A First-Time Cookbook Author Gets Her Due

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DSC_5425When a cookbook comes out, you see the finished product and the glory, and you don’t know the behind-the-scenes story of struggle, sacrifice, and hard work. Here’s my “proud mother hen” story about one author. It may surprise you.

In 2005 Romney (Nani) Steele worked at the San Francisco Ferry Building selling mache and working with the Cowgirl Creamery. A tall, single mom with a Master of Fine Arts  in Poetry, she came to a Food Writer’s Conference I chaired, ostensibly to learn how to write a cookbook about salads.

Later I reviewed her cookbook proposal and sent her an email that said, in part,”You write like a confident published writer. That’s fantastic — don’t let go of that skill.”

She confessed to wanting to write a different, more difficult book. It was about growing up at Nepenthe restaurant in Big Sur, as the granddaughter of the original owners, about art, family, nature and beauty, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. She wondered how to wrap her mind around the layers of a story that was more than a cookbook and less than a memoir, and included difficult stories.

I challenged her (nicely) to write that book instead. She took my class on book proposals, then hired me to coach her. Later we did a trade: in exchange for assisting me while I tested recipes for Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas, I continued working with her on the proposal.

When she finished the proposal, Nani came over one summer night with a jar of home-made marmalade for my agent, Carole Bidnick. They cooked a simple dinner of pesto pasta and tomato salad because I was on crutches with a sprained ankle. After the meal we sat on my bed and watched the introduction of The Sandpiper, staring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, partially filmed at Nepenthe. Carole had been to Nepenthe and thought it was a magical place, like Shangri-La. She fell in love with Nani and got her a book deal at the end of 2007.

A few months later, Andrews-McMeel publisher Kirsty Melville met Nani and  heard her physical vision for the book, which incorporates her uncle Kaffe’s fabrics, drawings by designers and artists, and archival photos.

Writing the book wasn’t easy (not that it ever is). There were family politics and she had to convince the restaurant to buy quantities of the book. The advance didn’t cover Nani’s rent and expenses for herself and her two teenage kids for very long. She freelanced as a food stylist and recipe developer, but as the economy tanked, her meager assignments didn’t pay the bills. Undetered, she relied on her credit card and kept going. Making dozens of round trips from Oakland to Big Sur in her ancient green Jetta, she took notes in the restaurant kitchen, talked with the old-timers, researched historic photographs, and slept in her grandmother’s log cabin where she was raised.

Nani turned in the manuscript in fall 2008 and recommended me when the publisher needed a freelancer to edit the book. Once the manuscript went off to the copy editor, Nani chose to involve herself more. She made and styled all the dishes for the imagescolor-drenched photographs by Sarah Remington. She worked with designer Lisa Berman (her choice) for months more, going page by page, matching historical images to colors and text, and words to photos, callouts and sidebars to achieve a book that represented her family’s story. She paid the grocery bills of recipe testers. Come summer and still no work, Nani sublet her apartment and moved to her mother’s house with her kids for a few weeks.

Finally, My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family and Big Sur came out last week. It’s a gorgeous, hard-cover gift book and already a best-seller on Amazon. Epicurious.com chose it as one of the Best Cookbooks of 2009. The San Francisco Chronicle covered Nepenthe’s launch party.

Nani still has little work, and now little time for it. People assume she’s making a ton of money on the book, but it’s only a few dollars per copy. No matter. she’s forging ahead like a pro, lining up events to promote the book, blogging, Facebooking and Twittering, and enjoying her moment in the sun. She deserves every second.

Photo of Romney Steele by Doug McKechnie.


  1. says

    Nani put her heart and soul into this book and her love, devotion, poetry and talent fly off of every page. It is a perfection – moving, historical, instructional, personal, and an extraordinary gift to every single person who has ever had the chance to visit Nepenthe. It is a place beyond description, truly magical, yet somehow Nani has done the impossible and given us all a taste of the magic in a way that is irresistible, humble, glorious, simply perfect. Her kids get a hats off too – – – it was, and is, a family effort and they were, and are, amazing throughout.

    • diannejacob says

      Lovely, Erin. Thanks for the vote of confidence from the cousin behind the scenes providing tons of raw material and support.

  2. says

    Quite the story Dianne, thanks. Her work and passion reap rewards for all of us in the form of this gorgeous book, despite the monetary constraints.

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Ashley. I hope you’ll thumb through it in a bookstore so you can see how gorgeous it really is!

  3. Erica Peters says

    It’s a lovely book; my children and I have been cuddling up on the couch with it, planning a trip down to Big Sur, and what will be our first trip to Nepenthe.

