The Truth about Cookbook Collaborations

kate leahy cookbooks

On Saturday, I’ll be on a panel at the IACP conference in Washington, D.C. The subject we’re tacking is cookbook collaborations—mostly of the chef-writer variety— and I’ll be sharing some of the tips I’ve learned on how to make it work.

What has been fascinating about putting together the presentation is talking about the subject with fellow panelists Anne McBride, Amy Collins, and Jody Eddy (although Jody is stuck in India on assignment and it looks like she’ll miss IACP, sadly). It is gratifying to know you’re not the only one who has been in odd or tough situations before (and I guarantee that everyone who has written a book with a chef has some choice stories to share). It is also inspiring to talk with individuals who get a lot out of the collaboration process. We don’t need to do it: we want to.

A few years ago, The New York Times published Julia Moskin’s piece about the life of cookbook ghost writers. I remember feeling a sense of—yep, been there, can relate. (Fortunately, unlike Julia, my experiences have never included being stuck in a walled compound in Colombia.) Julia also wrote that while it used to be rare to get any acknowledgement as a co-author, this is changing. Still, it is not a proven way to make a name for yourself.

You don’t work on cookbooks to get major acknowledgement, but some acknowledgement is nice. My soon-to-be released cookbook collaboration, Cookie Love (not pictured above because my mom has my advanced copy), has my name on the cover and the spine. Mindy Segal, my co-author, actually asked the designer to make my name larger that it was on the first draft of the cover.

So if it’s not about seeing your name up in lights, why collaborate? There is no single answer, but one of the most important reasons is to learn something new. And that new thing, be it a set of skills, an understanding of a different culture, an expertise in new ingredients, can be leveraged elsewhere.

I also like collaborating because it allows me to be more productive than I would be if writing alone. Working with chefs allows there to be a constant stream of ideas on recipes and stories. The flip side is that you can’t just go about things your own way. If you’re waiting on a recipe, you need to nag until you get it. That’s the other roll of a collaborator: information wrangler.

One of the major topics we’ll be addressing on our panel is the financial aspect of collaborating. When writers ask me about how to get started in cookbook publishing, often they focus on how to capture a chef’s voice. I feel that those questions are premature. There’s no point in thinking about voice if you don’t have a sound financial foundation from which to start. Not all chefs are ready to commit financially to a book. Some chefs have great followings but can’t afford to pay a writer. Others might unwittingly bill you for photography costs and other big-ticket items if you haven’t had a clear discussion beforehand about financials.

Before taking on a book project, I look at opportunity cost. Will I lose out on significant sources of income by saying yes? Think of it this way: if an agent of a rising star chef calls me with a groovy book idea—but needs the whole manuscript done in 3 months, including tested recipes, I will not have time to work on anything else. What kind of money will I need to make it worth the effort? And do I want to go crazy in the process?

These days, I also want to write about subjects that I will be able to turn into other paying projects. And I want the topic to be timely enough that I’ll be able to leverage that expertise for a few years to come. I also like working with chefs with a clear identity. Oftentimes, this comes from chefs who have spent years honing their craft and their point of view.

I have made money, I have lost money, and I have broken even on book projects. I’m learning from my mistakes. By bringing up a few financial considerations of the job, I do not mean to discourage writers from collaborating with chefs, especially if a writer wants to break into cookbook publishing. Writing my first book, A16 Food + Wine, was cookbook bootcamp. I wouldn’t have gained the confidence or the connections to write the books I’ve done since without taking on that crucial first project. Working on chef cookbooks has also given me access to fascinating people and places and provided me with the ultimate insider view of several great restaurants.

Perhaps the most important aspect of collaborating—more important than subject matter or money—is how well you work with your co-author. Amy Collins, who is a literary agent, calls this the matchmaking part of putting together a book deal. While there are always moments in the writing or recipe-testing process that will try any sane person’s patience, good collaborators can work through them without throwing darts at each other.

You don’t need to be best friends with co-authors, but you better respect them. And they need to respect you, too.

