The Making of My Paris Kitchen
(Photo by Ed Anderson)
My Paris Kitchen is finally here! It’s taken me a few years to get to this day, and I thought I’d give you a little look behind-the-scenes of how the book was created. There’s a certain amount of conversation about blogs versus cookbooks, and since I have a foot in both, I am keenly aware of the connection between the two, but also what makes them different.
There’s a lot of talk about whether food blogs are overtaking traditional cookbooks. What’s changing – in my view – is that people are looking for something else in a cookbook – not just collections of recipes, which can be found online, but a storyline that carries the book. I read blogs when I’m sitting in front of my computer, but I love settling into a chair (or cozy bed) with a good cookbook, and reading all the stories that accompany the recipes.
So when people ask me, “What’s your book about?” I answer that it’s a story about how I cook in Paris – where I shop, how I find ingredients, the friends I like to cook with, as well as recipes from Parisian friends, chefs, and pastry chefs, with plenty of photos (and stories) of the outdoor markets, pastry shops, bread bakeries, bistros, and cafés. The book starts with recipes and stories for l’heure de l’apéro (cocktail hour), and goes through soups, salads, and main courses, before heading to dessert, ending with a spectacular bûche de Noël, that concludes the year across France on a sweet note.
In addition to showing the spectacular city of Paris, I also wanted to highlight its diversity through visits to some of the ethnic neighborhoods, presenting some of the multicultural recipes I picked up there, which Parisians have embraced. Unlike the other regions of France, Paris is a mix of cultures and cuisines – there are very few things that are “Parisian cuisine” since so many residents of the city have come from other parts of France, and the rest of the world. Like me.
So there are recipes and stories from Provence, the Jura, as well as North Africa and yes, even the United States. You’ll see me eating my first sandwich merguez stuffed with frites (finally!), as well as rifling through boxes at the flea market, scoring kale at the marché bio (organic market), and sitting down to everything from a warm chocolate cake with salted butter caramel sauce from a favorite bistro (with the chef’s recipe and secret technique for dialing up the chocolate flavor), to an exhaustive search for the best way to make madeleines with that picture-perfect hump – with two recipes, and notes – that explain the madness in my method.
Writing a book is an all-consuming process, at least for me. My Paris Kitchen started out as a non-cookbook proposal that took me nearly eight months to write. People who want to write a book are always astonished when I tell them that it takes that long (at least it takes me that long), to write a proposal. But it’s the most important part of the cookbook process. It’s where you clarify and distill your ideas, and create your vision of the book. And in turn, it allows the publisher to grasp your idea of your book, who you are, and the intended audience.
(Publishers aren’t always right. My ice cream book was turned down by a major publisher because, they told me, I didn’t have my own show on Food Network. I had taught a class and was surprised when so many people raised their hands when I asked who makes their own ice cream. I did some research as well for the proposal, noticing that an ice cream maker was the #1 best-selling kitchen appliance on Amazon, so another publisher – the one who is my current publisher – snapped it up. And it’s probably my best-selling book. So it pays to persevere if you love your subject, and are sure you have a good idea on your hands.)
After I sent the publisher at Ten Speed Press the proposal I had slaved over, he sent me a message: “You should do a book of recipes about how you cook. What is your Paris cooking?”
Grrr, eight months down the drain. But as a writer, sometimes you write and write and write for hours, thinking you came up with something brilliant. Then you go back and reread it the next day, and delete the whole thing. And start all over again.
So I rewrote the proposal, using a title that Aaron Wehner, the publisher, came up with – My Paris Kitchen – as my guide, and that was that. I’d written several other books in my tiny Paris kitchen, in my charming but – um, very tiny rooftop apartment. Around the same time I signed the book contract, I was signing a contract to buy my first apartment in Paris, and getting ready to embark on what I thought would be a relatively straightforward renovation. The contractor told me it would take two months and because I used to believe what people told me, I didn’t think anything of it, and went to work on the book.
