Going from being a kid with a camera to the intensity of a very busy small kitchen was something I wasn’t ready for

Sep 08, 2021
Dan Lepard author and baker

He’s shot fashion campaigns for Mulberry, album covers for Boy George, and David Hockney for Tatler, but food lovers are forever grateful that Dan Lepard turned his attention to the stove. Now officially a baking legend, with The Handmade Loaf and Short & Sweet particularly revered, he hasn’t entirely put down his camera (see Hawksmoor at Home, and Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy), and can occasionally be seen in front of one too.

Dan also teaches sourdough masterclasses and it was on one of these, with Cookery School at Little Portland Street, that super-fan and fellow pro-baker Lizzie Crow took the opportunity to ask him about his career.


Tell us how you moved from photography to baking…

It was 1991, and I’d just started working as a portrait photographer for British Vogue, so by that point I was exactly where I wanted to be in theory. But I really struggled financially and I didn’t feel I had the resources or support to go any further – or even the talent.

So, one day in mid-1991, I was eating at the bar at Alastair Little’s restaurant, chatting with him as I’d become a regular. And he suggested that I might like to try cooking, as I’d avidly read all the cookbooks he kept behind the downstairs bar. So I did, and for the next twelve months I alternated between being a junior on the pastry section and washing dishes.

And how did you end up as chef to David Hockney?

Well, after that twelve months, I was completely freaked. Going from being a kid with a camera to the intensity of a very busy small kitchen, and one of the top kitchens in London at that time, was something I wasn’t ready for.

In mid-1992, David Hockney was staging his designs for Richard Strauss’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera House and was renting Placido Domingo’s apartment above the Shaftsbury Theatre. He wanted a cook, and had met me when I’d photographed him, and stayed in his Malibu house, for Tatler. So he felt comfortable with me in close proximity. I knew how to roughly cook (I was terribly disorganised and chaotic, though) and that got me the job. And straight after that I went to spend almost a year cooking for him, and living at his house, in Los Angeles.

How you have built your name in publishing? What do you think attracted publishers to you?

Building my name in publishing happened very slowly. I was working at a bakery called Baker & Spice in 1996, and knew an author, Richard Whittington, who had been co-writing many restaurant books. Like many young bucks, I was inveigled into authoring a book on baking, which of course dazzled me, but with hindsight I suspect the Baker & Spice brand and the potential books they could retail was the stronger lure.

Today this is often the case. Small food businesses – from chefs to bakers – who have the potential to retail and sell books will often be offered book deals on the proviso that they will purchase X number (say 5k at 50% rrp discount) in the future. That’s not to belittle my own skills, effort and creativity, but all authors could benefit from understanding the market they’re selling into!

How did you find collaborative writing? How did you divide up the duties?

I was very much in Richard’s hands, and a go-between for him and Baker & Spice. I would write the recipes as I knew them, in the case of my own recipes, or they were described to me by the kitchen staff, or sometimes written while we were shooting the photographs (the date slice was one written that way, as was the clafouti). Then Richard would totally rewrite them for the book.

Now, like a whispering game, that introduced so many changes that I felt somewhat disconnected to the final recipes. But the upswing of this was that my next book – The Handmade Loaf (Mitchell Beazley, 2004) – became my chance to author the book, and the photography, completely. And when I co-wrote the Comptoir Libanais (Preface Books, 2013) and Comptoir Libanais Express (Preface Books, 2014) books, I felt I’d stepped into Richard’s shoes and understood his co-writing situation better.

What did it feel like when you published your first book?

Like wow. When Baking with Passion (Quadrille, 1999) was published I did feel very rosy! I didn’t quite know what it meant, or what the future held, but it did – and still does – fill me with pride. There’s also that sense of relief when you’ve finished, a little post-natal “why did I do it” in that weird dead time while it’s being printed. Then, I got that rush of joy when the first copy arrived in the post. 

How do you find writing on your own? How is it different? Which do you prefer?

They’re quite different experiences and you’re not always able to choose exactly how it will work: often there are agents, editors, or publishers with their own plans for how the work will take place. 

I’m sometimes desirable as a co-author – just recently a publisher pulled out of making an offer on a book because the author’s agent was insistent that I should ghost-write it and not share credit (royalties more likely), and that didn’t work for the publisher. In the publisher’s mind there will be some book buyers who will recognise my name and that might – even if only in a tiny way – help sell it, or help promote it. 

