How to Write Like a Top Chef: Get a Ghostwriter

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Gwyneth Paltrow poses as she signs copies of her cookbook, "My Father's Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family & Togetherness" on April 21, 2011 in Beverly Hills, California. The actress has denied using a ghostwriter.

Rachael Ray is so congenitally nice that it would seem nearly impossible to annoy her, but the New York Times has found a way. On March 13, dining section reporter Julia Moskin published an essay about her own and others' experiences ghostwriting cookbooks. The article's suggestion that stars like Ray and Gwyneth Paltrow might not write their own books outraged the two women in question. One barrage of tweets (Sample from Paltrow: "No ghost writer on my cookbook, I wrote every word myself.") and several indignant morning show appearances later, the controversy hasn't died down. Ray and Paltrow continue to defend their authorship and demand a correction from the Times, while the paper — fanning the polemic by implicating not only ghostwriting but "ghost cooking" — is standing by its story.

Lost in the brouhaha is the fact that most restaurant chefs don't want to write their own books. With 16-hour days to endure and Michelin stars to maintain, most would no sooner write their own cookbooks than forge their own knives. And it's not just a question of time management. Notorious perfectionists, many cooks recognize that their skills in the kitchen do not extend to the page. "Why would I write my own book? " ask Thomas Keller, the culinary genius behind Per Se and The French Laundry. "I'm a chef, not a writer." For him and others cooking at the upper echelons of the food industry, a co-author is a source of salvation rather than embarrassment.

That doesn't mean the relationship is uncomplicated. No one asked Mark Vancil, Michael Jordan's ghostwriter, to take a few shots during the NBA playoffs. Charles Leerhsen, Donald Trump's co-author, never had to close a multi-billion dollar deal. But for the writers who help chefs explain themselves it's not enough to capture accurately the voices, techniques, and inspirations of the apron-clad. They must also translate the chef's work in a way that, at least while we're turning pages and contemplating our next dinner party, makes us believe we can do it too.

How do they do it? Chemistry helps. Author Michael Ruhlman has written the introduction and headnotes for all four of Keller's cookbooks (Susie Heller wrote the recipes), and he recalls that from their first meeting, the two men clicked. That helps explain why Ruhlman found it easy to tell Keller's stories — like the famous one about the time he ordered up a dozen live rabbits only to realize that he didn't actually know how to kill them — in the chef's voice. "It's like doing impersonations," he says. "Some people are good at impersonating Christopher Walken. I happen to be good at Thomas Keller."

Impersonation is easier when the chef has a distinctive way of speaking. Peter Meehan was friends with David Chang of the Momofuku empire of restaurants by the time the two began to collaborate, so he was familiar with the chef's speech patterns. "Dave likes to start a conversation with a short, bombastic sentence," Meehan says. "And he likes to split infinitives with ["an expletive"]. If you do those two things you pretty much sound like Dave Chang."

For Andrew Friedman, who has collaborated on 20 chefs' books, learning to sound like his chefs sometimes requires a bit of method acting. He uses music to help him capture a personality — listening to the Cure while writing the forthcoming book of Paul Liebrandt (Corton), and turning up the Puccini when it was Pino Luongo (Il Cantinori). He often finds himself cooking in the style of his chef as well. "When I'm deep into a book, I want to cook and eat the way the person I'm working with does. When I was working with Tom Valenti, I kept breaking out the white vinegar and bacon, and doing all these long braises. It was very weird and Zeligy."

During the time that Bon Appetit executive editor Christine Muhlke was collaborating with Eric Ripert on his third cookbook, On the Line, she actually worked the poaching station at his restaurant Le Bernardin in Manhattan. "The book was a portrait of the restaurant as a whole, so I felt that I had to," she says. "But it was terrifying. Everything has to be perfect and you have two minutes to do it. It was like one of those nightmares where someone is trying to kill you but you can't make your legs work fast enough to run away."

Yet getting into character is never enough; the cookbook collaborator must also translate the chef's voice into instructions that can be followed by someone who hasn't spent the better part of his youth chopping onions. When Rick Flaste began ghostwriting for the late Pierre Franey (the chef-turned-columnist who wrote the Times' The 60-Minute Gourmet), he didn't know much about cooking, and began taking classes on the side from culinary educator Peter Kump to raise his skill level. "Sometimes Peter would explain things in a way that I found particularly helpful, and so I'd run it by Pierre, and if he was okay with it, it would go in as his."

The technical phrase for this is "dumbing down," and chefs, who spend their careers doing things the hard way, often fight it. Yet because publishers insist that recipes be accessible to readers, the writer frequently has to mediate. The most common dispute is over measurements — chefs use metric because it's more precise — but there are other sources of tension too.

"Very early on, I'll have what I call the 'tripe conversation,'" says Friedman. "Chefs love tripe, but home cooks see it as complicated and a little gross. I have to insist on only one tripe recipe per book." And it's not just about what gets left out. Joanne Smart has collaborated with Gordon Hammersley (of Boston's Hammersley's Bistro) and Scott Conant (Scarpetta) on their cookbooks, and admits to sometimes playing bad cop with both. But never more so when she insisted, in a concession to the home cook's fallback dish, that Boston chef Barbara Lynch (No. 9 Park) include a recipe for a boneless chicken breast — an ingredient that many chefs consider hopelessly banal — in their book Stir. "I think she still blames me for that."

Certainly a tough hide is a valuable commodity in a culinary ghostwriter. Yet given the high temperatures and hotter tempers of the average kitchen, what's more remarkable is how many chefs and co-authors maintain close friendships. For the writers, the work grants them access to the closed subculture and battlefield-like camaraderie of the professional kitchen. Added bonus: it even imparts valuable cooking lessons. "I'm embarassed to say how often I cook from that book," says Meehan of the Momofuku cookbook. "I've made those rice cakes a million times."

The relationship can be just as rewarding for the chefs. Liebrandt appreciated the chance to talk to a civilian who understands what chefs do. "I found myself telling him things about my life I had never told anyone," he recalls. "I learned a lot about myself."

Ripert learned even more when, for his second book, he took his then-collaborator Ruhlman to France for a little improvisation. The two started each day at the market, and ended it in the kitchen as the chef developed new dishes and submitted them to the writer for approval. "Until then, I never believed I had talent," Ripert recalls. "But when we were doing that book, I remember thinking, 'Holy crap, this is delicious! It gave me incredible confidence."

It's the nature of celebrity to lure us into believing that we know our stars, which is why it makes sense that pop culture figures like Ray and Paltrow would want to reassure their audiences that what they see (or read) is what they get. But serious restaurant chefs — the ones who make us wonder if food can be art — are still allowed a degree of mystery. Their brand of cooking is far enough from that bowl of pasta we whipped up last night that we accept that we need a translator, the writer who can act as both the magician amazing us with marvels and the wiseguy in the audience pulling away the curtain.

Which is why many of chefs' co-writers, even those with their names on the cover, still pride themselves on their ability to shapeshift. "Chefs will come up to me and say 'I didn't know you wrote that book,'" says Friedman. "To me, that's a compliment. If I'm doing my job right, I'm invisible."