As they say, expect everything to take twice as long, and cost twice as much. But, of course, I’m the exception to the rule and the renovation went on for about 1 1/2 years. During that time, anything that could go wrong, did. And then some.
Over a year-and-a-half later, after I had to put my entire life on hiatus – including the book (all my things were stored under a giant plastic tarp that was covered with a thick layer of dust, which I was afraid to move, and I had no idea where anything was) – I finally forced my way into my half-finished apartment, got someone to fix what could be fixed (I won’t go into detail, but if it wasn’t for the competent contractor mentioned on page 94, I most likely wouldn’t be alive today), and got back to the book I had started.
A friend made me promise not to write a book about what happened, so I will save it for when we can all get together and have too-many glasses of rosé on ice together. But after losing everything that I had worked on, I pulled myself – and what I had managed to piece together – and started with a fresh beginning. (Kind of like my proposal.) I began cooking and baking in my new kitchen, loving the space, the light, discovering the markets that were nearby, as well as butcher shops, fromageries, and bakeries.
A journalist who interviewed me recently said, “The book really surprised me.” So I asked her why. “It’s so personal,” she replied, which I thought was curious since writing a book, especially a book where you are cooking and baking, and keeping notes of thoughts, tips, ideas, and stories, is a deeply personal experience. But then again, I wasn’t planning on writing a cut-and-dry cookbook. The book is meant to be a story, with the story running through the recipes, text, photos, and headnotes. Like Paris, and life itself, there’s everything in the book; the good, the unexpected, the quirky, the tasty, and the sublime.
Often people ask me how I work. And an editor that came to Paris once was shocked that I worked in longhand. When I start a book, I work in files, creating one for each chapter and subject. I handwrite all the recipes, and put them in those folders. Each recipe sheet is filled with information, not just with lists of ingredients and techniques, but notes, suggestions, improvements, and things to try on the next round of testing. Most recipes are tested at least three times, often more. (Because I am crazy, the tarte Tropézienne – a cake with four separate components – was tested seventeen times. Do the math – and the dishes – on that one!)
Once I’m satisfied, I type the recipe up on my computer to make documents, which I put into files named after the book chapters. Then the recipes get sent off to someone in the States, who is a good home cook and baker, which is exactly the kind of person I want because she knows what should be pointed out or clarified, and what changes I might consider making. Then I make it again. And sometimes, again.
(These croissants were enjoyed by the team that eventually came to Paris to do the photos for the book. If you want to make your own, my croissant recipe is here.)
As the deadline neared, with the help of my friend (and former editor) Susan Friedland, who came to Paris, I pulled the massive amount of notes, recipes, stories, and tips together, and made it a complete book in one giant document on my computer. Since this book has a lot of stories, and many of the stories refer to others in the book, I had to be extra-careful to make sure that if I referred to something previously, that the story actually showed up before the second mention. With 130,000 words to sort through, for a few months, I became a different person and I think my friends were conspiring to do some sort of intervention.
Word count is important and that’s specified in most writers’ contracts. My book was – gulp – thirty percent over what the publisher wanted. (If you’re not familiar with publishing, making a bigger book doesn’t just affect the physical size of the book, and the printing costs, and paper costs, but also affects packaging and shipping, things that we don’t always think about when buying a book.)
Fortunately, I have the most amazing publisher and editor in the world and they said “Fine, David. We’ll make it a bigger book.”
You can only imagine what it’s like to spend years writing, crafting each word and sentence as if each is the most important word and sentence you will ever write. Then to be told that you need to delete one-third of them. And since all the stories in my book are intertwined with each other and the recipes, that kind of edit would have made me put my head in the oven. Which I almost did for another reason, that’s recounted in the book.
