A guest post by Barbara Abdeni Massaad
When I decided to write and photograph my first book, Man’oushé: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery, I had no experience in writing books or taking professional food and location photos to document my journey. I come from a kitchen background. My cooking career started in the 1980s in a family-owned restaurant in Fort, Lauderdale, Florida, called Kebabs & Things.
Serving and cooking for customers was an important experience in my life. Years later, I would go on to train in restaurants in Beirut, Lebanon, where I moved a few years later. Now, I am the author of five cookbooks, many of which have won awards.
Here are my insights on how to write award-winning cookbooks:
1. Don’t ever let anyone undermine your dreams.
The idea to write about food started with an obsession: living through a journey in Italy and learning about pizza-making. Upon deep reflection, I took a
similar journey in Lebanon and delve into the subject of flatbreads made daily in street corner Lebanese bakeries.
When I announced to my friends that I would undertake this important mission, they all laughed at me. Two years later, these same friends were standing in line at the book signing congratulating me on my first book.
2. The journey matters more than the destination.
From the moment the idea is born until the book is published, a writer will go through so many experiences to accomplish a successful output. If you focus on winning awards, it will deter you from the principal goal of writing a cookbook. Many authors live the experience of writing a book—just as an expectant-mother does when giving birth to a child (baby blues and all).
3. The subject of the book has to become one of the main focuses of your life, 24/7.
You have to be passionate about your subject, looking at every angle, as you would if you were photographing an object. You have to learn to cut out the “noise” of everyday life and pay close attention to the work at hand. You will often doubt your work, and, at times, you’ll feel incompetent. You will get tired of reading the text over and over again to look for errors.
Thankfully, the Man’oushé book did very well. It won several awards, including the Gourmand World Cookbook Award, the Lebanese Academy of Gastronomy Award and a Certificate of Merit in the Premiere Print Awards.
4. You must have luck on your side.
This has a huge effect on the fate of your book. Some will call it fate; others can call it divine intervention, serendipity, chance, providence, destiny. We have a local saying in Lebanon, “maktoob,” which means it is written (in the stars).
5. Get support and don’t give up. Your work will pay off.
I started working on building the skeleton for my second book, Mouneh: Preserving Foods for the Lebanese Pantry. a few days after Man’oushé went to print. I had done the work; I was alone. I needed to overcome the deep sense of loss I was feeling.
I needed a new obsession. The subject of preserving the bounty of each season made sense to me to pursue this research. It also gave me a purpose to continue to delve into our local culinary traditions and to meet all those who worked in that field, including small-scale food producers, farmers, chefs and locals who had inherited the know-how of their ancestors. I spent five long years working on the cookbook. I was married and raising three children while living through a painful war in Lebanon.
My family was my greatest support. They accompanied me on many food adventures. They also had to deal with the highs and lows of writing a book. My husband always believed in my work and has supported my crazy ideas throughout the years. Oftentimes, I wanted to quit; it was simply too hard. The next day, I would start over. I wasn’t going to give up.
The Mouneh book won the Gourmand Cookbook Awards 2010 and the Prix de la Littérature Gastronomique 2010.
People started paying attention to my work. I was offered a food consultancy job in Seattle, WA to train the head chef of a resstaurant. I proposed to my client to hire a local chef to do this task, but they insisted on working with me. So I packed my bags and registered my children at camp in Seattle for a month.
6. Each book should have its own traits and characteristics.
My cookbook Mezze: A Labor of Love was published to document the experiences I have had with Middle Eastern appetizers throughout the years. I wanted this book to have a very different personality. I chose illustrations over food photography, partnering with a local artist to draw pictures based on my writing. The book won the Gourmand Cookbook Awards 2014.
When war broke out in Syria, Lebanon witnessed a huge influx of refugees. Tents were set up in different remote areas in the country. I set out to go to the refugee camps, not knowing exactly my purpose. But I took my camera and shot portraits of the refugees, while reminiscing about the good old times and talking about food. Food stories are always a great ice breaker. I made friends along the way.
7. Leave room for serendipity.
My next book, Soup for Syria: Recipes to Celebrate Our Shared Humanity, was an attempt to help these families. It started as a small project, collecting soup recipes to do a cookbook on the subject with artistic portraits of refugees.
While working on a project in London, I had a meeting with Michel Moushabeck, founder and publisher of Interlink Publishing, who had published Man’oushé in the United States. We had never met before, only through long emails. We sat over dinner talking about our lives and our work. Just before we parted, I mentioned to him that I was undertaking a “small book project” to help the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. I had a dummy in my bag, printed generously by my printer to encourage me. Michel took one look at the dummy and blurted, “Interlink will publish it.” That was really unexpected.
After including contributions from celebrity chefs such as Anthony Bourdain, Mark Bittman, Yotam Ottolenghi, Sami Tamimi, Claudia Roden, Alice Waters, Greg Malouf and many others, the book went on to be published in seven countries and raised funds for food and medical relief for Syrian refugees around the world.
Soup for Syria won the Gourmand Cookbook Awards 2016 and was selected Best Cookbook of the Year by numerous magazines and newspapers.
8. Find the right partners.
Writing cookbooks is teamwork with lots of dedicated people who work hard to make the book a success: editor, designer, proofreader, photographer, publisher, publicity and marketing staff and so many more.
9. Find your muse.
It is essential to feed your creativity (your soul). Doing so gives you the needed motivation to continue, since the road can be rocky when you are writing a cookbook. My muse remains to be the people involved in food making that I meet throughout this journey. Slow Food and the international network of Terra Madre continue to be strong pillars in my work as a cookbook writer.
My next cookbook, Forever Beirut: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Lebanon, with a foreword by Chef José Andrés, will be published by Interlink Books in summer 2022. Here is a summary:
“I decided to work on a book highlighting 100 recipes of our culinary heritage, to conserve and safeguard this treasure. I wanted the book to help share our culture and to raise funds to support the work of the Lebanese Food Bank, which is doing such great work feeding families in need during these dire times.
“I have also written text—personal stories—and taken photos for each recipe. I portray our culture with my affection and nostalgia for the old Beirut, mixed with our present fate, through words and images that are raw, fragile, sensitive, shocking, emotional and true. The streets of Beirut never cease to inspire me, offering glimpses of faces of the many different communities of this country and reflecting the emotional roller-coaster ride we are living on a daily basis.”
10. Think big.
Don’t be afraid to aim high. If you have put your heart and soul into writing a cookbook, you have every right to position your work accordingly. Your message may have a ripple effect on your society or the whole world. Nothing is impossible.
11. Stay humble.
When you achieve success, it’s time to give back. I have had many mentors throughout the years who have guided me and taught me to use my skills to create award-winning cookbooks. They have taught me so many life lessons along the way.
Help those who have a dream to write a cookbook; it’s your duty. Show them the ropes that took you years to figure out because it’s only by doing good that good comes back (a law of karma). And that’s how you become the writer of award-winning cookbooks, and the person you always wanted to be.
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Barbara Abdeni Massaad is a food writer, TV host and cookbook author. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, she moved to Florida at a young age and later helped her father in their family-owned Lebanese restaurant, Kebabs & Things. Upon her return to Lebanon, she trained with several renowned chefs at Lebanese, Italian and French restaurants. She is also a founding member of Slow Food Beirut and an active participant in the International Slow Food movement. She lives in Beirut with her husband and three children. Find her on Instagram @barbaramassaad.