Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Club

photo by Bob Perkoski,

I’ve been spending time with Michael Symon’s Carnivore: 120 Recipes for Meat Lovers, just recently released by Clarkson Potter (and covered in Cleveland Magazine last month). First impression after the initial flip-through was that it’s nice to look at, (though it does not unfortunately lay open and flat), well organized and full of dishes I want to eat. And, as the co-author of my own new book (with Marilou Suszko), Cleveland’s West Side Market: 100 Years & Still Cooking, (mentioned in both the October and November issues of Cleveland Magazine) with a forward written by Symon, I was delighted to see that a goodly number of the photos were shot at the local spot we both love so much.

Further closer reading revealed that it offers a great deal useful information, even for an experienced cook like me, but is clear and simple enough for anyone at any skill level to use.The writing — from chapter intro’s and headnotes to instructions and sidebars are lucid, engaging, and warmly personal. Some credit for that must go to Symon’s literary collaborator Doug Trattner, freelance journalist, editor, author, and chronicler of Cleveland’s food scene for many years. Symon has many talents but he’s the first to admit that he’s not a pro when it comes to putting words on paper. So it was Trattner’s job to turn the chef’s thoughts and ideas into solid, readable prose while letting Symon’s style and personality shine through on every page. He succeeded admirably. So I thought it would be interesting to get —and share — Trattner’s perspective on the partnership.
photo by Bob Perkoski,

-How did you get involved in this project? Michael approached me at the start of the process saying that he was looking for a ghostwriter for his second cookbook and would I consider taking it on. Having now made it through to the other side, I see how important a good fit between team members really is. There is absolutely no room for ego in this role, and I think Michael saw that quality in me.

-What exactly was your role? Initially, I was tapped to be a straight-up ghostwriter, meaning that all of my work would be behind the scenes, with perhaps a mention in the acknowledgments. Soon after the project began, though, Symon was hired onto the cast of The Chew, which he juggled along with Iron Chef, Symon Suppers, and Cook Like an Iron Chef. The busier he got, the larger my role became. In the end, Symon upgraded my status to that of co-author, complete with cover credit. I never asked, he didn't have to offer, but that's Symon in a nutshell.

-How long did the project take from start to finish? We first discussed the project more than a year and a half back. First there are outlines, tables of content, basic structural issues like how the chapters will be categorized. Recipes are tested (by Symon's chef Katie Pickens), photographed (by Jennifer May), chapters are written, manuscripts are submitted, returned, re-submitted… until everything is as perfect as humanly possible.

-Were there any especially memorable moments- good or bad- as the book went from concept to completion? You mean besides the late-night pillow fights? Due to a mix-up, I never received the publisher (Clarkson Potter) style guide until late in the game. That meant that pretty close to 120 recipes were improperly formatted. I had to go back and re-do a lot of my work. But it was all worth it when I received my first hardcover copy. It is such a beautiful cookbook, and to see it all come together in one glorious package really is staggering. It was the highlight of my professional career – that is, until my name landed on the New York Times Best Seller list.

-Is this your first time collaborating? How was it being part of a team? In terms of process, how did you and Symon work together? Was it a smooth or bumpy ride? For Fresh Water, our team produces a product every week, so I'm used to speedy efficiency. Things move slower in book publishing, and I often found myself stuck waiting for the answer that would allow me to move on with my work. I had to accept the fact that I was working with one of the busiest human beings on the planet and to not take silence or delays personally. But when Symon gets a window in which to work, he is a machine.

-What are some of the challenges in writing a cookbook and how was this different than other writing you've done? After writing professionally for a dozen years, you develop a style (hopefully) that not only is unique to yourself, but also sort of hardcoded into your DNA. When you write with and for another person, you need to resist those involuntary and instinctive impulses to do things your way. Mike has a style all his own – one that clearly is beloved by fans – and more than anything, I need to preserve, sharpen and enhance his voice. I imagine it's a bit like ventriloquism -- without those creepy dolls.

-Did you learn anything new about meat and how to cook it? I did. One of the best takeaways from the book, I think, is the notion of the dry brine (or quick cure). Symon is not a big fan of wet-brining meats; instead, he suggests liberally seasoning meat the night before and letting it rest in the fridge overnight. Do this to a good-quality chicken the night before you roast it and you will be amazed at the difference. I also learned that when the recipe calls for veal heart, do not substitute the heart from a worn-out dairy cow or you will be very sorry (but your dogs will be very happy).

-The public loves Michael and no matter how significant your contribution, as far as they're concerned this is his book. Is it hard to be in the shadow of a big celebrity like Symon? As far as I'm concerned, this is his book. While I'm extremely proud of the work I did, the book would be nothing without the bald man on the cover. It is his food, his words, and his talent that created the thing. More importantly, it is his reputation and hard work that is selling the thing. I can't imagine enduring his grueling schedule of TV tapings, book signings, public appearances… All I had to do was sit in front of my computer in my jammies. The book is not a New York Times Best Seller because of me; it's because of Symon.

-I heard a rumor that you're already working on second cookbook with him. Is it true? It's true. We recently started work on Symon's third cookbook, which plays off of the type of cooking he does on The Chew. The recipes are really geared to the home cook, who may not have a lot of time, but still wants to feed his or her family a delicious (and affordable) meal. If all goes as planned, the book should drop around this time next year.

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