Top-notch cookbook editors are an astute bunch, and know about writing recipes – and cooking – and mine, Julie Bennett, was no exception. The first edit is called a “developmental edit” where the bigger picture of the book is considered. Are some chapters too heavy and others too light? Do the chapter openings need to be expanded, or reduced? Do you need to add discussions or explanations about ingredients and equipment? Are there too many recipes and will some need to be cut? Will anyone make the frog leg-turnip omelet recipe with snail-raisin-white chocolate butter? Sometimes you need someone to reel you in, and that’s the job of the editor.
After that first edit by your editor, your book gets copy edited by someone who asks (queries) things like “When you say ‘chill,’ what do you mean?” Or “Doesn’t Dijon mustard have to have white wine in it?”, which means you have to go research all those things. (The chill one, however, I could answer without looking it up.)
They also make sure the ingredients are all listed, and in the right order, that is, listed in the order in which they’re used. And they also make sure that the recipe says when to add each one, which is a tricky task and although every cookbook author lives in fear of getting their copy edits back, it’s one of the most critical steps in writing a cookbook.
In some ways, the editing process is the least fun part of the process, because that’s when each word, comma, thought, recipe, hyphen, idea (which, of course, you think are all incredibly brilliant), conversion, and technique is challenged. Much of it makes you want to drive your head through the computer screen, but all writers need editors because, like parents – whose job it is to take care of the kids, editors mind authors. and you can thank Julie for sparing you a line about a certain physical reaction I’d had after enjoying a particularly excellent French pastry. (Her words about it were “Too much” – which she didn’t even bother to phrase as a question.)
So you make changes and answer queries on the manuscript, which are sent back and incorporated by your editor. Then the book is sent back to you, again, for another round. Those corrections should be made on a separate document and I had over a dozen pages, and here’s a snippit of just half of one page of mine that I sent back to them, to incorporate:
Aïe!..as they say in French. And that’s just for six pages of a three hundred and forty-four page book.
After going through a few rounds of the back-and-forth (and realizing that putting your fist through the wall, or sticking your head in the oven, probably aren’t the answers to your problems), your book is finally sent to a proofreader, then back to you for one last look. At this point, the type has been set and any changes need to be
minor critical. In spite of it all, there are invariably a few goofs or typos in a book (supposedly it took Julia Child ten years to iron out all the mishaps in her seminal book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.)
Writers spend days and days and days looking at the same words on the screen over and over and over again, so it’s entirely possible that when you’re scrolling through 130,000 words for fourteen hours a day for weeks on end, you might misplace an apostrophe or a comma, or get a teaspoon mixed up with a tablespoon in an ingredients list.
(It makes you crazy to find errors – but on the other hand, I just read a story in the NYT about elderly women in Northern Africa who carry giant, oversized loads on their backs, each roughly the size of a Mini Cooper, to the borders of their country three times a day for almost no pay, puts a lot of other stuff that drives me bonkers into perspective.)
When I started the book, I told my publisher that My Paris Kitchen should look and feel “real,” like Paris. The book would have to capture the stately beige buildings framed by gray-violet skies with often break open in a brilliant shade of blue, punctuated by colorful fruit tarts in bakery showcases, crates of the cherry tomatoes that no party in Paris would dare to be without, butchers trimming meaty steaks, and colorful clementines tumbling forth at the markets.
I wanted to show the splendor of the Seine and the grand boulevards, as well as the multicultural neighborhoods with their vibrant grocers, whose aisles I love strolling down, sniffing out spices, and where I get my nuts and dried fruits. And, like the streets of Paris, it’s not possible to replicate that anywhere else and we needed to shoot the food in my Paris kitchen, since that is what the book is about.
So photographer Ed Anderson flew to Paris with his camera and gear, and we met up for lunch, tentatively checking each other out. I assumed that Ed would be experiencing jet lag, since he had just arrived that morning. But he had his camera in hand, ready and eager to go. I wasn’t sure what to make of this shy, understated fellow who was going to be shooting my book, who I’d never met. But I was a big fan of the pictures he took for other books with my publisher, Bitters and My Sweet Mexico, and had a feeling he was the right guy to capture the moods of Paris, and the textures of la cuisine française.
