Cookbook author David Joachim

Cookbook ghost writer, author, and grill specialist David Joachim (Matt Roth, Chicago Tribune / November 11, 2012)

When Thomas Keller tells you to eat raw tuna membrane, you do it. Small matter that the sticky, silver stuff between the fleshy parts of the fish looks like saliva dripping from a knife.

After all, Keller is the famed chef behind The French Laundry, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Napa Valley, and you're helping him write his first cookbook. And to be fair, you're the one who asked why he's removing it to prepare tuna tartare.

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So Michael Ruhlman did as he was told and picked up his first lesson for "The French Laundry Cookbook" the hard way: Sometimes you have to experience the really bad in order to avoid it.

Such are the hazards of being a cookbook co-author or ghostwriter. It's not all caviar and cupcakes for those who assist today's busy chefs in translating their singular visions into usable step-by-step guides for home cooks.

Like culinary method actors, these writers do whatever it takes to crawl into a chef's head — or at least under their toque — to find, not just their voice, but their ethos. At the same time, some are charged with the equally challenging task of ensuring that the recipes being adapted to a consumer kitchen don't turn out half-baked.

Ruhlman threw himself into the job, living with Keller for five weeks as he worked on "The French Laundry Cookbook." A former New York Times copyboy who wrote "The Making of a Chef" based on his experience at the Culinary Institute of America, he brought a cook's knowledge and a journalist's approach to the project.

"I reported that cookbook," says Ruhlman, of suburban Cleveland. "I hung out in the kitchen. I interviewed chefs. I interviewed purveyors. I observed. I asked questions. I stayed up late with Thomas after service and we talked.

"By the end of my time there, when he would say, 'Why did I add honey to the mascarpone cheese to garnish the lemon tart?' I knew the answer."

The two have continued to collaborate with others to produce cookbooks, most recently with "Bouchon Bakery," which came out in October. Ruhlman says he wrote every word in it, minus the step-by-step recipes, channeling three other voices: Keller, the head baker and the executive pastry chef. The process proved the precept that face time matters.

"A writer's got to be a good mimic," Ruhlman says." "You work with a chef long enough, you start to do impressions of the chef."

Alcohol helps too. One of the most productive nights that former "Top Chef" contestant Kevin Gillespie had working on his recently released cookbook, "Fire in My Belly," didn't come in the kitchen of the Woodfire Grill in Atlanta, where he is executive chef, or sitting at home on a couch across from co-author David Joachim. Instead, it came in a grimy New York City bar after a night of cooking.

"I had a few drinks in me, and I guess I just went off on a tear. I was like: I am ready to talk about my philosophy on food as it relates to everything in the world," Gillespie recalls. "(Joachim) thankfully was sober enough that he pulled out the laptop computer and just started writing. … A lot of that made it in the book."

These spontaneous yet intimate conversations are a treasure trove for writers, showing how a chef talks, the idiosyncratic phrases they use, and the pacing of the stories they tell.

"The best details come when they are completely relaxed and they don't care what the home cook needs or wants to hear," says Joachim, a former cookbook editor at Rodale Books who lives outside of Philadelphia. "Part of my job is making them feel relaxed."

That's essential because today's cookbooks are about much more than the recipes they contain. Instead, many focus on the stories behind dishes and the chef's personal saga.

"I wanted to make sure that we had somebody who could tell a good story because for me the stories are really important," says Keller. "I wanted to make sure that the cookbook had another dimension to it."

Sometimes, though, things get lost in translation. Gillespie says that the first time he saw any of the writing for the book, "it did and it didn't" sound like him. So he says he told Joachim: "I want you to write this closer to the words that I'm saying, closer to the way I'm saying it to you, even if that means that there are times that we say something that's a bit crass or maybe something that isn't the most eloquently described."

When a partnership is successful, the reader should never feel as if they are not hearing from the chef directly, Joachim says.