You need to help your publisher promote your book

Nov 07, 2023
Portrait of chef Petty Elliott in her native Indonesia

Petty Elliott didn't start cheffing till she was 37 years old, after careers in advertising and journalism in Jakarta. But when COVID put a stop to her dream job travelling the world as a guest chef, she recognised it was also the perfect opportunity to pick up her long-held ambition of writing the authoritative Indonesian cookbook. Here she tells Jenni Muir how she came to put together The Indonesian Table.

Your publisher, Phaidon, had turned down a previous proposal from you, but you persevered and it paid off…

Yes, I met Emilia Terragni, the Associate Publisher, at the Frankfurt Book Fair and we had a five-minute chat in which I reminded her that I’d sent them a proposal but they’d said they were not ready. She told me to never give up, so during COVID I sent her a better proposal and it was accepted.

How different was it from self-publishing your first two books?

Working with a publisher was a very interesting and valuable experience. I had quite strong guidance from the beginning, including a clear brief as to the style of the book and also what they thought would be a suitable title. The detail (such as the chapters of the book) was very much based on my original proposal

You have such an encyclopaedic knowledge of Indonesian food. How did you set about selecting recipes and organising the text?

I had plenty of material. The headache was choosing the right recipes to show the spread of Indonesian dishes and ingredients across the thousands of islands. I also wanted to include variations that added one or two ingredients to the main recipe – to demonstrate the different tastes and preferences between one island or province and another.

As I was working to a limit on the total number of words, inevitably I had to make compromises. This included leaving out some recipes that we had already photographed, such as bebek betutu (Balinese roast duck traditionally cooked by wrapping it in banana leaves and burying it in coals) and some dessert recipes.

What's your writing routine?

I start a writing day with stretching, a shower and a light breakfast. I like to have my table clear (I work at my dining table near my open kitchen) but inevitably it can end up very messy with papers, scales and ingredients. I am used to creating dishes without measuring but of course to write down each recipe you need to measure every ingredient and that takes time. I also write in the evening after dinner.

How much were you involved with the photography?

Very much so. I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Yuki Sugihara, who is also based in the UK. We worked well together from the beginning, selecting props and food styling with the help of Hanna Miller. The publisher provided a style brief for us to follow.

All the food shoots took place in my kitchen in stints of two to three days at a time. The three of us worked hard to meet deadlines but it was fun, working and eating together.

Yuki and I also travelled to Indonesia for location photography, shooting local markets, people and the cultural scene. It was a memorable time, showing her round different cities and islands. 

You have been promoting the book all around the world. How was that organised and what have you had to do?

The media coverage has been phenomenal because it’s been global but we as authors have to work hard to help connect the press team with interested people. There were Zoom meetings at crazy hours with the marketing team in New York and the PR in London, but it was a fun process.

I started with a prelaunch in Indonesia in early March, collaborating with Amanjiwo resort on Java Island, providing books for guests and doing signings. This preceded the actual launch event in London. I also went to Washington DC for a wonderful collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute with 400 guests and some great publicity, as Phaidon has a good presence in this market. 

I did two events in Jakarta, then went to Bali to collaborate with Amandari resort at the time of the annual Ubud Food Festival. After that I headed further east to another Aman resort, Amanwana in Moyo Island.

I’m grateful for all these opportunities. The book has been featured in many different countries in print media and I’ve done many online interviews. In the UK I’ve had complimentary reviews in many leading outlets. Most of this was accomplished through the publisher’s team but also using my personal network to collaborate with the publisher.

What's your advice for people hoping to promote their own book one day in future?

It is indeed wonderful to have an international publisher with an amazing network and great distribution around the world, but still you need to help your publisher promote your book by providing them with your own network and contacts and be prepared to spend lots of time communicating with the publisher’s marketing and PR teams.

The best way to have a good launch is for you and your publisher to collaborate with several brands or institutions. You also need to devote lots of time to interviews – articles, podcasts, radio, food festivals and so on. And be active on social media to promote the book and create interesting stories.

You’ve had a stand at the Financial Times Weekend Festival in London for a couple of years. Why did you want to do this event in particular?

The first time I attended FT Weekend Festival was in 2019, a year after moving from Jakarta to England, and I had so much fun that I wished I could showcase Indonesian food and beverages there.

It’s a great opportunity for me to cook for the general public as I don't have my own restaurant. I offered dishes that were simple and comforting but full of flavour. I also made turmeric, ginger and tamarind drinks (jamu kunyit asam), which were a first for the festival, although turmeric and ginger drinks are rather ubiquitous these days.

I like the idea of joining more good food festivals to promote Indonesian food as, in reality, the cuisine is still generally unknown amongst the UK public.

What has that whole journey of developing groceries been like for you?

My brand Rasaku comes from the word rasa which means taste or flavour. It also refers to human feelings – happiness, fear, sorrow, delight, anger, disappointment, worry, hope, positivity – any human emotion. The brand was born during COVID, which reflects my feelings and emotions (and those of many people around the world) during that challenging time.

I started selling spiced turmeric paste – a classic recipe and something I personally always have in my refrigerator – to make cooking Indonesian food easy and enjoyable for people, so they wouldn’t have the fuss of having to source, chop and grind all the fresh root spices. 

They’re cooked gently with lemongrass, dried chillies, lime leaves and British-grown shallots and garlic. It’s a versatile paste that can be used in authentic stir-fries, curries and stews, or to give contemporary dishes an Indonesian flavour, such as spicy roast chicken, pasta, fried rice, wraps, dips, salad dressings and many more. 

My friends and customers all like it because it’s so convenient to cook with a ready-made natural paste that doesn’t just make just two or three dishes but twenty. My main client is a tempeh company; I’m totally aware that the retail business is not easy. It’s challenging to mass-produce products with all-natural ingredients. I stopped making the paste for the general public when I got my book deal but soon I will have to decide what I want to do. I have many ideas for quality products that would make Indonesian food effortless, healthy and fun to eat in any kitchen in the world. But if I decide to build the business seriously, I’ll need to focus and stop travelling. 

How important is continuing to travel to you personally, in terms of having a fulfilling career? It sounds like you wouldn't like to be tied to a restaurant, yet you seem to still like cheffing.

Personally, it is important. I am very lucky I have the network and opportunity to travel and at the same time to work as a guest chef. The travel around Indonesia and the rest of the world gives me so much inspiration. I’m learning something new yet, at the same time, I’m teaching and sharing my knowledge of Indonesian food to new teams at different kitchens.

Many people ask if I want to open a restaurant in London. If I have the right partners and a good team, I am willing to do it, but it is a big commitment and it would restrict my usual travel routine. Ideally, I’d like to collaborate more with London chefs and restaurants and do regular pop-up dinners.

Follow Petty on Instagram @pettyelliottskitchen

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