The Thimbleberry Inn’s executive chef, Guillaume Portes, was sensational. He took the modest kitchen of this even more modest inn, and using local produce and game, and with a flair for the dramatic, created a menu that drew local, regional and even national attention, in ever widening spirals of epicurean and gastronomic success.
Now, fresh back from a guest appearance on a cable cooking show, Guillaume received a call from a publisher, asking if he would be interested in writing a cookbook: “Everyone loves your food. You’re a genius. If you write a cookbook we could sell millions.”
Guillaume at first was skeptical, “Me, write a cookbook? But I know nothing of writing!”
“Don’t worry,” said the publisher. “I’ll set you up with our best editor, Frank Morris. Frank knows writing. He does all of our celebrity books. It will be a wonderful collaboration.”
A few months later and the cookbook was almost ready to publish. The review copies went out in expectation of rave flap blurbs. But what came back…well…it wasn’t quite what they had expected:
- Complaints that the Inn’s most popular dishes were not included. “Why did you leave out your most popular dish, the Pecan Stuffed Pheasant?”
- Reports that some recipes were missing steps in their instructions, or that the specified ingredient amounts were vague, missing or incorrect. “One spoon of salt? It would help if you were more specific. Tablespoon or teaspoon?”
- Some recipes had ingredients listed that did not seem to be used in the recipe. “What do I use the scallions for? They are listed as ingredients, but nothing explains how or when they are used.”
- Observations that some instruction steps were vague or relied on unusual sources of information. “How are we to interpret a recipe step that says ‘Cook it like Aunt Mable used to cook it’ !”
- Recipes were missing sauces or said simply, “Add your own sauce.” But the Thimbleberry Inn was famous for their sauces. How could any one replicate their dishes if the recipe for their signature thimbleberry sauce was omitted?
- A huge number of typographical errors, broken references, inconsistencies, etc., that showed that the preparation of the cookbook was hasty and lacked sufficient review.
The publisher was confused. The editor was aghast. Guillaume was furious. How could the reviewers do this to us? Back stabbers! How dare they! These dishes are the finest in the country. Everyone who comes to the Inn loves and praises them. Look at the restaurant reviews! Look at my prize medals! Surely the reviewers must be in league with my competitor, the evil Gooseberry Inn, and are merely trying to prevent my book from selling!
The greatest dose of abuse was reserved for those reviewers who reported the greatest number of problems.
As the imprecations grew more passionate, and the volume and temperature rose, a timid voice arose from the back of the room, saying, “Uh, but are they right?”
The room grew silent as Fred Osgood, an old-timer, once editor-in-chief, but now on the verge of retirement, spoke his mind:
I’ve been in this business quite a while, as you all know. I’ve edited cookbooks before, plenty of them. None for a client as big as the Thimbleberry Inn, but the ones I did edit received good reviews and were modest successes in their day.
Frank, I don’t think you’ve ever edited a cookbook in your life, have you? I didn’t think so. The thing you need to know is that cookbooks require careful technical review as well as standard editing. Just because a chef is talented, or a restaurant is popular does not guarantee that the recipes and the cookbook are good. A recipe is not a dish. There is a lot of time and hard work required to turn Guillaume’s natural genius in the kitchen into something that readers of our cookbook can replicate in their own kitchens.
Back when I edited cookbooks, I made sure that we set up a test kitchen and verified every step of every recipe. We cooked, revised, and cooked again until we could say that every recipe worked as written.
I have no doubt that Guillaume can cook every one of these dishes from memory and get it right every time. I don’t think any of us can question that. But that is not the important question. The cookbook is not for Guillaume’s benefit. The question we need to ask is whether our readers can cook these dishes using these recipes. In other words, are the recipes relevant, complete and accurate? This is what makes writing a cookbook different than cooking, and this is where we have failed our readers. The reputation of the Thimbleberry Inn as well as this publishing house depends on us doing this right. We need to send this cookbook back for full and proper technical review.
The room was silent for a minute, as the others gazed at their feet. Then a smirk came over Guillaume’s face and he struck his fist loudly on the table, stood up and said:
But I need this cookbook now! We must do a better job at finding good reviewers. Let’s throw out the reviews we have so far. Let me give you the names of some of my friends, partners and former colleagues. Don’t even bother sending them a review copy. They don’t need to read it. They’ve all eaten at the Inn. They know how good my food is. Just have them fax over their reviews. Let’s get moving, gentlemen! The 2nd edition of the Gooseberry Inn’s cookbook is due out any month now. We can’t be left behind!
Old Fred silently collected his things and left via the back door, muttering.