Q&A: Peter Reinhart on What it Takes to Be a Successful Cookbook Author

Sep 042012
 

Peter Reinhart is a baking instructor and faculty member at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Peter Reinhart has authored eight cookbooks, including the The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread, winner of two national awards. That cookbook alone has sold more than 100,000 copies.

You’d think he’d have an ego, but during our interview Reinhart came across humbly, talking about the value of working with a team and not burning bridges.

I caught up with him as he taught baking classes in California to promote his latest book, The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking, co-authored with Denene Wallace. It’s his first book on low-carb breads, pastries, cookies, and cake for those sensitive to gluten, diabetics, or those who need to reduce carbs to prevent weight gain. The focus is on baking with nut and seed flours and non-sugar sweeteners.

In this interview, he talks about the value of sticking with the same publisher, learning a new subject, and why you need a thick skin to grow as a writer:

Q. Why did you decide to write a gluten-free, sugar-free baking book? You are a bread and pizza guy.

A. Ten Speed asked if I wanted to do a gluten-free book, and I said only if we cover new territory. They told me gluten-free and allergen-free was the hottest new category. It was nice to be asked. I felt like I had arrived.

Q. You’ve been with Ten Speed for a long time.

A. It’s common to jump around to publishing houses, but it feels traditional to be with a publishing house where you feel like they’re part of your family. There’s a comfort level there and a trust level there. I’ve been with them for 12 years.

I got lucky when Random House bought Ten Speed because they got bigger distribution but they kept the same team. My former editor, Aaron (Wehner, publisher), is a great idea man. He stays engaged and I have access to him. Melissa (Moore, Food Editor) is the new Aaron, very collaborative. This is our third book together.

In the old days you read about Judith Jones and Julia Child, where people were together for years. I feel like I’m in the stable with thoroughbreds. And if I want to do a non-food book I can stay within the Random House family and go with an imprint.

Q. What makes an award-winning cookbook?

A. Writing a book is not a solo effort. Sometimes the magic is just there with the editor, the publisher, the design, the photography — it’s like putting a movie together. Everybody contributed something. Having great recipe testers has been invaluable too.

From the writer’s standpoint, it’s important to appreciate that process. I know a few writers who have fought the process, to their detriment. I find it helpful not to create an adversarial environment. Everybody has the same goal of a successful book.

Q. This is new for you, to write a book on low-carb baking that uses no grains and no sugar. How did you approach this subject where you are not the expert?

Joy of Gluten-Free Sugar-Free Baking

A. I’m kind of running out of things to say about wheat breads, and I’ve pushed the boundaries of traditional breads, so it was nice to have this challenge.

Having a co-author took a lot of pressure off me. I didn’t have to create the recipes from scratch. Denene has a foot in both of the gluten-free and diabetic worlds and had done so much work, so we got a head start. Her recipes were created out of her own personal need. The methodology was very different but it was necessary to the process.

There’s also the chemistry between the two people. We appreciated what each person brought. We spent a lot of time beforehand talking about it, and trying to project ahead and minimize the possibility of friction.

Q. What did you argue about the most?

A. We didn’t argue, but we struggled over the sugar replacers. I really didn’t want to use Splenda. I’m not convinced about the long-term benefits.

On the other hand, you need something to perform like sugar. Fortunately, Stevia In the Raw got the green light from the FDA. We spent a long time trying to create our own sugar replacers with buffering agents but it would have been too prohibitive for our readers. So that became a new option for us.

Another issue was that Denene’s husband was lactose-intolerant, so her milk of choice was soymilk and her butter was Smart Balance. I was learning from her about how milk and butter spike the blood sugar. We assumed that many readers might be using Smart Balance, which is already salted, so we said to use salted butter, which is unusual in a baking book. You don’t want to repeat that on every single recipe, so we made a universal statement at the front.

Q. How do you incent readers to try strange new ingredients they might have to mail order?

A. That’s where going out and doing a teaching tour helps, because there’s no substitute for reaching readers live.

We also set up a website where there’s an opportunity to do a Q&A to answer concerns. There’s a resource section not only about how to order the ingredients and but how to save money. You can buy nuts and pumpkin seeds and grind them yourself. Genene found these ninja blenders at Walmart for only $39.92. And they will grind twice as much nuts and seeds in half the time.

Still, it’s still going to be expensive to make these things because nut and seed flours are more expensive. But fortunately the gluten-free community is proactive and hungry for new products. Diabetics are in more denial about changing their lifestyles.

Part of the challenge is to be a resource. Denene is a much better witness than I am. Me, I’d rather head off any diabetes but I’m not nearly as disciplined, because I have a foot in the pizza and bread world. I took off 14 pounds but I didn’t get to my goal of 25. But for Denene, it’s a life and death decision every day.

