Monday, November 19, 2012

Writing and Cooking with Fire

Watching the programming on The Food Network I'm struck by how the network's implied mantra is similar to the lifeblood of a writing teacher.  I've learned by reading and listening to many writers and educators, but two really stand out when I think of the connections between chef and writer: Don Graves, and Penny Kittle. Most of the connections I make in this essay come from Penny Kittle's Write Beside Them and often cross-over into many of the Food Network programs.

Based on Penny Kittle's vision, I see five similarities in the way chefs and writers develop their craft:

1. Chefs mentor other chefs. 
Programs such as The Next Food Network Star, and The Worst Chef in America place chefs and home cooks in situations where an accomplished chef can advise, demonstrate, and challenge.

Often, writing teachers confer with students over their writing by asking how can I help you? tell me what you're doing as a writer at this moment? why did you decide to do it that way?

We try to leave our fledgling writers and developing chefs excited to get back to writing and cooking. We each try to make a point of what is working as well as what we'd like to see.

2. Mentor chefs offer feedback on surface errors and deeper revision.
Many shows built on competition such as Sweet Genius, Cupcake Wars, and Restaurant Impossible highlight problems that may or may not be corrected without guidance from the master chef.

Writing teachers remind themselves "Teach the Writer, not the Writing," and while I see the complementary "Teach the Cook, not the Cooking" in many of the Food Network programs, I see this explicitly in shows like Restaurant Impossible. Chef Robert Irvine often teaches people how to work within their strengths, experiences, and limitations in order to create a final product that can stand up to the local competition.

Our focus as writing teachers is always on the individual writer. We try to help students find what is buried within a first draft, a first attempt. It is about more than focusing on what we did wrong--we work to have writers understand what they did right and to embrace the possibilities.

3. We see, in many of these shows, that cooking is often for an audience as much as it is for our own sense of peace and joy.
Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, The Great Food Truck Race, are audience-based. Viewers write-in to DDD to suggest a local place that is doing food the right way. The Great Food Truck Race bases its decisions on who sold the most product--a combination of charging the right amount for the money spent. However, when listening to the teams plane, they often have to consider their audience. What is the community used to eating and paying. Are there local foods or traditions that might be honored on their food truck menu?

4. High profile, Food Network chefs not only offer advice or evaluate the food produced by guest chefs from across the country but also place their food on the table for evaluation.
This impresses me the most. The programs that highlight this circumstance often end up my favorites: Iron Chef, Next Iron Chef, Chopped. These chefs demonstrate their own struggles with cooking. While many have years of experience, they show us that cooking is an art, chefs are human, and neither can perfect every time.

Like writing, chefs have to do a lot of their craft before they produce the good stuff.

Ralph Fletcher writes that a mentor teacher can influence student writers by having high standards, building on strengths, valuing originally and diversity, and encouraging students to take risks. Our passion and ability to see the big picture can help guide young writers through the process--but it only works when we write beside them. When we present ourselves as mentors rather than judges, we lend a hand to a lot of young writers.

5. Vision: chefs speak about food, culture, and other chefs with humility and passion. 

It becomes obvious when you hear a chef such as Aaron Sanchez speak of the influences of his upbringing, his culture, and his mother that cooking is something he realizes he may never master. Chefs listen to other chefs; taste their food; and delight in the many differences of food and cooking.

Chefs understand the the construction of a meal and can explain how the parts work together to create the whole. They demonstrate that their knowledge is to be shared and that they can always learn from other.

Don Murray once wrote, “I am apprenticed to two crafts I can never masterwriting and teaching. As writing teachers we are constantly reading and writing so that we may share the vision for how others work, expand our minds to be more open to possibilities, and see that our "ordinary" lives are alive with topics.

When I watch The Food Network, and see chefs such as Geoffrey Zacharian well-up over an achievement, or compliment another chef over their execution, I hear and see his passion for cooking.  It reminds me of what I read in Ralph Fletcher's What a Writer Needs: "Passion remains the most important quality the mentor has to offer. When we think back on those teachers we looked up to, we don't always remember exactly what they taught. Above everything, we remember passion. Fire."

Lo and behold, the seminal ingredient in cooking and writing is the same: Fire.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article. I like your article. I saw so many shows regarding cooking. I am totally agree with your article and all the information which is shared by you in your article.Its a passion for food and fire. Thanks a lot.
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