Rick Rodgers: Interview With a Kitchen Pro
March 1st, 2011 | 11 Comments
Some of Rick’s books
As soon as I met Rick Rodgers, I bombarded him with questions. How could I not? Here I had one of the great baking and food writing minds in my midst, and doggone it, I had to know all about him. Over fancy tea and tiny cookies, no less.
Certainly, you remember this post I did on the Dobos Torte, for a Daring Bakers challenge? From this exquisite, authentically-Viennese pastry book? Yep, THAT Rick Rodgers. He wrote that one and an avalanche of others. The man knows his way around a coffee cake.
But let’s back up for a second. How is it that I was suddenly sitting around sipping tea with Rick Rodgers on a Sunday afternoon? It’s because of that dang Macaron primer. That thing gets around. Turns out, we have a mutual friend (Linda, I’m looking at you), and she dropped a copy in his inbox.
Next thing I know, Rick sent me a very nice email and fast foward to us sitting around munching biscuits, batting around industry gossip like a couple of Real Housewives. Rick was a wealth of info about what’s up in the professional food and publishing biz. I found myself completely riveted.
I thought you might be interested in Rick’s hard-won wisdom too. Rick was kind enough to answer all of my questions.
Tea and Questions with Rick Rodgers
How did you get your start in the food business?
I came from a family of many nationalities (Liechtenstein, Hawaii, Portugal, and Ireland), and each branch identified itself through cooking. I was exposed to great food early on. My Auntie Gisela’s Kipferln Viennese croissants come to mind, and the family still talks about Cousin Trudy’s chocolate cake.
My first job was at a “gourmet” deli in suburban San Francisco, and I already knew the names of most of the cheeses and cold cuts they were serving. I was fifteen, and I just kept working in restaurants through college.
When I moved to New York after graduating with a Theater BA from San Francisco State University, I got a restaurant management job at a terrific place in Manhattan, Teacher’s, which was next door to Zabar’s, where I learned even more about food. (We had a Thai chef, so I was eating Southeast Asian before it was popular.) That’s where I met a lot of the celebrities who gave me my start as a caterer. One thing led to another, and very soon I was cooking for the French Government on Fifth Avenue. I never performed on the stage again after I came to New York, although my theatrical background sure comes in handy when I am on TV or teaching my classes.
What major changes in the food business have you seen since you started?
The biggest change is food on TV. There used to be a very few PBS shows that made an impact, such as Julia Child and Martin Yan. Now every cable station has a cooking show…but it is hard to find a show that really teaches how to cook. Competition is not cooking.
And as you read this, you are experiencing another Big Change: blogging. Again, like TV, the quality varies and you can’t take everything at face value, because there is so much information out there. I find that the group recipe sites are totally unreliable. But, if a person who stands behind his or her writing runs the site, your chances of getting good information and recipes are better.
When I started, you had to be a good cook period. Now, in addition to my cookbooks, I have to spend lots of time on my blog, not just writing, but testing recipes, taking photos, and more. I also have to read what other bloggers are writing about. This can take up a big part of your day with very little financial return.
How did you get your first book published and what did the process entail?
I was catering in New York, and one of my best clients was the French Government Cultural Services offices. Their domain included food, so when there was a launch party for new French spirits or food, the print food editors would attend and get to taste my food. I guess it was good, because I was soon writing for Chocolatier (now Pastry Arts and Letters Magazine) and Food and Wine. An editor at Food and Wine, Susan Wyler, left to start her own publishing business, and asked me to write THE TURKEY COOKBOOK. That was twenty years and over forty cookbooks ago, not counting the books I have written for and with other cooks.
This was in the very early days of word processing, but it was still a step up from hacking out a manuscript on a typewriter. Frankly, it wasn’t difficult for me because I had read so many cookbooks that I knew what a good recipe entailed. I loved the process…and I still do. I learned early on from the other people in the project—art directors, book designers, editors.
Can you make a living publishing food books nowadays or do you need multiple platforms?
I make a living writing cookbooks because I am happy to help other cooks with their books. I also do a lot of corporate cookbooks. Outside of teaching a few cooking classes, I don’t have another source of income.
I wouldn’t recommend a food-writing career without something else to generate income. If you get to the point when you can quit your “day job,” good for you. With the recent closing of Gourmet and the transfer of Bon Appetit to New York from LA, there are a lot of experienced people entering the freelance market.
Platforms are important, because publishers are looking for other places to sell books than bookstores. For example, my publishers sold a few thousand copies of THANKSGIVING 101 to a gift basket company, and even more of FONDUE to a fondue pot manufacturer. If you have a restaurant, bakery, or food product line, or even a well-trafficked blog, they will help you get a book contract. Of course, TV is the golden platform…if you stay on the air long enough to get through the long process of publishing (it usually takes at least six months to write the book, and another six months in production from editing to printing to warehousing.)
What suggestions do you have for someone who wants to get started in the food business?
Getting experience is part of growing, but if you want to be paid well at the same time, you are in for a disappointment. Web sites are notorious for paying poorly because there are so many people who are willing to work for free or peanuts. And to be fair, it is difficult for them to gauge their income from advertisers. It’s a much newer game than magazines, who had their in policies in place. Recently I was asked by a huge publisher to provide a free recipe for their web site. They weren’t even willing to pay me for groceries. I have a friend who worked as an apprentice/assistant to a bestselling author for six months without pay—not even subway fare or lunch money. But, she’s OK with it because she has that job on her resume now.
