[Interview] What Writers Can Learn from Watching MasterChef

Lisa Friedman is a well-known writer and writing instructor in the Netherlands. In 2003, she founded the Amsterdam Writing Workshops for writers of fiction and nonfiction. In 2010, she formed the Institute for Business Writing to serve people who write in the professional contexts of industry, government, and NGOs. I’ve known Lisa for quite a long time and I’ve taken many of her workshops.

Last week we found some time to get together, break bread and talk about writing. What Writers Can Learn By Watching MasterChef is the write-up of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. But before you click, ask yourselves: Would you consider using a Venn diagram for your writing and/or cooking? 


 Isabella:

Thanks for agreeing to talk with me about writing today. You and I have known each other as writers for a good few years now, and I’m eager to hear your theory about writing and watching MasterChef. But first, just a bit of background. You’re not exactly a food professional, you’re a writing professional. As the founder of the Amsterdam Writing Workshops, you make your living teaching people how to improve their writing, correct?

Lisa:

Absolutely. About as close as I get to “food professional” is a class I teach called Writing about Food.

Isabella:

So that’s where your MasterChef obsession comes from! By the way, are we talking about MasterChef US? UK? The MasterChef Down Under?

Lisa:

MasterChef UK, definitely.

Isabella:

You say that with conviction. Are you a MasterChef fan, by any chance?

Lisa:

Well, yes. I’m a fiend, actually—not for the celebrity version or the profession-chef version of the series, but for the series in which ordinary people go on the show and develop into extraordinary cooks. It’s fascinating to see how many people want to quit their day-jobs to become a professional chef.

Isabella:

How many people would you say have the fantasy of cooking professionally?

Lisa:

Apparently, 25,000 home cooks apply for MasterChef UK annually. Of those, only around 400 get the chance to audition. And only 64 of them survive the selection process and make it to the televised competition.

Isabella:

That sounds plausible; it’s not hard to imagine 25,000 ambitious home cooks in a country the size of Britain [about 66 million people]. I can also imagine people wanting to win so badly they’d take part in a high-pressure competition. But what about writing—how common a fantasy do you think it is to go from being an amateur writer to being a published author?

Lisa:

Well, remember that poll done in Britain a couple of years ago, a survey in which people were asked about their preferred profession? You may have even sent me the article about it at the time [2015]. In any case, I was stunned by the results of that inquiry. Apparently, “author” is the number one job on the British public’s list of preferred vocations. The poll included round 15,000 people, and of those, a staggering 60 per cent said they would have chosen to make their living as a writer.

Isabella:

Now that you mention it, I do remember that survey. So, you’re saying that the first thing writers can learn from watching MasterChef is that they’ve got a huge amount of competition: attaining the status of a pro chef or a professional writer means having to prove yourself over and over again. And what else? What’s the next most important thing you can learn—as a writer—from MasterChef?

Lisa:

Lesson number two: Focus relentlessly on the reader—or, if you’re cooking, the eater.

Isabella:

In what sense?

Lisa:

Think of it this way: cognitively, there are so many things competing for our attention when we write. We may be obsessing about whether the story is original. We may be preoccupied with style. We may be hung up on the accuracy of the details.  So often during the writing process, even professional writers get distracted from what is arguably the priority: thinking about the reader. Thinking about whether the reader will find the story original, how the reader will respond to the style, the details….

Isabella:

So you’re encouraging writers to become less self-involved?

Lisa:

In a way, yes. Writers need to be less self-involved so they can free up attention to focus on their priorities. For example, a fiction writer’s priorities are story and character. If the writer focuses too much on, say, setting, at the expense of developing story and compelling characters, it’s probably not going to work. And here’s an example from MasterChef. Just as the writer’s priorities are story and character, the chef’s priorities are flavor and presentation, “a dish that looks great and tastes great,” as the judges often say.

Isabella:

What happens when a cook’s priorities are out of whack?

Lisa:

The cook loses sight of the goal. And that’s exactly what happened to one particular cook this year. It toward the end of the competition. [SPOILER ALERT] It happened to a cook named Shauna, who made poached pears. Her dish was a work of art. But that was part of the problem: it didn’t taste as good as it looked.

Isabella:

What’s wrong with that?

Lisa:

The goal is flavor. A cook is always thinking about the eater, about what this thing you’re making is going to taste like, what it’s going to feel like in the mouth.

Isabella:

But the way the dish looks is essential, too, no?

Lisa:

Sure, but Shauna’s problem was she prioritized presentation over flavor.

Isabella:

What did the dish look like?

