#5onFri: Five Writing Tips from The French Chef

by J. M. Kessler
published in Writing

When the writing isn’t going well, I often go to the kitchen, not to consume (well, sometimes), but to reconnect with the creative flow. Seeking kitchen inspiration, I rediscovered the seminal cooking show, The French Chef

The first thing I noticed is that culinary icon Julia Child isn’t perfect. She loses her train of thought, grabs the wrong ingredient, and forgets to set the timer. 

Instead, she’s entirely relatable, a quality that kept me watching well into writing time as she presented recipes with warmth and enthusiasm, fully confident that her viewers could do what she had learned to do. Cheerfulness, relatability, food. This is comfort TV. 

Maybe it was the way she delivered her culinary bon mots, but I found they related to writing as well. 

Here are five morsels of writing advice from The French Chef:

1. “The only way you learn how to flip things is to flip them.”

Julia is making a potato pancake in a skillet. She’s talking about having the courage of your convictions when it comes time to flip the pancake. She heaves the skillet, the pancake turns in the air, and half of it lands on the stove. She admits that she didn’t have the courage of her convictions. She then demonstrates the flip again. Parfait.

The fear of getting it wrong can be paralyzing. What if changing the POV doesn’t work? What if the battle scene falls flat? What if the potato pancake lands on my foot? Then it lands on my foot. But I won’t know where it will land if I never flip it. 

Julia knew that the antidote to fear is action, and in being willing to get it wrong she shows that it’s okay not to get it right. 

Maybe that battle scene will work, or maybe it will inexplicably turn into a beach party. It doesn’t matter. When I accept that it may not go to plan, I no longer have anything to lose and I’m free to take that all-important first step and let the potato pancake fly.

Recipe from The French Chef: equal measures courage and conviction; toss with gusto.

2. “It doesn’t taste good now at all because the wine is raw.”

Julia has added wine to the bœuf bourguignon. She tastes it, makes a sour face, then looks pleased. The wine needs time to cook, she explains, to blend with the meat and render its flavor. 

Julia says that tasting the food is a privilege of the cook. D’accord. But with that privilege comes the understanding of where you are in the process.

Too often I judge my work by unfair standards. I look at my freshly-stomped grapes and criticize them for not being prosecco. But recipes are more than their ingredients. They’re also a series of steps. Everything from roast to toast needs time to become what it will be (and no amount of hovering over the toaster makes it toast any faster). 

For me, writing a first draft is like scattering breadcrumbs over a waterfall. It’s a shocking, overwritten, underwritten, undulating mess. The ideas are there, but it’s chaos. And that’s okay. The work is raw, which is exactly what it’s supposed to be right now. I don’t have to like what it is right now, but knowing and trusting the process keeps me on track.

Recipe from The French Chef: one bottle of mindfulness; decant.

3. “And then you whack off the head.”

The kitchen is no place to be squeamish. Watching Julia prepare bouillabaisse and explaining how to peel an eel (I admit to momentary light-headedness), or dismember live lobster, or take defrosted frozen spinach “by the handfuls and just cruelly squeeze all the water possible out of it,” it’s clear she is a no-holds-barred cook. 

To get the work done, one must sometimes do unsavory things (such as watch the entire episode on sweetbreads and brains).

There are parts of being a writer that I love. And there are parts I love to avoid. I may think I have the upper hand by actively avoiding updating my website or revising a troubled story. But by delaying the inevitable, I’ve surrendered control to a bad habit and undermined my own authority. Quel dommage

When Julia whacks off the fish head, she is more than fearless. She is master of her kitchen, delighting in her skills and her ability to take on any job that needs doing. 

Clearly, it’s much more fun to take control than to be controlled.

Recipe from The French Chef: one unpleasant task; show it who’s boss.

4. “You don’t want people ever to taste something and say, ‘Oh, nutmeg.’”

Making the sauce for a spinach turnover, Julia uses “just a speck” of nutmeg, enough to take the dish to the next level, but never so much that it’s identifiable. Nutmeg is potent, but used correctly, it never announces itself. It hints, it suggests, it insinuates. Just a dash ensures that the spinach is the star of this turnover.

I love secret ingredients. 

Even in writing, there are tools, tricks, and techniques that give stories that je ne sais quoi readers love. But careful measures are key. Too heavy-handed, and it’s obvious I’m foreshadowing the mentor character, or planting a red herring, or that I know how to use the rule of three. 

And then there are all those interesting things I found in my research, even though they have absolutely nothing to do with the plot. 

If the writing elements upstage the story, the reader’s focus is on them. Just a pinch here and there, and the focus remains on the story.

Recipe from The French Chef: writer genius; sprinkle lightly.

5. “So let’s take a look at this terrifying monster, this mystery soufflé.”

“And what is it, after all? Well, it’s melted chocolate. We’ve done that before. It’s white sauce, we’ve done that. As a matter of fact, I’ve news for you. You’ve known how to make a chocolate soufflé all along.”

(Le gasp!) Quoi?! 

Julia drops this bombshell on her viewers at the end of the episode. The recipe is complicated, and with the looming danger of deflated egg whites, intimidating for first-time makers. But Julia lays it on the table; combine your knowledge base and voilà, chocolate soufflé.

From horror series to high fantasy to historical manga, it’s easy to think that some projects are just beyond me. Sometimes it’s the scope of the project, sometimes it’s the fact that I’ve never done it before that feels overwhelming and outside my skillset. 

But even a seemingly complicated project is a combination of basic skills. Reducing the monstrous undertaking to its bare components is a quick way to relieve pressure and deflate the terrifying beast. I may even find that I already know how to write heroic cookbooks.

Recipe from The French Chef: one overwhelming project; separate into friendly portions.

I hope these tidbits whet your appetite for some scrumptious writing sessions. Borrowing from Julia’s famous sign-off, bon appétit, les écrivains!

J. M. Kessler is the author of the children’s book, The Squirrelly Nut Gig, as well as short stories and plays. She has a BA in theatre, and is a classic film fan, Whovian, knitter, and nature lover.

You can find her on her website or follow her on Instagram.

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