A Chef’s Adventure in Self Publishing

Guest Poster David Mahler Shares the Story of Getting a Book Done .. . the Hard Way

[Editor’s Note: I’ve struck up several e-pan-pal relationships with chefs around the country since re-launching Toqueland in January. One I’ve especially enjoyed corresponding with is David Mahler, who recently succeeded in the daunting task of self-publishing his book, Cooking At La Cusinga with the Chef of the Jungle. I invited Dave to share a little about what it took to persevere on the less-taken road to book-dom, and his reflections are published below. If you want to check out his book, it can be ordered through Amazon.com in a paperback edition or as a download for Kindle, and is also downloadable from Google Books. A quality signed paperback edition is available directly from David by sending a check for $24 to David L Mahler; PO Box 397; Scotts Mills, OR  97375, or by paying directly through PayPal to chefofthejungle@yahoo.com.* You can find Chef Dave’s own musings on food, life and cooking at www.chefofthejungle.blogspot.com. – A.F.]

Chef David Mahler’s Labor of Love (photo courtesy David Mahler)

I am a chef. And I am the author of a cookbook, a real live cookbook (Cooking at La Cusinga with Chef of the Jungle, available on Amazon and Google). Finally. It sounds easy, doesn’t it? Lots of chefs write cookbooks, and lots of people who are not chefs write cookbooks. How hard can it be to write down some recipes, especially if you create them every day? As it turns out, the writing is the easy part, but self-publishing a finished, beautiful, heft-it-in-your-hand-and-drool-over-the-photos cookbook took a lot more steps than I knew existed.

The writing and publishing spanned two countries and two years. Working at eco-lodge La Cusinga on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, new recipes tripped over one another as I discovered the underutilized bounty of amazing ingredients available. Shrimp, mangos, ayote, mandarinas, hearts of palm, artisanal goat cheese—these ingredients don’t show up in the faux French restaurants that tourists flock to, and the locals stick to beans and rice. I got to know the owners of tiny organic farms and bought fish right off the boats. The lodge was full of guests and rare was the day when I wasn’t asked for a recipe for one my “fabulous” fresh tasting dishes. “You should have a cookbook, why don’t you have a cookbook?” I heard it so often I started to believe it. My boss offered his backing, and we were off and running.

It took about 250 hours of writing and menu testing to get the recipes down on paper. The photos I took on the fly as we served the food. With a talented local artist working on the cover, we were getting closer to production. Until the vagaries of life stepped in, and I found myself moving to the Willamette Valley in Oregon to be with my fiancée, leaving the tropics behind but confident that I could find a small publishing house interested in “Chef of the Jungle”. After all, isn’t Costa Rica the darling of high-end vacationers in the U.S. and elsewhere? But I got a quick turndown in some cases and no response at all in others. “No one cares about Costa Rica” was the opinion of one publisher. I shelved the book. I sulked. I immersed myself in cooking.

Fast forward six months. With strong encouragement (read kick in the pants) from my fiancée and family, I pulled the files back up and took a look. It wasn’t bad. It was better than I remembered. In fact, it was even pretty good. Good enough that I blithely thought, in this day and age of on-line wizardry, “I’ll just publish it myself.” Ha.

It helps if you have a team. My sister, a professional indexer, edited and indexed it for me. (We all know how crucial a good index is to a cookbook; how many times have you cursed when you couldn’t find an entry for “chard” because it was under “Swiss”?) My brother-in-law worked on the cover. Together they formatted it and dropped the color photos into the right places. My younger sister did the copy editing, weeding out stray commas with a vengeance. They all, bless their hearts, made “suggestions.” Suggestions incorporated, final adjustments to color, indexing, and table of contents made, photos in place and text formatted, it was starting to look like a book.

A shrimp dish from Cooking at La Cuisinga (photo courtesy David Mahler)

But there are more steps than that. A book has to be copyrighted. It has to have a barcode. It has to have an ISBN number, two in fact—one for the hard copy and one for the .pdf version. Check, check, check. It was ready to sell.

Sell, yes, but how? So many people had told me that it was incredibly simple, a piece of cake (no pun intended) to create an ebook through Google or Amazon. Uh huh, right. That would be for those of you that are versed in the intricacies of .pdf and jpeg files, of royalty and pricing platforms. I floundered in the minutiae of Google’s instructions. I did manage, after several false starts, to get the book into a Kindle format using Amazon’s KDM program. Still working with Amazon I dug into their Create Space program to turn the book into a “print on demand” paperback. Create Space reported the book ready to print and sent me a proof (not free). Some issues remain, but with Create Space you can fix things as you go.

Some of us are still adherents to real books, made with paper and with pages you can turn, and I wanted printed copies that I could sign and sell, that you could prop up in your recipe holder or give to your aunt for Christmas. I needed a small, high-quality printer that would do a run of 100 books or less, all that my budget would stand. On a lead from an old Mennonite bookbinder practically in my own backyard, I found a small printer, Gorham Printing, up in the tiny town of Centralia, Washington. The price was right, and off went the .pdf files. Now I had both digital and hard-copy books I could sell.

The View from Chef Dave Mahler’s Old Kitchen at La Cusinga (photo courtesy David Mahler)

Ah, yes, sell. As in, marketing. Ugh. I turned to Facebook—mocked by many, but still a great way to reach people. A copy of my book cover posted, I sent it to every “friend” I could think of, and, by virtue of Facebook’s pervasiveness, to some I couldn’t think of as well. I pushed the ease and familiarity of buying it on Amazon. I pushed yesterday, I pushed the day before yesterday, and I pushed this morning. I wangled a full-page story in a Costa Rican newspaper, and put an ad in a coastal magazine. I’ve been lucky enough to have a good number of pre-orders, some Kindle downloads, and a handful of “print on demand” paperbacks. I got great help getting here from friends and family, but now it’s up to me. Sales, R&D, bookkeeping, inventory control, and tech support. And, oh yeah, I’m also the author of a cookbook. And a chef.

– David Mahler

* Toqueland takes no responsibility for fulfillment/delivery, but we’re required to say that. Make no mistake: We encourage our readers to support Chef Dave, and any chefs/writers brave enough to put it all out there like he has, by buying their books and visiting their blogs.


PS If you worked in a major American restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s (kitchen or front of house), I'd love to hear from you and possibly interview you for my forthcoming oral history of that era. Please reach me at andrew@toqueland.com.

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About the Author


David L Mahler (aka "The Chef of the Jungle") is a San Francisco Bay Area native and culinary “lifer” whose career path brought him from an early start in Continental restaurants and steak houses to Berkeley in the late 70’s and deposited him in San Franciso in the late 1980s. Along the way, he has cooked in Lahaina, Boston, Santa Monica, and the Napa Valley. Chef Mahler has returned to the US after five years of cooking in the rain forests of Costa Rica and now resides in Oregon’s Willamette Valley where he caters, writes, and cooks whatever comes out of the garden.