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Collaborator Confidential: To the Bone by Paul Liebrandt and Andrew Friedman

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What is it like to collaborate with a major chef on a book project? Writer Andrew Friedman should know: he's worked with chefs from Alfred Portale to Laurent Tourondel to, more recently, Michael White and Paul Liebrandt. Below, he discusses the process of collaborating with Liebrandt, chef at New York City's The Elm, on his upcoming book To the Bone. Read an excerpt from the book here.

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Chef Paul Liebrandt and Andrew Friedman. [All photos Evan Sung, except cover art, which is Nigel Parry.]

to-the-bone.jpgBook collaborations come about in all kinds of ways. They can grow out of friendship, or evolve naturally out of an article; they can commence with a call from an agent, be brokered by a matchmaker editor.

My partnership with New York City chef Paul Liebrandt began when I least expected it: It was January 2009, and I was in Lyon, France, trailing the American Bocuse d'Or team for my book Knives at Dawn. It was about 9pm, and I was sitting alone in the gargantuan tour bus that transported the team and a group of spectators from event to event, waiting for others to file in and head to dinner. Restaurant world insider Scott Kasen — who had paired Liebrandt with the great restaurateur Drew Nieporent, leading to the now departed Corton — was the next person to board the bus. I'd never met Scott before that week, but we had struck up a fast and easy friendship in the restaurants of Lyon and the oyster bars of the Les Halles marketplace.

"Andy," he said to me. "When we get back to New York, I want to introduce you to Paul Liebrandt."

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"Why?" I asked. Of course I'd known about Liebrandt for years, but had never met him, and none of the chefs I knew were friendly with him. I think I must've sounded annoyed, not only because I wasn't looking for another project just then, but also because he called me "Andy."

Scott had decided that Paul and I should write a book together, and once we were all back in the States, took me to dinner at Corton. At the end of the meal, Paul emerged from the kitchen: The first thing that struck me was his height, an effect that was defused by his charm offensive: he had a Plexiglass box of chocolates in tow, and set them down before me, inviting me to indulge. Over espressos, we talked, and decided to have a few meetings and see how it went. He was also interested in signing on with the same agent, David Black, who'd been representing me for years.

Concepts usually announce themselves to me pretty quickly, but hatching one for this book took forever. In David's office, the three of us shared our not-necessarily-compatible opinions: David felt that a cookbook centered on the style of food Paul was turning out at Corton would be a tough sell in the current, simple-home-cooking climate; how about a memoir instead? Paul maintained that he was too young to pen a memoir, and continues to feel that way four years later. As publication day approaches, every time I read an article referring to the book as a memoir, I cringe a little, imagining Paul reading the same over in Williamsburg at The Elm.

Paul referred to his style as "graphic," and I latched onto the word.

For my part, I believed that, even though we might not be creating a cookbook, it was essential that the food have a presence. In our interviews, Paul referred to his style as "graphic," and I latched onto the word. He was also much more comfortable discussing the food than the personal details of his life, referring to the very idea of food and cooking in reverential terms. (In the final book, we refer to it as "The Food.") I also happen to write about tennis, and Paul's focus on food came to remind me of Pete Sampras' famous line about how, rather than boast in press conferences, he preferred "to let my racquet do the talking."

We spent a lot of time kicking around ideas, and even browsing the food books in various stores for inspiration. The key to unlocking the concept ended up being the way Paul spoke about his food, often ascribing personal or writerly notions to his dishes. For example, he'd describe how his dish of smoked caramel and pomegranate was inspired by Butterkist, a popular movie theater snack in the UK; or that his Composition Pommes de Terre was an amalgam of techniques he picked up at his first serious kitchen job at L'Escargot in London; or that his Summer Crab Composition, in which the crab is topped by a skirt-like beer gelee took him back to girl-watching in the pubs of London.

