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Steve Plotnicki

The Sad State of Cookbooks from France

30 posts in this topic

What has the French cookbook business come to? I picked up a copy of Regis Macon's "Ma Cuisine des Champignons" the other day. It is a semi-paperback book (come on Simon, what is the trade name for that?) I find it amazing that 3 star Michelin chefs aren't worthy of having their books published in a top quality way.

In addition, many of them don't even have books. Is there a Passard book,  Boyer book, Bras book? Every idiotic British, Australian or American chef has a cookbook printed on glorious stock and with terrific photgraphy to boot. But the French chefs often get relegated to second class status. I can recall publications of Troigros and Guy Savoy recipes in recent years that I would call "cheap" efforts. Occassionaly, a chef like Veyrat has a nice book published or the Pourcel twins had a top quality book publsihed as well. But most of them are horrible.

What is it about French cookbooks. Don't enough French people buy them so that the quality of the books can be at a high standard? Just go into one of the large bookshops like Virgin on the Champs Elysee and their cookbook selection is pathetic. But down the road at Galignani the cookbook section is wonderful. But that's because they carry all the U.S. and British cookbooks too.

Even in the way of topical books. The French do not seem to have food writers who are sourcing out new trends and alerting the world to them. The entire modern bistro revolution happened without a single French writer coming up with a cookbook based on the recipes of places like La Regalade, Eric Frechon, L'Epi Dupin etc.  How can France maintain it's status as the culinary capital of the world without having a history of it's cuisine adequately reduced to print?

(Edited by Steve Plotnicki at 11:21 am on Jan. 8, 2002)

(Edited by Steve Plotnicki at 11:22 am on Jan. 8, 2002)

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I have no idea what on earth you mean by a "semi paperback" gimme more of a clue.

That being said, the French book market is in freefall.  This I know because so much of my daily grind is persuading publishing partners around the world to buy the rights to my books.

Germany, france, Spain and Italy are non starters for cookery books while the nordic countries and the low coutries are very strong.

Also take into account the cost of producing an illustrated book.  A 160pp book with c50 illustrations can cost upwards of £100,000 to produce.  In France you cannot sell enough copies to earn out on that sort of investment nor would they be able to sell co-edition rights to the UK and US ( the two biggest illustrated book markets by far.  In fact the UK produces approaching 40% of all illustrated books which appear in the US under the imprints of US publishers, if that makes sense ).  No one outside France ( or these boards ) cares about chefs.  They care about personalities and if they happen to be chefs then their cookbooks sell.  If they happen to be interior designers then those books sell.

We have a saying about cookery books in the UK trade.  The go out in leaps and bounds and come back in skips!!

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Simon - You know the cover is thicker than a paperback. It's stiff but bendable. But it's not a hardcover. It's an inbetween size to 8 1/2h x 6w. And there are a handful of color photos.

Your point about personalities is well taken. But in France Alain Passard is a personality. I've seen it with my own eyes. Yet there isn't a suitable representation of his work. I have to say that this isn't the case for Spanish chefs. There have been numerous beautiful efforts of cookbooks from Spain in the last few years. Amazing photgraphy. And even Italy might be starting to get into the act and that lovely book of recipes from Don Alfonso was recently published. But France, pitiful.

I have to add that French food books that are nothing but books that pat themselves on the back for being good at what they do well also seem to sell well. They have no shortage of books touting the superiority of their ingredients, codification system of food and wine, or the great lifestyle that goes along with it.

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the cover is thicker than a paperback. It's stiff but bendable. But it's not a hardcover. It's an inbetween size to 8 1/2h x 6w. And there are a handful of color photos.

Isn't this a trade paperback (as opposed to a mass market papereback?

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I think that the situation in France is the natural order of things, and the situation in the US and the UK is the abberation...

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Katherine - I'm not sure what you mean. Are you saying that chefs in the U.S. and the U.K. are too popular and don't deserve to publish high profile cookbooks?  Or are you saying that the French public already cooks like Alain Passard and hence, doesn't need a cookbook from him.

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I don't have a definitive answer, no longer being in the field (which I haven't been since 1970); but might it be possible that a lot of these cookbooks, as are art coffee table books, subsidized by their authors? Simon would know these stuff.

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Perhaps the French buy cookbooks full of recipes that work, rather than glossy coffee-table "star chef" food porn, containing a limited number of recipes of dubious usefulness. From my own collection of cookbooks I can tell you that the most-used books have the fewest illustrations per recipe. In fact, you could probably correlate the number of illustrations per recipe with the chance that a cookbook is coffee table size....

