When I first set my sights on writing 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 my teens, but I even returned to school as an adult to obtain a degree in culinary arts (while working as an attorney, 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 to my time in cooking school and wondering, did that experience have an impact on my later vocation as an author of mystery novels?
It seems obvious, of course, that being comfortable handling a filleting knife and understanding what sorts of foods would best hide the flavor of arsenic would be invaluable in devising ways to commit (fictional) murder in a restaurant setting. And it’s equally true that knowing your way around a commercial kitchen can be of great help to an author whose protagonist—like me—is a restaurateur and chef. (And it doesn’t hurt when it comes time to concoct the 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 culinary arts teach you to write a better mystery novel?
I believe it can, and that in my case it most certainly did.
Many of the skills taught in cooking school—those necessary 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 sort of metaphor—or perhaps a template—for when I later set fingers to keyboard to begin my first Sally Solari mystery.
I’ll divide these skill sets into five areas: culinary basics, sauces, seasoning, kitchen work, and presentation.
Every culinary student starts by taking an introductory class, with a focus on food science and chemistry; meats, vegetables, and knife skills; and the various cooking methods (sautéing, braising, roasting, baking etc.). And it is only after becoming familiar enough with these basics of food and cooking such that they become second nature to the cook, that she can begin to insert her own individual touch into the dishes she prepares.
The same is true for writing: One must master the basics such as grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure before moving on to full paragraphs, and without an understanding of plotting and tension (which I see as parallel to food chemistry), it’s impossible to create an actual story.
A good sauce is often what separates the mundane from the magnificent in the world of cooking. Yet sauces are as varied as the colors of the spectrum, embracing everything from a simple deglazing of the pan with a bit of beer or wine; to a marinara with tomatoes, garlic, and herbs; to a complex Périgueux sauce made of veal 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 into a previously-locked room, for all at once I’d been gifted with the ability to transform something as basic as a fried chop into a marvel of seared pork smothered in apricot brandy sauce.
Similarly, the “sauce” of writing is what transforms a basic plot line into a true “story.” And like with a sauce, the possibilities are boundless: a pastoral or urban setting; quirky or enigmatic characters; a sleuth’s curious profession and compelling backstory; an unusual motive for the murder and reason your protagonist sets out to solve it; a fascinating point in time; the list goes on. But as when deciding on the proper sauce for that cut or meat or shape of pasta, the author must determine what sort of story it is he wants to tell: gritty and noir, or light and cozy; fast-paced and nail-biting, or humorous and sweet. And then you choose to sauce your meal—or novel—accordingly.
This is similar to the sauce, but on a more detailed, micro level. Seasonings “spice up” one’s cooking by adding accents and delicate 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 that? It’s delicious!”
In a mystery novel as well, the small touches of seasoning which the writer adds are what make the story jump from the page and cause the mystery to sizzle. It’s the dropping of clues and red herrings, and a character’s manner of speaking or turn of a phrase. Or the foods she eats and the fragrances wafting through the garden in which she sits. The bark of a dog or the gunning of a car engine, and the rough hands of the carpenter who lives next door. Without proper seasoning, the story will be bland and lacking in flavor.
There are few jobs more exhausting 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 feet continuously ache, the sous chef is shouting 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 serene of individuals to become addicted to Prilosec.
But the experience teaches you valuable lessons also applicable to the life of a writer, such as learning to write on 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 the line cook and the writer alike.
The plating of a dish is one of the most important steps in restaurant cooking—particularly now, in the age of Instagram and TikTok. Because simply tasting good is no longer enough; you must sell your product by enticing diners to come to your restaurant. Do the colors pop? Are there varied textures and heights on your plate? Do the patterns and geometry please the eye?
You’ve no doubt already guessed where I’m going here. For the plating and presentation of a dish corresponds to your cover, and also to the marketing and publicity you do to convince people to actually buy and read the book. Does the design convey the genre and mood of the story you tell? And how’s your social media presence? Are your Facebook and Twitter posts eye-catching and intriguing, so that they entice potential readers?
Okay, so I get that these parallels between culinary arts school and mystery writing could be found equally well in many other types of schooling, as well. Law school, for example, provided me with a host of skills I was able to later call on as an author of crime fiction. And I’m guessing the same would be true for a degree in engineering—or medicine, or sociology, or political science, or even French.
But c’mon, don’t you think that cooking school would be a lot more fun?