When I first decided to write crime fiction, it was a no-brainer that it would have to 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 find myself looking back on my time in culinary school and wondering, did that experience influence my later career as a mystery novelist?
It seems clear, of course, that being comfortable with a fillet knife and understanding what kinds of foods would best hide the smell of arsenic would be invaluable in devising ways to carry out (fictional) murders in a restaurant environment. And it’s just as true that knowing your way around a commercial kitchen can be a huge help to an author whose protagonist—like mine—is a restaurateur and chef. (And it doesn’t hurt when it comes time to whip up recipes for the books, either.)
But what did the process of attending cooking school teach me about crime fiction? in general— that I might not have learned otherwise? Can studying the 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 learned in culinary school—those needed to create a tempting 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 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: culinary basics, sauces, seasonings, kitchen work, and presentation.
Every culinary student begins by taking an introductory class, focusing on food science and chemistry; meat, vegetable and knife skills; and different cooking methods (frying, boiling, roasting, baking, etc.). And only after becoming familiar enough with these basics of food and cooking, such that they become second nature to the cook, can she begin to add her individual touch to the dishes she prepares.
The same goes for writing: You need to master the basics like grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure before you can move on to full paragraphs, and without an understanding of plot and tension (which I see as a parallel to food chemistry ), it is impossible to create a true 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, embracing everything from a simple pan deglazing with a little beer or wine; in a marinara with tomatoes, garlic and herbs; in a complex Périgueux sauce made of beef demi-glace, butter, Madeira and truffles.
When I learned the secrets of sauces in culinary arts school, it was as if a door had been opened to a previously closed room, because at the same time I was gifted with the ability to transform something as basic as a fried steak into a miracle of fried pork smothered in apricot brandy sauce.
Similarly, the “sauce” of writing is what transforms a basic plot line into a real “story.” And as with a dressing, the possibilities are endless: a pastoral or urban setting; strange or enigmatic characters; the curious profession and compelling story of a beggar; an unusual motive for the murder and the reason your protagonist decides to solve it; a fascinating point in time; the list goes on. But just as when deciding on the right sauce for that cut, meat, or shape of pasta, the author must determine what kind of story he wants to tell: gray and noir, or light and cozy; fast-paced and biting, or moody and sweet. And then you choose to cook your food – or novel – accordingly.
This is similar to sauce, but on a more detailed, micro level. Spices “spice up” cooking by adding subtle accents and touches. A pinch 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? It’s delicious!”
Even in a mystery novel, the little touches of spice the writer adds are what make the story jump off the page and make the mystery sizzle. It’s dropping clues and red herrings, and the way a character speaks or changing a phrase. Or the food she eats and the smells wafting through the garden where she sits. The barking of a dog or the screeching of a car engine and the rough hands of the carpenter who lives next door. Without the right seasoning, the story will be bland and tasteless.
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 chef is yelling in your ear, and the stress of getting all the tickets out on a busy night when you’re all completely “in the weeds” can cause even the quietest. of individuals becoming addicted to Prilosec.
But the experience also teaches you valuable lessons for the life of a writer, 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 tasting good is no longer enough; you need to sell your product by enticing diners to come to your restaurant. Do the colors appear? Are there different textures and heights on your plate? Are the patterns and geometry pleasing to the eye?
You’ve no doubt guessed where I’m going here. Because the layout and presentation of a plate corresponds to your cover, as well as the marketing and publicity you do to convince people to buy and read the book. Does the design convey the genre and mood of the story you tell? And how is your presence on social networks? Are your Facebook and Twitter posts engaging and intriguing enough to attract potential readers?
Okay, so I realize that these parallels between culinary arts school and mystery writing can just as well be found in many other types of schooling. Law school, for example, gave me a wealth of skills that I was able to use later as an author of crime fiction. And I think 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?