Tuesday, May 6, 2014

All I Know About Writing I Learned from Master Chef

My daughter and I have a bit of a guilty pleasure. Watching Master Chef and better yet, Master Chef Junior.

I grew up with a foodie father, a chef hobbyist who attended Cordon Bleu's home chef cooking school during his younger years. My brother has a degree from ICE, one of the top cooking schools in New York City and has worked in several well-known restaurants.

I know the stuff on these foodie shows bears little resemblance to the reality of the food world (with the exception of the hot tempers of the head chefs), yet I can't seem to stop watching.

Now if you haven't ever watched Master Chef, here's a briefing. One hundred top-rated chefs are given the opportunity to audition in the plush kitchens. They create their signature dish and then have five minutes to prepare and plate the dish in front of the judges who are some of the top professionals in the industry. To pass to the second round of auditions, they must get two "yes" answers from the judges who take plating, taste and presentation into consideration.

Fifty get the opportunity for a second audition where HALF are eliminated. Then each show of the season one more chef is eliminated until the final show-off between the top two.

Each show starts with either a mystery box challenge or a team challenge. Mystery boxes might contain a bizarre ingredient, an unusual ethnic cuisine, or a particular category of food such as lamb. The team challenge might include something as lavish as cooking for a wedding or as rustic as cooking an outdoor meal over a campfire with very few ingredients. The winning team or person is safe from elimination in the next challenge.

After a team challenge, the losing team enters a pressure test. This is a difficult challenge that even good chefs often don't perform well at such as making eclairs or preparing the perfect eggs benedict.

At the end of each show, one chef WILL be asked to put down their apron and go home.

Along the way I think I've learned some things that I (and you) can apply in our writing journeys though.

#1 Rule of Master Chef: Be yourself and be confident in that person.

Contestant Beth went home about halfway into the competition after making a very bland crab dish. Her food up until that point had been exceptional, but the judges deemed her afraid to show who she really was with the food as the competition ramped up.

Are you playing it safe with your writing? Don't be afraid to try a new technique or new genre. BUT be true to yourself. If you love wearing historical costumes and performing in the local renaissance faire then stay true to those roots with what you choose to write.

Writing world example: Mary Connealy's comedic western romances have won her many fans. We would probably be shocked to see an apocalyptic zombie novel with Mary's name on it. We come to expect a certain brand of story from Mary and she delivers.

#2 Rule of Master Chef: Don't embarrass yourself by putting out anything that is less than your best quality.

What a shame, is the oft quoted statement of often harsh Gordon Ramsay. He uses it when he expected more from a chef or a particular dish.

In the first elimination round, spunky chef Sasha Fox doesn't show proper respect to the ingredients. She is given high-quality langoustines (a small type of lobster) and chooses to mash them up and drown them in buttery cheese grits. She was true to her brand of cooking and her Southern lifestyle, but she was not spotlighting the seafood in the most flattering way.

Sometimes we can spotlight what we don't intend to when we make simple spelling or grammar errors or when we overlook other easy-to-fix problems.

Are you embarrassed by an aspect of your writing? There are many places where you can get help. Don't forget to ask one or three people to read that scene. Power in numbers when it comes to getting your best quality work out there. And don't forget different types of readers. Those who don't write are important to your critique group, as they often pick up on subtleties that other writers might miss.

#3 Rule of Master Chef: Play nice.

Unfortunately, this was not a rule. You can tell because one of the rudest contestants made the finals, but she did have the potential to win. Another contestant, Krissi, badmouthed most of the contestants and all stated they were waiting for her to go home. Her lack of kindness led to her frequently being chosen last for teams and therefore often ending up with a less than stellar team. The fact that she didn't listen to the leader of her team in several cases lead to the entire team being pulled down.

Here's a frequent example, let's say you didn't final or semi-final in a recent contest. What a great time to practice your kindness skills, not only by giving cards and congratulations to the finalists but don't forget to write thank you notes to all involved. Remember even your harshest critics are doing you a BIG FAVOR. They are helping you to become a better writer. So yes, you owe them your most sincere thanks.

#4 Rule of Master Chef: Pay attention to detail.

Fellow contestants were shocked when creative Lynn was eliminated from the competition. He had continually plated beautiful dishes, with care paid to every detail. Whether dotting his plate with a sesame-ginger sauce or arranging a salad by color he clearly had an eye for noticing the little things.

Remember these same little things make or break your writing.

Don't be afraid to try something new, but be careful in your implementation of it. Pay attention to little details in your writing.

