What can cooking school teach a mystery writer? ‹ CrimeReads

When I first started writing crime fiction, it wasn’t clear that it had to be a culinary mystery. Not only have I been obsessed with food and cooking since my teenage years, 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, five books into Sally Solari’s culinary mystery series, I find myself looking back on my time in culinary school and wondering if that experience influenced my later vocation as a mystery novelist?

It seems obvious, of course, that being comfortable with a filleting knife and understanding what types of foods would best hide the taste of arsenic would be invaluable in devising ways to carry out (fictional) murder in a restaurant setting. And it is equally true that a knowledge of industrial cuisine can be of great benefit to an author whose main character – like mine – is a restaurateur and chef. (And it also doesn’t hurt when it comes time to come up with the recipes for the books.)

But what did the process of attending cooking 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?

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I believe it can, and in my case it certainly did.

Many of the skills taught in culinary 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 template—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, Condiments, Kitchen Work, and Presentation.

Culinary basics

Every culinary student begins with an introductory course with an emphasis on food science and chemistry; meat, vegetables and knife skills; and the various cooking methods (sautéing, stewing, baking, roasting, etc.). And only after she has become familiar enough with these basics of food and cooking so that they become second nature to the cook, can she begin to inject her own individual touch into the dishes she prepares.

The same goes for writing: One has to master the basics like grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure before moving on to full paragraphs, and without an understanding of plot and tension (which I see as a parallel to food chemistry), it’s impossible to create a true story .

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sauces

A good sauce is often what separates the ordinary from the great in the world of cooking. Yet the sauces are as varied as the colors of the spectrum, covering everything from simply deglazing the pan with a little beer or wine; to marinara with tomatoes, garlic and herbs; to a complex Périgueux sauce of veal demiglas, butter, Madeira and truffles.

When I learned the secrets of sauces in culinary arts school, it was like a door opened to a previously locked room, as I was suddenly gifted with the ability to transform something as basic as a fried cutlet into a miracle of roast pork smothered in an apricot brandy sauce.

Likewise, the “sauce” of writing is what transforms the main storyline into a true “story.” And as with the sauce, the possibilities are endless: pastoral or urban setting; strange or mysterious characters; a curious profession of a detective and a fascinating backstory; an unusual motive for the murder and why your character sets out to uncover it; a fascinating point in time; the list goes on. But when deciding on the right sauce for that piece of meat or shape of pasta, the author must determine what kind of story 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 add sauce to your dish – or novel – accordingly.

Seasoning

It’s similar to sauce, but on a more detailed, micro level. Spices “spice up” cooking by adding accents and delicate notes. A pinch of cardamom in a lamb curry or a hint of tarragon in a cream sauce can make a diner sit back and think, “Wow. What exactly is this? Is tasty!”

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And 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 the dropping of clues and red herrings, as well as the character’s manner of speaking or turning a phrase. Or the food he eats and the scents wafting through the garden where he sits. A dog barking or the rumble of a car engine and the rough hands of the carpenter next door. Without proper seasoning, the story will be dull and tasteless.

Kitchen work

There are few professions more exhausting and taxing 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 pumping out all those tickets on a busy night when you’re all completely “in the weeds” can cause even the calmest of people to become addicted to Prilosec.

But the experience teaches you valuable lessons applicable to the life of a writer as well, 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 both the cook and the writer.

Presentation

Placing 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 visitors to come to your restaurant. Do the colors pop? Are there a variety of textures and heights on your plate? Are patterns and geometry pleasing to the eye?

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No doubt you’ve already guessed where I’m going here. Because the cover and presentation of a dish matches your cover and also 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 enough to attract potential readers?

Okay, I realize that these parallels between culinary arts school and mystery writing can be found equally well in many other types of training. Law school, for example, gave me many skills that I was later able to use as a crime writer. And I guess the same would be true for 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?

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