Own a Restaurant? Here’s Why You Should Write a Cookbook

Lessons from a James Beard Award-winning chef on the benefits of revealing your recipes, and what makes a great cookbook.
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John Currence, author of 'Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some' and 'Big Bad Breakfast: The Most Important Book of the Day,' said finding the right editor is the key to writing a great cookbook. (Photo: John Currence)

Serving up great meals is the best way to build a following for your restaurant. But chefs and restaurant owners are taking their success to the next level by writing cookbooks that feature the recipes for their most popular dishes.

James Beard Award-winning chef John Currence, owner of five restaurants in Oxford, Mississippi, and one in Birmingham, Alabama, and author of two cookbooks (“Big Bad Breakfast” and “Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey”), shared his own cookbook writing experience and his advice for others.

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Writing your first cookbook is a daunting project. What inspired you to write your first one?

“Square Books, located right near my restaurant City Grocery, is reputed to be one of the best indie bookstores in the country, so a lot of publishing folks would come through and have way too much to drink and a good meal. With great regularity, people would say, ‘You need to write a cookbook.’ I brushed it off at the beginning, but at some point, it began to sink in.

“I tried and tried to write, even though I had never written before, and everything I wrote was just garbage. I put the project on hold for a few years and picked it back up again in 2009, after winning the James Beard award and connecting with a new agent, David Black. I was full of self-doubt and didn’t think anyone gave a crap about me or City Grocery or Oxford, Mississippi. But David encouraged me to shut up and start writing.”

How did you get the cookbook going?

“I finally put together a title and table of contents, but I was still struggling. David told me when he read my stuff, it didn’t sound like me at all. So one night, in frustration, I had two glasses of bourbon and wrote this story about my mother’s god-awful beef and vegetable stew and how much I hated it. As a joke, I forwarded it to David. He called me back and said, ‘This is what I’ve been trying to get you to write for years.’ That was where I discovered how I was going to say what I was going to say.

“People always say these things write themselves, you just have to figure out how to approach it. For a decade and a half, I’d been trying to write an introduction to a book that I didn’t know what it was about. I began to realize that every single recipe has a story that goes along with it. So I quit trying to write the intro and focused on the recipes and headnotes for recipes. The book vomited out of me once I figured out how it worked.”

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What does a great headnote need?

“It needs to be personal and it needs to provide some vital piece of info. Like, here’s a recipe that most people think is difficult to tackle, however if you do it this way, bang — the reader won’t be afraid. The headnote should include something personal, funny or insightful about the author.”

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It is important to make sure your cookbook helps readers do things more easily in the kitchen, Currence said. (Photo: John Currence)

How do you create a cookbook that stands out on the shelf?

“Chefs should focus on creating something that’s unique and speaks directly to the person that’s using it. Help people do things in the kitchen more easily. Giving readers a sense that you screwed something up 25 times before you got it right helps humanize the book and draws in the reader. I go out of my way to find twists on dishes that I know are appealing to folks and give lots of information on myself, the food and the history of the dishes so it’s more toothsome.”

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How do you decide what recipes to include?

“I start with a table of contents, then fill the it with the recipes that will round each chapter out. Most of them are home cook-friendly, useful recipes. But to keep folks on their toes, I’ll toss in a challenge, like pickled pig ears or grilled lamb hearts. The folks who are really into it will make the effort to cook it, but most folks will never approach those recipes.”

Should chefs consider self publishing if they can’t find a publisher?

“I don’t think there’s anything less noble about self-publishing. If someone’s got a successful restaurant and they self-publish and distribute the book at their restaurant, I’d say go for it. You bear all the expense, but you also get all of the return.”

Chefs tend to feel more comfortable with cooking than writing. Did you ever consider using a ghostwriter?

“I was fortunate because of my education and the opportunity to write a lot as an adult. When I dove into it, I didn’t have to hire somebody to try to recreate my voice. As a result, the book reads incredibly genuine. But that’s not for everybody. Working with a ghostwriter or co-writer is fine, as long as you don’t sacrifice your voice or vision. The best thing you can do is work with your co-writer until the book reflects your story exactly and the way you want to tell it, otherwise you’ll never be happy with it.”

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‘Never sacrifice your budget for photography,’ insists Currence. ‘A good photographer, styling technique and propping are incredibly important.’ (Photography: Gulsina/Shutterstock)

How important is photography?

“Never sacrifice your budget for photography. A good photographer, styling technique and propping are incredibly important. My wife goes crazy because I’m constantly on eBay and going to antique stores and picking props up. We’re going to shoot another cookbook and I don’t want to have the same dishes in every cookbook.”

Related: How to Make Your Restaurant More Instagrammable

What kind of returns can a restaurateur expect from cookbook sales?

“To be honest, I don’t really write books to make money. When I sit down and do the math on the advance and final payouts, it doesn’t come close to compensating me for the time I spend away from my family and restaurants to write and tour. The benefits of writing a cookbook ultimately depend on the author’s intention.”

If sales aren’t the main point, what is?

“I’ve gotten emails from men all over the planet, guys going, ‘Man, I love your book. I never thought I’d be interested in cooking, but now we have supper club together and I absolutely love it.’ I had a guy who was a military commander in Korea who wanted to invest in me coming and cooking for the troops. To hell with the medals and nominations — connecting with people with something as a simple as a cookbook is all I really want to do.

“The greatest irony is that I make my living overcharging people for food, but here I am writing these cookbooks, imploring people to find the joy in cooking and stay home and do it.”

Have the cookbooks boosted business at your restaurants?

“The restaurants have certainly benefited. The cookbooks are prestige pieces. They are wonderful companion pieces, which have an eternal life as long as the restaurants stay popular. Folks like the brand. If you have the books in front of them, more often than not people will grab it to go and take a piece of the restaurant home with them.”

Does sharing your recipes mean people will cook at home instead of dining at your restaurant?

“For 25 years, we’ve handed out Xeroxed copies of our exact recipe for shrimp and grits, the backbone of our dinner sales. And for 25 years precisely, people have quizzed me about what I leave out because they make it at home and it doesn’t taste the same. I realized that the best way to keep a recipe a secret is to give it out — folks will immediately go home and futz with it to try to make it taste the same as it does in the restaurant. I don’t believe in secret recipes. There’s nothing more flattering than if someone wants to go home and recreate it. I don’t see it as a threat. If folks were that guarded about recipes, we wouldn’t have any flippin’ cookbooks.”

What’s your number one piece of advice for writing a cookbook?

“My advice is to beg for the most hard-nosed, hard-assed editor who the publisher has on staff or you can find on your own. That’s been my M.O. for both my books — I wanted somebody who was going to push me as hard as they possibly could to put out the best product I could put out. My editor takes my B-minus effort and turn it into an A-minus.”

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