Q. I’m interested in how you made readers comfortable in working with these new flours. At the front of your book, you told them to look for detailed instructions in the method on how the dough should look and act, and how to adjust. In what other ways do you help readers get the best results?

A. That textural cue — that’s where our editor made a contribution. She also suggested we say how to make the flour for nuts and seeds, and give resources where they can save almost 50 percent. Everybody loves a bargain.

Denene tracked down the best deals and the best products, like ChocoPerfection Bars.

People love to have options. It reduces anxety when people know there’s a fallback plan. That’s something I’ve always tried to anticipate in my books.

Q. You have said that you teach cooking students that flavor is the most important thing. Have you revised that philosophy with this book? Is health just as important as flavor?

A. Flavor rules — that’s what I always say. Denene and I talked about this a lot. We didn’t want to sacrifice flavor as long as we stay true to the principles. Ironically, all the recipes will work with sugar if somebody is interested in the gluten-free side.

Q. Your book has a focus on weight loss. But the cover shows a carrot cake made with almond flour, with a cream cheese and butter icing. How do you explain this dichotomy?

A. Denene says it’s not the calories she gets from fat or protein, but the calories coming from simple carbohydrates, because they trigger the insulin response. She said she ate the whole carrot cake over one week and I lost 4 pounds. These things are so high high in fiber and richness that you end up not eating so much.

Q. I noticed calorie counts are missing, which I find odd since one of the focuses is on weight loss.

A. We didn’t want the focus as a diet book, because we’re not prescribing a weight loss program. Without being doctors and nutritionists, we didn’t want to make claims.

Besides, it’s complicated. When Denene uses milk instead of soy, it’s whole milk. You’d think that was counterintuitive, but it makes sense, because with skim milk, the sugars are not buffered with buttermilk. You spread that insulin spike out over a longer period. That’s something I never even thought of. If you keep your carb count low, even though these foods are nutrient dense, your body’s going to process them differently.

Q. With recipe testing, someone set up a dedicated web page and “response mechanism” to merge all the feedback you received from recipe testers. How did that work?

A. He volunteered. He did this on my last book too. He set up a website, so that rather than people writing directly to me, he consolidated comments and responses where we started to see patterns in a chart or graph.

Before, with Artisan Bread, 500 people got involved in recipe testing, and every night I was deluged with email questions, staying up until 4 a.m.

We started with 200 people who said they wanted to be testers, and then the serious people whittled themselves down to 30 or 40. A lot of people assumed it was going to be bread! So we lost a few along the way.

Those people were really passionate about whether it works, what the flaws are, and whether the instructions are clear. No one person can catch everything but by having a lot of testers we were able to fine-tune the instructions and make them clearer.

Back when we started doing cookbooks in the 1990s, recipe testing was all by mail, with 9 or 10 people. For Whole Grain, I probably had 125 testers and I thought that was a lot. Building a community of people who have a vested interest in the book is great because they’re helping to spread the word.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. Right now the hot thing for me is sprouted wheat, so there’s always something new to write about there.

Q. What is your advice for people who want to write cookbooks?

A. I mentor a lot of students at Johnson & Wales. Some of them really want to be writers. The first advice I give them is, “Are they doing a blog?” What better way for getting practice, getting the word out, getting feedback? And if you’re really a writer, you’ve got an opportunity to get practice so you can develop your own voice.

Food blogging is a tremendous resource for the next generation of writers. Not everybody’s looking at is a career. Sometimes they want to share their ideas and thoughts and talk about their family. Sometimes you hit that magic button that people respond to. Don’t write the blog because you think you’re going to be the next Julia Child or Pioneer Woman. You just do it. And if you’ve got the talent, people will see that.

Write as much as possible. Don’t get discouraged, be flexible and don’t burn bridges. You never know when you’re going to need to rekindle a relationship with people. You have to have thick skin in order to grow.

 

  39 Responses to “Q&A: Peter Reinhart on What it Takes to Be a Successful Cookbook Author”

  1. Great interview, Dianne! And this book looks great, too…going on my wish list, for sure :)

    • Thank you, Winnie. I’m really intrigued by it too and look forward to trying the recipes, once I round up the ingredients.

  2. I LOVE this post! The message, Peter’s new book, the way they had to make very calculated choices, right down to call for salted butter because Earth Balance is already pretty salty and full fat dairy as a buffer to sugar choices. When baking without traditional sugar, cream, and flour you really have to analyze each choice and how it’s going to impact the recipe, if it will work chemically, if it will TASTE okay, most importantly :)

    Great interview and I love the cover shot of the book. Gorgeous cake stand. I’d buy the book…and the cake stand!

