Giving Up the Ghost: The Politics of Cookbook Collaboration

Having collaborated on more than 20 celebrity chef book projects, I could probably spend an entire day examining and commenting on all the questions raised by this unique and fascinating situation.
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For better or worse, I was quoted in the recent and controversial New York Times article "I was a Cookbook Ghostwriter." Though I was surprised to find myself featured in the piece, the quotations attributed to me were not damaging, especially since I take a cover credit on most of the collaborations I work on, so my role in chef books is usually public knowledge. I'd even go so far as to say it was a good thing to be featured in the story. When it went up online, I emailed Julia Moskin complimenting her on it, and made the best of the moment, lining up a number of Twitter posts throughout the day referring to the article, my own forthcoming book projects, and linking to posts about collaborating with chefs featured on my own blog, Toqueland.

As any follower of food blogs and Twitter feeds knows by now, a number of other subjects named in the story had far less charitable sentiments. Rachael Ray was the first one to take exception, insisting via Twitter that she writes her books herself. Next up, after the weekend, was Gwyneth Paltrow, who Tweeted that she writes every word of her books herself. Both ladies also claimed that they were never contacted by New York Times fact checkers. (For the record, neither was I.)

By Monday night, Moskin posted a follow-up piece online in which she addressed the very definition of "ghostwriter."

Having collaborated on more than 20 celebrity chef book projects, I could probably spend an entire day examining and commenting on all the questions raised by this unique and fascinating situation. But I'll confine myself to five main points that I think merit attention and clarification:

1. The idea that chefs or celebrities could write their own books should not strain credulity. Certainly the vast majority of people who fall into those categories employ ghostwriters, but there are chefs who can write with the best of them: Tony Bourdain is a brilliant writer. Gabrielle Hamilton ain't bad, either. And Dan Barber has some serious chops. Could Rachael Ray and Gwyneth Paltrow have written their books? Of course they could. I also know, because my wife used to be business partners with his US publicist, that Jamie Oliver sets aside three months a year for the express purpose of creating his books. (The women he refers to as "word girls" are there because he's dyslexic and has to dictate his text.) I reached out to the publicist today to reconfirm this very point, and to be sure it was okay to reveal the dyslexia detail.

2. Spilling the beans can be career and financial suicide. Let's set aside Ray and Paltrow for a moment and talk about ghostwriting for big celebrities in general. If one is employed as a writer for a celebrity of a certain caliber, it is not at all unusual for the contract to include a confidentiality clause phrased in the most harsh and terrifying language imaginable, citing irreparable damage to the celebrity's reputation should the relationship be revealed. Usually, the writer is not even allowed to disclose to the public a relationship of any kind with the chef/celebrity. If anybody accidentally gave up confidential information in their interviews for the Times piece, or had a misunderstanding about what was on or off the record (just to be clear, I have no reason to believe that this is what happened), I fear for them.

3. Using a ghost shouldn't matter to fans. There are those who would criticize celebrities for not doling out credit to their collaborators, but to my mind there is absolutely nothing wrong with it, and the public shouldn't feel deceived or ripped off by celebrities who use ghostwriters. A book, like a television show, is a collaborative process. Fans want to experience the personality they adore in the best way possible and couldn't care less who actually wrote it, just as they don't care who writes the script, operates the camera, or does the editing for the personalities' television shows. Andre Agassi wrote what might be the best sports memoir ever written, Open ... only he didn't write it; Pulitzer Prize winner JR Moehringer did, and he was acknowledged for more than a page at the back of the book. Fans didn't care: they got the best, most honest, and eloquent expression of Andre that was possible between two covers. Same with chefs, movie stars, politicians, and anybody else you can think of.

4. Ghostwriting is not a confusing term. I found Monday's follow up Times piece to be a bit like putting out fire with gasoline. Nobody intimately involved with the business of collaborating--I'd include in that list celebrities, chefs, writers, agents, editors, and publishers--has any confusion about the word ghostwriting, which--at its core--means to write in voice for another person. There are any number of ways of accomplishing this: It might be that you are given notes, or a rough draft, or a series of emails to work from. It might mean that you do it from lengthy, in-depth interviews (my preferred MO). In some cases I've heard of (but thankfully have never been involved with) it might mean having no access to the star and doing it all by interviewing confidants, reading news stories, and tying it all together with stuff you pull out of thin air. But, again, the fundamental definition is writing in voice for another person. Simple.

5. Newspapers should use language, not invent it. Ghost-cooking is not a phrase, and probably shouldn't be, because creating dishes is by nature a collaborative process. Amusingly, in all the projects I've ever worked on or interviewed for, the only person who suggested I independently create dishes for his or her book was not a chef or cook but a fellow food scribe. And you know something: Although I didn't sign anything, and didn't pursue the job, I'll never reveal who it was. It was that person's business and their fans weren't effected one bit by who created those dishes in the final, successful book. But to the larger point: cooking, like writing, like television-show-production is a collaboration. A chef, celebrity, or writer might ask somebody to develop recipes for him or her, but they will ultimately sign off on those recipes, or somebody they trust will. Here's a useful comparison: In many great restaurants, chefs de cuisine or sous chefs help drive the creative process, presenting new dishes to the executive chef (i.e, the famous one), or execute a first pass at realizing an idea dreamed up by the executive chef, after which they revise and perfect it in tandem. (In cases where the chef has restaurants around the country, or the world, they often grant even greater trust and autonomy to their chefs and team on the ground in faraway locations.) If a chef or food personality has enough confidence in his or her team to create, refine, or test recipes or dishes that reflect their palate, personality and/or brand, whether for a restaurant or for a book, and if the effort is successful, it shouldn't matter to the diner/reader.

I'll sum all this up another way: If you like a chef, or television food personality, or food-loving celebrity, and you enjoy their books, and their recipes work, then don't worry about who did what. In entertainment, as in life, if you spend too much time thinking about ghosts, you might go a little crazy.

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