Published December 18, 2008
If you are deciding whether or not to go to cooking school, the best thing you can do is read Michael Ruhlman’s Making of a Chef. Michael Ruhlman rose to the top of the food writing world with his first hand account of going to cooking school at the famous (or infamous) Culinary Institute of America.
I plowed through that book and onto the next (Soul of a chef) in record time and made the decision to go to the CIA, so I went through the enrollment procedure and booked a trip to visit the campus. But when I arrived for a tour the school had changed from its glory days. It is beautiful and full of talented chef instructors and I was excited to lend some real world newspaper experience to the student-run Papillote, but when the tour guide started with bragging about alumni developing flavours at Baskin Robins and Lay’s potato chips, not to mention the executive chef at McDonalds graduated from the CIA… my image of the school shattered. I flew and drove from the other side of the continent to hear that the Executive chef of McDonalds went to the CIA? Are you nuts?
They didn’t mention Anthony Bourdain, Michael Symon, Sara Moulton or any of the other hundreds of world class chefs that came from there.
Shortly afterwards, I discovered that both students and staff had signed a petition of ‘No-confidence’ for the school President. Claiming the school was too focused on churning out line cooks to fill the growing need in big franchise establishments.
At the same time I decided the standard two-year program was too long to put everything on hold, so instead I opted for an expedited 6-month program. The French Culinary Institute in NYC seemed like the perfect spot to gain culinary confidence and meet some great industry people.
Coincidentally I wound up back in Vancouver, a little depressed about not going to the CIA and stumbled across Michael Ruhlman at a book signing in Granville Island. I told him I gave up on the CIA and was going for the French Culinary Institute. He said it didn’t matter where you went as long as you learned the basics. Recharged by his vote of confidence, I enrolled in the FCI sight-unseen(since I had already spent a mint on flying to the CIA).
Published December 18, 2008
So, I quit my job at the newspaper, packed up some cookbooks and promised Candace I would be good.
Then off I went to live in NYC to become a cook.
Some of the highlights of being in NYC include meeting some amazing chefs and industry professionals. Hey Jefferey Steingarten, remember the time I stopped you on the street near Union Square Market and stuttered at you about how I’m a big fan? Let’s do that again sometime…
But seriously the instructors were spectacular, the school is incredibly well respected in the industry and the confidence boost you get from actually learning to cook is invaluable.
Getting face time with people like Dorothy Hamilton, the founder of the school and Alan Richman, food editor of GQ and dean of food writing helped to build major confidence. Getting the opportunity to intern for David Arnold in the food tech department was a hilarious insight into many aspects of the food world beyond the kitchen. Hands-on learning from talented chefs with amazing credentials like Chef Michelle, personal chef to an un-named A-list celeb, Chef Lisa formerly executive chef of Whole foods, Chef Sixto undeniably one of the most energetic and inspiring chefs in the world and Chef Herve, industry heavy-weight and all-around coolest chef ever.
But name dropping aside, going to cooking school is the best way to gain culinary confidence.
At some point during the six-month stint I got an email from Robert stating something like if he didn’t publish the book he would have a mutiny with his staff.
I was apprehensively optimistic and I asked him what he meant by that. He clarified by offering a contract for the book. I accepted and we began negotiations.
Published December 18, 2008
His reply to the emailed submission was “Love your proposal…”. To say that I was excited is an understatement. Unfortunately my excitement was pre-mature.
The interview went well, I showed Robert some more sample spreads and he was very forthcoming with some great positive feedback. There was an overwhelming ‘but’ hanging in the air. He admitted that inspite of the fact that he loved the pitch, he did not think the book would ever be published. He waved a hand over a pile of pitches at the side of his desk to demonstrate just how many pitches come in all the time, indicating that my pitch had risen to the top of an impressive pile of paper. But with the way things work, he was not optimistic about it going anywhere. He was very gracious and my dissapointment was not so great that I was still happy to have made his acquaintance. He also left me with a glimmer of hope saying that he would short-list it and pitch it to the owner at their next meeting in a month or so.
We left, promising to stay in touch. Over the next couple months I held on to hope and kept sending in new sample spreads.
After sometime he called me in for another meeting and sat me down to have a somber discussion. The owner had turned down the pitch, but Robert still liked the the book. He explained how difficult the current cookbook climate was and how tough it would be to get something like this onto the shelf.
But at the same time books like Pied de Cochon and Pork & Sons were making room for illustration in the industry and new approaches were being made to cookbooks. So he said he would pitch it again and see what happened in a few months. But it was turned down for the second time.
He admitted that I had two things going against me. One, I’m a nobody. Two, I’m not even a chef.
I struggled past my second dismissal and made plans to go to cooking school.
Published November 30, 2008
After I printed out my book contract I wanted to have a shirted printed with “Ask me about my upcoming professionally published cookbook”.
Inspite of my best efforts to read m contract in public places, no one stopped to ask me if I was reading over my book contract, to which I would have happily replied “Why yes it is my first cookbook contract.” I was sure they would want to know more, but no one ever asked. So I read alongside the other coffee shop dwellers going over their screenplays, audition monologues and napkin notes for their great American-novels.
I quickly learned that it was a difficult pile of paper to navigate alone, so I pleaded with anyone that I knew had already published with Whitecap for a snippet of help.
