Celeb cookbooks crowd out chef tomes
It's as natural a pairing as steak and baked potato. Americans love their celebrities, and Americans love to eat. So why not celebrity cookbooks?
Except ... Eva Longoria desperately hawking Tex-Mex recipes? Coolio trying to prove himself the "King of the Kitchen Pimps"? Suzanne Somers with a compendium of dishes to keep us "Sexy Forever"? Jared Allen sacking and repackaging elk three ways (osso buco, Wellington and jerky)?
We need this why?
"Some of these fall in the category of people who enjoy cooking," said Lynne Rossetto Kasper, a James Beard Award-winning author and host of public radio's "The Splendid Table." "A few fall in the category of 'Oh, maybe I should write a cookbook.' "
But Kasper's literary agent, Jane Dystel, said most celebrity-penned cookbooks have some kind of merit.
"We represent Chuck White, who did a book with (singer) Sheryl Crow," Dystel said. "Sheryl had had cancer, and this is a healthy cookbook. So there's a reason for that."
The biggest reason is that these books sell, thanks in part to the celebrities' built-in fan bases. Last May, Gwyneth Paltrow's "My Father's Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family & Togetherness" and Eva Longoria's "Eva's Kitchen" occupied the top two spots in the Wall Street Journal's cookbook best-sellers' list.
Meanwhile, Dystel said, there have been some "major failures" of books by renowned restaurant chefs. Which helps explain why publishers might be opting more often for actors (Mo'Nique, Tony Danza), singers (Patti LaBelle, Ted Nugent) and even a "Real Housewife" (Teresa Giudice).
Last fall even brought us "The Dead Celebrity Cookbook," showcasing such recipes as Dom Deluise's Doodlewoppers, Lucille Ball's Chinese-y Thing and (wait for it) Liberace's Sticky Buns.
The motivation works both ways, especially for the (living) luminaries whose star might have faded a bit.
"If you're a person who's used to the limelight, you usually want more limelight," said Allen Salkin, a New York writer working on a book about chefs who become celebrities via television. "You have a sense for where to put your creative energies where people will pay attention to it. And there's nothing trendier than food.
"Actually, who wouldn't want to write a book about their favorite food and their families? And these people happen to be famous, and so they can."
Just because they can doesn't mean they should. Did the world really need Boy George's "Karma Cookbook"?
Danza's "Don't Fill up on the Antipasto," Trisha Yearwood's two cookbooks and Paltrow's book garnered respect in the food community — although the latter's occasional lapses into precious territory (Chicken Milanese Four Very Special Ways) drew a mocking performance-art reading on YouTube.
Still, the shelves at Barnes & Noble are packed with works by folks who either started off famous or got famous cooking on TV. That means less space for the professionals in the food or writing world who don't have TV shows.
Chef Lenny Russo, who's working on a cookbook with writer Beth Dooley, says he's OK with that, at least in one respect.
"If the end result is that someone who never in a million years would try to make their own soup but all of a sudden they pick up a cookbook by (laughs), let's say Angelina Jolie," said Russo, owner of St. Paul's Heartland restaurant, "and that person decides to roast a chicken because it's in that book, I'm OK with that. Whatever gets people to cooking is good."
Kasper, who has had Crow and LaBelle on her radio show, is not so sure.
"If an Angelina Jolie puts out a cookbook," she said, "and there's an Angelina Jones who has been spending several years thinking about the different ways to roast a chicken, working as a pro on how to do it, and finding a dozen other ways to make that a great meal, I want the money to go to her.
"The people who put years of experience and good writing and good recipes and stuff that is an absolute guarantee that you will have success, they often don't get the play. I question if Julia Child could get published today."
Now if Meryl Streep, who portrayed the author so splendidly in "Julie and Julia," decided she wanted to write a cookbook ...