When I first set my sights on writing crime fiction, it was no surprise 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 degree in culinary arts (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 look back on my time in culinary school and wonder, did that experience have an impact on my later work as a mystery novelist?
It seems obvious, of course, that being comfortable with a fillet knife and understanding what kinds of foods will best hide the taste of the male would be invaluable in devising ways to commit (imaginary) murder in a restaurant. And it’s equally true that knowing your way around a commercial kitchen can be of great help to a writer whose protagonist—like mine—is a restaurateur and chef. (And it doesn’t hurt when it comes time to come up with the recipes for the books, too.)
But what did the process of attending culinary school teach me about crime fiction? generally— that I might not have learned otherwise? Can studying culinary arts teach you to write a better mystery novel?
I believe it can, and it certainly did in my case.
Many of the skills taught in culinary school—necessary to create an enticing and delicious meal—are similar and parallel to those required to write a compelling story. As a result, it turns out that my experience as a culinary arts student served as a kind of metaphor—or perhaps a template—for when I later put my fingers to the keyboard to begin my first Sally Solari mystery.
I will divide these skill sets into five areas: culinary basics, sauces, seasonings, kitchen operations, and presentation.
Every culinary student begins with an introductory course, with an emphasis on food science and chemistry. meats, vegetables, and knife skills; and the various cooking methods (sautéing, braising, grilling, roasting, etc.). And only after she becomes familiar enough with these basics of food and cooking that they become second nature to the cook, can she begin to introduce her own personal touch to the dishes she prepares.
The same is true of writing: One must master the basics, such as grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure before moving on to full paragraphs, and without an understanding of plot and tension (which I consider parallel to the chemistry of food), it is impossible to create a real story.
A good sauce is often what separates the mundane from the great in the culinary world. However, sauces are as varied as the colors of the spectrum, encompassing everything from a simple pan glaze with a little beer or wine. in a marinara with tomatoes, garlic and herbs. in a group Périgueux sauce of veal demi-glace, butter, Madeira and truffles.
When I learned the secrets of sauces in culinary school, it was as if a door had opened to a previously locked room, because I was instantly gifted with the ability to transform something as basic as a fried steak into a miracle of roast pork smothered in apricot cognac sauce.
Likewise, the “sauce” of writing is what turns a basic plot line into a true “story.” And as with a sauce, the possibilities are limitless: a pastoral or urban setting. quirky or enigmatic characters. the strange profession of a sleuth and the fascinating story. An unusual motive for the murder and why your protagonist sets out to solve it. an exciting point in time; the list goes on. But just like when deciding on the right sauce for that cut or meat or shape of pasta, the writer must determine what kind of story he wants to tell: thick and noir or light and warm. quick and sharp, or humorous and sweet. And then you choose to season your meal—or your novel—accordingly.
This is similar to gravy, but on a more detailed, micro level. Spices “enhance” cooking by adding accents and subtle touches. A dash of cardamom in a lamb curry or a hint of tarragon in a cream sauce can make the diner sit back and think, “Wow. What exactly is this; They are delicious!”
In a mystery novel as well, it’s the little touches of spice that the author adds that make the story jump off the page and make the mystery sizzle. It’s the dropping of clues and red herrings, and the way a character speaks or the turn of a phrase. Or the foods he eats and the scents that waft from the garden he sits in. The barking of a dog or the firing of a car engine and the rough hands of the carpenter who lives next door. Without the proper seasoning, the story will be bland and flavorless.
There are few jobs more exhausting and hard on the body than working in a commercial kitchen, which I quickly learned at our culinary school’s student-run restaurant. It’s always hot, your back and legs are constantly aching, the sous chef is yelling in your ear, and the stress of getting all those tickets on a busy night when you’re completely “in the weeds” can make even the most peaceful of people become addicted to Prilosec.
But the experience teaches you valuable lessons that apply to a writer’s life as well, like 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 both the cook and the writer.
Plating a dish is one of the most important steps in restaurant cooking—especially now, in the age of Instagram and TikTok. Because just good taste isn’t enough anymore. you need to sell your product by enticing customers to come to your restaurant. Do the colors pop? Are there a variety of textures and heights on your plate? Are the patterns and geometry pleasing to the eye?
You’ve no doubt already guessed where I’m going here. Because the plating and presentation of a plate matches your cover and the marketing and publicity you do to get people to buy and actually read the book. Does the design convey the genre and mood of the story you are telling? And how is your social media presence? Are your Facebook and Twitter posts impressive and interesting enough to engage potential readers?
Okay, I realize that these parallels between culinary school and mystery writing could just as well be found in many other types of education. Law school, for example, provided me with many skills that I was able to use later as a writer of crime fiction. And I suppose the same would be true of an engineering degree—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?