After Months of Brainstorming with Harold Dieterle, A Cookbook Concept Emerges
[Editor's Note: In this post, the first of a two-part series, we take you inside the process of developing of a new book project. This piece describes how a concept is devised; the follow-up, which I'll run on Friday, will take you inside a working session, complete with audio of an interview and an illustration of how a chef-collaborator relationship works. - A.F.]
Every so often, somebody pondering a book idea asks me for advice. One of the questions that inevitably arises is how long it takes to write a book proposal, the document that literary agents circulate to editors and publishers in hopes of setting the project up with a publishing house.
“Writing a proposal only takes a few weeks,” I say. “The variable is how long it takes to come up with a concept.”
With very few exceptions, even the most well-known culinary celebrities need a solid concept to convince a publisher that their book is viable. Oh, sure, if you’re a big enough television star, you might be able to sell the flimsiest of ideas, or even enter into a blind book deal, with the idea to come at a later date. Generally speaking, though, a concept will make or break one’s publishing prospects.
I’ve collaborated on projects where the concept was evident from the get-go, restaurant books being the most obvious examples, along with those that grew directly out of a chef’s area of specialization, such as Go Fish, which Laurent Tourondel and I conceived while he was the chef of the posh seafood temple Cello. In cases where the concept isn’t as turnkey, my main goal is to come up with a concept that bridges what a particular chef does in his or her restaurant kitchen(s) with what home cooks do in theirs. Sometimes the answer reveals itself quickly; others it can take several frustrating months
As mentioned a few months back on this site, Harold Dieterle and I have been engaged in a sporadic dialogue about a possible cookbook project since last fall. It’s been a long and winding road: At first, we were going to write a Thai book since Harold has such a passion for it. But we succumbed to the commercial limitations of that notion, switched gears, and decided to write a more general cookbook. To put it in restaurant terms, we went from focusing on what Harold does at Kin Shop to what he does at Perilla.
After that resolution, the burning question was how to capture what Harold does at Perilla in a book that wasn’t simply The Perilla Cookbook (with very few exceptions publishers don’t want restaurant cookbooks anymore), and wasn’t what I think of as a “default” concept, such as Harold Dieterle Cooks at Home, that evoked images of Harold on the cover, dressed in a plaid shirt, perhaps standing over a backyard grill, or hoisting a Le Creuset pot up at the camera.
For the next several months, Harold and I met periodically for coffee and talked about his food. He fashioned a list of dishes he’d like to feature in a book. I came in for a tasting dinner at the bar at Perilla. We talked about his food some more. We drank some more coffee. I tasted some more food. We checked our iPhones. We shook hands and said, “See you next week.”
Although Harold’s food has a definite and delicious point of view, as far as a cookbook concept that gave possible publishers, and by extension book buyers, something to latch on to, we were getting nowhere, and it was growing awkward.
And then, one night, while poring over Harold’s recipe lists at home, something hit me, a series of related ideas that followed one after the other in quick succession, like a line of mental dominoes tipping each other over: Each of Harold’s dishes has one or two elements that really put it over the top, and (this was the key observation) might have multiple applications in other dishes. What if, I thought, we wrote a book in which we presented recipes for fully formed dishes on one page, and on the facing (opposite) page isolated the most potent and/or versatile element of the dish, wrote an essay about its charms, and offered a number of ways to deploy it?
I texted Harold that I thought I had something and the next morning we met so I could pitch it to him. He loved it, and felt it keyed into something essential about how he thinks about food. Best of all, for just about every dish on our working list, he was able to isolate a component and rattle off the myriad ways he used or adapted it in other contexts. We were suddenly synched up and working off a shared vision, now with illustrative examples that brought it to life.
For example, alongside the recipe for Harold’s Crispy Softshell Crab with Ramp Kim Chee and Spicy Passionfruit Sauce, we’d provide his kim chee base, explaining how to vary it to produce ramp kim chee, cabbage and apple kim chee, mustard green kim chee, and asparagus kim chee, along with ideal uses for each one; next to his Roasted Whole Chicken with Spaetzle, Chestnuts, and Persimmons we’d give a recipe for spaetzle, explaining how to vary it with quark, chestnut, caraway, and porcini mushrooms, and which proteins each might get along best with; and from his Braised Beef Braciole with Pesto, Prosciutto, Tomato, and Polenta, we’d focus on polenta, describing how to use the base recipe to make grits, polenta cakes, polenta fries, and even how to braise meat in polenta.
As we brainstormed, we also quickly realized that this new structure and content promised irresistible value to readers: While there would be about 100 fully formed dish recipes in the book (the more-or-less standard number), the component recipes and notes for how to apply them would arm readers with enough information and guidance to produce close to 1,000 different plates of food.
Over the ensuing weeks, as we honed the idea further, we also decided that, in some cases, the element we focus on won’t be a recipe, but a high-impact raw ingredient. For example, alongside the recipe for Raw Yellowtail with Avocado-Cucumber Salad, Cilantro, and Smoked Ponzu, will be a page devoted to cilantro that sings its praises and offers ideal ways to deploy leaves or chiffonade, as well as simple techniques such as frying cilantro leaves as a garnish for fish; infusing an old-school cilantro oil; and grinding up a pesto-like puree. (Harold also has a nifty alternative to frying cilantro for those who lack a deft touch with hot oil: brushing the leaves with a sugar syrup and baking them between two Silpats.)
Somewhere during this dialogue, it occurred to me that these component recipes and notes are precisely the kind of information that every chef I know records in his or her notebook. Most toques keep a notebook, or notebooks, that they’ve been adding to since their line-cook days where they house, among other things, recipes for dish components such as combinations, condiments, purees, and sauces. Harold is no exception, and he agreed that this was the perfect bow to tie around our new idea.
And so, finally, after months of having nothing, we had everything, or at least everything we needed to move forward to the next stage. In other words, we had our concept, and our title: Harold Dieterle’s Kitchen Notebook.
The thing I like most about this direction is that, like many of the best ideas, it’s a simple one that, in retrospect, has always been there for the taking but which nobody had snapped up yet. (Reminds me of George Carlin’s old line that observational comedy is about things the audience already knew but forgot to laugh at.) My favorite concept along these lines, the one that filled me with good, old fashioned envy, was Staff Meals from Chanterelle. When I heard that somebody was doing a staff meals book, I literally smacked myself, open palm, on the forehead.
With our idea in hand, things have been moving ahead swiftly. Harold and I have been passing a list of dishes back and forth by email to select the best, broadest collection of recipes and sub-recipes, and Harold’s tested a few, sending his notes to me for fleshing out and sprucing up. In a follow-up to this post, coming this Friday, I’ll share a look at that part of the process, including some audio from one of our interview sessions and the sample book text that came out of it.
In the meantime, by coincidence, Harold and I are having dinner tonight. There shouldn’t be any awkward pauses or “what did he mean by that?” exchanges. Things are good.