Even as the rest of the global book publishing marketplace contracts, our appetite for cookbooks grows year on year with publishers responding by increasing the number of cookery titles and the productions budgets allotted to those titles because they are very, very big business indeed.
Such big business, in fact, that there are test kitchens in Britain and the US dedicated to developing recipes for publication, and it is even rumoured that some of the international household names see the recipes in their books for the first time when they turn up at their own launch party.
But what is it like for the Irish cookbook authors? We talk to four of the best-known authors and to Kristin Jensen, Ireland’s top cookbook editor.
TV Chef Neven Maguire is also the chef/proprietor of MacNean House & Restaurant. He has written 12 cookbooks.
I have a great team, especially food writer Orla Broderick who is a great help writing up recipes and the synopsis.
We test all the recipes and then write them up while we’re doing the photography.
No doubt about it, it’s always a struggle to come up with new ideas but we try and keep it directed towards the home cook.
My MacNean Restaurant Cookbook was a personal dream, it was very special but it was one of the hardest. The recipes are quite cheffy. You have to keep the TV in mind — you need simplicity.
They want something quick, they want to get the basics right, but every programme is different and the problem is keeping things fresh and new.
Inspiration for recipes comes from all over — dining out or social media... But you don’t copy. I have core values and I keep to them.
For example, I’d never do an Indian book because I don’t cook Indian food.
The audience pretty much dictates the type of book I do, and my editor, Nikki Howard, is a genius, a gem to work with and her finger is right on the pulse and she’s kept me on the crest of a wave. Some day, the publishers won’t want me any more!
When I’m working on a recipe in the restaurant, me and (head chef) Glen will see what’s available. Seasonality is the start — and what’s
local — that’s what food is all about. Then you try to evolve the recipe.
You can have great ideas but I have to love to cook and eat the dish, and the customers have to love it before I know it’s going to work. As a chef you listen to your customers, your front-of-house, and your chefs.
I love the spontaneity, the creativity, but the customers decide ultimately. After a night or two you’ll know.
We’ve got a lot better at recipe-testing over the last three to four books. We’re pretty well-tuned at this stage, to be honest. Experience has brought us to this level.
I remember in one of my first books, there was a brown bread recipe with oat bran flakes in it and people went out and got breakfast bran flakes instead.
I have a lot of good memories of baking with my Mum when I was small. Making flapjacks and shortbread from a little Ladybird book, great memories, but I haven’t made it since.
The best book I ever got as a chef was Marco Pierre White’s White Heat. My brother got it for me in Limerick where he was away in college. I sat up all night reading it, I was so excited. It was inspiring, exciting, different.
TV chef and chef/proprietor of The Tannery Restaurant & Cooking School, Dungarvan, Co Waterford, is the author of four cookbooks.
There is no money to be made writing books in Ireland so any books have to be your own endeavour. You write and test yourself and sometimes sales mightn’t be all that big, it really is a labour of love.
I’m a great man for taking a long time to do the right thing, either working in the professional kitchen or at home. I regret, sometimes, not having taken more notes — if I wrote down every recipe I ever came up with over the years, I’d have ten books.
Inspiration comes from all over the place. If I’m doing a recipe for the pro kitchen, I always stupidly believe I’ll be in the kitchen to oversee it, but the nuances of the dish mightn’t be in the recipe. A dish might call for four tomatoes but if they aren’t ripe, the dish will be different and poorer for it.
Flynn’s friend, La Campagne chef/proprietor Gareth Byrne has a ‘bible’ and everything goes into it. But I’ve become way more organized in the last six or seven years, especially for recipe-testing. I work intensively, getting into a groove.
You need to be able to stand over it. I do my shopping, go back to the school and test it. These days, I’m way more technical, I weigh everything as I need to know the nutritional value as well.
It’s very much like music: if you do a dish, you can give it variations and it’s the confidence to do that that gives you the virtuosity.
I’ve had things come back to bite me in the arse. Starting off in the cookery school, I was using pro kitchen recipes and not giving as much detail as I should have.
I’m used to cooking in large quantities and scaling every thing down, so things change. Yeah, I’m the master of things coming back to bite me on the arse!
The first recipe I was ever given to do in a pro kitchen was a gratin dauphinois. I actually use that still as a basis for experimentation, putting in celeriac, parsnip, turnip. I remember there was a dauphinois craze in Dungarvan around 1982, and a sister’s friend even got me in to do some for a party she was having.
I love Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories. I love it, it’s a big streak of old school, I love the comforting recipes. I also love Nigel Slater.
He approaches from a cook’s perspective, not a chef’s. He really is one of the best cooks in the world.
Chefs can be too cheffy at times, going over the heads of people. But if you ever see him on telly, it is so essentially simple, all these different recipes pour out of him and more so than any chef’s books, it reminds me to keep my feet on the ground.
Chef and food writer Domini Kemp has written four cookbooks. The Ketogenic Kitchen (Gill) by Domini Kemp & Patricia Daly is out this month.
I do about 14 recipes in a single day for my newspaper column and I have someone who helps me prepare as we’re doing them from scratch, so we cook solidly from eight in the morning till 2pm. Doing a cookbook is a slower pace, totally different.
I come up with the recipes, cook them, test them. If I’ve featured them in the column and received feedback from readers, I may make changes or incorporate the feedback.
As you can imagine, I have a mountain of cookbooks. I get all the new releases. Something will catch my eye and I’ll ask myself, ‘how I would do that dish?’
Everything influences you: the weather, time of year, whether we’re feeling rich, poor, fat, thin. I tend to write out the recipe in very blunt, simple instructions.
The language is not flowery, and the emphasis is on measurement, times, oven temperature, yields. Then, later, it is easy to scribble on that page and write up the recipe at my leisure.
