Food is a form of communication. If you learn the history of cuisine, a plate can tell you its origin story, how its cooking methods were devised and why. Fried rice can tell you about the need to feed a lot of hungry field workers quickly and making their bland starchy staple taste good. Corned Beef and Cabbage will remind you of the poverty of new Irish and Jewish immigrants, crammed cheek-by-jowl in the slums of American cities, sharing what they had and knew to get by.
Food is communication. It’s a history lesson. It’s storytelling.
So how, exactly, does one become a good storyteller with food? The answer takes a bit more effort than “learn to cook”- as if that wasn’t enough.
What do I mean by “voice?”
If you’re a cook, what kind of cooking calls to you? What cuisines and techniques speak to the way you work and operate? If given a choice, what cuisines or dishes would you make sure everyone on Earth got to try just once so that they could taste it and understand YOU?
It’s alright not to have answers to these questions. It might even be that the techniques and cuisines that speak most to you aren’t even things you’re especially good at (yet.)
But those answers are what will find your voice- and searching for them will help you develop it.
Where You Come From, Where You Are, and Where You’re Going
For most of us, our first foray into finding our voice is where most other things in life start- at home.
My first inspirations for baking came from my family- curious sisters and parents that loved to cook and entertain. My earliest memories of buying baked goods are the small bakery section of Casel’s– a grocery store in my heavily-Jewish suburban home town of Margate. The kosher, almond-based and neon-colored cookies were lined up in a case and ordered by the platter (which were also a common feature of large house parties in town.)
I loved the pretty simplicity of those cookies, and the feeling of spending time in the kitchen with my family- making something delicious and surrounded by the sounds and smells of good food. To this day, that enjoyment of simple pleasures is central to my baking, teaching, and writing styles.
- What are your favorite memories involving food (or whatever craft you have?)
- When you imagine your perfect work- creations that do everything you hope they will- what does it look like?
- You are being interviewed for a food magazine, and they want you to describe your philosophy and mission in cooking. What would you tell them, in 30 words or less?
Garbage In, Garbage Out
Wherever it is you came from, that’s the past. You’re here now though- you and the world both keep rolling on. What is happening now that excites you? Or, what are you finding out about now?
The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” is used mostly in writing, but it extends to just about any creative field and the meaning is the same- what you expose yourself to is what you will create. Eat a lot of crappy food and never look for/try anything good? Get ready to make a lot of really crappy food- because that’s all you learned.
Try the best, taste the best, and keep looking for better? NOW you’re getting somewhere.
I am a baker, and I’m consequently enamored (or, more regularly, disappointed) with how restaurants handle their desserts. I love going out to eat and enjoy myself thoroughly whenever I can- but part of me is always learning and treating it as research. I try the desserts from foreign cuisines, and look at the plating concepts pastry chefs who are at the top of their game put out.
I don’t always like what I try- if you’re being honest with yourself, you won’t either. There is amazing food out there, and there is shitty food. Even in those cases, you should be asking yourself “What do I like on this plate? How would I execute it better? Are their techniques or flavors being used that I can source/look up and practice?”
It’s a similar situation for me with writing. As novelist Hank Green said,
“I really think that reading is just as important as writing when you’re trying to be a writer because it’s the only apprenticeship we have, it’s the only way of learning how to write a story.”– Hank Green
If I want to be a good food writer, I need to be reading a lot of good food writing and asking myself questions. “What is keeping me on this page? How are they structuring this chapter/article? What about their style is engaging/repelling to me?”
- Go look up a bunch of books about your favorite cuisine. Read them all, and take notes. What’s exciting? What seizes you?
- Remember “garbage in, garbage out”- if possible, eat food by people you admire in the cuisines you are trying to master. Try the same dish at different places, and pick what you love from each.
- It’s a quiet night at home, you are bored and want to cook/ create something. What do you make that gets you excited to try it?
Which Way Do You Want To Go?
Don’t be modest. We all have ambitions. Dreams of the future help us pick our way through the endless present so we can et where we want to go. Those big, distant goals let us choose the smaller ones- stepping stones to lead us where we ultimately want to be.
I know for a fact, at this point in my life, that I love food. I love working with and around it.
I also love reading about it, teaching and mentoring others, and writing about it. I know that for the rest of my life, I want to be involved in the culinary world. I read voraciously. I write prolifically and regularly, and do my best to develop my skills. I pick jobs that will teach me new skills and give me chances to learn and teach others. I keep writing and printing and baking and grinding so that one day, I might be able to become a food writer and teacher, sharing my missions and love of simple joys with others.
You are always the one that sets the price on your dreams.
- What do you want your work to do for the world?
- What do you want it to do for you, and where would you like it to take you?
- Write your acceptance speech for a James Beard Award. If you can’t imagine winning/don’t care much about awards, instead write the introduction to your future cookbook.
The Work Never Ends
“Absorb what is useful. Discard what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”Bruce Lee, as he researched and developed Jeet Kun Do.
You don’t find your voice, you develop it. It’s comprised of a thousand small details you notice, decisions you make, and questions you answer about yourself and what you value.
By endless exposing yourself to new flavors, techniques, and material, you can experiment with that voice of yours. You let it change as you do, grow as you do, and become an expression of not just your experiences but your philosophy, your personality, and your view of food and living.
As e.e. Cummings wrote, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”