TALKING SHOP: Charlotte Druckman, Part 2

More Highlights from Our Conversation with the Author of Skirt Steak

Charlotte Druckman's Skirt Steak, just out this week.

Happy Friday, everybody!

Here’s part 2 of my conversation with fellow scribe Charlotte Druckman, whose new book Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen, debuted this week.  Part 1 can be found here.

TOQUELAND: How did Skirt Steak come about? Do you remember the moment when the idea popped into your head?

DRUCKMAN: I wrote an article for Gastronomica, which was something I had been thinking about. .. there is a famous essay that art historian Linda Nochlin wrote at the end of the ‘70s called “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?” And it’s rhetorical.  It’s supposed to get you annoyed.  And it was sort-of the anti‑feminist’s feminist’s art-historical essay, because she kind of said, “Let’s stop looking at the differences between how men and women paint, and let’s look instead at what our institutions are doing to present a story of men or women, and in history what opportunities have been opened to women.”

I worked at Food & Wine, and I really loved working there. .. I remember how much care went into picking the Best New Chefs but how there was always [just] one woman on the cover, possibly two [out of 10].  And you know, you’re in this office with these incredibly smart women who would like to support women, so why aren’t these chefs being found?  And I started to think, “What if you took that approach that Linda Nochlin used and stop thinking about it as, ‘who cooks better,’ but ‘let’s think about what the underpinnings are.’”

TOQUELAND:  That’s interesting.

DRUCKMAN: I thought it would be awesome to talk to women chefs about this, but to do it in that same way where it’s not like everyone’s going to give you a sob story.  There are going to be some great epic moments of sexual harassment, obviously, but it’s not going to be about that.  Because I don’t think that’s the real problem at the end of the day.

TOQUELAND: Without getting too specific about it, was it easy to sell it?

DRUCKMAN: No. It was really hard to sell it because no one had heard of what I was trying to do, which was to write a communal memoir, if you will, that has a strong narrative voice but isn’t about me.  Everyone now wants—especially if you’re a food writer—for it to either be about you or wants it to be about one person dishing.

TOQUELAND: Was it was easy to get interviews?… 

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TALKING SHOP: Charlotte Druckman, Part 1

The First of a Two-Part Conversation with the Author of the new book Skirt Steak

When I re-booted this blog back in January, one of the things I had it in my mind to do was to meet up with fellow scribes and talk about what we do and how we see things in the chef world.  For my long-delayed first rap session, I selected Charlotte Druckman, who I’d never met, but had read and admired, and had always heard nice things about. In addition to writing for the Wall Street JournalTravel + Leisure, and myriad other publications Charlotte also collaborated on Anita Lo’s cookbook Cooking Without Borders.

The reason I picked Charlotte to kick off this new, occasional feature: her first nonfiction book, Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen–for which she  interviewed more than 70 of the best female toques in the business–officially debuts this week. This is a topic I’ve long had an interest in, having discussed it with a number of chefs myself, and having noticed the almost total absence of women competitors in the Bocuse d’Or competition when I covered it a few years back.

Charlotte and I had a long conversation, the highlights of which I’m sharing in two posts. Herewith, Part 1:

Skirt Steak author Charlotte Druckman (photo courtesy Charlotte Druckman)

TOQUELAND: Why food writing?

DRUCKMAN: Why did I choose it as my linchpin? I say this in the introduction of my book: For me food is the sugar that helps the medicine go down. You can talk, especially now, about politics, agriculture, economics. You can talk about, if you want, gender. And you can talk about any of that stuff using food because it’s become the fixation point for the country, high and low.

You can finally talk about things like hunger and the fact that it’s a problem because, thank God, Jamie Oliver is doing a prime time show on it. But for such a long time, you couldn’t do that. So I think if you love food, you already had that interest anyway. You’re interested in the people making it. But now I just think it’s cracked wide open. So I think writers should think about it possibly in a different way than food writers, right?