I’ve definitely had one or two blunders over the years, I’ve left out something vital or forget a bit of methodology. It’s frustrating and I try not to let it happen. It’s usually gone through a robust editing process.
My husband is an editor and writer and he’ll do some reading and he’s not really a cook, so it can be good to get that feedback.
The first cookbook I ever had was The Wharf St Vegetarian Café Cookbook. I got it from my sister for a birthday or Christmas or something. It had nice little cartoons and I cooked loads out of it.
I remember a pasta dish with mushrooms and a yoghurt sauce. In hindsight it was probably awful but at the time I thought it was gorgeous. I’m sure the yoghurt was splitting and everything and I wouldn’t have known.
Kristen Jensen is a specialist cookbook editor and has worked with most of the big names in Irish food including Darina Allen and Neven Maguire.
She co-wrote Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer & Cider (New Island), with Caroline Hennessy
I moved to Ireland straight after college to be with my boyfriend (now husband) who has an Irish mother and dual citizenship. It was supposed to be an adventure for a year.
After a while, I came to find food was a more immediate way of connecting with the culture and the country and enabled me to be a part of it as well.
I really learned to cook as an Irish citizen because college food doesn’t count, so it’s had a huge influence on how I cook and what I cook, coming of age as an immigrant in a different country.
I’ve always worked as an editor and I was working for Gill & MacMillan (now Gill) doing textbooks when I was handed Rachel Allen’s very first book.
This was back when cookbooks were still paperbacks, before cookbooks became the lifestyle bibles they are today, pre-hard covers, pre-food styling.
I picked up along the way as I was learning in the kitchen, reading cookbooks, buying cookbooks, but, like a lot of cookbook editors, I’m not trained in any way, nor have I ever worked in the industry.
I come at it from a home cook’s perspective, trying to fill in any gaps where it might not be clear enough — as well as making sure all the commas are in the right place.
Once I’ve done my onscreen copy edit, it goes back to the publisher for the typesetter to lay it out.
When it comes back to me, it is the first time I see the photos, so then I check them against the recipes; if a cake dusted with icing sugar or some other garnish has that particular ingredient actually mentioned in the recipe.
Even if there’s a scattering of parsley over a dish, I like to be sure it’s mentioned in the recipe.
When I come across a recipe, I might either replicate it or use it as a starting point for a recipe of my own but generally, I have a rule, first time, I make it the way the recipe says.
I’ve been burned too many times in the past by substituting one thing for another. Then I taste it and think how I could improve or change it.
The first recipe I ever tried as a child was for popovers, they are almost like a Yorkshire pudding, very basic, very plain. I remember being so proud and making them over and over again. And I’ve never made them since.
I would be the kind of person who has cookbooks on my bedside table, and I especially love those that have a personal story and context, not just page after page of recipes.
Nessa Robbins’ Apron Strings: Recipes from a Family Kitchen was very personal. Some of it had me tearing up. My favourite changes every year but Darina’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking is a desert island choice.
It’s a fantastic book that I turn to all the time. Nigel Slater, I’m in awe of him, every recipe works and he’s written thousands. I’d be happy to be stranded with anything by Nigel.
Niamh Shields is an award-winning food and travel writer and the author of Comfort & Spice (Quadrille).
I’m almost completed my next book, Project Bacon, a book about bacon and bacon only; curing your own bacon, brunches, afternoon teas (salted caramel bacon eclairs!), suppers, even cocktails, desserts and sweets.
My editor said if I had an idea to pitch it to them, but I wanted to do it my own way so I used Kickstarter to crowdfund it and raised £24,000.
I hired an editor, a photographer and a book designer.
Unless you get a serious advance, book royalties aren’t going to pay your rent. I thought doing it this way was perhaps more a pure creative expression.
I have an editor whom I take seriously and listen to but at the same time it is not being filtered through a sales and marketing team.
If you’re not on TV with a show on a primetime channel, your book is just not stocked in the same way. It doesn’t get the prime placement and so on. But I thought maybe it’s worth a risk, doing it myself.
I used to be a project manager before I became a writer so I don’t mind this extra stress. I do a lot of travelling and have met some amazing chefs and food writers who’ve published their own books.
When I started out, I was pretty much self-taught other than home economics so it was important that a recipe was easy to follow.
I found it frustrating when culinary knowledge was assumed. Now, unless it’s pastry, I like recipes that tell a story about a culture. They’re the type I really love to read.
My background is in science so I work to make a recipe logical and easy to follow and everything is tested three times.
Even on the blog ( www.eatlikeagirl.com ), I test every recipe rigorously. If there is a preamble or story, I take time over that, I love that part of it.
Inspiration could be recreating something from a restaurant or my travels, around London or around the world. And then there’s home and comfort and the things you see growing up, like potato gratin.
On a really crap day, there are very few things as good as a potato gratin. Maybe it’s growing up on a rain-clogged town (Dungarvan) on the south coast of Ireland.
It’s a long time since I cooked someone else’s recipe from a cookbook but when I first moved to London, I was worked for MacMillan and was given a £25 voucher for Christmas and bought a (legendary Italian cookbook author) Marcella Hazan book.
I knew nothing about her but it was wonderful. Her carbonara was such a wonderful inspiration — just bacon, eggs and cheese — and I really started to understand that with a few great ingredients, you can do anything. A couple of years ago, I don’t know how it happened but we became friends on Facebook and she even left a comment on my page!
I’ve heard it bandied around in the publishing industry that only three recipes are ever going to be cooked from a cookbook but you don’t know what those three recipes are going to be!
I have some very cheffy books that I don’t cook from but love the passion and the stories. (Café Paradiso chef) Denis Cotter’s first book was too cheffy for me but I love it. I love Simon Hopkinson, he’s all heart and it’s great food.
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