Writer or Collaborator? The Cookbook Wars Heat Up.

New York Times food writer Julia Moskin’s recollections of her early career as a cookbook “ghost writer” ignited a rolling boil of a controversy in the professional food world.

Those two little words had the combustible effect of splashing water on a kitchen grease fire.   Food luminaries from Rachael Ray to Gwyneth Paltrow took to Twitter and the talk show circuit defending the originality of their work.

Moskin posted a follow-up to clarify the difference between ghost writing – a fairly standard term in publishing – and ghost-cooking, where recipes might actually be created by an anonymous author and attributed to a chef.  What Moskin described as a “light account” – and a tribute to the “ink-stained (and grease-covered) wretches” who labor in obscurity – became a hot mess.  The media devoured the controversy, because while we all love a great meal, we truly relish a culinary smack down.

Chefs Bobby Flay and Anne Burrell offered one of the more inclusive responses speaking on the Today Show.    Flay, who has worked with Moskin in the past, said he didn’t think she was trying to ignite a firestorm, and both he and Burrell – with cookbooks in hand – said they work with a fully-credited team of “collaborators” that help bring their vision to the page, but the recipes are entirely theirs.

Does this all feel a bit like You say tomato, I say tomahto?

Professional cooking has always been a team sport, but also a business where celebrity brands are carefully nurtured.   Food is the ultimate theatrical experience.   We want to believe that a four star chef is solely responsible for our extraordinary entrée, but in fact there is a battalion of people behind the curtain – prepping, chopping and assembling – who make that dish a reality.  There’s a certain intimacy in watching a TV chef prepare a meal but – in fact – that chef is supported by a team of behind-the-scenes food stylists, chefs who test recipes, producers, writers and videographers who make that recipe camera-ready.

Putting debates of semantics, originality and authorship aside, Moskin’s article is yet another sign of the democratization of the food world, where the domination of celebrities and big brands is yielding to a broader acknowledgement of the contributions of a total food community.  “Ghost writers” are gaining recognition.  Fine dining establishment are crediting local farms on menus.  Snack foods and quick service restaurants are acknowledging the role of individual farmers in advertising.    Former New York Times food writers are crowd-sourcing recipes from real people for new cookbook collections.

Perhaps we’ll soon see a day when the once-celebrity chef will be viewed as artist and curator and all of the contributors to “the feast” will be celebrated.

Tom Barritt is Partner and Managing Director of Ketchum’s Communications Training Network, a team of executive media coaches. He has helped executives shape stories that get noticed for nearly three decades.