Lisa:

The plate of food was so beautiful, it looked like a still-life. But she served the pears with a raw cinnamon stick and a star anise for garnish. And the judges immediately called this out as an error. Because the judges were looking at the dish from the eater’s point of view. They knew that some people wouldn’t recognize a cinnamon stick and star anise as garnish—and would try to eat them. Imagine popping a raw cinnamon stick into your mouth! You’d be chomping on tree bark. Because that’s what cinnamon stick is—bark from a cinnamon tree.

Isabella:

Yuck. Enough said. What else do you learn from watching the show?

Lisa:

You learn the value of being prepared. In fact, this year, I watched to see if I could predict who would win—based on who was the most prepared. And something fascinating happened. The answer to who would win was right there, before any of the food was even plated.

Isabella:

How could you tell who was the most prepared?

Lisa:
It was easy: one of the cooks brought along a Venn diagram!

Isabella:

Respectfully, what does that prove? That the cook with the Venn diagram is the most obsessive-compulsive cook, maybe….

Lisa:
What impressed me was not only that she brought a Venn diagram but that she used it. Saliha [the winner] had prepared herself brilliantly. She had internalized every component of the cooking process—conceptualizing, planning, implementing, and presenting her three dishes. She had three hours to make a starter, a main dish, and a dessert. She knew she had to showcase a sophisticated understanding of flavor, of texture—to make a statement about a particular cuisine. So she practiced, and she managed to codify what she had discovered in a Venn diagram. That’s my kind of cook!

Isabella:

Okay, I’ll buy it, but how does that relate to a writer’s preparation? Isn’t cooking more of a performance art compared to writing?

Lisa:
With cooking, there’s a live-performance component, sure. But you could argue that writing is about performance too—it’s just not live.

Isabella:
Okay, now give us one last, big insight we can take away from the show.

Lisa:
How to deal with pressure in a creative context.

Isabella:

What is the secret to producing under pressure in the kitchen—and in a literary context?

Lisa:
In the kitchen, I’d have to say that each cook has her own techniques. As a matter of fact, Shauna, the cook who made the poached pears, regulated her stress level really expertly—she never fell apart. Her bio says she spent many years as a “Respiratory Therapist,” so I can imagine that she’s an expert at using breathing to regulate stress.

Isabella:
Are you suggesting that as a technique for writers?

Lisa:
Not exactly—but I am suggesting that every writer find ways of managing the pressure that goes along with competing.

Isabella:
If Shauna is an example of a cook handling stress well, then what’s an example of a cook folding under pressure?

Lisa:
You can observe it on episode 10, for example. John and Gregg, explained the rules of the challenge to contestants: they pointed to the food pantry and announced, “Through those doors is the MasterChef market, and it is stacked [sic] full of the greatest and finest produce from around the world. What we want you to do is cook for us just one plate of food.” And at that moment, you could observe the effect of stress on one of the contestants. She said, “My mind’s just gone blank—I can’t even think about what I’m gonna cook.” It really was a perfect example of how anxiety makes us stupid.

Isabella:
Actually, when you put it that way, it doesn’t exactly sound like a picnic for writers.

Lisa:
It isn’t. Joyce Carol Oates, whom I know you admire, recently tweeted a paraphrased Hemingway quote: Writing is easy: you just sit down and open a vein.

Isabella:
So how do writers cope with the anxiety of writing?

Lisa:
Try taking the attitude of another contestant on the same episode. This person was also affected by anxiety; when she was asked what she planned to cook, she, too, had no idea.  But she was more practiced, I think, at navigating her distress. Instead of panicking, she said, as if she were saying a prayer, “It’s gonna come to me… in a second, I’m confident of it.” And within a couple of minutes, she had the answer.

Isabella:
Interesting. But we can’t end this conversation before you tell us about your own cooking skills. Don’t tell me you’re a professional….

Lisa:
No, not at all. I’m definitely an amateur cook. But I’ve done a certain amount of food-related research, including interviewing chefs. And I’m always struck by the similarity between cooking and writing. The renowned chef Daniel Boulud, whom I talked with years ago, summed up what top chefs have to be able to do: cook accurately, cook at a consistently high level, and cook quickly. It’s really just like the professional writer’s set of goals. Well, except for the “quickly” part. John MacPhee, America’s reigning king of nonfiction, has pointed out that writers take a long time to develop.
Isabella:

Okay, you’ve sold me. One last question. What if you’re a writer who doesn’t like to cook? Will watching MasterChef be any more effective than watching the latest episode of, say, “The Handmaid’s Tale”—or a soccer game, for that matter?

Lisa:

Very funny. If you don’t like to cook, my advice is to watch MasterChef anyway. Just sit back, enjoy the culinary metaphor, and see what you can learn about writing.