Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 13, 2012

Chef crafts textbook on int'l cuisine

By KATHY GIBBONS
Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — Nancy Allen has always wanted to write a cookbook.

Now she has.

For cooks — the professional variety.

For the past four years, Allen has been working on a textbook, "Discovering Global Cuisines: Traditional Flavors and Techniques" for Pearson Prentice Hall.

Teaching a cooking school at Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Peninsula for the past decade, Allen, who lives in Maple City, was included in a book about the top 50 cooking schools in the country. When the author was presenting at a travel journalists' conference in Cleveland, Allen went along to speak, too.

"When I got there, I fell in step with a woman and she was telling me how she'd just finished doing a textbook for Pearson and I said, 'Geez, that's something I've thought about doing for a long time but never got around to,'" Allen recalled. "She said, 'Let me put you in touch with my editor.'"

Sure enough, the woman followed through and within a month, Allen had a contract.

"I basically just pitched over the phone some of the things I'd been working on over the years — focusing on technique," she said. "He really liked what he heard, and he had me send in a proposal.

"He hadn't even seen any of my writing — just the proposal — and he sent me a contract."

Since then, Allen has been busy researching and testing techniques and recipes to go in the book. She didn't start entirely from scratch. First, there were her years of experience to draw on.

"I've been teaching for 25 years, I've been writing, I'm a chef myself," she said.

She also had written a book that was not published before that became some of the raw material for the new textbook.

"It was about improvising — the basic kind of patterns that are out there and how you can learn to cook without recipes," she said.

While culinary school instructors are not generally all about improvisation, Allen said, she included tips for improvising at the end of the sections and recipes.

"I tried not to improvise," she said. "I really wanted more of a classical or traditional technique."

Writing a textbook is not the same as writing a cookbook. The teaching angle always had to be kept in mind. And the breadth of what she tried to cover — 20 countries in all — was exhaustive.

"I didn't realize how huge it was going to be," she said.

Along the way, the publisher put her book through peer reviews, which yielded feedback and insight.

"It evolved a lot," she said."

It's been a learning experience from the beginning. While she had mastered some techniques herself, others required an education of her own.

"It was a shock at how much technique Mexican cuisine relies on," she said.

Making gnocchi from scratch, she said, technique matters.

"You need to make sure everything's very dry because if the potatoes are very wet, you have to add more flour, which makes the gnocchi very heavy," she said. "So I have this whole listing of things — the caveats about how to basically make gnocchi."

Allen also spent a month in India, studying southern Indian cooking.

"I learned so much," she said. "It's almost like southeast Asian food, and I cooked in women's homes with them.

"It was a delightful experience."

There are more than 500 recipes in the book, which is destined to find its way into culinary school curriculums across the U.S. and Canada. Allen tested every single one on willing family and friends — some two and three times. She also traded out cooking for the people at Meadowlark Farm in Lake Leelanau each week in exchange for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box of produce.

"The crew there — every Friday I made them lunch," she said. "So every Friday they were getting a recipe test for three years."

Allen said she's appreciated support from the culinary program at Northwestern Michigan College, including input from its chef/instructors. When the publisher hired a photographer and arranged for a three-day photo shoot, college facilities were rented and students helped prepare the food.

Looking back to her own culinary school days, Allen said that "Discovering Global Cuisines" is the kind of book she would have loved to have back then.

"Even though this book is not something we would have used in every class — no instructor would use all of this — students themselves, if they're crazy about international cuisines, can go through the book and use it.

"For me, it would have been a fantastic reference. I don't think there's anything quite like it in terms of traditional techniques being displayed."

Allen expects the book to be out in March and used in fall 2013 classes.