After we finished circling each other that afternoon, we quickly hit our groove together by the middle of the first day of photographing in my kitchen, and we spent a little over a week shooting everything I could cook and bake, along with Valerie Aikman-Smith, a food stylist from Los Angeles, who not only had awesome celebrity gossip, but was an ace cook and co-worker. (It was kind of funny because before she arrived, we spoke on the phone and she told me that she was planning on bringing a bunch of equipment, like knives and tools, because food stylists have to be ready for anything. When I told her that I had about six of everything that she was planning to tote along, I heard an audible sigh of relief on the other end of the line.)
A food stylist doesn’t just put food in front of a camera, he or she also shops and cooks the dishes. At the start, Valerie handed me a list of recipes she wanted me to make (mostly the desserts), which I was happy to do because since the recipes are mine, I would be the best person to make them for the pictures.
(Sometimes food stylists take liberties with recipes and as an author, when your recipe calls for “chopped almonds”, and the picture that ends up in the book shows whole almonds because someone thought they looked nicer, you take out your crystal ball and see the messages coming into your Inbox, asking if indeed, the almost should be chopped, or added whole.)
Since I’m often working by my lonesome self in the kitchen nowadays, unlike when I worked in restaurants, it was a pleasure to work side-by-side with her in my kitchen. We coordinated and divided up the tasks according to who excelled at what, Valerie using her food-stylist skills to get nice grill marks on les croques monsieurs, making sure the caramel sauce on the caramel ribs looked as shiny in the photo that winds up in the book as it did when it came out of my oven, and all that ridiculously good crackly skin on the counterfeit duck confit (which doesn’t require three to five quarts of duck fat, or four days of work), to look as succulent as possible.
(Photo from My Paris Kitchen, by Ed Anderson)
Ed is great at capturing all those little things about food that make it appetizing, such as drips in bowls, and sauce scrapes in pans. Whenever I tried to clean something up for the camera, and put it before him, I could sense that he preferred that I hadn’t made that final pass over the food to make sure it looked okay. Then, one day, he said to me, “The messier it gets, the better it’ll be.” Which has become my mantra. So much so, that I wrote it down and keep his words around as a constant reminder in my kitchen.
After realizing that even my large refrigerator – at least by Paris standards – wasn’t able to hold all the food that we were amassing for the shoot (in spite of hitting the markets first thing every morning), Romain came to the rescue and brought over his fridge, too. We stockpiled a lot of food and though it’s been almost a year, I’m set for the next decade on Dijon mustard, green lentils, fleur de sel, and pomegranate molasses.
(Photo from My Paris Kitchen, by Ed Anderson)
Although you’d never know it from our banter (and post-production rosé consumption), we were a team of serious food professionals, and a schedule was drawn up, which was necessary because some of my friends featured in the book came by to cook their dishes that appear in the book with me. One was my friend Beena, who makes a tasty naan fromage (cheese-filled Indian flatbread), and Paule, a friend who not only shared her family recipe for gnocchis à la Parisienne, but provided some lively banter, which I recount in the book.
(Hint: She didn’t like my flour, cookware, or cutlery. But we’re still friends.)
As we cooked our way through the week, Ethel Brennan, who came to Paris from San Francisco, rifled though the markets for plates, boards, and silverware, to add to my own stash of housewares for the photos. I also raided the in-laws’ apartment because their dinnerware is incredible, and most readers of my blog have seen all my plates and forks and it was time to show ya something new. (Even if “new” means a French plate that is two hundred years old.)