I am a generalist, which means that I can do many different kinds of cooking. If you prefer to specialize, that’s fine, but you will work less if you only are conversant in Asian or Italian cuisine. Travel as much as you can and taste food in its original setting. I was a pretty good baker, but when I went to Paris and Vienna and experienced the pastries there, it changed my life. (I remember when Paris was the only city in the world to buy macarons!) Enjoy everything from diner food to three-star Michelin restaurants, and look for what makes the food tasty and unique in either case. Never be a food snob.
Finally, do not underestimate basic general knowledge outside of the kitchen. Many young people concentrate on cooking, but look for ways to avoid English 101 and Basic Math. Being able to communicate in print is very important if you want to have a successful business. A web presence, usually meaning a literate and visually interesting blog, is essential for today’s food professional. One of the reasons why I got noticed by the press was because I turned in well-written recipes at my first jobs. And as for math you’ll find out when you have to extend a recipe, or do conversions from metric into American volume, or balance your restaurant’s checkbook.
Is culinary school important for the aspiring professional foodie these days?
It depends on the job. I was self-trained for ten years before I went back to school and got a restaurant management degree from New York City Technical College. (Why not CIA in Hyde Park? I was having too much fun in in New York City, dining at the fine restaurants here, especially regarding ethnic cuisines. I can hear my old friends now: “I didn’t know that Studio 54 was a ‘fine restaurant!’) Personally, I do like to see a culinary school on a resume because I know that the person has discipline and has been exposed to the basic culinary rules in an organized fashion. For example, if I say “layered pastry,” “emulsification,” or “mother sauce” in conversation, I don’t want to have to explain what they are.
If a person without a cooking school education makes a good impression, I’ll go a step further and ask for a practical demonstration of their skills. That’s really the best way to for me to evaluate a young cook anyway, as just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you can cook. It means you passed the tests, but the proof is in the pudding.
What surprised you most about working in the food business? What about book publishing?
Believe anyone who tells you that there is no harder job than the food business. One of the reasons why I was happy to leave restaurants and catering behind was that I was sick of working on holidays. Long hours, exhausting physical work…it’s tough, even though there are creative rewards. Now I still work on weekends, and make meals for up to fifty people at a class, and come home after that to face a writing deadline for the next day.
With publishing, beginning writers must be surprised to find out how long it takes to make money on a book. With publishing going through so much turmoil, the payout for your work has changed. It used to be that I got paid half of the advance on signing, and the remainder upon delivery of the text. I now can be paid in four installments, with the final one occurring on the book’s publication date, which could be two years after my signing. See what I mean about keeping the day job?
Any big food trends you see developing over the next few years?
I think that you are going to see molecular gastronomy hit everyday cooking to a certain extent. You can buy sous vide equipment and smoke guns now at Williams-Sonoma. But wait until Nathan Myhrvold’s $600 MODERNIST CUISINE book series hits the shelves in a couple of weeks. The impact will be huge. On the other hand, because all of these things I mentioned aren’t cheap, the trends may only affect the richest hobbyists and take time to trickle down.
Food blogs and cookbooks as e-books are going to affect how we eat, too. Blogs have already taken a huge market share away from Old School food magazines. I know of a big culinary firm who is publishing their next round of textbooks only as e-books with video tutorials for techniques in addition to the words. It could be that in five years’ time, it will become a must to have video content for your book. I was sure to have video on my site, www.rickrodgers.com.
What web sites or magazines are on your “must read” list?
I subscribe to Publishers’ Weekly online to get the publishing news. It isn’t always good news, but it helps me understand the rapidly changing cookbook marketplace. For food news, I like sites that have solid information www.epicurious.com has intelligent bloggers who are on top of the trends and legislation. I also like www.leitesculinaria.com and www.slashfood.com.
To me, the sign of a good web site is one that leaves you satisfied, either with a good piece of information or a recipe that you have to drop everything to try.
As for print, Saveur seems to be the only food magazine left with a global view. Food and Wine is chef-driven, as it should be, being owned by American Express, but that may not be the kind of food I want to cook on a weeknight. We all have to wait and see about the new version of Bon Appétit, although their new slogan, “Bite Me,” will allow many readers to form an opinion before they even open the covers. Imbibe is a fairly new magazine that deftly covers spirits, coffee, and tea, all subjects that I am very interested in.
What’s coming up for you in the near future?
Never a dull moment around here, I am happy to say. I am updating the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide for publication later this year. There are three proposals in circulation that I am waiting to hear about. I am teaching classes at schools in the New York area. I have cut back on my traveling. The blog is keeping me busy, and I have to work on my photography skills. My latest book, Williams-Sonoma’s Breakfast Comforts, just came out, and it’s for sale only at their stores until April. In September, look for my next book, I Love Meatballs. Many of my projects happen when an editor and I come up with an idea over lunch. I love what I do, and I hope it shows in my work. The biggest compliment I get is from people who say, “When I read a Rick Rodgers book, I feel like you are there in the kitchen with me.”
Thank you, Rick, for your great stories and sharing your experience.
What about you guys? Do any of you dream of publishing a cookbook? Working with food in a professional capacity? Taking baking classes? I’d love to hear what you think!
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