How to Write a French Cookbook
A Writer’s Dream
I will never forget the morning I received an email from an established cookbook publisher and immediately deleted it, convinced it was a scam. They wrote asking me to write a beginner French cookbook for sale and promotion nationwide. I quickly scanned the email, deleted it, and began my day as usual.
While at work, I kept thinking about the email. It haunted me the entire day. In the past, I had received many emails like this. Most offered massive exposure, fame, and fortune if only I would write 100 recipes in 1 week for free. They all seemed too good to be true; they always were. But this one felt different, more real. I kept circling back to why me – why would they choose an unknown to write the book.
The next morning, I called the publisher and was reassured several times that the offer was legit. I slipped into a Walter Mitty daydream of flying to France to research which classic dishes to include in the book. Envisioning myself seated at a traditional Parisian brasserie tucking into a plate of beef bourguignon with a carafe of red wine nearby. I may have been wearing a beret and had a baguette strategically positioned under my arm, but the dream didn’t last long enough to flush that scenario out. Awakened abruptly by the voice on the other end of the call calling out my name. ‘Francois? Francois, are you there?’ The representative continued, there was a small catch. The schedule was tight and needed a quick turnaround. I would have to begin work immediately if I wanted the deal.
The schedule called for 75 recipes plus numerous more hidden away in the sidebars and notes within three (3!) weeks, ok maybe they could stretch it out to four. It worked out to 25 recipes per week plus all the recipe intros, chapter intros, sidebars, and other words that constitute a book. All while working a full-time job and caring for my family. I went from flattered to overwhelmed in all of 2 seconds. It was true that I had spent the better part of my adult life cooking professionally. And a good chunk of that time was spent in French kitchens cooking the very food that was the book’s focus. Still, four (4) weeks was hardly enough time to research and test a book properly. I mumbled it was possible and agreed. My outward confidence belied the fact that I felt besieged and afraid.
The publisher asked that I submit a recipe list and introduction within three (3) days. Then I would discuss it with the editor they assigned to me. Several friends assured me that I had been cooking for 30 years, and these recipes were surely tucked away in my head somewhere. Hell, I probably had forgotten more recipes than I remembered. It was true. Most of these recipes were dishes I made so often they felt like they were mine. Still, this felt very daunting.
I spent the next few days compiling the list of the 75 most common (and easiest to make) classic French dishes you would find in a Parisian bistro or maybe at someone’s home. It turned out to be much harder than expected. The well of classic French cuisine may run deep, but how do you select which 75 recipes would best define a food-centric nation’s culinary output in 163 pages? Sure, there were several easy choices like coq au vin, beef bourguignon, eclairs, and crepes. But what about the rest of the book?
Enter the Editor
An introduction was made to my new editor the day after I turned my list in. I had blogged for years and never felt the need for an editor. Honestly, I was always too narrowly focused on the finish line rather than producing polished content. I was like a horse with blinders on. A professional writer friend once tried to intervene on my behalf and help. But the complicated task of turning my jibberish into prose drove him crazy. I later heard that he escaped to the Philippines to hide in the jungle, as far as possible from my bad writing style.
Let me tell you from this side of the published book world; an editor is worth their weight in gold. At times it felt like being reprimanded in Sunday school and having an angry nun smack my knuckles with a wooden ruler. Ultimately, good editors are hard and demanding but also care a lot about your book and want it to succeed.
The Writing and Testing
I quickly fell into the daily cadence of trying to bang out five (5) recipes per night. My first drafts always sounded more like the kitchen shorthand I was more intimate with using. The language was sparse, often leaving out the necessary fluff that makes a recipe book-worthy. The second pass added the much-needed colour. I filled in the blanks like which pot to use or what intensity of heat to melt butter for a bechamel sauce.
The editor had an eagle’s eye that made it impossible to hide bad grammar and punctuation. The first few chapters flowed out fairly quickly as I gained confidence. I quickly learned that a bottle of wine helped the ink flow more freely from my pen. It all came crashing down after I sent in chapter 6, which I elicited a stern rebuke from my editor wondering what the hell had gone wrong with me. Perhaps too much wine, maybe I was pushed to my outer limits and sheepishly turned in some shoddy writing I should not have.
We had a few spirited back and forths where one of us would dig our heels in on a particular issue. For example, when I was writing the recipe for bouillabaisse, I wasn’t prepared to go the route of many a famous chef and compromise the broth’s body. A food mill is the proper kitchen tool to use and, in my opinion, necessary for making the broth have the correct viscosity. She argued that most cooks don’t have one. We both had strong feelings, but we managed to coax out a workable compromise that did not affect the bouillabaisse’s integrity.
The weekends were for reserved testing 10 to 20 recipes at once to make sure the instructions were clear, concise, and, most importantly, tasted good. My family collectively gained a fair amount of weight as we plowed through vats of cheese fondue, duck à l’orange, and endless croque monsieurs. I became a curiosity at the local specialty shops because of the volume of butter, cream, and enormous gruyere blocks I purchased.
Final Edits and Copywriters
After four (4) gruelling weeks, the book was done – or at least, so I thought. I was getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving when my editor called and said numerous corrections for immediate attention. My manuscript returned to me with enough yellow highlights marking up the text that I wondered if it may have been easier to mark what was good instead. Most were small issues that asked for clarification to my instructions, or maybe I had an ingredient listed but wasn’t used. I spent almost an entire weekend correcting everything and deleting those yellow highlights.
Another few weeks passed, and then shortly before Christmas, I started getting emails from a copywriter who had numerous questions that needed immediate attention. Just when I thought I was done, another round of questions began. At times it felt intimidating and never-ending, but in the end, it was worth it. I am very proud of my book – French Cooking for Beginners.
The Next Chapter
Currently, I am looking for a publisher who wants to work on an in-depth study of Provencal cooking from the household perspective. I want to document the old foodways and recipes that are disappearing with our elders.
Here is a snippet from my introduction: I have to raise a glass of pastis to the memory of disgraced former Nice mayor Jacques Medecin for his uncompromising love of Nice and Provence. He once wrote, and I am paraphrasing a bit, ‘If I were asked why I write this book, I would reply: Because it seems to me that I belong to the last generation which has had traditional recipes handed down to it. I love Provence and its countryside. That genuine Provençal food cannot be found anywhere except in Provençal homes and a handful of restaurants in the south of France. My love of cooking for friends and family and watching them discover with great delight the subtlety of my Mediterranean traditions. Because in Provence, and in my family, both men and women do the cooking, passing along their skills from father to daughter from mother to son. But mostly because I want to preserve, add, and possibly share the history of Provence and its glorious culinary traditions.’
I could not have said it any better. Though I was born in a land far away, there is no other area in the world that feels more like home and resonates with my soul more than the south of France. I grew up in the United States, son of an immigrant Marseille mother, who forever left her indelible mark on my palate. And as Jacques said, the culinary traditions are passed down through the generations from mother to son.
Photo Credits: Photographer: Marija Vidal. French Cooking for Beginners: 75+ Classic Recipes to Cook Like a Parisian, by François de Mélogue, published by Rockridge Press. Copyright © 2020 by Callisto Media. All rights reserved.
In François de Mélogue’s second cookbook, French Cooking for Beginners, 75+ Classic Recipes to Cook like a Parisian, he invites you on a culinary journey through France. The book appeals to Francophiles and food lovers, but it’s Chef François’ humour and culinary tips that will snag an aspiring cook. Throughout the pages, he weaves in vignettes from his childhood and how his mother’s ease in the kitchen continues to influence his life and career.