they told a 1/4 to one page personal story or anecdote about a dish. Where they first had it, who taught it to them, a celebrity that eats it every time they come to the restaurant, where it originated or how it became famous or where in Italy it is most popular, something like that. Sometimes its just a fond memory of a trip, or finding an unexpectedly good version in a town where you wouldn't expect it.

Anyway, nearly every recipe has a little story with it, always on the even-numbered page. If the story is short, the recipe and any special instruction starts on the same page with a large-type heading, if there isn't much room, it starts on the facing page.

People interested in just the recipe can skip the human-interest story pretty easily. But you are left some room for creativity. You don't have to follow their formula, exactly, your writing can be additional ideas or flairs with the dish, or what you have seen people do with it, convert it from an entreé into an appetizer, etc.

I think its an approach that gives you the best of both worlds.

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    I like this. You can also include the why and when you cook this dish, its context and purpose, which helps the reader in understanding and modifying the recipe. Is it traditionally cooked in the rich times after harvest, in dark winter, or when supplies are running low in spring? Which flavour has the leading role, and how are the basic tastes balanced (are we aiming for fruity acidity or meaty umami)? Are there common variations, and why did you pick this particular variation? What's the one thing in it you can't substitute? – gustafc Mar 1 at 15:18
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    I particularly like the idea of opposing pages. Using the natural bifold of a book to lay out ones presentation and style. – AGirlHasNoName Mar 1 at 18:19
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    @bruglesco Sure, I'd just find enough to say on the left side so your "story" page is at least 3/4 full. My brother-in-law is a chef (now retired), if he is any indication, I'd think you'd have little trouble filling a page on any recipe. I'd think of it a little like an episode of "Good Eats" with Alton Brown, sometimes science, sometimes history, sometimes personal anecdotes, sometimes other ideas related to the dish, or substitutions, or miniaturizations (to make an appetizer with the same bite as the entreé, or a finger food or bite-size for a party), or possible wine pairings, etc. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Mar 1 at 19:39
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Full confession: I read cookbooks like novels.

The best cookbooks, in my opinion, are those with great descriptions of the recipe that turn it into a story. History of the recipe or the ingredients. This can be family history or history of a country or ethnic group. Where does the recipe come from? How does it fit into food culture?

If done well, you can also incorporate stories that aren't as cook-booky. You can even write cookbooks that are novels.

While I wouldn't buy this book for the recipes alone, it has plenty to share. One of my favorite books of all time... Like Water for Chocolate. The recipes have their own following too. Aztec Chile Truffles, Spicy Grilled Chicken with Creamy Pumpkin Mole Sauce, Polpette di Fagioli...how can you go wrong?

Back on the nonfiction side, Joan Nathan is famous for her cookbooks with commentary included. For example:

The Jewish Holiday Baker Drawing upon the recipes, stories, and secrets of a baker’s dozen of bakers from around the world, she captures the art of Jewish baking....The bakers who have perfected these recipes represent the breadth of Jewish history and geography: they come from America, Israel, France, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Hungary, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Syria, and Egypt. Their personal stories offer a fascinating window into the Jewish experience of this century.

I would be remiss if I did not mention my very favorite food historian / cookbook writer / everything to do with food, Michael W. Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene. If you haven't read his book and blog, it will change forever how you view food writing.

Cookbooks as history, travelogue, memoir, ethnology, and so much more. That's part of what you can aim for.

Normally the commentary is in the header on the specific recipe page. Other times there is an introduction to a section of recipes. This works especially well if your cookbook is organized geographically or historically. You can also write in the introduction to the book, or in chapters before the recipes. Or you can do it however you want.

Food writing is a genre that is growing and spinning and creating. There is more creative energy in food writing now than ever before. Whether you just include a few notes about the technical aspects of the recipe, or you infuse your family's life history into your pages, a well-written cookbook will do well.

2

Here's a recipe that I use often. It's brief, directly and clearly written, but it still includes some background and history about the recipe, as well as some minimal commentary that allows the writer's personality to come through:

http://cremebrulee.com/creme.htm

2

In addition to all the good answers above you could do the following:

Try to specialize your content to one (big) group of people. For example engineers. There is the "stereotype" that engineers love graphs and timelines and need explicitly clear instructions how to do things - and that they cannot cook very well. Now what I (as an engineer) would love to see is a cooking-book, where I get the instructions in a way that I would get it from a fluid-dynamics book or from stack-overflow for example.

That would provide

  1. Some fun to read it
  2. unique character to the book
  3. Maybe even easier and more efficient for that certain group

Now engineers are only an example. Groups I could think of would be musicians, other artics, athletes, construction workers, programmers

If you decide to do the programmer or engineer version - let me know please. I'll buy it.

EDIT: Or another aspect to think about is time. I tend to not have alot of time for cooking. So maybe you could think of "fast-tracks" for certain dishes. So some kind of a detailled version and a faster version. (but I don't know whether or not that is a taboo for real chefs or not ;) )

  • There's already a set of Cooking for Engineers books -- I think that's the direct title. – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Mar 1 at 14:44
  • You should check out "The food lab" by J-Kenji Lopez-Alt. It's quite close to what you describe! – JS Lavertu Mar 1 at 15:14
  • Thank's for the hints. I'll give it a look :) – Luchspeter Mar 1 at 15:55
  • Real chefs have no time either. – AGirlHasNoName Mar 1 at 18:20
  • Mhh good point. – Luchspeter Mar 1 at 21:37
0

What sort of creativity would you like to add?

Yes, most reference-style cookbooks are pretty straightforward: Here are the ingredients, here's how to put them together, cook for this long, etc.

I suppose you could add rambling discussions on your philosophy of life or your difficult childhood, but I suspect most readers would find something like that distracting and annoying.

More seriously, you certainly could add discussion of cooking techniques, helpful hints, etc. Maybe you could think of hopefully-interesting things to say about each dish? I'm not sure what that would be. Lots of cookbooks say things like, "goes well with a red wine" or "people with high cholesterol might want to substitute ..." and that sort of thing, but that doesn't sound all that creative either. ChrisSunami mentioned saying something about the history of the dish. I suppose it might be amusing to read, "this recipe goes back to the 1500s" or "this was served at the first White House dinner with Thomas Jefferson" or that sort of tidbit.

I'm very much an amateur at cooking myself. When I read a recipe, I'm looking for the hard facts: here are the ingredients and here's how to make the dish. If the cookbook writer included a lot of discussion about his life or philosophy of cooking or whatever, I suspect I'd just skim over it. Maybe you could make it interesting enough that people would really want to read it.

Every now and then I see a cookbook that includes rambling philosophical discussions, and my thought is usually, "yeah, whatever, get to the recipe". But maybe I'm not typical or not your target audience.

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    I appreciate your perspective, but isn't this restating the problem statement a bit? – AGirlHasNoName Feb 28 at 23:32
  • @bruglesco Could be. :-) If it's not helpful, sorry. – Jay Mar 1 at 16:55

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