Kate Leahy has the dream food job you’ve never heard of. She is a food writer and recipe tester who collaborates with chefs and restaurateurs to create cookbooks. She brings the voice and recipes of chefs to life, making them accessible to home cooks and enthusiasts. Kate recently spoke to our students about how she walks the line between pro cooking and food writing. Here are some highlights from our discussion:
How did you get your start cookbook writing? Why did you gravitate towards working on chef/restaurant cookbooks specifically?
It is no accident that the first book I wrote was A16 Food + Wine. Before I started writing professionally, I worked as a line cook at A16. Working on a restaurant cookbook — especially with a restaurant that I knew so well — was a natural direction to take. But getting my first break into cookbook publishing took some luck. I lived in Chicago at the time, but I’d come back to San Francisco to visit family. On one of my visits, I went to A16 to say hello. I casually asked Nate Appleman, the chef at the time, if he had thought about an A16 cookbook. He mentioned the idea to Shelley Lindgren. She wanted to take part. We had our three-person book team, but we still had to figure out how to get a book deal. Since they were busy with the restaurant (which was only two years old at the time) I started asking around, talking to editors and writers who had worked on books, until I stumbled on a distant contact who had recently taken an editor job at Ten Speed Press. I emailed her out of the blue. A week later, the editorial director at the time, Aaron Wehner, called me. He was interested. It was one of those rare and lucky breaks. But you do one book and you get the opportunity to do others.
Does your past experience in culinary school and on the line help you in the work you do today in the world of cookbook writing?
It has been invaluable. The advantage can come from little things, like understanding chef shorthand without having to ask for clarification (mise instead of mise en place, for instance). As someone who worked on the line, I have an advantage over writers who are not comfortable being in commercial kitchens. It also makes me more comfortable talking to chefs. I don’t get star-struck. I know that there will be times where they will be slammed and other times when they’ll have time to talk. On the cooking side of things, when they do something different than the norm, like omit black pepper when seasoning a steak, I know to ask why they do that — is there a story behind the omission?
Your first book, A16 Food + Wine was a huge success and received many accolades, including the IACP Cookbook of the Year award. As your first major project, what are some of the best lessons you learned from that process?
When you’re working as a team, everyone has an opinion, and everyone is not always going to agree with one another. Sometimes this is good — it can make the book stronger when there’s a debate. When working on A16, I also learned a lot –a lot! — about recipe writing. When I started, I had never really written a recipe for publication, and I had to learn quickly. When I received the recipe edits back from this amazing copy editor, Sharon Silva, she’d ask me how long to sauté the onions, how long to braise the greens. I hadn’t been specific enough. Writing and testing recipes is serious work. Every year I appreciate a well-written recipe more, yet it’s also often overlooked with chef cookbooks. Which is too bad.
Cookbook collaborations can be tricky. You have to make sure both parties are in alignment on a number of fronts. What are some of the pitfalls to avoid from the get go?
You have to start off on the right foot. A lot of that comes down to money. Who is covering ingredient costs? Who is covering travel expenses? What about photography? These aren’t fun conversations, but they should happen early on. You never want to be halfway through writing a book and be unexpectedly saddled with a cost you weren’t expecting (or can’t afford). This goes for both the chef and the writer. If the chef isn’t a restaurant owner, is the restaurant expecting a cut, or are they going to pour money into the project and think of it as a marketing/PR expense? Working out details with an agent or a lawyer before the book deal is signed is an important way of avoiding pitfalls down the road. It sets the tone of professionalism for the project, too.
As a writer, one of the interesting parts of working on chef cookbooks is the need to assume someone else’s voice. How do you successfully fade into the background and let the chef’s story and voice come through authentically?
I don’t always get it right at first. The first time I tried to write in Nate’s Appleman’s voice, it was in a kitchen-slang kind of way. Aaron, who edited the book, had to point out why that wasn’t going to fly. He saved me from a lot of embarrassing writing. More generally, I’ve found that getting someone’s voice comes with time. The more time you spend with the chefs, the easier it is to pick up on the way they talk and organize their thoughts. Some chefs have phrases that they love to repeat.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
It’s finding the time and focus to work on a long-term project, and staying motivated to keep at it. Some chapters are going to be easier than others, and some rough drafts are rougher than others.
What is the most gratifying part of your job?
This is pretty predictable, but a lot has to do with seeing the book in print. Even better is when people send me photos of a recipe they’ve recreated. That’s the goal, at the end of the day.
How does one successfully make a living as a cookbook writer?
You need a balance of short- and long-term projects. Many people have an “anchor job,” which is their main source of income. I can’t work solely on cookbooks. It won’t pay the bills — often you will only get paid every six months because of the way cookbook advances are paid out. In addition to cookbook work, I develop recipes and write white papers/tech manuals for one food company (my anchor job), and I also write freelance pieces for a few outlets.
What advice would you give someone who aspires to collaborate on a chef cookbook?
Get to know a chef really well, and then take a stab at writing a book proposal, which includes an introduction, a recipe list, at least five recipes, and an analysis of why the book market needs this topic. Going through this exercise alone will allow you to see if this is something you want to get into. If the chef and topic is timely, there are agents and editors out there who will give it a look.