Cooking and writing for the web have more things in common than you know.
When I curled up on my bed on a Saturday morning to binge watch the first season of Top Chef I did not expect to learn anything about writing. But as each minute rolled into the next the chefs turned to writers, the food became pieces of content, and diners became readers.
I know. I thought it was weird too.
But as I watched contestants on Top Chef struggle to cook up delicious meals in so little time, I began to see lessons writers could pick up from the cooking show. Here are 7 lessons I scribbled down.
1. Find a balance between art and utility
Gourmet cooking is an art. But the chef with the most aesthetically pleasing dish did not always win every round. This has everything with people not just wanting to feast their eyes. People want to enjoy every bite. Food that looks good but tastes bad gets no points. Likewise, we all want to show how good we are with words. And that’s fine. But when words that have decorative value start filling up space leaving no room for the functional ones, we’ve a problem.
As much as you’d want to let out your inner artist, you’ve to remember that this is not about you. Seth Godin says perfect isn’t what we think it is, it is what the customer thinks it is.
Readers search the web, craving information, entertainment, and inspiration. It’s up to you to provide content that uses words in a brilliant way but never strays from its main purpose. Giving value to the reader.
2. Be ready to create out of your comfort zone
One of the elimination rounds required the contestants to cook for a group of children. The shock and outrage was obvious. These were chefs who had cooked for celebrities and worked in exclusive restaurants.
Cooking for a group of young picky eaters was not what they signed up for. One of the contestant felt children’s palates were not good enough to judge her cooking (I found her attitude very irritating). But there were others who were ready to take on the challenge. It turned out that the children did know what they liked and what they would not stomach. They certainly didn’t liked the overcooked carrots or tasteless applesauce (that the snooty chef prepared).
Lets be honest, content writers don’t always get to write what we want or care about. But if you have to author a BuzzFeed article on 5 pieces of cheese that looks like celebrities (I mean no offence to anyone who likes reading these things), make sure to write with regard for your readers. People know when a writer pays no mind to their work. They also know when you are being patronizing.
Focusing on why you are creating (to entertain and delight) over what you are writing (people who look like cheese) will help you write better.
3. Don’t try to write a novel in a day
In one of the rounds, the chefs had 16 hours to create a full course meal for a wedding. But there was a problem. The menu they had created was overambitious and would need several weeks of planning to create. To be fair to her, the chef that came up with the menu had no idea they wouldn’t have enough time.But it was too late. The fate of a couple’s most special day rested in their hands. They had to make it work. Somehow, they stayed on their feet for the next 16 hours cooking.
Seeing them flounder because they had little time to prepare made me think of how we make unrealistic promises to clients. Or accept clients who arrive at our doors with unrealistic requests.
Expecting to grow traffic to a site with no content in a week is a hard stretch. At least unlike the Top Chef contestants, we can decide not to take a project or to call back and say I need more time. It is better not to promise work you can’t deliver than to sell something you can’t give.
I am not saying don’t take risks, just make sure you can deliver on your promises. And if you need more time, ask for it. You aren’t in an elimination round of a cooking show.
4. Creating for the right platform
Armed with food carts, the Top Chef contestants had to serve tasty street food to busy people walking down the road. The teams that served food that could be consumed on the go and tailored for the demographic sold out. The more ambitious chefs who served food that required plates, forks and a cup were had a hard time convincing people to try their food. In a restaurant it would out worked but out on the streets, things went south.
The people of the internet are moving down a busy street full of distractions. Content has to be succinct and simple enough for them to digest on the go. Think of what they need and provide it in the simplest way. And no, simple doesn’t have to be boring.
5. Marketing is also part of business
If you’re brilliant at what you do, you’ll get noticed right? Sadly, no. Sometimes a little work is needed to bring attention to talent. I realized the importance of marketing when the chefs had to cater for a party at Madame S (think latex and lots of leather). I noticed that a certain chef, Miguel went all out. He was a little overboard, taking off his shirt among other things. But you couldn’t deny the fact that he did everything to bring attention to his food and to make the guests feel special. He chatted with people and he served them, taking them through the course one nibble at a time.
Self promotion is not easy but it is necessary. We have to present what we have created with confidence and get people interested. Some writers are like Miguel, a little over the top but they get the attention not because their ‘meals’ are the best but because they got out there and drew attention to it. Don’t be like the others who just stand by a corner and hope customers find them
6. Don’t just throw words in there
“Why did you use (insert name of herb)?”
The judges on Top Chef asked about the choice of ingredients and condiments a lot. Listening to your gut and throwing in random spices into a pot was not an answer they liked. Chefs who knew what ingredients complimented each other got far in the competition. The others? Well not so far.
Am I suggesting that you should silence the creative voice in your head? The one that comes up with wonderful ideas on how to use words or compose sentences? No. What I am making a case for is a deliberate use of words. Throwing everything that comes to your mind onto a blank page is great for a first draft. It does not work so well on a reader’s screen.
Follow your gut. Write all the words that come to you. But never neglect to edit out the words that serve no purpose and compliment nothing.
7. The smallest details matter
Overcooked. Under cooked. Tough. Rubbery.
It takes just one small thing to ruin a great dish. And when it came down to elimination rounds, the person that got sent home was the guy who forgot to add a spice or didn’t leave the pastry in the oven long enough.
Similarly, typos, incorrect “facts” and unrelated analogies make a mess of all the good words you have put down. Pay attention to the smaller things because they never go unnoticed.
Chefs and writers have one thing in common. We are not creating just for ourselves but for our customers too. So every meal/sentence has to be made with them in mind.