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One thing led to another and we ended up with a concept for a hybrid narrative and cookbook, although one in which the recipes would be relegated to the back of the book. We would tell Paul's story, and periodically the narrative would stop and we'd share a photograph of one of Paul's dishes, along with a note on why it reminded him of where we were in his story. For example, his Colston Bassett Stilton with Frozen Quince Crème, sums up the surge of British pride he felt at Marco Pierre's White's explosion on the scene, so that dish is placed in the chapter on Marco. To me, the photos and notes would be like the songs in a musical: bursts of expression that emphasized what was happening in a way that mere words would not be able to accomplish.

Because of the photographs' importance, I came to think of Evan Sung, who shot the book, as the third author, one who captured Paul's breathtaking food with a look that perfectly suits them, and the project. Strangely, Evan and I spent very little time together on the shoot — Paul preferred to honcho that aspect of the project himself — although Evan and I became close friends over the last two years as he also shot my recent collaboration with Michael White at the same time. Paul's an object of some fascination and mystique in the food world. I usually don't share much about the very private collaboration process, but I think a few anecdotes are harmless enough to share.

Paul preferred to honcho the photography aspect himself.

There were times, early on, when we'd be in a meeting with David or Pam Krauss, our publisher, and Paul would sit in near-silence, the collar of his black overcoat turned up around his ears, and I realized, to my surprise, that he was comfortable with me speaking for the two of us based on our early working sessions. But there were also times that I had no idea what was going on in his head. As we batted around ideas for the book's title, he continuously floated the title War and Peas (which I thought was awful), and would try to sell me on the charms of its culinary pun. To this day, I have no idea if he liked it or was fucking with me. (At the end of the day, Paul came up with the title we ended up using: To the Bone.)

Once in a while, while interviewing for the dish notes that would accompany the photographs, he'd start waxing on about a dish and its inspirations, ever so slowly veering into the ridiculous. I'd be furiously typing to keep up, then realize that I'd recorded a few hundred words of utter junk, at which point we'd start over with the real interview.

The moment that summed up this aspect of our relationship came one day after sharing a particularly witty, fake dish description with me, when I asked Paul why he needed a writer at all. Where most people would've responded with an obligatory compliment, Paul — without missing a beat — deadpanned his reason for partnering with me: "I can't type, Andrew." (For my part, I realized early on that nothing made Paul more uncomfortable than PDA from his coauthor, and delighted in hugging or otherwise cozying up to him, as in the photograph above, taken by Evan, on the night the three of us celebrated receiving our early, author copies of the finished book.)

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The book's fate itself was a bit of a roller coaster: We initially sold the project to Pam, an old friend from Clarkson Potter (she published The Red Cat Cookbook, which I co-wrote, back in 2005), who was an editor at Rodale when we shopped the book in 2010. When Pam returned to Clarkson Potter, as publisher, she brought the book with her (one of the old-fashioned charms of the book trade is that editors often get to take certain projects along with them when they switch jobs). She stayed involved with the book, appointing Jessica Freeman-Slade as our day-to-day editor.

This is always a hold-your-breath time.

Sometimes books change a lot in the writing, but in this case, the finished book is pretty much what we envisioned: with a trim size that invites reading and glossy pages that show off Evan's stunning photography to great effect. (The one significant shift that did occur was after the film A Matter of Taste screened at the TriBeCa Film Festival and we decided to put greater emphasis on Paul's years in England and France, to avoid repeating too much narrative.)

To the Bone publishes next week, which means that reviews — both professional and Amazon-user alike — await. This is always a hold-your-breath time, because unlike almost any other endeavor, the book has been locked for months, and there's nothing left to be done by the authors. All there is now is the waiting, and the hope that, after all these years, people like it.

—Andrew Friedman

To the Bone is out from Clarkson Potter on December 3; pre-order on Amazon

· To the Bone [Amazon]
· Read an Excerpt From Paul Liebrandt's Book To the Bone [-E-]
· All Andrew Friedman Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Paul Liebrandt Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Book Club Coverage on Eater [-E-]

The Elm

160 N 12th St, Brooklyn, NY 11249

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