Research in the Trenches


By Betty Thomason Owens

Research is not limited to bookwork or Google searches. Sometimes, it’s hands-on. There are times when you need to go there. Choose an exotic locale for your next book, and you can write off a vacation in Bali. Okay, maybe not.

Research is not only necessary when writing historicals. And your setting is not the only reason to research. If your protagonist is a clerk at Walmart, or an associate at the Apple Store, this may require research, unless you or someone close to you has the experience. Maybe your main character wants to be a great chef. She needs the best schools and internship, a post-grad job in a world-famous restaurant. Research.

RoyaltyFreeImage-OrangutanA friend of mine used a zoo as a setting. Her MC inherited the zoo upon the death of her estranged mother. For her preliminary research, she worked alongside a zookeeper (or technician) for a day, scooping manure, preparing food, and whatever other chores were the daily requirement. Her careful research continued as she wrote. Questions arose and she jotted them down. These required a personal phone call to her contacts at the zoo. She made good friends along the way who later became readers and marketers of her book. Win-win!

Brainstorming can release ideas. Think of the coolest professions and locales (places you can go). Now, pinpoint one, and construct your story around it. Then launch out to do your research, answering all your questions. Remember to make connections on the job or at the locale so you can do follow-up as questions arise. This is research.

Research may be watching movies. It could require listening to music or going to a ballet, or visiting a historical site, such as a battleground or national park. Don’t just walk around and observe, take photographs, talk to the park rangers.

I made a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest and traveled down the West coast on Highway 101. I took dozens of photos and talked to people along the way. I don’t have a story with this setting yet, but it’s a possibility. I now have research to fall back on. I just have to go through the photos and look at my notes.

You can do research any time, even while waiting at the doctor’s office. Try listening to the conversations around you. Jot down the humorous or goofy things you hear. Sometimes you see things that amaze you. People leave their children unattended or have what should be a private conversation on their cellphone. These are definitely going into my notebook for later use.

Most important of all, be aware of your surroundings. You can drop a story anywhere, in any situation. You’ll bump into some wonderfully weird people out in the world, quirky characters to populate your novel. You never know when your next great idea will show up. Research is everywhere.

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photo credit: Kenny Teo (zoompict) via photopin cc

photo credit: ucumari via photopin cc

Food & Restaurant Critic versus Cookbook Author/ Prompt Contest Winner!

One of my favorite shows on the Food Network is Chopped, a reality-based cooking television series. Four chefs have short periods of time to create luscious meals from outrageous ingredients. Three judges from the world of food judge and critic their dishes on different criteria. Whoever doesn’t “cut” it is chopped or doesn’t advance to the next round. This sparked my interest in food critics.
Also, as the proud owner of a shelf full of books about cooking, I wonder how you would go about creating a best-selling cookbook. Who writes all the cookbooks we see at the local bookstore or on Amazon? Which would be the best career for the character in your next novel, cookbook author or critic?
The terms food critic, food writer, and restaurant critic can all be used to describe a writer who analyzes food or restaurants and then publishes the results of their findings. While these terms are not strictly synonymous they are often used interchangeably. Those who share their opinions via food columns in newspapers and magazines are known as food columnists.
Food critics and “restaurant critic” are synonyms, in practice. Both suggest a critical, evaluative stance that often involves some kind of rating system. The distinction, if any involves the range of possible investigation. “Food critic” has a more contemporary vibe, suggesting that restaurants, bakeries, food festivals, street vendors, and taco trucks are all fair game.
“Restaurant critic” is the more traditional title and can connote a more restricted sphere of operations — traditional restaurants, with perhaps those serving French cuisine being the exemplars. The internet has slowly become more important in forming opinions about restaurants. New generations of discussion forums and rating systems have become influential such as Mouthfuls, Yelp, and eGullet, as have some food criticism blogs like GrubGrade.  
For most of the past century, the most highly visible food critics have been those who have written for daily newspapers throughout the world and a few who have been restaurant reviewers for influential magazines, such as Gourmet in the United States. Television has become an outlet for many shows involving food or restaurant critics.
 A cookbook is a kitchen reference publication that typically contains a collection of recipes. Modern versions may also include colorful illustrations and advice on purchasing quality ingredients or making substitutions. Cookbooks can also cover a wide variety of topics, including cooking techniques for the home, recipes and commentary from famous chefs, institutional kitchen manuals, and cultural commentary. Anyone can write a cookbook, given they have recipes. How did the cookbook get its start?
The earliest cookbooks on record seem to be mainly lists of recipes for what would now be called haute cuisine, and were often written primarily to either provide a record of the author’s favorite dishes or to train professional cooks for banquets and upper-class, private homes. The first recipe books to be compiled in Europe since Late Antiquity started to appear in the late thirteenth century. About a hundred are known to have survived, some fragmentary, from the age before printing.
 Cookbooks that serve as basic kitchen references (sometimes known as “kitchen bibles”) began to appear in the early modern period. They provided not just recipes but overall instruction for both kitchen technique and household management. Such books were written primarily for housewives and occasionally domestic servants as opposed to professional cooks. Related to this class are instructional cookbooks, which combine recipes with in-depth, step-by-step recipes to teach beginning cooks basic concepts and techniques. In vernacular literature, people may collect traditional recipes in family cookbooks.
 Professional cookbooks are designed for the use of working chefs and culinary students and sometimes double as textbooks for culinary schools. Such books deal not only in recipes and techniques, but often service and kitchen workflow matters. Many such books deal in substantially larger quantities than home cookbooks, such as making sauces by the liter or preparing dishes for large numbers of people in a catering setting.  
Single-subject books, usually dealing with a specific ingredient, technique, or class of dishes, are quite common as well; with books on dishes like curries, pizza, and simplified ethnic food. Popular subjects for narrow-subject books on technique include grilling/barbecue, baking, outdoor cooking, and even recipe cloning.
Community cookbooks (also known as compiled, regional, charitable, and fund-raising cookbooks) are a unique genre of culinary literature. Community cookbooks focus on home cooking, often documenting regional, ethnic, family, and societal traditions, as well as local history.
Cookbooks can also document the food of a specific chef, cooking show chef, or restaurant. Many of these books, particularly those written by or for a well-established cook with a long-running TV show or popular restaurant, become part of extended series of books that can be released over the course of many years. Popular chef-authors throughout history include people such as Julia Child, James Beard, Nigella Lawson, Edouard de Pomiane, Jeff Smith, Emeril Lagasse, and Claudia Roden.  
So your character who needs an occupation can be either author or critic. Try a twist. How about a football player who writes a cookbook packed with his favorite pie recipes? Or a stay-at-home mother of triplets who is a blogging food critic of baby nutrition products? The food industry is evolving and your next novel can evolve with it.

