On All the Ways To Write a Recipe
Many of the chefs and writers at MAD either have produced a cookbook, or probably will be asked to publish one within the next five years. It’s a curious thing, this business of developing recipes to be sent out into the world for use by other cooks. Here are some thoughts about and approaches to that process which you may never have considered, as brought to you by five very different people.
THE QUIETLY RADICAL TRADITIONALIST: JUDITH JONES
If at any point the sauce starts to bubble or separate, immediately remove the pot from the warmth of the sauté pan and set it into a pan of icy water. But you should not have this difficulty if you work slowly and patiently. — From “The Pleasures of Cooking for One,” 2009
Five or six years ago, I invited Judith Jones to chat with food-media luminaries in front of an audience. Jones was in her mid-80s, and still working full-time editing (and writing) cookbooks at Knopf. This is the woman who saved “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” from the slush pile in 1950. (Years before that, she’d rescued “The Diary of Anne Frank.”) The one who later brought the food of James Beard, Marcella Hazan, Madhur Jaffrey, Edna Lewis, Claudia Roden, and Jacques Pepin to the world, while also editing John Updike. In short, the woman knows in her bones how a recipe should be written. It has long been her mission that a recipe not only works in any kitchen, it also inspires whoever is cooking it.
There she was onstage, politely going off on the writing of today’s recipes, which she believed was turning people into terrible cooks: less confident, less creative, and worst of all, bored. “It’s all so scientific and cold,” she sniffed into her mic. I tried to keep a game face; as the food editor at a news magazine, I was guilty as charged of releasing such robo-recipes, written according to a strictly codified language and more often than not, stripped to their bones to fit their tidy columns. (“What if we cut ‘until lightly golden’ after ‘sauté’ to bring up a line?” a copy editor might ask.)
Now that my job is pretty much all recipes, all the time (when not working at a food magazine, I help chefs with their cookbooks), Jones’ words haunt me daily. How can a professional cook effectively transmit his or her knowledge to a stranger through the written word? And isn’t there room for intuition—even innovation—within the confines of steps on a page?
I wanted to know what chefs thought, but first I needed to check in with Jones. I reached the editor, now 90, at her Vermont summer home, where she often spent part of her past vacations cooking through manuscripts with her writers in order to really understand the steps—especially when illustrations would be involved.
“My feeling is you can’t just write a recipe the shorter the better and use the kind of jargon that has crept in today,” she said on the phone, mock-quoting, “‘In a bowl, combine the first mixture with the second mixture’—you know, you don’t know what the first mixture is! It turns out to be a little bit of water with some salt in it. And I think it’s frustrating. You’re alone in the kitchen, and you don’t have anybody to say to, ‘Tell me what this means!’” She related the story of how her adopted daughter, then 11, made Jones and her husband sit in the living room while she tried to cook from a recipe. The girl began shouting so many questions from the kitchen that it became ridiculous—“What is a slow simmer?”
“It made me realize that I take that for granted, but what IS a simmer, after all?” Jones wondered. “You can’t have an adjunct book that you turn to. It’s all got to be there. I think one thing that’s extremely important is language, that you use language that really conveys what you’re doing.” And for the professional chef, she wishes that they would regress to their student days, putting aside the blind instinct instilled by years of repetition and, in a sense, learning anew with a reader. What IS a simmer? “I think you have to observe very, very closely what you do, and then write it all out, and try to think of those images that we all know. They can be quite original, too. It is what makes writing lively!”
Jones has also toyed with the idea of creating sidebars or using a different color ink in which to include the more detailed steps, so that the more advanced chef can skip it, but the novice is given a hand to hold. (If you’ve ever worked your way throughMTAOFC, you know just how detailed a recipe can be.) And even now, she’s looking ahead: “I think that we may see some changes in how cookbooks are done, when they become….is it e-books? If you really explore what could be done with a camera that you’ve hung behind your stove, and then, when you’ve read it’s a soft simmer, up comes a picture of simmering. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity there, but nobody listens. I’m supposed to be out of it all, so…”
The goal should be that the reader can make the recipe his or her own—that the instructions are clear and good enough that after a few tries, he or she can improvise to please themselves. The chef gives ideas so that the cook can profit. It’s not dictation; it’s inspiration.
