Chef Gaz Smith: ‘I put my house deposit on the line for this’

Publishing And for Mains..., his first cookbook, co-authored with butcher Rick Higgins, was a huge gamble for the Dublin restaurateur

“The minute I sent the tweet I just felt like a weight was off me. I sat down in complete silence for, like, 90 minutes.”

The chef and restaurateur Gaz Smith is describing the moments immediately after sales went live online for his debut cookbook, And for Mains..., a 280-page hardback that he wrote with the butcher Rick Higgins.

The silence did not last: text messages from the team that helped produce the book began to ping on Smith’s mobile phone. It was good news: prepublication sales were brisk. In just six hours, between 6pm and midnight, 650 copies of the book were bought online, that number increasing to 1,000 within 24 hours, and 1,500 within 48 hours.

"It was such a relief to sell that first 1,000; it was a massive leap of faith for people to buy a book that they haven't seen," Smith says of the response from those buyers, who paid €39.95 to collect the hardback from his restaurant in Mount Merrion, in south Co Dublin.

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But even with that cash banked, the pressure isn't off. Smith and Higgins, whose family business is Higgins Butchers in Sutton, financed the cost of producing the book themselves and spent €120,000 on the project, almost three times what a publisher might have allocated to it, Smith believes.

“I put my house deposit on the line for it, again. The last time I did that was for Little Mike’s,” he says, referring to his second restaurant in Mount Merrion. “That worked out, but I had to promise Rita [Smith’s wife] that I’d get the cash back. We have to sell 3,250 copies to break even on this.”

So how did it get so expensive? “The book wasn’t done for profit. We’ve always wanted to do this, and we wanted to do it with the right people. We put together a very slick team. We decided to go for what I would consider world-class photography, and that’s really expensive. The 65 recipes were triple-tested, and food bought for the recipes four times – three times for testing and once for photography – and that’s not cheap,” Smith says.

Smith and Higgins, who are friends as well as collaborators, asked the journalist and travel writer Nicola Brady to write the book with them. The food photography, art direction and styling were done by the James Beard award-winner Katie Quinn, now living in Dublin after 13 years in Australia. "Once we'd seen her photography we knew that was a big part of the puzzle." Another photographer, John Murray, was signed up to do the lifestyle shots.

Although Smith, Higgins and Brady first talked about doing a book last November, it wasn’t until the spring lockdown that they really began to put their plans into action. “This was the only opportunity that I would have had to step out of the kitchen completely and focus on this,” Smith says.

By mid-August they had the bones of the book together – and hit a roadblock. “As we were nearing completion it started to get very, very overwhelming and panicky. It was, like, okay, we’ve done this, what do we do with it now? We had no one to turn to, to take all this great raw content and actually turn it into a book.”

Introductions were made to the cookbook editor Kristin Jensen, owner of the boutique Irish publishing house Nine Bean Rows Books. "She just whipped us all into shape and knew exactly what to do." Jensen put a publication plan in place, and a printer was hired. "We were determined to get it printed here in in Ireland. We didn't want to do something that was meant to be Irish and then get it printed in China," Smith says.

The result is an impressive debut. Like many great cookbooks, there’s more to this one than recipes. As well as the 65 dishes, reflective of but not confined to the seafood and steak menus in Smith’s restaurants, there are excellent chapters devoted to Rick Higgins’s area of expertise. There’s a butchery masterclass on how to French-trim a rack of lamb, prepare a rib of beef, stuff and roll a porchetta, and spatchcock a chicken. Steaks and reverse searing get their own chapter, with detailed instructions on how to cook different cuts.

In addition to her involvement with the recipe writing, Nicola Brady contributed two excellent essays, accompanying the crab fishermen who supply the restaurants on a trip at sea, and spending time at an abattoir as part of a journey tracing meat from farm to fork. And the photography, to which lavish space has been allocated, is indeed world-class, as Smith had hoped.

"It's good enough to be a coffee-table book, but we don't want it to be. We want to see it has been used in a kitchen – it's dirty, it's ripped and it's torn. We want people to make the recipes."

Read here: Five exclusive recipes from And for Mains..., Gaz Smith and Rick Higgins' new cookbook

How was it for you? The team behind And for Mains...

Rick Higgins
Co-author
The last few months have been a whirlwind, to say the least. Katie spelled it out to us that this was going to be a ton of work in a short space of time. As the book progressed, it was clear that in order to not cut corners, and produce a book that was of the same standard that we apply to both of our businesses, we were going to have to nearly treble our budget. It was a big gamble for both of us. We asked Barry from 147 Deli to do a couple of guest recipes because Gaz and I know that he is an awesome cook, and we definitely wanted him on the team too.

Nicola Brady
Writer
The first time we all properly met I wasn't sure we could actually pull this off. My role was to live inside Gaz's head and somehow squeeze all the stories out of his brain. It was a pretty terrifying place to be, let me tell you. One of the biggest disagreements we had was about how many people one roast chicken can feed. I maintain that I can get at least five dinners out of one – Gaz thinks one chicken per person is an adequate portion. I did also have to tell him that I didn't think black pudding can be classified as a side vegetable.

John Murray
Lifestyle photographer
One of the standout moments of this whole thing was bringing my gear to the boat for the fishing day and strapping myself into my fancy sea-kayaking personal flotation device for a day on the water. I saw Gaz try to hand Ger money for taking us out and Ger refused it, saying, "No, I'm not taking it, because you kept us afloat during Covid." That lifted my soul to places I can't begin to explain. Then I puked. Loads. Me, the sea kayaker in my fancy gear.

Katie Quinn
Food photographer and art director
One of the most striking things to me about this project was observing the incredibly close friendship between Gaz and Rick. They really have each other's backs. I also found it amazing to see how well Gaz treats his staff in the restaurant and how kind-hearted and warm he is as a person.

Kristin Jensen
Editor and publisher
Gaz asked me to come on board with the book three weeks before it was due to go to print. That night I woke up at 3am, worrying about how we could pull it off. The text hadn't been copyedited, the book hadn't been laid out and the photoshoot was still ongoing, all things that should have been wrapped up months before. But everyone involved pulled out all the stops to make it happen.

And for Mains... by Gaz Smith and Rick Higgins, published by Nine Bean Rows Books, is available to order online from andformains.ie, €39.95