Notes From a Cookbook Photo Shoot & Beyond

WWSphotoshootLast Wednesday I was lucky enough to help out  at a photo shoot for our upcoming fall cookbook Who Wants Seconds? by caterer extraordinaire Jennie Cook. The book will be filled with Jennie’s whimsical illustrations as an avid visual journaler. However, anticipating the demands of food-porn-hungry readers (myself included) we enlisted the help of amazing food photographer David Kiang to add some real pics to the book. We gathered at Jennie’s kitchen at 9 a.m. last week and set to work on a White Bean and Greens Soup (pictured above). Two hours later, David was using chopsticks to rearrange the beans one at a time, bean by bean, as three of us looked on in amazement, and thought to ourselves, This is going to be a looooooong day. He claimed he wasn’t born this way; he learned to be OCD for the job. And as I watched him with the beans, it struck me as the photographer’s equivalent to those times three editors sit in a circle and argue for an hour over a hyphen. It’s because we’re in search of perfection, or so we must tell ourselves.

But it turns out that first shot – of the bean soup – took by far the longest because, as David so patiently explained, it’s a challenge to get a sloshy soup to really ham it up for the camera. The blood orange tart, on the other hand, nailed it on the first take. The quinoa fritters knew how to pose. And the Island Apéritif shone like a Rothko painting in a mason jar with its hazy layers of red and white liqueur. Stop me before I get carried away. I got caught up in the thrill of watching a skilled cameraman elevate these dishes from delicious dinner into photographic art, and I can’t wait to see them on the pages of Who Wants Seconds?

sad nut cake

There’s a lot that needs to happen first, though! First up is the recipe testing. We’ve got five to six home-cook testers tackling each recipe and reporting back on timing, yield, spice adjustment, and any other remaining issues, to make sure the recipe is just right. This yummy nut cake on the right, for example, was a victim of recipe testing earlier this month, and it got chopped from the Table of Contents for not being easily replicable in the home kitchen. More results of recipe testing will be up soon on the cookbook’s brand-new blog.

Meanwhile, we are knee-deep in editing, which has taught me that cooks have a set of instincts some of us will never possess. I’m obsessing over things like deglazing a pan, the word mirepoix, and the difference between egg whites with soft and stiff peaks. This is second nature for professional cooks but induces panic for a novice, so it has become my job to pester the author until every detail of every recipe can be called “foolproof.”

Once that’s done, we’ll send the pages off to the designer, who will format everything for Jennie to go back and bedazzle with her fun illustrations. Then we’ll drop the photos in, do another couple rounds of editing, yada, yada, yada, and voila! We give it to you.

We love working on cookbooks here at PPB, but there’s a reason you won’t see us doing more than one or two a year. Compared with a novel, which often appears in our submissions e-mail in nearly completed form, a cookbook requires a heck of a lot of planning and orchestration. I will say though, that we’ve just gotten a glance at the first sample page spreads for Who Wants Seconds?, and they’re so beyond-our-expectations stunning, I’m ready to do it all over again.

[If we’ve sparked your curiosity about the making of a cookbook, check out this fascinating Publishers Weekly piece on cookbook trends in 2012 from February 8, here.]