The popularity of these "star chefs" is well out of proportion to their skill levels, and certainly to their contribution to society as a whole, or any segment thereof. It's just a part of the big media money machine. These people no longer have time to cook, they're so busy churning out product to support their "brands".  A new star chef means more books the public will have to buy.  

Meanwhile, lots of better chefs who work at successful restaurants that satisfy countless customers have not yet been promoted to "media darling"...

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So has anyone peered into this?

I'm not much interested in Ducasse, but the idea of a nearly 赨 cookbook is intriguing and appalling;  are people buying it?


Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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Let me put it another way. In the art book business, it is possible for a wealthy collector to subsidize or foot the entire bill for a book on whatever comprises his collection.; this in order to try to enhance the value. It is a form of vanity publishing, but with the imprint of a well-known, respected publisher. I suspect, but it's only a hunch, that this is what is going on in the glossy cookbook field. I would also imagine that the Anglo-American chef-restaurateurs have more money available for this kind of self-promotion than the Continentals. Does anyone out there have any first-hand experience and can confirm or deny what I have written here?

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Katherine - Now I understand. But I can't agree with your reasoning. You can't say that the French hold their 3 star chefs up as great "artistes" (which they do) and also look down on the cooking techniques that are practiced elsewhere in the world and then say the people want to cook plain food? Those concepts seem to be in conflict. And I know for myself that they are interested in those chefs. Everytime I'm there those chefs have articles in the paper, are on TV, or have some other type of media promotion going on. They are big celebrities the same way Daniel is a celebrity here. But for some reason, they publish lousy cookbooks.

Robert - I have never heard of vanity cookbook publishing. But now that you've brought it up, I think I'm going to have a book of my barbeque recipes published. I make a mean slow-roasted and smoked rack of veal.

Mamster - That book has been available in New York for about 3 months. It cost 跌 here I think. It is quite impressive and whoever published it did a great job. It's sort of a Catalogue Raisonee of Ducasse's cooking.

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I don't have answers to the questions raised, but I have suspicions. The French either know how, and what, to cook and don't need cookbooks or they don't cook nearly as much as Americans. An exaggeration of sorts based on the assumption that they don't try to compete with great chefs when cooking at home. They cook what they already know. They also go out to eat what they already know and like. The great haute cusine restaurants are supported not by the French as much as by international visitors and that includes the Belgian and Swiss connoisseurs as well as the more noticeable Americans and Japanese. The three star chefs are personalities in France just as great ball players are in the US, but my impression is that fewer Frenchmen eat in their restaurants than the number of Americans who go to a professional football game in the US. They're famous, but not part of daily life.

And then they don't necessarily cook nearly as much as Americans. You're aware of the great tradition of epicieries, charcuteries, traiteurs, etc. in France. The French buy a #### of a lot of food already cooked.

When they do buy cookbooks, a lot of those books, I suspect, are coffee table books. I remember reading an interview with a known chef who expressed surprise when he learned that American homemakers actually cooked from his book, or at least tried. The impression I had at the time was that he would have been more careful with the recipes if he had a clue about this. Apparently the French who buy his books didn't cook from them.

Nevertheless, I know a chef with French roots (and citizenship) who has some fantastic cookbooks, most of which are in French and the work of French chefs. They are large beautiful books and often appear to be very expensive and well illustrated. I doubt they're meant for home cook and they blow away the cookbooks I see on the racks in B&N. My impression is that the Ducasse book noted earlier is not so atypical.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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When I look through the food book section at B&N, it seems that there is a preponderance of cookbooks on Italian and American cooking with lots of books about categories of preparing types of food such as fish, meat,salads, soups, vegetables,etc. That there are fewer French cookbooks (and notice how many that do get published are by Anglos such as Julia, Ann Willan, Patricia Welles) by chefs from France. I think this is because , first, that Americans have been convinced that the USA is now what France used to be in terms of gastronomy; second, people may feel French cooking is too time-consuming, difficult and requires too much substitution of ingredients; third, there is no unifying conceptual or identifying handle since 1990 for French chefs as strong as the Nouvelle Cuisine; and, fourth, American publishers seem to be unwilling these days to want to co-publish books by French chefs that originate in France. Remember the series of cookbooks by Troisgros, Chapel, Guerard, Girardet,etc. from Edition Laffont? Or the all-color big books from Georges Blanc or Roger Verger? It always comes down to money.

