Wednesday, January 31, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Cooking up a cookbook

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By Joan Namkoong
Advertiser Food Editor

Above is a sample of several celebrity chefs' cookbooks that feature Island cuisine.
With photographs that make your mouth water and ideas to keep you busy for weeks, cookbooks are more than just collections of recipes. They serve a lot of purposes: They can be a marketing tool for a restaurant, an ego piece for a chef, a documentation of a period of food history and, sometimes, even a good read.

A number of Isle chefs have produced cookbooks in the past 10 years, since the birth of the regional cuisine movement here, and this month, the "Haliimaile General Store Cookbook" has been released by Ten Speed Press.

"It’s a lot more work than you can imagine," said Beverly Gannon, owner/chef of Haliimaile General Store, Joe’s Bar and Grill and Celebrations catering on Maui, who co-authored the book with Maui publicist Bonnie Friedman.

Cookbooks don’t just happen: They are the result of a painstaking process that can take years to complete.

Publishers often approach chefs about doing such books. Phil Wood, owner of Berkeley, Calif.-based Ten Speed Press contacted Gannon about two years ago. He has a particular fondness for Hawaii and its food, and about a third of his 50 annual titles are cookbooks. "I’ve met 18 cookbook authors in the hot tub over the years at Cuisines of the Sun (the annual foodie event at the Mauna Lani Resort on the Big Island) and I’ve done 30 cookbooks with them," he said.

Cash advances and potential sales for their restaurants are enticing for chefs, not to mention the cachet of having written a book. But sandwiching writing, recipe testing and photography into what for most chefs is already a 12- to 14-hour workday is a tough.

Roy Yamaguchi recalled working on his first book: "At the time, I was working in the kitchen (at Hawaii Kai), so I’d have to work on recipes after midnight when the restaurant closed. His "Roy’s Feasts from Hawaii" was published in 1995 by Ten Speed.

In Gannon’s case, it took a year and a half to finish the book after she entered into a contract with Ten Speed Press. "It’s not easy taking a cook out of the kitchen," she said. "It was like writing a college thesis. At some point, you had to stop everything in your life and spend 24 hours a day on the book."

And while writing a cookbook sounds like fun and a great way to capture your restaurant on paper, chefs are often outside of their element. "I’m a cook, not a writer," said Gannon, matter-of-factly.

That’s why she enlisted the help of Friedman, a free-lance writer, her publicist and longtime friend. Choy has used a different writer for each of his seven cookbooks. Yamaguchi and Alan Wong looked to John Harrison.

"I fell into cookbook writing when I met Mark Miller at the Coyote Cafe," said Harrison, a resident of Maui and a former academic writer whose specialty was economics. Since that meeting, Harrison has written seven books for Miller and more than 20 cookbooks for a dozen different chefs.

"The essence of what I do is to find the chef’s voice," said Harrison. "I spend a lot of time with the chef. I get to know them, see their food, interview them, talk about each recipe.

At the end of several weeks, you can predict what a chef will say. My business is about putting that voice on the page, and the biggest compliment of my work is how much like the chef this sounds."

But the chefs said that working with a writer can sometimes be a challenge. "Sometimes things get rephrased," said Russell Siu, who relied on humorist and pidgin specialist James Grant Benton for his book "On the Rise," published in 1996.

"Writers can sometimes miss the nuances," said Wong, whose book "New Wave Luau" was published in 1999.

The second biggest challenge for chefs who write cookbooks is putting onto paper what they do day in and day out: cooking without any written guides. "We’re free-flow cooks," said Choy. "You do a pinch here and a pinch there and the creative juices are flowing. Baking (following a written recipe) is tough for us; it’s hard to write a recipe."

Translating what might be gallons of sauce to portions appropriate for six servings can also be a formidable task. "I remember having to break down a recipe to see if it works and try over and over again," said Yamaguchi with a laugh. "It wasn’t fun coming up with all the recipes that were hopefully going to work."