TOQUELAND: It’s funny, I saw Josh Ozersky recently and he asked me if I liked being called a food writer. And I kind of don’t. I always say I consider myself a “chef writer,” not a food writer, because that’s what I know more than anything else—-the people and the life. I don’t know why, but it’s become almost like a literary ghetto a little bit in that non-food writers sometimes don’t give it equal respect.

DRUCKMAN: Those ghostwriter stories in the spring solidified it for me by positing the whole question of ghost recipe testing versus ghost writing.  Because I am full-on a writer. I like to test recipes when I do my Wall Street Journal stuff, but I am by no means professionally trained to be a recipe tester.

And, if you think about when you’re writing a cookbook, it’s left brain/right brain. The person who’s working on it–if it is a book that is really personality-shaped, the kind of work that you have to do to give it a point of view and organize it and then capture that voice is very different than what’s going into writing a recipe and making sure that the recipe’s okay. They’re two entirely different things.

So again, when you say “food writer,” what do you mean? Are you writing recipes? Are you coming up with recipes? Or are you sitting down and writing about maybe the culture of food, or the person behind the food?

So yeah, I think it’s easier to say, “I’m a journalist who writes about food” .. . [but] now I just say “food writer” because people seem to get confused or bored if you go into it too much.

TOQUELAND: Do people assume you’re a critic when you tell them you’re a food writer?… 

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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 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* You can find Chef Dave’s own musings on food, life and cooking at – 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.


A Writer, An Agent, and an Editor Walk into a Cooking School . ..

An Upcoming Two-Part Class at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City Takes a Look at All Aspects of Selling, Writing, and Publishing a Cookbook

There are still some seats available for a two-part class I’m co-teaching at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City next week. The class, Developing a Cookbook from Conception to Publication, will take place on two consecutive Wednesday nights, October 3 and October 10. I’ll be joined on the dais by my agent, David Black, and Pam Cannon, executive editor of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House; among other projects, Pam is editing my forthcoming cookbook collaboration with Michael White.

David, Pam, and I will examine all aspects of the cookbook process, from ideation and proposal-writing to the pitch/sell to the writing, editing, and marketing/publication.

In addition to whatever wisdom I have to offer, this is a rare chance to hear from some of the top people in the publishing game. If you are a writer or aspiring writer who might be interested, you can register here. If you know somebody who has cookbook aspirations, I’d appreciate if you passed this along.



Feeding Frenzy

The New York Times Ghostwriting Story Saga Just Won’t End

Last week, when I found myself featured in the New York Times story on cookbook ghostwriting, I never could have imagined what was about to transpire: outrage from Rachel Ray and Gwyneth Paltrow, a confusing follow-up post, and then–this afternoon–mere moments after I posted a Huffington Post opinion piece about the politics of ghostwriting, a sudden request for me to rush into Manhattan to tape an interview for a Today Show segment set to run around 8:10am tomorrow (Wednesday) morning.

They kept running around behind the segment producer while he interviewed me. Damn kids!

The invitation was so last minute that I had to suddenly cancel my son’s weekly tennis lesson to accommodate, then insist that the show’s booker let me bring the family along to make it up to them. She couldn’t have been nicer about it, sending a car to bring us in from Brooklyn, then letting the kids romp around the studio before, during, and after my camera time. To be honest, I loved every minute of it–nothing will keep you from taking things too seriously like having your son try to crack you up over the shoulder of a Today Show producer.

I have no idea who else is being interviewed for the story, or how many more legs this thing has, but it’s been an interesting week for anybody who engages in the craft of collaboration. Will be keen to see how long this particular beach ball keeps getting batted back up into the air.



The Writing Life: The Down Payment

One Year, 50 Pages. Why Book Proposals Are Worth the Trouble.

