I didn’t set out to write a cookbook. When I pitched the first version of My Paris Market Cookbook, “cookbook” was not part of the title. Market, yes. Cookbook, not so much. While my agent, and eventually my publisher, loved the idea of a guide to Paris that focused on the city’s markets and the rapidly growing local food movement, neither felt the market for printed guidebooks was strong enough to publish a book that concentrated exclusively on great food and drink addresses. I initially resisted pressure to include recipes in my book, partially because I believed there is value in print guidebooks, and still do, but also because I was terrified of the idea of writing, testing, and developing recipes.
I have no formal training as a chef, and aside from living in France and spending a significant amount of time in Paris’s open air food markets, I had little experience preparing traditional French cuisine. Despite these facts, including recipes in my book seemed like a natural addition to the book, making the text more interesting to readers who wanted to experiment with recipes inspired by Paris markets, restaurants, and cafés. So the book became a cookbook, and I became a cookbook author.
Though I didn’t set out to write a cookbook, I’m so happy I did. Looking back at everything that has happened since signing my contract and holding the book in my hands for the first time—a period that lasted just over a year—I realize how much the experience changed me, gave me confidence, and challenged me to grow, experiment, and take risks. I stopped many, many times during the process of writing My Paris Market Cookbook, to ask myself if I knew what I was doing. It turns out that not only did I know what I was doing, I also learned how to do it a lot better, and enjoy the process, along the way. Here are some valuable lessons writing a cookbook taught me.
I’ve been in Paris for 10 years, and during that time I’ve lived in a handful of apartments, all of which have had tiny kitchens. While I’ve gotten used to limited cooking space, small surfaces, and cookware stacked and stored in Tetris-like arrangements, I still had doubts about the possibility of testing recipes in a small Parisian cuisine. But kitchens are magical places, I discovered. My kitchen has become my favorite room in my apartment. Pots and pans hang from the wall while whisks, knives and cutting boards battle for space on the countertop. The sink is constantly full of mixing bowls and dirty dishes and amidst all of that is me, testing a recipe for the first or fifteenth time. I will never be intimidated by cooking in small spaces or with basic utensils again. While a professional kitchen is optimal for big projects, I am convinced that quality meals can be produced in even the most unlikely kitchens.
Testing recipes inevitably results in food. Tons of food. More than you could eat on your own, especially since at some point during recipe testing you kind of start to hate food (see below). So what do you do with all this food? Have other people over to eat it! Writing a cookbook quickly turns into a lesson in hosting dinner, lunch, snack, midnight snack, and any-excuse-to-eat parties. It’s hard to find someone who will turn down a home-cooked meal, so getting people to come over and enjoy the results of your research is pretty easy. Sharing the experience of discovering and perfecting new recipes with those you love, and getting their feedback, is an incredibly fun part of writing a cookbook. It also means spending even more time in your magical kitchen cleaning up. And baking extra goodies for your neighbors to apologize for dinners that also might turn into impromptu dance parties.
When I made the list for recipes to include in my book, I wanted the recipes to feature quality, seasonal ingredients and to be accessible classics for both experienced and novice chefs. I also wanted to be able to make them all with confidence and success. This meant testing, testing, and more testing. There were moments of joy during this process that included nailing a hollandaise sauce and presenting a beautiful Coq au Vin to a dinner table full of friends. There were also some times that tried my patience, like the hours I spent battling with a spin on a Reine de Saba recipe, or the weeks spent styling photos for the book, when food became not much more than a prop which often didn’t cooperate. Despite my love/hate relationship that developed with food, I always sat down with a homemade meal at the end of the day and knew that those struggles made me a better cook and recipe writer.
I think it’s inevitable that after working for months on the same recipes, there are moments when even your favorites will start to drive you crazy. Those were the moments when I started adapting and improvising in the kitchen. Those were the moments when I started having a different kind of fun. It was the kind of fun you have when you have confidence in the kitchen, due to the hours you’ve spent there and the familiarity you have with basic recipes and cooking technics. Without even realizing it, I had upped my cooking game by being able to introduce new flavor combinations and ingredients into my tried and true recipes. As soon as I thought I had learned everything I could from my cookbook, it taught me something new.
Okay, they are highly trained and unfailingly dedicated people who cook, but they’re also people like you and me. So guess what, if you’re a person who cooks, you’re a kind of chef. When I started writing my cookbook, and even well into the process, I had this fear that someone would call me out- that the chef police would say I was doing it wrong, or that more experienced food writer or chef friends would judge me or think of me as an amateur. But then I just started cooking, and talking about my experiences with chefs and food writers and friends, and none of them treated me like an imposter. Instead, I became bolder in sharing recipes and cooking for people, getting involved in my local food community and the wonderful exchanges that come with that. Because, even if I didn’t plan on it at first, I am a person who writes cookbooks.
Emily Dilling is the author of My Paris Market Cookbook: A Culinary Tour of French Flavors and Seasonal Recipes and the founder of the blog parispaysanne.com, which documents her quest to explore Paris markets and French terroir. Emily’s writing has appeared in Beer Advocate, The Portland Mercury, HiP Paris, and EcoSalon.