    • Thank you, Averie. Yes, even though the book doesn’t explicitly say dairy free, they knew that diabetics would use margarine, so they made the decision and explained it in the intro. It shows they understand their audience — or at least one of them. The gluten-free folks could use unsalted butter if they wanted.

  3. I loved reading his perspective. I took a bread class from him and just could not believe how down to earth he was, after hearing so much about him. Definitely interesting book. I am not allergic to gluten but it is always good to tickle those boundries time to time :)
    Thanks for the interview:)

  4. WOW! Here is my savior. Thanks Dianne for bringing this cookbook and its authors to our attention. Although, I own quite a selection of cookbooks, for some reason, I do not seem to have one of Peter’s book (or simply lost it through so many moves). I know one thing; I am ordering the book right after completing this comment. In the last few weeks I am playing with creating cakes without processed sugar, but so far my successes are far in between. I will post my creations, dough, because I promised to do so, but I have a feeling that after reviewing Peter’s book, I may have an easier time in unlearning years of “basking in heaps of sugar in everything.”

    I am especially excited to own this book (and of course I will be registering on their website), because it appears that Denene and I are having the same issues. Moreover, she is way ahead with respect to research. Although, I did use almond and hazelnut flours in some of my creations, I mainly concentrated on either reducing the quantity of sugar I used in a recipe, or tried to substitute it with apple sauce, mashed bananas, fruit juices and Agave. I obtained the best results so far with mashed bananas and forget about Agave, but the road is still paved with many obstacles. I guess Peter and Denene are here to rescue, but not without Dianne’s help in bringing this to our attention. Thanks Dianne, as always.

    • Jayne, this is perfect timing for you! Hey, if they have done so much research relevant to what you’re trying to do, less for you to do. It’s clear that it’s very tricky to replace sugar and get an excellent baked good. You’ll have to try their recipes to see if he has done it.

  5. Great article Dianne, thanks as always. I can’t wait to take a look at the book.

  6. Great interview, Dianne! I love how you ask the hard questions and get into the details. We can all learn so much from that, and from Peter’s joyful approach to making really outstanding books!

    • Thanks for noticing. I was a little perturbed by a carrot cake and the term “weight loss” appearing together on the cover, but he explained it as best he could. I’m sure some of this was out of his control.

  7. What a great interview! I’ve enjoyed Peter Reinhart’s books from his earliest essay volumes (“Sacramental Magic” and “Brother Juniper’s Bread Book”) to his in-depth tutorials (“Bread Baker’s Apprentice.”) He’s a great teacher and a heckuva writer, too.

    • I have his pizza book and have learned a lot from it. I enjoy books that teach how to master a technique and dish — it shows there’s still a market for that kind of cooking, even though most cookbooks are aimed at the “easy, simple recipes” crowd.

  8. Thanks for this wonderful interview. I’ve been a fan of Peter Reinhart for years and own most of his books. I eat low carb so this book is on my to do list, for sure.

  9. I very much enjoyed this post. An insightful interview with a fascinating new cookbook on the horizon!

  10. Excellent interview, Dianne! Peter Reinhart’s comments are inspiring and educational. His new cookbook will definitely be on my resource list – I can’t wait to see it. My gut feeling tells me that this cookbook will be a best-seller! I’ve developed many gluten-free and sugar-free recipes for my own cookbooks. It’s been a huge challenge but my readers are very appreciative. It’s so complicated to create recipes that fit both criteria: sugar-free and gluten-free.

    People who are allergic to nuts and seeds always ask for nut-free alternatives in baking – that’s another challenge altogether!

    Norene Gilletz, cookbook author, culinary consultant
    http://www.gourmania.com

    • Thank you so much, Norene. It did sound very complicated to write these recipes, but he seems like the kind of guy who likes a challenge! I feel very confident that the recipes work. Now, a book for people who are allergic to nuts and seeds — Reinhart’s previous books will do nicely.

  11. I’ve been a fan of Reinhart’s for years (one of my favorite books on my shelves is The Bread Baker’s Apprentice) so when my friend said she was going to be an assistant at one of his demos recently I completely spazzed out on her. I couldn’t make the class/demo he was giving but my friend reported that Reinhart is wonderful to work with – really approachable and kind to everyone – I was so happy to hear that he is in reality as I imagined him from his writing. Great interview – I like what he said about sticking with a single publisher but I wonder how possible that is for the average author. From what I’ve read about the industry – your agent doesn’t work with just one publisher and you end up with the publish she/he can sell your work to.

    • Regarding working with the same publisher, it does happen. Some authors are very loyal to their editors and vice versa. When authors have an idea for their next book, they propose it to the publisher. Usually the contract for the existing book says the publisher has the first right of refusal for the next book. If the publisher doesn’t want it, then the author (and agent) can look elsewhere.