THE BLATANTLY RADICAL HEDONIST: FERGUS HENDERSON
Get a frying pan very hot, pop in your knob of butter, followed by the hearts, and fry them for 4 minutes, rolling them around occasionally. Apply a splash of balsamic vinegar and chicken stock, season, and let the hearts get to know the liquor for a couple of minutes. Place the hearts on the toast, leave the sauce on the heat to reduce for a moment, and pour over the toast and duck hearts. Eat. The hearts have an amazingly ducky quality. — From “Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking,” 1999
Perhaps no chef in modern cookbook memory has inspired more than Fergus Henderson of St. John. His books are charming, gracious, and genuinely funny, taking great pleasure in language and, well, pleasure. You can hear him with you in the kitchen, glass of Vieille Prune in hand.
He sees himself as more of a cheerleader than an instructor. “Once you write a recipe and it’s down on paper and someone reads it, the rest is fair game in a lot of ways,” he says of the process. “There’s a lot of magic that can come after that, even if the recipe doesn’t specifically call for it. A recipe should be about freeing the reader up. They should read the recipe and then feel like they are ready to make the dish with a sense of freedom. It should give them a license to cook that they may not have had before.”
Henderson is grateful to his editors for allowing him to write recipes in his own chatty style. “I want to write my recipes and my books in a way where it’s a language that people fully understand and feel comfortable with,” he says, “that gives them the right information and tools so they can let the book go and cook for themselves.”
Let the book go. Cook for yourself. Burn after reading!
“People cook in different ways,” he says. “You can’t count on the ingredients that you’re writing the recipe with to be the exact same for the home cook, and that’s okay. Different is okay for me.” He says he hopes that people in Brazil enjoy cooking from his book, even though the ingredients will behave in an entirely different manner.
Speaking of behaving, Ferguson has always written about conquering one’s ingredients (parsley, most famously, needs to be “disciplined”), and yet the message doesn’t always get across. “I find that home cooks can be too timid with the ingredients,” he laments. “That’s a problem, because the food misbehaves if you’re timid. People need to be more confident with what they have—they just need to do it—so it comes out well. You need to have a command, or at least act like you do. That’s why the cookbook needs to be good and sincere. You’re holding someone’s hand. It’s a companion.”
THE RADICALLY DISORGANIZED DISSENTER: IÑAKI AIZPITARTE
NB: When working on a recipe story with Iñaki for Bon Appétit, I made the fatal mistake of not writing down the recipes for the dishes as he cooked them. After six-plus months of promises from him and his partner, Franck Audoux, it took the force of nature that is Frédérick Grasser Hermé—who forced him to come over to her apartment and cook so she could write down the recipes—to get them.
Q. What are your thoughts on the relationship between recipes and intuition?
A. There’s a lot of room for intuition and risk-taking in my cooking, because I like it that way and also because I’m pretty disorganized! Intuition actually means disorganization at Le Chateaubriand. Thank the hangovers.
Q.And you haven’t done a cookbook yet.
A. No, because I’m too disorganized.
Q.When you write recipes for print, how much room do you want to leave for home cooks to use their intuition?
A.It’s really hard, I think, to give a recipe from a personal restaurant, or places that are maybe more technical or high-end than mine, and expect them to re-create it exactly. That’s not really the point, I don’t think. I think the best thing is to write the book and the recipe so it conveys a story and a mood, and then people can work from that. I don’t really buy chef cookbooks anymore for practical purposes: I’d rather eat at those restaurants. I think that’s the most effective thing, whether you’re an amateur or a professional. I read the “auteur” chef books to get general inspiration, because it’s almost impossible to replicate a famous chef’s dish if you don’t have exactly what they were using when they made it.
