Q & A: Michael Ruhlman on Recipe-Based Apps

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Writer Michael Ruhlman (Photo by Donna Ruhlman)

Our industry needs writers willing to embrace the digital future of food writing. Michael Ruhlman, an award-winning cookbook author, dove in. He embraced blogging a few years ago and has now has regular income based on it. Next he put out apps on mobile devices based on his books.

As part of a team, Ruhlman created three apps and he’s in development on the fourth. They are:

1. The Ratio app for the iPhone and iPod. At $4.99, Rulman says the app has sold 11,000 copies, and continues to sell at the rate of 50 per week. Apple takes 30 percent off the top. The team of Ruhlman, the developer, and the designer (Leah McCombe) split the rest. The team worked on spec (basically for free) in exchange for royalties. Ruhlman is working on an enhanced Ratio app for the iPad with the developer, Sideways.

2.  The Ratio Android app. Not quite as popular, it sells 1 for every 10 sold on Apple. The same team created it and splits the revenue.

3. The iPad Bread Baking Basics. Itsells for $1.99. The team comprised Ruhlman; his wife Donna Ruhlman, who shot the photos; and the developer, Will Turnage of R/GA.

4. An iPad app based on his forthcoming book, Ruhlman’s 20. Ruhlman is currently in negotiations with Chronicle Books.

Ruhlman spoke to to members of the International Association of Culinary Professionals on a teleforum last week about apps, and I followed up with this interview.

Q. Why did you decide to make an app from your book Ratio?

A. Because the concept lends itself so beautifully to what a smart phone can do. There’s enough people who have mobile phones and enough people who cook to make it valuable.

Q. What is a good app?

A. Something that’s useful, encourages people to cook, and makes cooking easier and more fun. It does something no other device can do in the kitchen. It does more than just show you videos – which you can watch on TV;or show you a recipe – which you can see in a cookbook.

It does this: I want a thin crisp chocolate chip cookie, but my son wants a fat cakey cookie. A good app lets you alter recipes based on preference or quality. It’s scalable and creates a different recipe depending on what I want. Cookulous does that.

Q. Why should food writers develop an app?

A. I don’t think they should, unless they want to. Eventually there will be actual money in it, and that’s why publishers like Chronicle are investing in it.

Q. What kind of skills do writers need to do an app?

A. They need an imagination and an understanding of digital devices and what they’re capable of doing, and how to make them do new things. Otherwise it’s all the same stuff.People who know how to cook, have culinary knowledge, and cook well and have valuable info to give need to be very creative in new ways to use the technology.

Q. How much does it cost to develop an app?

A. I was lucky. I had no up-front costs. I’ve heard anywhere from $10, 000 to six figures.

Q. Can you really make any money?

You can if you are a gamer. Come up with the next Angry Birds for cooking!

Within 10 years,smart devices are going to be as common as television. Anyone who gets in now is getting in early, getting their foot in the door.

Q. Do food writers have to become photographers and videographers to do this work?

If they can do it well, it certainly helps. Video is hard to edit, it just takes time. It gives me a headache. I need to pay some geeky film student, or find someone who’s a foodie and wants to practice.

Q. Should food writers be thinking about an app when they propose the next book to an agent or publisher?

A. Yes to an agent, if they have a good idea. Yes to a publisher, if the publisher is publishing digital products.

Q. How do publishers pay writers for apps?

A. You’re generating a different kind of content from a static book, so it should be worth more. You should get a separate advance from your book. They might want you to create videos (for an iPhone app). Publishers should pay extra for that. Authors need to be more savvy about what they’re giving up.


  1. says

    I like the Ratio app and am always looking for new food related apps for my iTouch. I keep thinking of ideas for food apps. I need to put them on paper and take them to the next step.

  2. says

    Quite a timely post Dianne, thanks. This is something my husband and I have been talking about. I started blogging 11/09 and my husband shoots all the photos. Although I am a professional chef by training, we both have tech backgrounds. This could be a way to leverage all of of our backgrounds and do something great for the future…at least that is what we are hoping. I missed the IACP session because I was working. Need to go back and listen to it. I bought ratio. Have not used it that much but wanted to see what Ruhlman did. I’ve been cooking by ratios for years and love the concept. Thanks again.

    • diannejacob says

      You and your husband sound like you have the perfect ratio of skills, Sally. Now you need to add marketing to the mix. It’s one thing to make an app and another to make people want to buy it!

  3. says

    Diane, this is a great post. Thanks so much for sharing Michael’s perspective on this. I actually have created an iPhone and an iPad app (Cook It Allergy Free) and the tech world is definitely an interesting place to play in. I know that I got lucky because Apple put my App on their New and Noteworthy and What’s Hot lists. That is what helped me from the beginning. But…like Michael says, you have to have something unique that your app does, otherwise it will get lost in the hundreds of thousands of Apps in the App store. Having a “thing” is what will get Apple to notice you and put you on their lists. Those lists are what will make or break you in the App world.
    The hard thing is App reviewers can be brutal and hasty, more so than on Amazon for books or on blog comments. People will download the App without reading the actual description of what we, as developers, take a long time to write to make sure people understand what they are getting, and then they leave a nasty review because they just assumed it did something they expected.
    And I do really like the idea of hiring a developer to work on Spec.
    Thanks again!!

    • diannejacob says

      You’re welcome. Thanks for providing more insight into how it works, particularly the lists.

      It’s true about the nasty reviews. I have seen them also. It makes me wonder what is wrong with people.