Confessions of a recipe ghostwriter to the stars

Confessions of a recipe ghostwriter to the stars

Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free

It’s bewildering to think how many recipes are out there in the gastro-ether, from cookery books, magazines, menu cards and now Substacks and TikToks. The precise term “sticky toffee pudding recipe” yields just under 100,000 results on Google. Granted I haven’t verified that they all contain the requisite method and ingredients, but I scrolled as far as page 32 and still found variations on the theme. It’s enough.

Have you ever wondered who writes those reams of instructional words?

Part of the answer is people like me. I have ghost written or contributed recipes to cookbooks that have sold more than four million copies, and I have written hundreds if not thousands of recipes for television shows. I have written books to help people stay lean and have pickled eggs in beetroot juice for a wellness-minded member of the royal set. More recently, I spent several tumultuous days learning to bake with an air fryer. If you have engaged with any food media over the past 20 years, then it’s possible, likely even, that you have read, watched or cooked one of my recipes.

I was once a chef of the sort you may be familiar with, a Gitane-smoking, overworked nihilist grinding out a stage in a huge Parisienne hotel kitchen, then working in a small gastropub back in the UK. But I couldn’t picture a long-term future in whites, so I moved from the chaos of restaurants to the chaos of television production. I became a home economist, helping the chef-presenters to prep their cooking so they could concentrate on presenting. It was while on set that I was offered my first ghostwriting project. The presenter of the programme had landed a last-minute book deal to accompany the forthcoming series but lacked the time to write it. I knew the presenter, and I knew their food, so I was the natural choice. I was delighted.

Being a recipe writer and developer is more aligned to a “normal” life than straightforward cheffing. I’d argue that it’s more interesting too. Last month, I was working on luxurious Father’s day recipes for a supermarket publication. This month, I have been devising a cookery course for a charity that rehabilitates prison inmates through restaurants. If I were a commis chef in a Michelin restaurant, it is likely that during the same period I would have regurgitated the same mise en place every day, standing in the same spot.

Recipes help to engage consumers with brands and chefs. They are the tangible, sellable side of our industry. This means that, despite the huge number already available, there is an almost unquenchable demand for more. But the truth is that it is near impossible to “invent” something achievable by a home cook. Working unexpected flavour combinations into a classic recipe used to be an easy win, but the market is now saturated. I once thought I had struck upon an original flavour combination for a pie by pairing lemon thyme and blueberries. Then I googled the combination and discovered that many others had beaten me to it. Lemon thyme and blueberry scones, lemon thyme and blueberry sponge cake, lemon thyme and blueberry jam . . . If you’ve thought about it, then somebody else probably has too.

The demand for novelty in a burgeoning market means plagiarism can be a real issue. There’s a widely accepted rule in my industry that states a recipe becomes original when it is 20 per cent different from any other recipe, but this isn’t based on any legally binding edict; it is a rumour that has evolved into a rule of thumb. It does sort of make sense. There is little point in spending time trying to reinvent the recipe for white sauce or for a Victoria sponge when the perfect formula already exists. When I set out to write something new, I’ll start by researching several existing recipes and reading about the dish’s origins before fleshing it out with new ideas and flavour combinations. There is, however, one major pitfall. If a writer ends up riffing on a tried-and-tested existing recipe, it is quite possible that they will ruin it through the self-imposed 20 per cent edit. I have done this myself. Take, for example, a bread recipe I was working on. I was working from a brilliant focaccia recipe developed by a friend. However, I wanted to add wholemeal for a bit of roughage, so I replaced 25 per cent of the white flour with wholemeal. Though the result technically “worked”, it did not have the bulbous fluffiness of focaccia so I reduced the amount of wholemeal by a little, and then a little more, and then again until I was only adding in 5 per cent of the coarser flour. At this point I concluded that focaccia is focaccia because it is white and voluminous, and I would have to find my fibre elsewhere.

© Damien Weighill

Now you know what to look for, you’ll start seeing suspiciously similar recipes cropping up everywhere. There is an excellent and well-known scone recipe that was developed and written by a well-known baker who presents a programme from a tent. It’s my go-to scone because it is both delicious and reliable. It is also easy to identify, because of the unusual amount of raising agent it contains and the very short amount of butter. I have seen bastardised versions of this recipe in several places on the internet, all with slight adjustment to the original; a little extra butter here, a little less baking powder there. Ultimately I know these are imitations of a perfect recipe and they only exist because of the demand for new and novel recipes.

But there is still joy to be had. What I find most satisfying is to introduce methods or recipes to an audience who might not have been exposed to that type of cooking before. For example, I wrote some books for a client who has managed to attract a huge fan base and convince them to cook from scratch. For that author I was able to write recipes such as steak with chimichurri and Tandoori chicken with flatbreads because I knew that their audience had probably not cooked dishes like that before. My job was simply to present traditional cooking techniques to a new audience. This has always been a part of the recipe writer’s role, and it is as valuable as invention. Elizabeth David’s skill was to record recipes and introduce them to a new market. Jamie Oliver refreshed so much of the British food scene by successfully integrating his restaurant knowledge into everyday cooking. My own grandmother used to write recipes for the gas board and was part of a team who toured the country showing would-be customers how to cook traditional recipes in new gas ovens.

The part of my job that shocks people the most is not that brands work with recipe developers, rather that some well-known chefs do. But if you think about it, think about what it takes to routinely produce quality tomes of more than 100 recipes that work, taste great and seem fresh, you will realise that this practice isn’t nefarious but verges on necessary. When demand is so high, it is preferable for an author to employ help rather than cut corners and publish half-baked recipes. There is a story that circulates within the industry of a well-known chef who submitted his book manuscript still with hyperlinks in, as he’d copied and pasted it directly from a popular food website. Safe to say the book was rejected. The most successful chef-brands often make this relationship quite public. Jamie Oliver has a dedicated food team; Yotam Ottolenghi has a test kitchen.

I am so lucky to work in food, so fortunate to earn my wage doing something I love, but it isn’t always smooth sailing. For a time, the fashion was overwhelmingly for hacks and hooks, shortcuts and money-saving tips. I became so riled with those fads that I completely stopped writing recipes because I realised my culinary brain was exhausted, and I was writing nothing of quality. But fashion has changed, and I am so happy to see a surge in quality and diversity sitting on the shelves. Books by authors such as Anna Jones and Catherine Phipps, a star and a rising star of the cookbook world, respectively, make me so. Both spent years writing for other people before they wrote under their own names. Sure, their books may be flanked by others that, in my opinion, seek to sell on the coattails of the zeitgeist, but at least they are being written and published. I too am back writing recipes, nowhere near as many as I used to, but everything I write now I am proud to be connected to, even if you may never know it was me who wrote it.

Rob Allison is a recipe developer and writer working in London

Follow @FTMag to find out about our latest stories first and subscribe to our podcast Life and Art wherever you listen