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Robert - I can understand why we don't buy them. But I can't understand why the French don't buy them in sufficient quantities that there would be a proper French cookbook industry which in my estimation there isn't. There are no shortage of painting, photography, architecture , etc. books published there. Big glossy ones. One would think they would celebrate haute cuisine, which happens to be the local culture, the same way. The fact that they aren't in English obviously hurts them on the co-publishing front. You know this past weekend on CNN Willow Bay did a piece on ADNY including an interview with Ducasse where he spoke in French and it had to be translated. There I was saying to myself, his inability to speak English must be turning off countless potential customers. It summed up his difficulties in suceeding here in a nutshell.

Bux - You are right when you say that the great restaurants are supported by visitors to France. But that shouldn't limit their exposure both in, and out of France. What does limit their exposure outside France is their inability, or often their unwillingness to speak English. I mean how much of Daniel's notariety comes from the fact that he speaks perfect English? As for French people wanting to cook like that, I can't imagine that on a percentage basis they are different than any other culture. And in fact, and I guess this is my point, they should be trying to cook that way in higher percentages than other cultures. I mean it's there culture.

If anything might be contributing to this implosion, it's the fact that France has not done a good job of creating a new middle class cuisine, or how Bux put it in an earlier thread. the upper middle. There is no equivelent of the Union Square Cafe there. There is no River Cafe (London) either. It's really cookbooks from those types of places that keep the industry in both the U.S. and U.K. humming. And if an American chef who cooks with a greater application of technique like Daniel publishes a book, it's easy to stay within the context of how the industry presents itself. In France, in order to recreate the upper middle, they often ask the chefs to write books that are beneath their craft. Like Robuchon's or Loisseau's books on what they cook on Sundays. While those are fine books, what they cook on Sundays happens to be what they cook at places like USC every day.  

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Steve, as you no doubt know,when one co-publishes a book, it means paying for a translation of the text, probably rejiggering the recipes at least for metric conversion, and resetting or laying out all new type. Simon knows all of what is involved as he seems to be concerned with subsidiary rights or setting up co-publishing deals, yes?. But with book publishing in the crapper, the number of such deals must be way down.

Whom and what  do you mean by a restaurant in France being hurt in terms of outside exposure by the inability to speak French?

I'm not sure "haute cuisine" is the local culture. The local culture is local cuisine.( Maybe not Paris). While I realize my friends and professional acquaintances in Nice, and to some degree in Paris, do not seem the least bit interested in dining at 2-3 star restaurants except on the rarest of occasions for a special occasion or to try one time. They eat and cook Nicoise or go to small restaurants. The French whom I see and know and eat at the big-name restaurants have been either Jewish and/or rich.  

I have to split, but we can carry on later as I haven't finished. Was that the Auberge de Theo you were thinking of in Cimiez? So-so "internationale" Italian. Allegro it must be down by the port. Went in August. Not enthralled. It smelled like a NY Italian restaurant.

(Edited by robert brown at 10:15 am on Jan. 10, 2002)

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Robert - Well if the French do not have interest in haute cuisine, that would explain it. Except everytime I'm there some 3 star chef has their picture in the papar. Usually a full page spread. So the fact that someone got a 3rd star, or opened a new place, or renovated, or some other newsworthy item seems to be important to the French. But I guess not important enough. As for translating/converting recipes and language, I'm not in the book publishing business but it would seem in todays world of electronic translating/conversion that the cost would have been reduced by now.

Yes I was speaking of Auberge de Theo, a place I've had a few good lunches on a Saturday aftrenoon after visiting one of the museums on the hill. And I have had a few nice meals at Allegro too except it hasn't been in many years. Where else is good Italian in that area?

Now are you trying to say that Jews are fancy eaters?

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No, they care enough to spend at the very best. You and I have grazed the subject and will no doubt discuss it further. Of course you should realize that sometimes I have to rely on the minimal amount of anecdotal evidence. The two biggest "fessers" I ever came across in Paris are both Jewish. One I have known since 1971. I owe it to him for getting me and my wife started when he brought us to Chez Denis (where M. Rostang is now) a few months before Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey had their famous "blow-out" American Express/Channel 13 Auction dinner there. Jack Lang asked him to start a museum for cuisine; he designed the dining room of Robuchon's last restaurant; and  was the restaurant reviewer for "L'Evenement de Jeudi". The other was a young doctor who we ran into three afternoons in a row: at Le Pre Catalan, Jamin, and the first place of Guy Savoy. At the third lunch we couldn't restrain ourselves from going over to talk to him. He told us he had lunch everyday in such restaurants by himself. Now that's eating!!!