Irish Soda Bread with Tea-Soaked Currants

Irish Soda Bread

There are many things I miss about Chicago, but St Patrick’s Day is not one of them. Far better than drinking green beer at O’Shaunnassey’s Blarney Stone Saloon, Bar & Grill and trying to avoid falling into an atomically green Chicago River is to escape the city altogether. And one way to do that is to head to dinner at Vie in Western Springs.

While I don’t think he does it any more, Paul Virant, a friend of mine and the chef and owner of Vie, used to do this low-key prix fixe dinner for St. Patrick’s Day. One of my favorite dishes from the dinner was dead-simple: a toasted slice of Irish soda bread [click to continue…]

Off the Grid

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The first time I heard someone say he was going off the grid, I assumed that he was going to unplug and live somewhere in the woods, preferably in Wisconsin.

In the Bay Area, though, Off the Grid means grazing amid food trucks and tents serving a cultural mishmash of food. Since Off the Grid launched in 2010, visiting these food-truck markets has become weekly rituals for many in and around San Francisco. Off the Grid now operate in more than 40 locations, stretching from the North Bay to the South Bay and all the way east to Pleasant Hill and Concord. Personally, I’m looking forward to the new Off the Grid in San Francisco opening just south of ATT Park on 3rd Street (previously an underused parking lot during the baseball offseason).

But the biggest and brightest OtG is the Friday night market at Fort Mason Center. It kicked off the season on March 6th, and it will go through October 30th.

Last Friday, Matt Cohen, the OtG founder, gave a group of us a tour of the market’s newest vendors. I asked him what he looks for when accepting new vendors. He said he looks for vendors who [click to continue…]

Brownie Cookies

brownie cookies
This past weekend was packed with baking and cooking projects. Some of it was prompted by a cleaning-out-the-freezer impulse. (I blame Marie Kondo.) I unearthed some chicken backs and wings and turned them into stock with some celery that needed to be used up. Two lost bags of frozen blueberries became an experimental chia seed jam. Oats, nuts, seeds, and coconut morphed into a kitchen-sink granola. And, unrelated to the spring-cleaning mission, I made cute little cinnamon rolls from the Nordic Bakery Cookbook just because.

The results were mixed. The stock was good, but it’s hard to mess up stock. My experiments with chia have been lackluster, and the jam was no exception (though I suspect that the frost-bitten blueberries were at fault here). It did not spark joy. The granola wasn’t bad, but I have made better. And while I liked the cinnamon rolls, I felt that I needed to improve the filling-to-dough ratio (it was too skimpy).

I figured one of those projects would warrant a post this week, but no. Fortunately, I still had a few odds and ends to clean out of the kitchen. I’m in a transition mode—moving from one book project to another. That was part of the reason that it was time to clean house.

stocking up
Last year, while testing recipes for Mindy Segal’s cookie book, I accidentally bought unsweetened chocolate discs from the bulk bins at Berkeley Bowl thinking they were bittersweet. The discs have been hanging around since June, and I wanted to unload them. I also still had some prune puree left in the refrigerator since making this banana bread. And just the other day I landed upon an old recipe for espresso cookies from my days as a La Farine baker. Which made me remember I also had instant coffee also left over from cookie recipe testing. Something good had to come of all this.

And so I cobbled together this chocolate cookie recipe. [click to continue…]

Seed + Salt, a Restaurant Focused on Seed-to-Stalk cooking

Nut Loaf from Seed+Salt

sprouted S+S nut loaf with housemade nutella

When I first heard about Seed + Salt, I was immediately hooked on the name. Last year I drafted a cookbook proposal focused on baking with nuts and seeds, and while the project never got quite off the ground, I never stopped thinking about the culinary attributes of nuts and seeds—and their under-tapped potential. I had to pay this new place a visit.

Seed+Salt Entrance

Seed+Salt entrance

Seed + Salt, which opened on the north side of Chestnut Street in San Francisco on Black Friday, 2014, takes the nut-and-seed idea to a whole new level. [click to continue…]

Birdseed Banana Bread

Birdseed banana bread mise en place
While all things Burma have been my focus recently, this past weekend I wanted to make a return to baking. This was prompted by a few recent conversations about Cookie Love, the book I wrote with Mindy Segal. This April when the book comes out, I’ll be focused on all things cookie.

