When you think of authorities on Lowcountry, even Southern cooking, the Matt and Ted Lee, also known as the Lee Bros’ are among the short list of names that instantly come to mind. That’s why last month, at our SAVEUR Blog Awards 2017 workshop on cookbook writing, they joined the likes of Nathalie Dupree and our own test kitchen director Stacy Adimando as expert panelists.
Though they weren’t always cookbook authors—their earliest ventures included selling simple, Charleston-style boiled peanuts to restaurants and bars in New York City—their three cookbooks, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook (2007), The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern (2009) and The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen (2013) have won considerable acclaim, including several James Beard and IACP awards.
In 2012, they decided to offer their wisdom to the masses by launching an annual two-day, intensive Cookbook Bootcamp hosted in Charleston, South Carolina for both professional chef and confident kitchen pros ready to share their recipes with the world. About 70 people have attended the camp, with four going on to publish national hardcovers and more working on projects to be published in the near future.
We chatted with Matt and Ted about their favorite cookbook projects, tips for getting started, and how to join Cookbook Bootcamp.
What is the hardest thing about writing a cookbook?
Matt Lee: Getting started on the process. And not because pen-to-paper is difficult, nor is the task of creating a cookbook proposal the formidable obstacle it may seem (they’re supposed to be brief). Rather, it’s because the thinking and conceptualizing requires confronting some personal demons: in the case of a chef, you have to decide will you write the book yourself, or do you need to hire someone else as a collaborator?
Ted: In the case of the blogger and historian, it’s how will I frame my book in relation to my past work—is it a reincarnation of that material, or a step forward in some way? These are tough questions that you have to ask yourself, or to hash out with a trusted advisor who knows your world and the publishing side, too.
Do you need to be a professional chef to write a cookbook? What level of culinary skill would you say is required, if any, to write a cookbook?
Matt: Fortunately it’s not necessary to have a particular credential in food publishing, even if your goal is to publish nationally and win awards—think Julia Child, Deb Perelman, or…the Lee Bros. For everyone who chooses to write a cookbook (whether it’s published privately, locally or nationally), the chief requirement is for you to be able to throw yourself into the project unreservedly for a sustained period of time: there are a lot of scientific and linguistic rigors that demand focus and attention to detail if you want the recipes to work and be consistent.
Ted: In fact, professional chefs often have a tougher time with cookbook writing and recipe development because the world of home cooking (the dominant audience for cookbooks is regular home cooks like us) is so very different from chefs’ everyday work environment in terms of space, ingredients, cooking devices, techniques, shopping, washing up, and even in the vocabulary used to describe foods and tools.
How do you handle cookbook photography?
Ted: In this era, even the biggest publishers expect the author to art-direct, produce, manage and pay for the photo shoot—while the publisher still has final approval on the images and often the photographer selection. It is a flawed system, but if you can embrace the challenge, the photo shoot can be the most fun part of producing the cookbook. We make it fun and have some strategies for keeping costs under control.
Where do you suggest cutting costs in producing the cookbook?
Matt: Not in the photography! The photographer and food stylist will be expensive, but worth it. There are few corners to cut in modern cookbook publishing—this document is going to be a permanent monument to your work that lingers in the world long after you’re gone. It can’t suck!
Ted: We actually recommend making smart investments in the book beyond what the publisher might be prepared to do, like paying out of pocket for independent professional recipe testing, to make sure the recipes work and to try to eliminate errors. If you are privately publishing and can afford it, we recommend hiring an editor. Bootstrapping an efficient and productive photo shoot and an efficient and productive book tour are the main opportunities to optimize the investments we are making.
What’s your favorite cookbook that you’ve worked on?
Ted: The process of republishing “The Princess Pamela Soul Food Cookbook” (Rizzoli, April 2017) was satisfying in so many ways: the sleuthing into Strobel’s biography, the re-testing a set of rare Southern recipes dating to before WWII, the collaboration with the designers, the (successful!) search for archival images, compiling playlists, delving into East Village history, and so much more. She was an American phenomenon, and thousands of people reached out to try to connect with that experience and assist the reissuing of her cookbook. The response to the book was unlike anything we’d ever experienced!
If you’re hoping to get your cookbook picked up by a major publisher, get an agent first. They don’t cost anything out of pocket, and they will certainly get you a multiple more than the 15% they take.
Find an agent by sending your proposal to a long list of them. Where to get that list? Authors thank their agents on the acknowledgements page; pull your best cookbooks down off the shelf and make that list.
You are at your most powerful when your proposal is done and you are shopping it around—don’t take an editor’s premature interest in you to the bank. Editors are motivated by great cookbook ideas but also by the fear that their competitors will grab you before they do. Keep hope alive, don’t shut anyone out, but ideally you want interest from multiple editors (managed by your agent). Also, ask the tough, convention-bending questions now, when you’re powerful, before inking the deal: once you sign, you transform into a burden to the winning editor and persona non grata to the underbidding editors.
Every step in the process can be outsourced. Writers for the proposal and manuscript, recipe-developers to transform your stained binder of material into something publishable, testers to make sure the recipes work, art directors to run the photo shoot—you name it, there are plenty of talented and eager freelancers out there who would be thrilled to work on your project and won’t charge an arm and a leg. In fact, if it’s the difference between getting the cookbook done well and it never happening at all, spending money on publishing teammates may be the best value in the world.
Once you get the book deal, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can find the time to develop the cookbook interstitially, between work and family obligations: commit yourself to getting it done in a cohesive, sustained way that allows you to immerse yourself in the world of your book. Take a sabbatical, ruin your summer, just find the weeks and months necessary to make it great—it takes less time ultimately to do the hardest work, the recipe development, all in one marathon.