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Reading Food : Ghostwriter Adds Pounds in the Line of Duty

November 08, 1990|HELENE SIEGEL | Helene Siegel, co-author of "City Cuisine" (Morrow), is currently writing "The Ethnic Kitchen" (HarperCollins)

Do you ever wonder how today's superstar chefs keep up their hectic pace? How they manage to cook at two or three restaurants a night, be consultants to a slew of others, appear on the "Today" show and write cookbooks while most of us mortals, holding down one measly job, can barely drag ourselves home and dial takeout?

Simple. Like all good executives, they delegate.

Here is how the typical chef's cookbook gets written: First, the big-name chef, usually owner of a hot restaurant, finds a publisher who is willing to take a flier on a book representing a restaurant that may or may not be around in the time it takes to publish a book--two to three years.

Once that book has an editor, he or she usually suggests that the chef find a writer. Cookbook writing is an arduous, painstaking process that the busy chef may not have time for. Many chefs, however, ignore that advice, perhaps because they truly believe they will somehow find the time to do one more thing. If progress isn't made in about six months, the chef will usually remember his editor's sage advice and find a ghostwriter--quickly.

Since each collaboration is unique, the job of the ghostwriter varies from project to project. In the case of "City Cuisine," the book I ghosted, the division of labor was clear. The chefs did the cooking and I did the writing.

That meant they cooked each of the 350 recipes in the book, while I watched and recorded each recipe. We worked intensively, testing five or six recipes a day during the peak lunch hours in the restaurant's kitchen--not exactly the reference room at the public library.

Restaurant kitchens are a little larger than the average walk-in closet. They are not air-conditioned and there is a deadline every three minutes. So while I was begging the chefs to measure out every last one-quarter teaspoon of salt and to tell me slowly and carefully how to improvise a stove-top smoker, they and all the other cooks were responding to the urgent needs of 100 or so diners who needed to eat well and get back to the office before 3 o'clock. Flames were flying on all sides while I wanted to know the correct way to trim an asparagus spear.

Because of the pressures in such an atmosphere, scary things can happen. Kitchen workers occasionally do chop off their fingers or step into scalding stockpots and get rushed to the hospital--quite an eye-opener for a writer and publishing executive used to nothing more dangerous than a jammed Xerox machine. As a result, I am cured of any desire to work in a restaurant.

After testing the day's recipes, and tasting them, I would go home, digest and collapse. When I woke up, I wrote the day's recipes and made notes about my impressions for later inclusion in the text portion of the book. Once all of the recipes had been tested and written, I interviewed the chefs one more time to gather their thoughts on their food for the introductory material. Six months after taking on the project, I was weary and 10 pounds heavier, but we had a cookbook.

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