Q. And how about in your own book, whenever that happens?
A. You know, I originally wanted to do a traditional book with recipes of my dishes. It hasn’t come time to do a book yet, but I’m pretty sure that’s no longer what I want to do for the reasons I just described. I might focus on recipes for building blocks of my cooking to give people the tools to make something of their own, inspired by my restaurant and whatever it is I end up writing.
THE GAME-CHANGER WHO’LL MAKE YOU WISH YOU’D THOUGHT OF IT FIRST: CHRISTIAN PUGLISI
The word ‘chewy’ almost always has a negative connotation: ‘the meat was chewy’ is probably the most often heart complaint about food worldwide. I reject the notion that the quality of meat should be judged only by its tenderness, but that’s another story entirely. Regardless, I believe that chewy can actually be a very positive thing. There’s something wonderful and primal about having to masticate my way through food; I think of how our ancestors must have chewed the meat of caught prey. The challenge, then, is to find the right amount of chewiness—not so much that eating feels laborious, but enough to create a pleasant surprise. — From “Relae: A Book of Ideas,” 2014
In working on his first book, out this fall, he originally wanted no recipes at all. His U.S. publisher was having none of that, and so there is now a list of relevant dishes listed after each ingredient and technique discussed, and then the recipes are shoved into the appendix of the 447-page book. This is because it’s the ideas behind the dishes that are primary: “The first way I pitched the book was to say, It’s not about information, it’s about inspiration,” Puglisi explains. “Because if you really want to see how to cut down cod or break down something, I mean, Google it!
“The point is to basically go a little bit deeper and say, ‘Why are we chopping onions and sautéing them in butter before you add white wine?’” he continues. “That’s what a recipe says, but why do you really do that?” His book, he explains, is made up of the things that make Relae Relae: “We have an approach that might not be the usual way of doing things, something we really spend a lot of time on, and that’s why I try to give the reader a little insight.” The reader, he says, can try out the ideas in his or her own way: “When you read about pickling mackerel in a certain way,” he says, “that’s really what you need to know.” If you don’t have cauliflower, use carrots.
It’s a kind of culinary choose-your-own-adventure. As he tells readers in his introduction, “I want you to grab this book, open it like a deck of cards, and flip to whatever attracts you. Once a dish has captured your attention, take a look at the handful of ideas listed at the bottom of the page; hopefully that sparks your curiosity and leads you to another spot in the book with another list of interconnected dishes and ideas.”
The process of translating his food into pure ideas required 18 months of intense self-analysis (on top of running service at two restaurants and opening a third). Puglisi forced himself to look at each dish he had ever served at Relae and ask himself, What are we really doing here? He created a spreadsheet and input the different styles present in each dish, then sifted through to find recurring ideas. The result was 90 ideas in 60 dishes. The final title? Relae: A Book of Ideas.
“I really think that…the dish is how you present the cuisine, but it’s also the most superficial part of it,” he says. “Because when you just have a picture of a dish, it doesn’t show you all the thoughts behind it unless you’re really, really good at understanding those things. If you study Thai cooking by eating, you understand what has to do this thing with acidity. But just looking at a picture, it doesn’t tell you anything. Looking at the recipe, oh, yeah, it gives you the technical information, but can you really decipher that? It’s a bit like looking at electrical tech sheets: It tells you everything, but nothing at all. And that’s what I think is a challenge with recipes, because…it’s not the most interesting part of cooking at all.”
The hardest part of writing the book—besides doing it in English—was to allow for seasoning. “How can you explain how much salt should be in something?” he says, still sounding unsure. “This is something that I have young cooks trying to understand for months and months. It’s really something that is just a mix of experience and whatever your own taste is.”
It would be nice if people cook his recipes, but what Puglisi really wants is for readers to use his ideas in their own way. Above all, he wants readers to be inspired to cook. Because ultimately, once someone cooks a chef’s recipe a few times, those tweaks, swaps, and shortcuts make it theirs. “As soon as you get good at a recipe, you’re always going to change it,” he says. “So what is it good for? I think the greatest danger with cooking is to be scared about not doing things right. And if you frame up things too tight, as in, ‘This is the only way you can do that, that, and that,’ then you’re afraid to make mistakes, and then you lose the best part about cooking, which is putting your intuition into it, and shaping things the way you want them to taste—which binds well with the seasoning part, no? Because a dish in the book cooked by someone else will never be as it is at the restaurant. It just will never be. But for me, it’s not the point.”