But since my future has plenty of cookies in store, I didn’t want to bake cookies. Instead, I wanted to make something that shared some of that same no-fuss ethos. Enter banana bread.

For years, the only recipe I ever thought to be a worthy use of old bananas was the Kona Inn banana bread from an old Junior League of Palo Alto cookbook. It’s the only one my mom ever baked, and every other banana bread I’ve compared it to has tasted dry and bland. But the Kona Inn recipe is rich, with lots of butter and sugar. I started to wonder: did it have to be so rich to taste so good? [click to continue…]

Myanmar Tea

kettles working overtime
There is potential to grow high-quality coffee in Myanmar (formerly Burma), especially in the Golden Triangle, but the product doesn’t have a ready market within the country itself. Here, apart from a few chic coffee shops in Yangon, coffee means Nescafe.

Tea is a different story. There’s a saying in the country that awkwardly translates to this: If it’s meat, it’s pork; if it’s fruit, it’s mango; if it’s leaves, it’s tea.

This saying probably relates to laphet, Burmese pickled tea eaten straight or mixed into a salad. But it applies to what you drink, too. Just about everywhere I went on my recent trip to Myanmar, I downed mild Chinese tea almost like water. And for the higher-octane stuff, I reached for Myanmar tea. After an afternoon spent sampling the milky sweet, seemingly innocuous tea at a tea shop in Yangon, the group I was traveling with were amped up—all of us had trouble sleeping that night. Myanmar tea means business. [click to continue…]

Burma Street Style

yangon street scene

Downtown Yangon.

When I was packing for my recent trip to Burma (formally Myanmar), I had a tough time figuring out what kind of clothes to bring. I knew it would be hot, and my usual San Francisco uniform (black jeans, button-down shirt and/or sweater, a jacket) wouldn’t cut it. I knew I wasn’t going to blend in, so my main goal was finding things that were practical, appropriate, and unassuming. I ended up filling my suitcase with sandals, lightweight, durable clothes with quick-drying fabric and a neutral scarf. But no convertible zip-away khaki pants/shorts or other multipurpose weirdness. So, generally, nothing that I’d call fashion-forward, but nothing too “safari gear” either.

Far more interesting than what I was wearing were the Burmese wardrobe choices I saw. New styles are infiltrating the culture as the country opens up to the world, but people of all ages are holding onto traditional styles, too. And everywhere we went, plaids and floral prints were mixed with abandon. [click to continue…]

Postcards from Burma

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon.

To cross the road in Yangon, it’s best to take it one lane at a time, even if the road is four lanes wide and has a roundabout. Go slow and steady so cars can anticipate your movement—running will throw off drivers. When possible, align yourself with Burmese women who are crossing, preferably older ones, and follow their lead. There is power in numbers, organized chaos, and deference to elders.

In Myanmar, the country still called Burma in most parts of the Western world, drivers drive on the right-hand side of the road, like they do in the U.S. But after years of severe trade restrictions, the Burmese couldn’t always get cars with steering wheels on the left side of the car, American style. So in most (but not all) cars, the steering wheel sits on the right side as it does in countries where people drive on the left-hand side of the road, like Japan, England, and Thailand. This is just one of the examples of how the Burmese make do and go about things in their own way.

On my first trip to this country, I learned about many of Burma’s quirks (another one: going through security on your way out of the airport). But more noticeable was the pace of change, especially [click to continue…]

A 16 Meatballs

A16 meatballs
It’s been more than six years since A16 Food + Wine was published. Six years is a lot of time and not much time at all. But when I think back to how things were back in the day, my life was a lot different. I wrote the book while I was in my late 20s. It was published the year I turned 30. I was a former A16 line cook who had only recently switched over to the writing side of the food business—and moved to Chicago. I was a transplant still getting used to my new, at times uncomfortable, identity as a journalist.

When the book came out, [click to continue…]