But usually, whether I’m authoring or co-authoring, the expectation is that I do the heavy lifting on the writing, and often I do. But sometimes editors do writing too – helpful if I’m in a pickle with time.

How do you plan each book – what sort of research do you do?

I start with the scope: what is the book about, why would people want to read it, why buy it rather than read it online? Now that is usually an agreement between the author and commissioning editor, and often based on what has sold rather than what might possibly break through. Just a few weeks ago I pitched an idea and a new author (not food related) to a great publisher and they loved the combination and I think it may end up a book. If a brave editor and an inspiring author work together, they can often produce a great book. 

Then, once I have the scope, I think: what recipes would the reader expect to find in this book? And I write them down. Not specific recipes, but rather “a cake recipe for a birthday” and ingredient ideas. Say you pick up a book on Italy, you might expect there to be a recipe on how to make pasta. Then I plot out chapter divisions and write a “wish list” of the kinds of recipes I might hope to find in each. At this point, and maybe all the way through, it is the way Bee Wilson recently described the process: a kind of fiction writing. 

What things do you struggle with? What advice would you give an aspiring food writer?

I’m known as a recipe writer, and that’s a box I can’t escape from easily. I’m very lucky to be published by 4thEstate and Louise Haines, as she gives me scope to write beyond that, but many editors won’t. So, for any aspiring food writers: you will probably need to find your place on the shelf, find the thing you will be known for, and be content with that – especially in today’s tough market.

What’s it like having a regular column in the newspaper? What’s good or not good about it?

I’ve had two newspaper columns: a weekly recipe column in The Guardian for about eight years, and an on-and-off monthly column in the food section of The Age Melbourne, and Sydney Morning Herald syndicated throughout Australia. 

Weekly is relentless as you also have special recipe sections – Summer and Christmas often – and so I wrote over 600 recipes from scratch being as inventive and non-derivative as I could be, trying to add a bit of science-learning wherever I could.

It was also the early days of comment sections in newspapers and that was both helpful and alarming. The column in the Guardian would come out in the Saturday paper and at one minute past midnight on Friday nights the comments would appear. Often great, occasionally really vile. To be fair, women writers get online abuse far worse than I did so, hey, I got off lightly.

But what a privilege and experience it was. I’m so lucky it happened at a great brave newspaper, and all thanks to Matthew Fort for suggesting me to Katharine Viner, Merope Mills, and Bob Granleese. A magical time. 

What do you think of the perceived pressure of social media? How do you approach it? 

Twitter is where I get my news and get involved in public debates, Instagram is where I express the visual side of me, YouTube I’m only dabbling in (usually behind the Marmalade Awards account), Facebook I have two accounts – a personal one for family and close friends, and a public one for my baking and work life news – and beyond that when I do stuff on radio or TV those appearances get spread between those accounts.

The benefits to me, especially in learning how other people are living their lives, are so huge. So, no pressure I feel can compare to the reality so many people are facing, and I just have to wake up and be happy. I try to be there when people are struggling, I hope I’m helpful. I absolutely cherish being in touch with people more, how extraordinary that really is. 

Do you still love what you do? Which bit of what you do, do you particularly enjoy? 

Yes, I do love what I do, though it’s a path and the terrain is always changing. I enjoy it most when I have a sense that I’ve “got things right”. I might be tricking myself but, you know, feeling that gets me through nights where I’m not so confident. 

What’s been keeping you busy lately? What do you have in the works for the future?

The last 18 months have been enlightening and given me a chance to understand better where I am within my life. I’d been working fairly solidly overseas, with so much travel up until February 2020, when I was last teaching in Japan, that this enforced COVID quiet time, though difficult at first, has taught me many things. Especially when witnessing the hardship many people are facing and continue to struggle with. It’s been a time of reflection. 

I’m still working with the same publishers and clients as I did before, and on the quiet I consult to many companies, restaurants and hotels around the world. Still planning teaching and travel for the future. Books to write, articles to research. I guess there as many hills as I want to climb, or have the energy and life left to.

And finally, what’s a perfect end to your day? 

Being cuddled up in bed with my husband David and our staffy, Bruno.


Follow Dan on Instagram @danlepard and Twitter @dan_lepard

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