  12. Great post, Dianne!
    I love Peter’s books and really enjoyed your interview. He is one of the nicest people in the business. This book is going on my wish list.
    Sandra

  13. Hi Dianne,

    Dianne, I can’t thank you enough for the interview. Although I am not surprised, your blog always has an educational component and that is why people keep coming back and more and more new readers coalesce here.

    This connection will not only save me a lot of time, but my learning curve will accelerate and I will be able to play with the ingredients they already tested. Not to mention, my readers will have a great source for these types of baked goods and other desserts.

    I already ordered the book online and got connected with the authors everywhere (blog, Facebook, etc.) I couldn’t believe that Denene actually could get off from her insulin shots after changing her diet with these types of food.

    You are right about the tricky sugar. It has multiple purpose in baking and so far I found nothing that equals in functions. When I tried to replace both, sugar and flour the results were a messy disaster. So, now I am just trying to work against the sugar. Actually, if you just need to replace the white flour with nut flours, that is not hard at all, although there are other adjustments to be made for maintaining the texture, such as ratios of ingredients, baking time, and even the type of baking dish you use makes a difference.

  14. Fascinating article as always. Nice to hear a very successful author giving a positive nod to blogging.

    • Thanks Sally. Yes, it’s great that he is a fan of blogging. It’s the same advice I give aspiring food writers, because it’s much easier to get your work out there than freelancing.

  15. I enjoyed reading all this information– such nuggets of wisdom! I especially loved the last piece of advice about writing & blogging. It’s priceless! Thanks for featuring Peter Reinhart ! All the best, Dianne!

    • Thank you Elizabeth. I could probably have done a whole other interview on baking or using alternative ingredients.

  16. Thank you DIanne and all who responded. I’m so pleased that all of you are interested in this new method of baking and I hope Denene and I can get out and around the whole country to share the techniques. We’ll post our travel schedule on our website but because we both have other jobs (me at Johnson & Wales Univ., and Denene is an interior designer currently working on a major project) it will take a while before we cover all the cities that have invited us. Meanwhile, we’ll keep sharing new info on our website, time permitting, and I hope this new baking option is useful and helpful to you all. Thanks again, Dianne!

  17. [...] need to check out this new gluten-free, sugar-free cookbook to see where it stands on [...]

  18. Hello Dianne,

    Just want to say thank you for sharing this interview. It gives ideas and structure on presenting an interview via a blog. Something that I hope to do one day on my own blog.
    I’m really pleased you are coming to Food Blogger Connect in London – I’ve been an admirer of your work for a long time so it would be great to meet you there.

    • Hello Jacqueline, I look forward to meeting you soon in London.

      I find it very satisfying to do interviews on my blog. Doing so puts me in touch with people I admire and gives me a chance to pick their brains. BTW, if you want to read more, there is a category full of them to the right of my post.

  19. Hello I’m Denene Wallace – Co-Author of The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking.

    I just want to say that the Chocolate Perfection that you mention in your article IS NOT the chocolate that Peter and I recommend. The sugar-free chocolate that we recommend is called ChocoPerfection by Low Carb Specialities. The names are very similiar. Please make this change in your article so that diabetics or people who are not wanting sugar will purchase the correct chocolate.

    CORRECT CHOCOLATE TO PURCHASE IS:
    Low Carb Specialties
    ChocoPerfection Bars
    Sinful chocolate… without the sin.

    Take the finest, gourmet European chocolate and sweeten it with sugar-free natural plant fiber that tastes exactly like sugar, and you get ChocoPerfection. Even better, these silky-smooth, delicious chocolate bars, with less than 2g Net Carbs actually help with weight loss (when included in a low-carb eating program), due to 14g of prebiotic FOS, candida-cleansing, fiber in every bar. Made from 55% to 63% cocoa solids. No Maltitol. Gluten Free. No Trans Fats.

    And with a zero ranking on the glycemic index, you’ve got all the makings of what very well could be the most perfect low carb chocolate bar ever. ChocoPerfection is naturally sweetened from plant fibers. These natural sweeteners are sugar free and have a glycemic index of zero. The main sweetener in ChocoPerfection is derived from the chickory plant and is named oligofructose. Oligofructose is classified as a “prebiotic fiber” meaning that it takes root in the digestive tract to support the growth of beneficial probiotic flora. Ultimately, oligfructose will rid your digestive tract of harmful bacteria, promote the excretion of toxins, stop sugar cravings and strengthen your immune system.* The second sweetener in ChocoPerfection is erythritol, which is also derived from plants. Erythritol is similar to xylitol in that it has a glycemic index of zero, but it has fewer calories and is considered beneficial for healthy teeth.

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