What can cooking school teach a mystery writer? ‹ CrimeReads

When I first looked at writing crime novels, it was obvious that it would have to be a culinary mystery. Not only have I been obsessed with food and cooking since my teens, 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 another story).

Now, with five books in Sally Solari’s culinary mystery series under my belt, I find myself looking back on my time in cookery school and wondering, did that experience have an impact on my later vocation as an author of novels? mystery?

It seems obvious, of course, that being comfortable handling a fillet knife and understanding what kinds of foods would best hide the taste of arsenic would be invaluable in devising ways to commit (fictitious) murder in a restaurant. And it is equally true that knowing commercial cuisine 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 invent the recipes for the books, either.)

But what did the process of going to cooking school teach me about crime fiction? usuallyWhat could not have been learned in another way? Can studying culinary arts teach you how to write a better mystery novel?

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I think so, 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 required to write a compelling story. As it turns out, it turned out that my experience as a culinary arts student acted as something of a metaphor, or perhaps a template, for when I then put my fingers to the keyboard to begin my first Sally Solari mystery.

I will break these skill sets down into five areas: Culinary Fundamentals, Sauces, Seasonings, Kitchen Work, and Presentation.

culinary basics

Each culinary student begins by taking an introductory class, with a focus on food science and chemistry; skills with meats, vegetables and knives; and the different cooking methods (sauteed, stewed, roasted, baked, etc.). And it is only after becoming familiar enough with these food and cooking basics that they become second nature to the cook that he can begin to insert his own individual touch into the dishes he prepares.

The same is true for writing: one must 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 parallels to food chemistry), it is impossible to create a true story.

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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, encompassing everything from a simple pan deglaze with a little beer or wine; to a marinara with tomatoes, garlic and herbs; to a complex perigueux sauce based on 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 to a previously closed room, as I had suddenly been gifted with the ability to transform something as basic as a fried pork chop into a marvel of seared pork topped with apricot brandy sauce.

Similarly, the “sauce” of writing is what transforms a basic plot into a true “story.” And as with a sauce, the possibilities are limitless: a rural or urban setting; peculiar or enigmatic characters; the curious profession of a detective and the compelling backstory; an unusual motive for the murder and the reason its protagonist sets out to solve it; a fascinating point in time; the list goes on. But in deciding the right sauce for that cut, meat, or pasta shape, the author must determine what kind of story he wants to tell: raw and noir, or light and inviting; fast-paced and nail-biting, or funny and sweet. And then he chooses to spice his food, or novel, accordingly.


This is similar to salsa, but on a more detailed micro level. Condiments “spice up” the kitchen by adding accents and delicate touches. A dash of cardamom in a lamb curry or a dash of tarragon in a cream sauce can make a diner sit up and think, “Wow. What is that exactly? It’s delicious!”

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Also in a mystery novel, the little touches of spice that the writer adds are what make the story jump off the page and the mystery sizzle. It’s the dropping of clues and red herrings, and the way a character speaks or turns of phrase. Or the foods he eats and the fragrances wafting in 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 lacking in flavor.

kitchen work

There are few jobs more strenuous 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 ache all the time, the sous chef screams in your ear, and the stress of spending all those tickets on a busy night when you’re completely “on the grass” can make even the most serene of people who they become addicted to Prilosec.

But the experience teaches you valuable lessons that also apply to the life of a writer, like learning to write on a deadline and working with an editor who may have very different ideas about your work in progress than you do. Deep breathing and meditation can benefit both the cook and the writer.


Plating a dish is one of the most important steps in a restaurant kitchen, especially 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?

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No doubt you’ve already guessed where I’m going here. Because the plating and presentation of a dish corresponds to your cover, and also to the marketing and advertising you do to convince people to buy and read the book. Does the design convey the genre and mood of the story you are telling? And how is your presence on social networks? Are your Facebook and Twitter posts eye-catching and intriguing, so that they attract potential readers?

Okay, I understand that these parallels between culinary arts school and mystery writing can be found in many other types of education as well. Law school, for example, gave me a lot of skills that I was able to use later as a crime novelist. And I suppose the same would be true for a degree in engineering, or medicine, sociology, political science, or even French.

But come on, don’t you think cooking school would be a lot more fun?