A fluent French-speaker, and married to a Frenchman, Ethel helped Valerie navigate the French supermarket check-outs, which – as I recount in the book (page 65) – can be a terrifying experience. Even though she’s worked with some pretty high-maintenance celebrities and celebrity chefs (which I hope doesn’t include me!), Valerie confessed that she couldn’t bring herself face the poker-faced cashiers at the supermarket after her second visit. She’d made the mistake of trying to pay for things without having exact change, and had been reprimanded for doing so. Looking back, I guess I should have warned her.
In my kitchen, there was another warning, one that I made absolutely clear from the start: Do not touch David’s peanut M&M’s.
But I did share my bottles of rosé, which we kept opening for photos, and had to finish off during our meals and breaks. (Oddly, no matter how full my refrigerator was, we always seemed to find room in it for another bottle of rosé.)
So we cooked and cooked, and baked, and frosted for the week. I made a massive cassoulet, stuffed sandwiches with homemade duck terrine with figs (page 113), and kept the wine – and coffee – flowing.
Equally fun was heading out as a little group in Paris, hitting my favorite markets, stopping for couscous, enjoying plates of charcuterie at wine bars, before collapsing in our respective beds at the end of each day.
Picking out the cover shot of a cookbook is a very important decision. It’s the first impression people have of a book, and it needs to convey as much as it can in one succinct image. I didn’t want my mug on the cover, but thought that somehow, I needed to be on there in a less in-ya-face way. After all, the title has “my kitchen” in it, and I didn’t want a shot that could have been taken anywhere. But because so many books are featured on the web nowadays, in addition to wanting to stand out on crowded bookstore shelves, I thought it’d be nice to have a bold image that was simple, straightforward, and clean that looked good online, too.
After I pulled the mustard chicken off the stove, with the rich sauce simmering and bubbling away around the sautéed pieces of chicken in one of my heavy copper pans, I grabbed one of the kitchen towels that I’d picked up at a flea market, hefted the copper pan up with both hands, pointed it in the direction of Ed, and said “Yo, Ed – how about this?”
(Photo from My Paris Kitchen, by Ed Anderson)
Ed looked at me, tentatively grabbed his camera, and after taking a few snaps from a few different angles, did a little cropping and mock-up on his laptop. And when I saw what he did, I said – “That’s the cover!”
The picture said 1) French cuisine, 2) Home cooking, and 3) Yours truly – all at once. And we all agreed.
(I once had a mock-up of the cover of one of my books sent to me, and as it downloaded on my computer screen, actual tears – not of joy – started downloading from my eyes simultaneously.)
After all the photos were shot, everyone split to return home. And a few weeks later, I got the “pages” back from the publisher (sheets of paper resembling the book), I took on the task of indicating on each page of my manuscript where each photo should go, and with what recipe or story.
The designer at Ten Speed Press, Betsy Stromberg, provided an amazing look to the book – clean and classic, not detracting from the text or photos, but complimenting them. It said “Paris”, but wasn’t fussy – and let the pictures, rather than a bunch of design elements, tell the story. Normally I nit-pick everything because I’m that way. But aside for maybe one or two minor suggestions, she’d landed on exactly what I was looking (and hoping) for.
Reviewing and matching the photos was a pretty daunting task – and even though I knew the recipes and stories by heart, with over thirty sheets of pictures, with sixteen photos on each, the project took over my kitchen counter as I spent a couple of weeks matching the pictures up with the text, scratching notes to my editor and the designer with a red pen as to where they should go. It made me a little loony, but I wanted to ensure that the pictures, the stories, and the recipes all corresponded with each other.
Enfin, the moment arrived in March, that special moment when a copy of your book lands at your front door, and you slip that very first copy out of the large envelope. And you kind of can’t believe it. Then, a few months later, a few boxes of books arrive to confirm that the finished book actually exists.
It’s always a thrill when you tear open that carton and face that stack of shiny new books, the result of two years of writing, editing, and cooking. (However the work on the apartment, I’m sure will be finished, someday…)
But there you have it, your book – and mine!