A cookbook, says Puglisi, should give people some tools to have fun with cooking. Maybe help them look at things a little differently. The Relae book uses some pretty basic, humble products. “That’s the biggest point,” he decides. “It shows you can do great cooking with whatever you have. You just need to put your mind into it, no?”
THE INCREDIBLY NICE GUY WHO MAKES EVERYONE ELSE LOOK BAD: JORDI ROCA
Jordi Roca, the pastry chef at El Celler de Can Roca, is the model student. He claims to always cooperate with his editors, and says he writes with the reader in mind, despite the fact that he or she will never be able to make a dessert on the level of his restaurant creations.
Translating recipes for the home cook, he says, doesn’t really pose a problem. “We are first and foremost trying to put ourselves in the shoes of the reader, in their homes,” he says through a translator. “So in terms of the produce and technology, we try to adapt them to make them easier for the aficionado to use at home.” If he and his brothers sous-vide a piece of beef for 40 hours, “we’ll rack our brains to come up with an adaptation so they can make it at home. I think of friends who have a passion for cooking, or sometimes I’ll just think of myself at home. In my kitchen, I don’t have all the tools. What do I have in the refrigerator?”
Roca only breaks character once during our conversation—I think. When asked who he envisions as his home cook when he writes recipes, he says:
A BRIEF CONCLUSION
There is something to be said for a template. There is freedom in knowing that following a series of instructions to the letter will deliver the intended (uniform) result. Except there is no uniformity in food. That bloated zucchini you used when you wrote the recipe in August is different from my tight little June squash. How should I adjust for the lower water content and lesser amount…?
Maybe keeping Jamie Oliver in mind when you write out your recipes for the general public to follow isn’t a bad idea. He’s kind of an everybloke, one who’s more interested in adding a blob of this or a whizz of that than in hunching over his digital scale. He follows his feelings. He buys whatever smiles back at him at the market. How do you allow for THAT in a recipe? Well, you just have to send your food out into the universe and let it become its own thing. (And pray the person who spent $40 for your book is happy.)
We’re supposed to be keeping this conclusion brief, so let’s say that everyone above is right. Per Puglisi, the ideas and inspiration behind your food are more important than the dry, rigid step-by-step. But, to Judith Jones’s point, you also need to be a steady guide for those who need you. Lay out the path they must follow with clarity and humor. Talk to them like a friend—no, like Fergus Henderson—and their gratitude for having been made better cooks will make them love you back.
HOW TO WRITE A FRIENDLY RECIPE*
- Really break down every step and explain it as generously as you can. Assume nothing. Imagine, a) you’re teaching your mother’s best friend how to make it, b) it’s your first week in culinary school and you lied to get in, c) you’re talking your new girl/boyfriend through it on the phone.
- Language is your friend. Use it. Does that sauce get a little snotty if taken too far? Channel Fergus Henderson and the world benefits.
- Include the senses—they’re the strongest and most linked to memory. How does the fish look and feel like when it’s done in terms of color, opacity, firmness to the touch? What does that caramel smell like as it approaches black death?
- Fuck times. Give a range, but also give readers visual/sensual cues to rely on. Your stove is different from every other stove. Your products are different from everyone else’s. No way everyone’s steak is going to cook in X minutes.
- Give readers the tools they need to become better cooks. Maybe they’ll come and stage for you.
- Always, always have your recipes tested by an outside source. This will save you so much hate mail, even if it costs you. Pay an intern $50 a recipe (plus food costs). Send recipes to friends in other countries to see if they can get the ingredients. Don’t just trust yourself.
- When all else fails, hire a pro. Not only will they learn your voice, they’ll also cook alongside you. Sure, they’ll ask 8,000 painfully obvious questions while you’re trying to focus, but you will look so much better in the end.
* assuming that’s what you’re trying to achieve.
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