Today’s cookbooks by chefs often have long ingredient lists and multiple recipes to create a single dish. While the recipe reflects the reality of restaurant cooking, in which prep cooks spend hours chopping, making sauces and getting the several components for a dish ready, it is often formidable for a home cook to recreate.

"The biggest challenge is to set your ego aside and understand the person that’s going to buy your book," said Choy. "Making a book user-friendly is important. Recipes are the heart and soul of a cookbook. You have to think like the reader and say I have those ingredients.’

"When I see the word reduction,’ I know it’s for a small percentage of folks who like to cook. When I see 40 to 50 ingredients in a recipe I ask, What are you tasting?’ Long ingredients lists are expensive for the everyday cook. Simplicity sells cookbooks a lot."

Not only do chefs have to translate their dishes into recipes, but they have to test them, too. Ingredients have to be precisely measured and steps explained one by one, so that even a novice cook can achieve what the chef intends in a recipe.

"The worst nightmare was the first round of recipe testing," recalled Wong. "We had a new employee assigned to the project, but it came out all wrong. We had to start from zero again. If I had to do it over again, we would have hired a recipe tester from the restaurant. We did it in-house but it was difficult, because cooks in a restaurant have a hard time being chained to a recipe."

Once the manuscript is complete, the recipes written and tested, it’s time for photography. Photographs often make or break a cookbook: The visual appeal of photographs is like the first impression of a dish set before you at a restaurant. And it can make or break the patience of a chef.

"The hardest part was doing the food shots. We tried to do five or six a day," said Siu. "Ric Noyle was my photographer, and he was pretty picky. Trying to find plates without any scratches was impossible. We had to get new plates and set them aside just for the photographs."

Chefs not only have to prepare the dish but sometimes do their own food styling, which means precisely and painstakingly placing every ingredient and speck of food on the plate in front of the camera. "There’s a photo of me sleeping in the photo studio," recalled Wong. "It took eight hours to do a photo of one dish. But you have to wait; you have to be there."

Gannon recalls some enjoyable moments in the process. "The fun thing was that all the pictures were shot at my house using natural light. Sometimes they’d be shooting food in my bedroom. I would go to the restaurant and come back and never know where these people were in my house. And it was really fun to use all the dishes in the cupboard that have been there for 30 years and never used."

With all the elements in hand, the graphic designer goes to work, collaborating with the chef on the final look of the book. Then it’s on to the printer; proofs are examined and re-examined by all the key players.

"It’s funny: You can have 20 people proofreading, then you go to print and the recipe isn’t lined up right or the garlic is left out of the garlic chicken recipe," said Choy. "In Cooking from the Heart,’ we had a picture of macadamia nut cream pie and a recipe for macadamia nut pie. In another recipe, there’s a seasoned salt mixture that you make, but the recipe doesn’t tell you to use just a portion of it and store the rest away."

And there are always those forgotten elements. "I look back and say how could I have forgotten so-and-so in the acknowledgements, the sidebar should have said this or how come I forgot that recipe," said Gannon in December, shortly after the finished copies of her book arrived. "My nightmare was you (the food editor) testing a recipe and wondering what to do with 4 tablespoons of butter. No matter how much you’re on it, things slip through the cracks."

Despite the long hours, the many details and the crunch of deadlines, the final product is well worth it.

"Doing a cookbook is a very tedious, laborious process," said Wong. "It took three years, because you’re trying to put yourself in the book. But it was fun: to see the pictures come out, to see each stage in the production. It was like giving birth."

Yamaguchi agreed: "In the end, I was glad I did it. When I first saw the finished product, I felt it was all worth it. But it’s not my priority to do another one."

Lest you think that a chef’s cookbook will reveal their entire repertoire of recipes, Gannon purposefully chose to leave one out of her book. Crab boboli, a creamy crab dip spread atop a boboli crust and served hot, is a Gannon specialty and a recipe she refuses to reveal.

"I first made it at a party at my house 18 years ago with whatever I had at the time. Frankly, the illusion is better than the reality. I could give out the recipe, but there’s a mystique around it that works. The recipe will be on my headstone, so people will come to visit me."

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