Lessons from the Kitchen That Will Make You A Better Writer

While cooking may not feel very similar to writing, there are some life lessons that are true no matter what medium you’re working in. (photo provided by author)

As you have probably gleaned from the title, I like to cook. I am no Food Network star or Carla Music from Bon Appetit, but I do truly love to cook. As an amateur cook teaching himself as much as possible with any scrap of free time, I have come across a couple cooking principles and lessons that apply more broadly in life as culinary-based philosophies, not just tips on how to skin a potato. Here are three things cooking has taught me that have helped me become a better writer and human being.

Mise en Place

I came across this term when reading an article from the aforementioned Bon Appetit a couple months ago and have been utilizing its philosophy in many aspects of my life. Mise en place is a French culinary term that boils down to “everything in its place.” In the kitchen, this simply applies to having all your ingredients, tools, utensils, and gadgets primed and ready for use. The purpose of this principle is to have everything well-organized and easily accessible to maximize the efficiency of the cooking process. This means having all ingredients prepped for all dishes anticipated for that day’s service. In short, it means setting yourself up for success.

So how does this apply to writing? It’s simple; all you must do is clear out and organize your physical and mental workspace to provide yourself an atmosphere of minimal distraction and maximum focus. Get all your writing supplies laid out on your desk. Make sure nothing feels cramped and everything is situated in a way that will help with workflow. Get your laptop charger plugged in and grab yourself a snack to keep yourself fueled throughout your work session. I recommend having a beverage of your choice comfortably within reach but also positioned to minimize any potential issues that may come from unintentional spills. Minimize distraction, and maximize your efficiency as a writer.

This principle welcomes personalization and experimentation given how we all know the writing process is unique to the individual and can be incredibly fickle. However, once you find what works for you, there’s so much you will accomplish.

Flavor Develops with Time

This is a principle that applies more towards creative writing than an essay you’re scrambling to finish last minute. In recipes much of the work in developing flavor comes from the passage of time, over various levels of heat. Think about that pot of soup your family makes in the winter, or the crockpot full of stew. The reason it comes out so flavorful is not just the ingredients put into the pot, but the amount of time you have allowed the ingredients to cook and mingle with each other.

I’ve found that in writing this applies to both the time spent on a piece to polish it up, as well as taking a break from writing to refresh your perspective. In an ideal situation your writing will have time to breathe and develop, and that may require planning ahead if you have concrete deadlines. Many dead ends I find myself in come from trying to do too much in too little of time. It’s like trying to make a roast in 10 minutes by cranking your oven to the max; it’ll probably happen, but it will by no means be a quality product in the end. With that said, this is not an “I’ll finish when I get to it” kind of mentality. Deadlines, even just self-prescribed due dates, can be just as important. It is about understanding that within reason, there are many benefits to allowing your writing to organically develop rather forcing it to land on the page. 

Change Up Your Recipe Repertoire

Any home cook knows that in order to get through a week’s worth of meals, you need to have some go-to dishes in rotation. However, it’s important to ensure you’re not locking yourself into the monotonous prison of staple recipes just so you can put food on the table. Change things up, make some chicken biryani one night, prep some pizza dough and toppings for the weekend, get out of your comfort zone! They say cooking is like jazz, but if you’re playing the same songs all the time, there is no growth, and things get stale easily.

Writing is very similar; doing the same thing repeatedly will get boring, and if you’re bored writing your piece, the reader is surely going to get bored too. So, change it up. Try out new genres and even mash them up to make something new. Try using some writing prompts from online, or pick an object you’d never think of and use it as inspiration. Get weird with it, think outside the box. Experimenting with your writing is just as important as refining what you already know how to do. It will broaden your repertoire and teach you things comfort will not. Be brave, and bring variety and spontaneity into your creative process and I assure you it will be rewarding.

There is so much you can do to improve your writing and it isn’t always reading books or finishing piece after piece or listening to lectures. I’ve learned from many unconventional places just as much as I’ve learned from professors and books and articles. So next time you’re in the kitchen, or the garden, or wherever, take a second and try to listen to the lesson it may be trying to teach you. Wisdom can come from anywhere, even a pot of soup.

Jonathan Trinque is the Long River Review alumni engagement coordinator and a fiction panel reader. He can be reached at jonathan.trinque@uconn.edu.

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