When I first wanted to write mysteries, I knew it had to be a culinary mystery. Not only have I been obsessed with food and cooking since my teens, but I even went back to school as an adult to pursue a degree in culinary arts (while working as a lawyer, mind you – but that’s a whole different story).
Now, with five books in my pocket from Sally Solari’s culinary mystery series, I look back on my time in culinary school and wonder if that experience influenced my future career as a mystery novelist?
Of course, it seems obvious that being able to wield a fillet knife and understand what types of food are best at hiding the taste of arsenic would be invaluable when trying to figure out ways to commit (fictional) murder in a restaurant setting commit. And it is also true that for an author whose protagonist – like mine – is a restaurateur and chef, knowing about a commercial kitchen can be of great help. (And it doesn’t hurt when it’s time to cook up the recipes for the books, either.)
But what did attending culinary school teach me about crime fiction? In general– that maybe I wouldn’t have learned it any other way? Can you learn to write a better crime fiction by studying culinary arts?
I think it can, and in my case it certainly was.
Many of the skills taught in culinary school—those necessary to prepare an enticing and delicious meal—are similar and parallel to those required to write a compelling story. As a result, my experience as a culinary arts student turned out to serve as a kind of metaphor—or perhaps a template—when I later put my fingers to the keyboard to begin my first Sally Solari crime novel.
I break these skills into five areas: Culinary Basics, Sauces, Condiments, Kitchen Work, and Presentation.
Every culinary student begins with an introductory class focusing on food science and chemistry. meat, vegetables and knife skills; and the various cooking methods (sautéing, braising, roasting, baking, etc.). And it’s only when she’s become so comfortable with these basics of eating and cooking that they’ve become second nature to the chef that she can begin to bring her own individual touch to the dishes she prepares.
The same goes for writing: you have to master the basics like grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure before moving on to full paragraphs, and without an understanding of the plot and suspense (which I see as paralleling food chemistry) it’s impossible to create a real story .
A good sauce is often what separates the ordinary from the great in the world of cooking. However, sauces are as varied as the colors of the spectrum and include everything from a simple deglazing of the pan with some beer or wine; to a marinara with tomatoes, garlic and herbs; to a complex Perigueux sauce made of veal demi-glace, butter, Madeira and truffles.
When I learned the secrets of sauces in culinary school, it was like opening a door to a previously locked room, for all at once I had been gifted with the ability to transform something as simple as a fried chop into a Roast pork marvel smothered in apricot brandy sauce.
Likewise, it is the “sauce” of writing that transforms a basic plot into a true “story”. And like a sauce, the possibilities are limitless: a rural or urban setting; quirky or enigmatic characters; the curious profession and intriguing backstory of a detective; an unusual motive for the murder and the reason why your protagonist sets out to solve it; a fascinating point in time; The list goes on. But as with deciding the right sauce for that cut or meat, or the shape of pasta, the writer must determine what kind of story they want to tell: gritty and noir or light and cozy; fast-paced and nerve-wracking or humorous and sweet. And then you decide to season your meal — or your novel — accordingly.
This is similar to the sauce but on a more detailed micro level. Spices “spice up” your own kitchen by setting accents and fine touches. A dash of cardamom in a lamb curry or a hint of tarragon in a creamy sauce can make the guest sit back and think, “Wow. What is this exactly? It is delicious!”
Even in a crime novel, it’s the little spices the writer adds that make the story jump off the page and set the mystery simmering. It’s the dropping of clues and red herrings and the way a character speaks or uses a phrase. Or the food she eats and the scents that waft through the garden where she sits. The barking of a dog or the roar of a car engine and the rough hands of the carpenter who lives next door. Without the right spice, the story becomes boring and tasteless.
Hardly any job is more strenuous and physically demanding than working in a canteen kitchen, which I learned quickly in the student restaurant at our cooking school. It’s always hot, your back and feet hurt constantly, the sous chef is screaming in your ear, and the stress of pumping out all those tickets on a busy night when you’re all completely “in the weeds” can cause even the most composed of people who become dependent on Prilosec.
But experience teaches you valuable lessons that are also applicable to the life of a writer, such as: For example, learning to write by a deadline and working with an editor who may have very different ideas about your work in progress than you do. Deep breathing and meditation can benefit the line cook and the author alike.
Serving a dish is one of the most important steps in the restaurant kitchen — especially now, in the age of Instagram and TikTok. Because just tasting good is no longer enough; You need to sell your product by attracting customers to your restaurant. Are the colors popping? Are there different textures and heights on your plate? Do patterns and geometry please the eye?
I’m sure you’ve guessed where I’m going here. Because serving and presenting a dish corresponds to your cover and also to the marketing and advertising you do to convince people to actually buy and read the book. Does the design convey the genre and mood of the story you’re telling? And how is your social media presence? Are your Facebook and Twitter posts eye-catching and intriguing to attract potential readers?
Okay, so I understand that these parallels between culinary arts school and crime writing can be found in many other types of school as well. For example, studying law gave me many skills that I could later draw on as a crime writer. And I suspect the same goes for an engineering degree – or medicine, sociology, political science, or even French.
But come on, don’t you think culinary school would be a lot more fun?