To start with are you making these common errors: Common Grammar Mistakes That Almost Everyone Gets Wrong

#5 Rule of Master Chef: Pick the best judges for your writing.

One episode the contestants were asked to make pasta and were joined by Lidia Bastianich, famous for her cookbooks and TV show on Italian American cooking at home. Lidia was the judge. Since she has cooked this type of cuisine for sixty some years she was highly qualified.

However, if you were going to cook Asian wouldn't you rather have the advice of Martin Yan. Does that mean he is a better cook than Lidia? No, of course not.

Find the experts for your particular type of writing. Read widely in your genre to learn what good writing looks like. Take notes on their characters, settings, and plots. Watch movies in your genre, too. Listen to ACFW conference audio by the authors you know and admire.

Most of all, put your all into everything. That's what we've learned watching winning chef, Luca Manfre, a New Yorker who is originally from Italy. Luca was a near contender for the competition in a past year. He returned back for a second try and not only did he make the final cut...he became the winner and now has released his own cookbooks. Once a restaurant manager now he is living his dream as a recognized top chef in a highly competitive city.

Throughout the season, Luca was often seen crying and reacting dramatically to his fails and wins. He put a strong sense of passion into everything he did, trying his hardest. He had several epic disasters and several close calls.

In the end his passion and heart along with technical expertise and staying true to his Italian roots, all played a role in Luca's win.

All important elements in our writing lives as well.

 Julia enjoys writing women's fiction whenever she can find a chair free of smushed peanut butter sandwiches and lego blocks. She is a wife and homeschooling mama of two littles. She also enjoys reading and reviewing books for The Title Trakk and Christian Library Journal.


Angela said...

I love this post! Thanks for the tips. This was a great way of relating writing with the cooking show.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Master Chef is awesome!! One of my faves! I haven't seen the American version, but it plays out exactly the way you described in our Aussie Master Chef.

Great takeaways from this. I even tried to read the grammar article, because heaven knows I need it, but all the words started swimming before my eyes. It's late down here! Will be filing that one away for future reference... ;)

Julia M. Reffner said...


Every time I watch it I keep thinking there are so many parallels.


I'm not surprised you like this show, fellow foodie friend. Funny how much the little details can matter.

Pepper said...

GREAT post, Jules! Wow! Food and writing? Can the combo get ANY better? ;-)

(btw, I'm totally picking your brain when I write my rom com chef story ;-)

The hardest thing for me is the embarrassment! When I reread my work, even after I've sent it off, I always see the many things that needed to be changed. Even though I've looked it over 100s of times.

Having confidence is tough too - especially when rejection bites at your heels like the Baskerville Hound. It's good to remember our confidence isn't based externally, but internally through the love of Christ - and HIS giftedness to us

Loved the post!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Loved this, Julia! What great points you bring up! I"m with Pepper. Having confidence in myself and the abilities and stories God's given me can be difficult. But, when I have confidence in these, then I can truly be passionate and feel comfortable being myself. Must remember this! :)

Julia M. Reffner said...

I'm all about food and books/writing. Definitely some of the greatest gifts God created.

Please do pick it, in fact I will beg to read it. :)

Oh, man I get the confidence part, I so often struggle with remembering that it is through Him.


Confidence for sure does breed passion. I see a lot of that passion in you :)

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Love the parallels here! Great post and excellent food for thought ;)

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Awww, I wish I liked to watch those shows. My husband likes to watch cooking shows on PBS...a little more laid back than those reality types.

Great things to think about Julia! You are such a great thinker.

Julia M. Reffner said...

@ Amy, Thanks. I think someday you need to write a "food/writing" post of some kind. You definitely have a gift in the kitchen :)

@ Sherrinda, You turned me on to one of the best writing shows, Castle. Mwa-ha-ha!

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

What can I say??? I'm awesomely sneaky like that!

Andrea Mack said...

Great post! I love watching Master Chef! Never thought about how it was similar to writing.

Mary Vee Writer said...

I love this show too, Julia. I think it forced most of American back into the kitchen and away from peanut butter or boxed dishes. Which is another application of this great post. Watch, Learn. Create.

Joyce Ackley said...

This is a wonderful article. I posted a link on my own blog,

I tweeted the link as well.

How creative to compare one's writing to chefs on a t.v. show. It is inspirational, indeed.

Joyce Ackley said...

This is a wonderful article. I posted a link on my own blog,

I tweeted the link as well.

How creative to compare one's writing to chefs on a t.v. show. It is inspirational, indeed.

Julia M. Reffner said...

Sorry for the late response, but thanks so much Joy for the tweeting and linking. And of course for stopping by.