    • diannejacob says

      Hi Erica, I heard you were at the Omnivore reading. Now you’ll know the inside scoop when you visit.

    • diannejacob says

      Erika, oh yes, she’s very strong. She didn’t cut me any slack, let me tell you. But I appreciate that about her, and it comes through in the book.

  4. says

    I’ve heard lots of buzz about this book over the past several days and was happy to meet Nani, however briefly, at BlogHer food. Her book sounds like a wonderful artistic achievement. I’m dying to see the book and head down to Big Sur since I’ve never been to Nepenthe.

    I hope Nani achieves the success, financial and otherwise, it sounds like she richly deserves.

    • diannejacob says

      Hi Cheryl, I’m sure you could get a review copy from Andrews-McMeel. Contact Tammy the publicist, who has been working with Nani, doing a fine job. I forgot to say in the story that Nani is an artist also, and her book reflects it.

  5. says

    One of my dreams has been to write a “cookbook/memoir of my ‘gourmet’ family in the 60’s-70’s. I know I have to do it… but.. income generating???, I doubt it. I look forward to buying and devouring Nani’s book.

  6. says

    Wow, talk about a success story against all odds. It gives me hope and scares me a little! It sounds like she deserves everything good she gets. Good for her!

    And I have a review copy of that book right here on my desk.

  7. says

    I love Nepenthe! I just read your post and did not know about this book. I just jumped on over to Amazon and ordered it. Can’t wait to read it! Thanks for a great post. Best wishes to Nani.

    • diannejacob says

      Whoa, you mean I helped sell a book? Cool. Thanks, Elaine, for the purchase and your good wishes for Nani. I’m sure she’ll read your comment.

  8. says

    Thanks Dianne and everyone else who posted and responded to my book (and story). I feel like I’m part of a saga, as is what so many of us do to get our work out there in the world–especially women and mothers–(can I say that)–it’s never easy but the rewards, monetary or not, have been numerous and plentiful.

    And thank you Dianne for the push to get on board when I needed it the most, and all your continued support (including with folding laundry, an inside joke).

    • diannejacob says

      You are most welcome, Nani. It’s an inspiring story about your determination to push through obstacles, plus a cautionary tale for people who think writing cookbooks is a way to make money. Maybe the book will earn out at some point and you’ll get your royalty checks, but that’s not what led you into it. It was all about telling the story with beautiful writing and colorful images. Now you have tangible evidence that you could do it.

  9. Heather Jones says

    What a fantastic story, one that has given me a little more inspiration to move forward. I can’t wait to get my copy in the mail.

  10. says

    I went to Mills with Romney and My Nepenthe is such a delight to read. I feel like the book is a genie let out of its bottle, all the fragments heard over the years fleshed out, paired with photos, history, context and sumptuous color – not to mention food! Thank you for challenging Romney and being the creative midwife for this project.

    • diannejacob says

      Thanks Sonya. Yes, hard to believe there’s never been a book about Nepenthe — such a creative vibrant place filled with stories.

  11. says

    Dianne, I love this story! I saw this stunning book and fell in love instantly. Hearing Nani’s story and how all of you came together to put this enchanting imagery into print gives the book profound new beauty. Some stories are meant to be told. I’m so glad she told hers, that you’ve shared this one to inspire the rest of us to keep writing and telling ours.


  12. says

    Oh, such a lovely story. And such a lovely cookbook! I grew up in Monterey and spent many hours at Nepenthe. Such a beautiful place and it holds such memories. Thank you, Nani, for sharing this with us and thank you for helping it to come to fruition, Dianne!

    • diannejacob says

      You are most welcome, Jeanne. I hope you enjoy the cookbook. The next time you visit you will know so much more about the place.

  13. says

    Holy Cow!

    What a blast from the past!
    In 1998, I visited Nepenthe as I travelled up Highway 1 from L.A.

    This picture tweeked my memories of a fabulous lunch at what I always reffered to as “That place in Big Sur that was pearched on the mountain at the curve in the road.”

    Now, I’ve gotta get this book.
    Thanks Dianne!

    • diannejacob says

      Hey John, nice to hear from you. I’m so glad this post stirred up a good memory for you. You’ll find lots of photos of Nepenthe inside.

  14. anina says

    I have grown up with Nepenthe right down the way from me.
    I am thrilled to see the hard work and love that went into writing the sounds and smells and stories of this magical place of the 60’s and 70’s. That place, alas, is long gone.

    • diannejacob says

      You must live in a beautiful place. Yes, but now you can remember it with the cookbook. She’s done such a beautiful job.