Julie Van Rosendaal came to the rescue. We talked for hours about the ins and outs of contract negotiation, marketing and distribution. She was instrumental in getting through that contract and without her, I would have been lost in a gleeful mess of gidy delirium, just happy to have the contract. Luckily she snapped me out of the reverie and back to the hard reality of negotiating the nitty gritty.
The truth is that Canadians don’t distribute well, the advances are pretty tiny and if all goes well the best an author can hope for is to make a couple hundred bucks and maybe pay for the groceries they used to test the recipes.
In the US the have book agents and lawyers who handle that sort of thing, but here in Canada we rely on the decency of others and thankfully there was someone like Julie to help me out. She’s getting a free copy, that’s for sure, and for a nominal fee, I might even sign it for her.
Published November 30, 2008
There are quite a few things to consider when pitching a book.
First and foremost, do you have what it takes to pitch a book to a publisher? This is a tough thing to look at objectively.
Consider this… a publisher gets hundreds of pitches a week, some are decent, many are crap and some have a glimmer of a chance.
Consider now what those glimmering chances are up against. The cookbook industry is becoming increasingly saturated with celebrity-chef cookbooks, celebrity-restaurant cookbooks and celebrity-spouses cookbooks… all of them have loyal followings, professional photographers and recipe testers and even those books are not selling all that well. Additionally, the book industry as a whole is up against the internet, an endless parade of recipes from granny’s secret jelly salad recipe to molecular-gastronomical anomalies with step by step instructions, and the amount of online food porn is almost overtaking the amount of actual online porn. Having a great idea is not enough to hold up against such insurmountable odds.
Also consider that in Canada, after you pay for recipe testing, photography or illustration and marketing the book, you will be lucky to make enough for a pack of Timbits. In the US you are probably fine as long as you get a good advance, but then you will also be paying an agent to find you a publisher in the first place and you will be publishing up against Michael Ruhlman, Thomas Keller and legions of other icredibly talented writers and chefs.
If you decide you still want to pitch a cookbook, the next step is to choose a publisher. Don’t pick two or three, choose one. Things work differently in the US, where you need an agent, but here in Canada most publishers have a submission guideline.
I chose Whitecap as my target publisher after looking at my own cookbook collection and counting the number of spines that said Whitecap. I also happened to know they were Canadian and conveniently located in beautiful North Vancouver where my mom lives. My mom trills at the thought of maybe one day getting to meet Bill Granger, one of Whitecap’s big names.
So went to their website to get their submission guidelines.
Published November 11, 2008
While I was attending the French Culinary Institute in NYC, Candace would make the long trip from Alberta to visit. On one such visit we were wandering the streets of Soho shopping and eating. I was telling her about all the celeb-spotting around town. So when I saw Michael C. Hall from Dexter and she missed him completely, she was determined to see an A-list celeb within the next four blocks. The next eight blocks went by unadorned by celebrities and she was becoming less amused by my false sighting (eg: Keanu Reeves is a large black woman, Sarah Jessica Parker is an Asian business man, etc). Her frustration turned to hunger.
We stopped at a nifty health place in Soho, she took the seat facing the window so she could maintain her celebrity vigile. When she non-chalantly spotted Kevin Bacon, I didn’t bother to look, imagining it must be a tall woman with braids or a large man with a beard. But she kept looking and became convinced that it actually was her childhood footloose infatuation. So when the same person walked into our restaurant, she squealed to discover that it was actually Kevin Bacon.
But when Kevin Bacon sat down beside Candace at the adjoining table, her excitement turned to terror. The man that had been waiting for Kevin at the table beside us had witnessed our entire exchange. Trying to talk with Candace while she sat beside Kevin Bacon was impossible, so I asked for the bill and when she arrived I pulled out my wallet to pay. As I looked at the pen in one hand and my vinyl bacon-printed wallet in the other something dawned on me.
I leaned towards Candace and said “How could I not?”
She steeled herself for the inevitable and determined it would be safer if she went to the washroom. When she left I asked Kevin Bacon to sign my bacon wallet. He was reluctant, but his friend blurted out with laughter “It’s a bacon wallet!”.
Kevin thoughtfully wrote “Pierre, give me money. Kevin Bacon.”
When Candace came back I waited until we were outside to show her and she cried tears of laughter, joy and relief.
That night we watched ‘Footloose’.
Published October 30, 2008
My best friend (who shall remain lovingly nameless) decided to pitch a book at the same time. A great seasonal market book complete with comprehensive preserving methods. She comes from a long line of Italian eaters and she has worked in big name newspapers across Canada for years. Here husband is an equally talented photographer and the two of them make a great eating pair.
Her close friend David Steele, co-auhtor of Cooking with Booze was kind enough to show her the pitch that landed them the contract with Whitecap. She was kind enough to show it to me.
We both put together our recipe lists, intro pages, and sample spreads to send in according to Whitecap’s guidelines and inspired by David and Ryan’s pitch.
When I say that it’s a tough business, it’s a tough business. My best friend did not hear back from Whitecap and she is a incredibly talented and capable individual, but because of the industry, not everyone is able to get past the pitching stage.
I was lucky enough to get a call back from Robert McCullough, the publisher at Whitecap. He set up an interview the following week.
All I can say is, thank goodness we’re still friends.