CONGRATULATIONS BILL! YOU’VE WON THIS MONTH’S CONTEST! We loved the humorous story about cooks and lobsters. We will run the story on this Friday’s blog. Please drop us another email and tell us where to send your gift card. Make sure and watch for next month’s contest as we look at vacation spots…Where does the main character in your next novel need to vacation?

Today’s writing prompt: Josie reached into her great grandmother’s heavy plastic suitcase and wiped off the dusty book. Must be forty years old, she guessed, as she lifted it with care. The title read, “Cooking for…”

Executive Chef versus Sous Chef

“You have developed an allergy to milk.” These simple words changed my life in ways I couldn’t imagine. I’d suspected this for a while, and the thoughts of eating and living healthy had crossed my mind, yet never stayed too long.
This diagnosis, along with other health issues, made me stop and take a look at food. Books, blogs, and the Food Network confirmed what God had been speaking to my heart for a while. Stop, look, listen. No, I’m not talking about crossing the street, but listening to the signals my body had been giving. Stop eating junk, look at labels, and listen to the experts.
Since this is where I’m at on my journey, I thought I’d take the next three career blogs and talk about the food industry. Let’s start with the most basic. A chef. I had no idea there were so many types of chefs: executive chef, sous chef, pastry chef, personal chef, grill chef, and fry chef to name a few. And then there are line cooks, kitchen-hands, and stewards. Today we’ll contrast the executive chef and the sous chef.
The Executive Chef is in charge of all things related to the kitchen, which usually includes menu creation, management of kitchen staff, ordering and purchasing of inventory, and plating design.   In French, the word chef means “chief.” A head chef, also sometimes referred to as “chef de cuisine” or “executive chef,” is in charge of the whole kitchen.
Every part of a foodservice operation, including menu planning, purchasing, hiring and staffing, is part of an executive chef’s job description. That means he or she also has overall responsibility for all the food that comes out of the kitchen. You may have noticed one key job function missing from an executive chef’s job description: cooking. That’s right; he or she typically doesn’t cook. The tools of his job are a desk, phone and clipboard; not a knife, whisk or sauté pan.
The Sous-Chef de Cuisine (under-chef of the kitchen) is the second in command and direct assistant of the Chef. This person may be responsible for scheduling and substituting when the Chef is off-duty and will also fill in for or assist the Chef de Partie (line cook) when needed.  The sous chef (pronounced “SOO chef,” from the French word for under) is in charge of all the cooking. This person is responsible for inventory, cleanliness of the kitchen, organization and constant training of all employees. The “Sous-Chef” is responsible for taking commands from the Chef and following through with them. The “Sous-Chef” is responsible for line checks and rotation of all product. In some kitchens, sous chef’s job is to directly supervise the entire kitchen staff, including the line cooks, prep cooks and dishwashers.
While his or her job is still mainly supervisory, the sous chef may also do some actual cooking, for instance, stepping in to replace one of the line cooks if necessary.
Even though their responsibilities differ, an executive chef and sous chef both need people and management skills. Formal training is a must in either career for advancement in more exclusive restaurants. Many chefs start as dishwashers, however, and gain experience as they work up the ranks. You will need to be dedicated, creative, and determined to succeed as either type of chef. You will need patience to deal with difficult staff and customers, and communication skills to ensure your staff feels like you consider them a part of your team.
My son, Jonathan
Writing prompt: A billow of French erupted from the kitchen area of The Blue Boiling Point Café. Lydia knew that meant one thing. Gérard, the executive chef, had…

photo from Wikipedia Commons