Recipes for success

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 August, 2008, 12:00am

Lan Kwai Fong bystanders gawk at Jaakko Sorsa as he sits outside the Finds restaurant patio, kissing a 10kg salmon.

Sorsa's display isn't the behaviour of a chef gone mad over his favourite ingredient, but a choreographed pose during a photo session for his first cookbook, Scapas, published in May. 'We were thinking of ideas to celebrate our restaurant's fourth anniversary,' says Sorsa. 'At first it was supposed to be a 10-page pamphlet with a few recipes for Scandinavian food, but by the end, it had evolved into a 180-page cookbook.'

Cookbooks have become the marketing device of choice for restaurateurs. The chefs behind them face unfamiliar challenges as their new roles take them out of the kitchen and into the writer's chair.

Although it's not uncommon for chefs to take years to write a cookbook, Hong Kong's are turning them out in record time. In order to coincide with the restaurant's promotional schedule, Sorsa says Scapas took just two months to get into print in a run of 1,500 copies.

Chef Donovan Cooke of the Derby Room Restaurant, who co-authored the Hong Kong Jockey Club's Food Art cookbook with chef Bobby Lo, finished writing his half of the book - 34 recipes - in just six days to meet his deadlines early last year, when a first edition of 10,000 copies was printed and initially offered exclusively to club members.

Fast turnaround is crucial, says Gingers catering company owner Liz Seaton. 'Cookbook projects are notorious for dragging on and on. To avoid that, it's best to really commit to finishing a book speedily.'

Seaton completed each of her three cookbooks - Gingers: the Cookbook (2003), The Dinner Party (2004) and The Cocktail Party (2007) - within three months. 'It did take its toll on me,' she says. 'You have to remember, there's no extra time allotted for writing cookbooks. You do the book with whatever spare moments you have after finishing your daily work duties.'

In order to retain full control over the timing and creative direction of their cookbooks, both Seaton and Sorsa opted to forgo professional publishers and printed their books with funding from corporate sponsors. 'Publishers often have rigid requirements on the size, length, and style of the book. But every chef has a huge collection of their own cookbooks and they know what works best,' says Sorsa. 'Some of my ideas would never have been approved [by publishers]. But now that we've done the book, many publishers like the final product and may want to pick it up in the future.'

Kee Club executive chef Gianluigi Bonelli broke all the rules in putting together one of Hong Kong's most innovative cookbooks, Makeup Concepts. 'Nobody believed in the book - not my friends, not my boss,' he says. But after its initial release in 2006, the HK$800 dessert book was picked up by a Spanish publisher that printed a second edition of 3,000 copies, all of which sold out.

With a foreword by Albert Adria, pastry chef (and brother of chef Ferran) at the renowned El Bulli in Spain - where Bonelli also worked - Makeup Concepts doesn't contain a single recipe. It was inspired by a photo of women's makeup - soap, face cream and gel - which the chef imagined as ingredients: an apricot, mint foam and herring mousse.

'The goal of the book was not to teach people recipes, it was to make them see things differently and get some inspiration of their own.' Bonelli saved for a year to self-fund his project, saying: 'I didn't want to make any cookbook. I wanted to make my cookbook.'

Cooke says that in some areas, having a publisher to edit and market Food Art greatly simplified things for him. 'We were lucky with our publisher in that they let us spearhead the direction. And if they did something I didn't agree with, you'd better believe I fought back.'

The chef did have to make some concessions. To achieve the photographer's vision, Cooke had to plate his food on a 1.2 square metre piece of white cardboard.

'We wanted to present food as a work of art and had photographer Jorg Sunderman shoot abstract photographs,' says Cooke. 'It felt unnatural. For soups or runny sauces, I had to build a mashed potato wall around them to keep them from running off the board.'

Sorsa wanted to portray things other than just the finished dishes. 'I wanted to include pictures not just of food, but of the Scandinavian lifestyle. So I used photographs of my friends and family.' As he flips through the pages of the book, he says: 'Here's a photograph of me on my grandmother's island. I'm wearing a jacket I found in the closet and cooking fish just caught in the river out back. For me, that's the most authentic representation of real Scandinavian life.'

Bonelli took more than 6,000 photos to get the 300 shots he eventually used. 'You may notice that in the book, I credit someone named Olivia Ping for the photos,' says Bonelli. 'That's actually me. I cooked the dishes. I photographed them. I laid out the pages in Photoshop. Everything.'

It isn't easy for chefs to translate their recipes to the page.

Cooke says: 'The ingredients and proportions weren't difficult to write because those had to be precise for our staff to make the dishes every day. But to explain the method in 'normal language' rather than 'chef language' was a headache.

'Do you write, 'caramelise the scallops', or do you write, 'preheat the pan to 180 degrees Celsius with two tablespoons of oil then sear scallops until golden brown?''

Although the books are a lot of work, their authors don't write them with profit in mind. 'Ultimately, the cookbook is not a profitable item for most restaurants. It's a nice gift for your regular customers and spreads the word for your business. But it's impossibly difficult to distribute and costly to print,' says Seaton.

Despite the lack of financial reward, cookbooks are more than mere marketing tools: they represent a personal achievement and they're a path to new opportunities for their chef authors.

Bonelli refers to his book as his 'daughter' and through it has made contact with chefs around the world interested in his desserts. And Sorsa sees Scapas as a step forward in his personal mission to teach Hongkongers about the Scandinavian lifestyle. 'I don't just want people to think of it as a cold place where people eat pickled herring. I want them to understand the culture through our food.'

'A cookbook for a chef is like a personal diary,' says Cooke.

'The first cookbook I wrote was in 1999 [Marriages, for a restaurant in Melbourne], and I have since progressed as a chef. Dining trends change too, with recipes using less cream and butter than they used to for health reasons. It's a snapshot of history for the chef, the restaurant, and the culinary landscape.'

Given that Food Art won the Best Innovative Cookbook Award at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards last year, it seems only a matter of time before Cooke writes another book .

Sorsa is now in talks with Le Creuset, which provided kitchenware for Scapas, about a collaborative cookbook using the French firm's cast-iron cookware.

Bonelli and Seaton have different opinions about writing more cookbooks. Bonelli says: 'Are you kidding? Do you know what I went through with the first one?' Seaton says: 'But never say never.'