Newspaper need to consume like people, so maybe that accounts for the coverage of big-name chefs in the media. Another subject we may want to tackle at some point on e-Gullet is this whole matter of the way the Anglo-Saxon media treats food and wine This is not what I have in mind, Steve, but did you ever check out a big magazine store in France and see how many magazines about food and travel (including book-type coverage in magazine format) there are? Maybe this takes up some of the slack.

The restaurant we discussed on the phone, Albert's, in the pedestrian zone of Nice makes a decent risotto and pasta. But why not drive another 35-40 minutes and have the real Ligurian stuff at Baja Benjamin or Balzo Rossi on the sea road right after you cross the border at Menton?

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check out a big magazine store in France and see how many magazines about food and travel (including book-type coverage in magazine format) there are?
This is a very interesting point. One would think the French are so much more interested in cooking if the number and quality of food magazines is any indication. And much like the kids in France are so much smarter--they all speak French by the age of 6--these cookbooks all feature French food, which seems so much fancier.

;)

I have noticed however, that over the years more and more frozen and processed ingredients are appearing in recipes. The range of food/cooking and food/travel magazines is quite impressive however. We have nothing here like the GaultMillau magazine. Come to think of it, we also don't have anything quite like the GaultMillau or Michelin Guide.

how much of Daniel's notariety comes from the fact that he speaks perfect English?
How much comes from the fact that his English is just not quite perfect. ;)

Someone asked me the other day if he was as charming in the flesh as he appears on TV. If I was a chef, I'd want him impersonating me in public.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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You know I'm not so knocked out by their food magazines. They have Gault Millau and Saveur which aren't the greatest. And they have Le Review de Vins de France which is not the most impressive publication either.

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Steve, Gault-Millau has lost its edge along with the restaurants themselves. I also think that wine magazines are pretty much a waste of time except for the hard info. (Corrupt as well). But that's not the issue. It's that they exist at all. As I suggested earlier, I think the most interesting phenomenon is that Americans have co-opted native French and even Italians;i.e. witness Plotkin and Willinger, in the dissemination of French and Italian cooking and restaurant opinion. I'm made very sceptical by the American-rooted gastronomic media. It's a topic well worth going into on e-Gullet. I will say for now that it's a two-edge sword.

(Edited by robert brown at 9:32 pm on Jan. 10, 2002)

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Robert - Gee your response has so many issues embedded into it. I don't know where to start. Let's see. The French public that is interested in dining are big supporters of the bistros moderne that opened in Paris and subsequently all over France. In my experience, places like Le Regelade, Eric Frechon, Violin D'Ingress are full of French people. Places like Gagniere are not. Okay I can go with that one. But where are the cookbooks celebrating the bistro moderne?

As for the Italian cookbook business, it's in far worse shape than the French cookbook business. Last year Don Alfonso published a book. I can't recall a glossy picture book from Italy in I don't know how long. Does Gualtiero Marchesi have a book?

The country that has a thriving cookbook business is Spain. Every  book by those cutting edge chefs are in demand. And it can't be that Spanish housewives are turning everything into foam?  

(Edited by Steve Plotnicki at 9:57 pm on Jan. 10, 2002)

(Edited by Steve Plotnicki at 10:46 pm on Jan. 10, 2002)

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Steve, I only throw you Good Bait. I went to Violin d'Ingres and all the clients were Americans, the four of us. Okay, it was lunch time. I guess we'll have to try to get around to discussing the above other issues next week. I happen to believe, having a MS in Communication Sciences, that the ways in which food/gastronomy is portrayed in our media is just as significant as to who is making what, be it dishes, wine, cheese, whatever.

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I picked up a copy of Regis Macon's "Ma Cuisine des Champignons" the other day. It is a semi-paperback book

Steve,

In 2000, Regis Marcon published a hardcover, beautiful cookbook with color plates, the whole works entitled "La Cuisine chez Regis Marcon." I purchased it at his restaurant.

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I picked up a copy of Regis Macon's "Ma Cuisine des Champignons" the other day. It is a semi-paperback book

Steve,

In 2000, Regis Marcon published a hardcover, beautiful cookbook with color plates, the whole works entitled "La Cuisine chez Regis Marcon." I purchased it at his restaurant.

The book is translated into English and will be published soon:

Marvelous Recipes from the French Heartland

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