When I first set my sights on writing crime fiction, it was a no-brainer that it should be a culinary mystery. Not only have I been obsessed with food and cooking since I was a teenager, but I even went back to school as an adult to get a culinary arts degree (while working as a lawyer, mind you, but that’s a whole other story ).
Now, with five books in the Sally Solari culinary mystery series under my belt, I find myself looking back on my time in cooking school and wondering if that experience had an impact on my subsequent vocation as a mystery author.
It seems obvious, of course, that being comfortable handling a fillet knife and understanding what kind of food would best hide the flavor of arsenic would be invaluable to finding ways to commit a (fictional) murder in a restaurant. And it is equally true that knowledge of a commercial kitchen can be of great help to an author whose protagonist—like mine—is a restaurateur and chef. (And it doesn’t hurt when it comes time to make up the recipes for the books, either.)
But what did going to cooking school teach me about crime fiction? in general— that otherwise I would not have learned? Can studying culinary arts teach you to write a better mystery novel?
I think it can, and in my case it certainly did.
Many of the skills taught in cooking school—those needed to create a tempting and delicious meal—are similar and parallel to those needed to write a compelling story. As a result, it turns out that my experience as a culinary arts student acted as a kind of metaphor—or perhaps a template—for when I later put fingers to keyboard to begin my first Sally Solari mystery.
I will divide these skill sets into five areas: cooking basics, sauces, seasonings, kitchen work, and presentation.
Every culinary student begins by taking an introductory class with an emphasis on food science and chemistry; meat, vegetable and knife skills; and the different cooking methods (sautéing, stewing, frying, baking, etc.). And only after she has become sufficiently familiar with these basics of food and cooking so that they become second nature to the chef, can she begin to introduce 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 understanding plot and tension (which I see as parallel to food chemistry), it is impossible to create a real story.
A good sauce is often what separates the mundane from the magnificent in the world of cooking. However, sauces are as varied as the colors of the spectrum, embracing everything from a simple pan deglaze with a little beer or wine; to a marinara with tomatoes, garlic and herbs; at a complex Périgueux sauce made from veal demi-glace, butter, Madeira and truffles.
When I learned the secrets of sauces in culinary school, it was like a door opened to a previously locked room, because suddenly I was gifted with the ability to transform something as basic as a fried cutlet in a fried pork wonder smothered in apricot brandy sauce.
Similarly, it’s the “sauce” of writing that turns a basic story into a true “story.” And like a sauce, the possibilities are endless: a pastoral or urban setting; strange or enigmatic characters; the curious profession of a detective and the compelling backstory; an unusual motive for the crime and why your protagonist sets out to solve it; a fascinating moment in time; the list goes on. But like deciding the right sauce for that cut or meat or shape of pasta, the author must determine what kind of story he wants to tell: gritty and noir, or light and cozy; rhythmic and soothing, or humorous and sweet. And then choose to sauce your meal—or your novel—accordingly.
This is similar to sauce, but on a more detailed, micro level. Spices “spice up” cooking by adding delicate accents and touches. A dash of cardamom in a lamb curry or a sprinkling of tarragon in a cream sauce can make a diner think, “Wow. What exactly is this? It is delicious!”
And in a mystery novel, it’s the little touches of spice that the writer adds that make the story jump off the page and make the mystery sizzle. It’s dropping hints and red herrings and the character’s way of speaking or flipping a phrase. Or the food he eats and the perfumes wafting through the garden where he sits. The barking of a dog or the revving of a car engine and the rough hands of the carpenter who lives next door. Without proper seasoning, the story will be bland and flavorless.
Work in the kitchen
There are few jobs more tiring and hard on the body than working in a commercial kitchen, which I quickly learned in our cooking school’s student-run restaurant. It’s always hot, your back and legs constantly ache, the sous chef is yelling in your ear, and the stress of pulling out all those tickets on a busy night when you’re completely “in the weeds” can challenge even the most serene of individuals to become dependent on Prilosec.
But the experience teaches you valuable lessons applicable to the life of a writer as well, such as learning to write to a deadline and working with an editor who may have very different ideas than you about your work in progress. Deep breathing and meditation can benefit chefs and writers alike.
Plating a dish is one of the most important steps in restaurant cooking – especially now, in the age of Instagram and TikTok. Because simply good taste is no longer enough; you need to sell your product by enticing diners to come to your restaurant. Do the colors come out? Are there varied textures and heights in your plate? Are patterns and geometry pleasing to the eye?
No doubt you’ve already guessed where I’m going here. Because the plating and presentation of a dish matches your cover, as well as the marketing and advertising you do to get people to 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 engaging and intriguing so that they attract potential readers?
Okay, so I understand that these parallels between culinary school and mystery writing could just as well be found in many other types of schooling. Law school, for example, gave me a number of skills that I was able to call upon later as a writer of crime fiction. And I suspect the same would be true of a degree in engineering—or medicine, or sociology, or political science, or even French.
But come on, don’t you think cooking school would be a lot more fun?