[Editor’s Note: This piece–about writing a book proposal with Paul Liebrandt–first ran May 18, 2010 on the original, short-lived, 1.0 version of Toqueland. As I’m teaching a class on cookbook proposals tonight at the Institute of Culinary Education (if you missed it, no worries, we’ll be doing it again in July), and co-presenting with Paul tomorrow night at DeGustibus, it seemed like a good time to re-post it. The story has a happy ending: Clarkson Potter will publish the book in 2013. You can read a little about it at the top of this site’s book page, and stay tuned for frequent updates as the project comes together.]

NEW YORK, NY. MAY 18, 2010 — Having just introduced this site in December, on the occasion of the publication of my last book, I’ve only been able to speak about writing in the past tense. But this past weekend, as I tweaked a proposal for a new collaboration, I thought it might be interesting to spend a little time in the future tense and share a bit about the great unknown for a writer like myself who primarily makes his living in the book world . .. the next project.

For about a year now, I’ve been engaged in an ongoing dialogue with Paul Liebrandt, the wildly talented chef of Corton restaurant in TriBeCa, about writing a book together. Usually proposals come together much more quickly for me, but this was a unique relationship because unlike the other chefs I’ve worked with–most of whom I’d known pretty well socially before we became business partners–Paul and I had never met until a mutual friend took me to dinner at Corton for the purpose making a literary match and sending us off down the book path together. (It also took a while because we connected while I was barreling down the homestretch of penning Knives at Dawn, so meetings were few and far between at the outset.)


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The Writing Life: Where the Day Takes You

Michael White Remembers His First Days in Italy, Tastes a New Risotto, and Welcomes a Surprise Guest … Just Another Afternoon at Marea

Interviewing Michael White, left, in the dining room at Marea. (photo by Nick Solares)

I often lie, to myself as well as others, that my least favorite place to meet with chefs is in their own restaurants, because of all the distractions. But the truth is that, while it might not be the most productive venue, I actually love working in restaurants. Love breaking one of the hospitality world’s many fourth walls by moving the pre-set silverware and glasses to the next table. Love the ready availability of food and drink. And, as a writer spends most of his time alone, I love the presence of all the people; the more the merrier.

So, it should come as no surprise that while I always request an office meeting with Michael White (you can read a little about our project on this site’s book page) for the privacy and productivity it affords us, I secretly prefer working in one of his restaurants. Which is good, because Michael has three of them in Manhattan alone, and likes to be in them as often as possible.  When we meet at one of them, almost always between lunch and dinner service, the sessions are like that box of chocolates that so obsessed Forrest Gump: I never know what I’m going to get—Managers come and go seeking answers and approvals; Michael’s aide-de-camp and head of media relations for Altamarea Group, Olivia Young, is often at the next table working on an Apple store’s worth of mobile devices and laptops; and then there’s Michael’s cellphone, and mine. We always get our work done, but don’t necessarily take the most direct path from A to B.

Case in point: Tuesday’s working session. I arrived at Marea around 2pm to find Michael wrapping up an impromptu visit with his pal, photographer Nick Solares. I’d heard a lot about Nick, but never met him, so it was great to make his army-jacketed, British-accented acquaintance. And he was such a friendly guy that I felt no compunction about hitting him up for a photo of me and Michael working, which he was only too happy to stick around and shoot. (That’s his shot up at the top of this post; you can see more of Nick’s work at his site.)

And so, we cleared our table, I busted out my laptop, and with Nick circling us and clicking away like a war correspondent, we got ready to pick up our interview where we’d left off the other day…

But just then, out of the kitchen came chef de cuisine Jared Gadbaw, who set down before us a wide, shiny bowl of wet, red-tinged risotto and a Tupperware container full of plastic spoons. This only means one thing, no matter what restaurant you’re in: the chef de cuisine, or in some cases a sous chef or executive sous, is about to have the executive chef taste a new dish, or a rejiggered old one, or maybe samples of meat or fish from possible new purveyors that have been cooked up for evaluation…. 

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