What it Takes to be a Recipe Developer for Bon Appetit

Sep 072010
 

Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan

If you read my recent post on recipe writing that generated dozens of comments, you’ll see that commenter Victoria von Biel, executive editor of Bon Appetit, named a blogger who’s a killer recipe developer — the only food blogger who works for her. I’m going to tell you why.

First, let’s identify the golden girl. She’s Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan, 35, founding editor of an Apartment Therapy sub-site, The Kitchn. (Her husband, Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, founded Apartment Therapy.)

And why does Gillingham-Ryan qualify? Here’s what von Biel told me during an interview at the recent International Food Blogger Conference: She wants someone who understands “international flavor combinations that are fresh and unusual.” Someone to whom she can say, “Do a casual Spanish dinner party for six people” and the writer will give her four complete menu ideas that contain “ideas significantly different from each other.”

When I asked Gillingham-Ryan why she succeeds with von Biel, she said it’s because “My guess is it’s because I give it to her straight, in as few words as possible, and I give her lots of choices.” For example, if von Biel asks for one savory and one sweet, Gillingham-Ryan will give her five recipe ideas for each.

Gillingham-Ryan had help on the way to the top. She had a mentor and teacher in her mother, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times food section, a home economist who later quit to become self-employed as a writer, recipe developer and food stylist. “I was around. I saw how it worked,” said Gillingham-Ryan.

When she wanted to become a writer, her mother introduced her to an editor friend of the family at Tribune Media Services, where Gillingham-Ryan wrote food features. “A lot of it was just luck,” she admitted. Later Gillingham-Ryan took the short course at the French Culinary Institute.

How a Recipe Developer Thinks

I asked Gillingham-Ryan how she comes up with recipe ideas. “I draw on my experience as a cook and eater and reader of Bon Appetit,” she began. “I think, ‘What have I eaten recently that’s really amazing?’” She will try to recreate it in her mind. She tries to remember what she thought at the time, such as “This would be better with orange peel, or with chicken thighs instead of lamb.” Using her memory as a starting point, she heads into the kitchen to improve upon or change the dish, accessing a taste library of which flavors work together best. She tries to stay away from fads (“Not doing a ton of cardamom right now. It’s been done.”).

When she’s brainstorming a recipe, she’ll turn to books as a reference to see how people she respects think, such as reading Shirley Corrhier or Harold McGee on how baking soda and powder work together. At this stage, she’s not tinkering with measurements yet, and she’s up on what’s already been done in the magazine. If she looks at similar recipes to dishes she’s imagining, it’s to decide what she would do differently to put a personal stamp on it. “I know the basic formula for most foods,” said Gillingham-Ryan. “A lot of that came from culinary school and the cooking afterwards.”

What is her advice for food bloggers and other food writers who want to build expertise as recipe developers? “People think they can just call themselves (recipe developers) and start doing it, but it just takes time to develop a craft.” She also recognizes what worked for her. Find people who will “take you in and show you the ropes.”

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  43 Responses to “What it Takes to be a Recipe Developer for Bon Appetit”

  1. I have a ton of respect for Sara- I adore her recipes/writing…thank you for sharing this interview.

  2. Wasn’t it one of the panelists at the IFBC who said to all the food bloggers, “You develop recipes. You have a right to call yourself a recipe developer” or some such? Hmm.

    • Hmm. I don’t remember that. Do you feel that all food bloggers are recipe developers?

      • That might have been me. I do believe blogging is a great proving ground for recipe development. Not all bloggers are good at recipe development, but some are excellent and blogging provides a great opportunity to test out your skills and even get feedback.

  3. Sara Kate is awesome! I agree with Winnie, I am in awe of her work she is truly a class act. I had the great opportunity of interviewing her for the IACP Words Newsletter and meeting her a little over a year ago at a ScharffenBerger chocolate event, she is as personable as she is talented.

    • How nice to hear, Heather. For some reason I was expecting snarkiness from people because of the breaks she got, but there is all this niceness. Wonderful.

  4. More interviews like this, please!

  5. Sara Kate is amazing. I enjoyed reading her thoughts on how she goes about coming up w/ ideas for recipes. I have a lot of respect for people who develop recipes for the ‘big guys” like BA. Having an experience in culinary school certainly helps boost your reputation and gives you quite a lot to draw from when you’re working on getting creative.

    • She seems to think so. She didn’t do the whole nine yards, though. She said she took a “short” course.

  6. Diane, great article about “our girl” Sara Kate. One correction, paragraph 5 line 2, Karen IS a home economist, not former. We share the same credential, and worked together for a few decades.

  7. Fantastic description of how a recipe developer thinks. I have been a recipe developer for Men’s Health UK (+AUS & NZ) for the last five years and follow the exact same process – I also turn to Shirley Corrhier for validation. The need to understand the basic food formulas is especially important – as is evolving into the craft.
    @Elain_Evans

    • Oh wonderful, Elain. It must be satisfying to see that you are not alone! Recipe development is a solitary process.

  8. Didn’t I read somewhere that she pays people $12 to write a whole post for The Kitchn for her? So lame.

    • There was some ugliness on Twitter about what The Kitchn pays its freelancers. She told me the range is $12-$100 for a post.

    • You did read that somewhere but it is a slice of a much larger story. We have freelancers and staff. There is a level of post (and we have many levels) that, yes, pays $12. We also have posts that pay much more. There was someone on Twitter broadcasting partial bits of truth that presented in that manner, sounded quite ugly. We have writers on ten websites and they all write for us happily and most of them with other, much more significant streams of income in their lives. I could go on and on about this – if you have any doubt about the way we treat our writers (which was the very ugly accusation made by the tweeter) then I urge you to freely reach out to any of our writers and ask them how they are treated by myself, Maxwell (owner of Apartment Therapy) or any of the managing editors of the ten websites.

      The web publishing world is very different than what is going on in the print world. The business models are totally unique. It was very sad to me to see that someone claiming to be a writer took just a slice of a story as truth. As online publishers we’re doing pretty well and we’re proud of our work. And one day, when we have the money, we can’t wait to pay our writers more.

      All the best.

      • I saw that too and I read what you said but you didn’t deny that you pay your writers $12 for some of your posts for thekitchn.com. I agree with the OP that its lame. You take a paycheque.

      • Thanks for explaining this, Sara Kate. I didn’t want to get into it in the post.

  9. This gave me a better understanding to a recipe developer’s process. I do agree with the food bloggers, that we carefully develop and publish recipies, and yes consider ourselves recipe developers. I would have never attempted to establish myself as a food blogger without years of experience in the food industry.
    I love the fact that Sara goes beyond her assignments and gives more than expected.
    Mary

    • Mary, I think you are in the minority as a food blogger — most people don’t have years of experience in the food industry. What they do have is passion about eating, cooking and discovering new foods. I hope your additional skills work to your advantage.

  10. Loved this conversation; probably because I’ve wondered this myself; exactly what is a ‘recipe developer?’

    Truth be told; I would think that most people who’ve been cooking for a long time are; that body of experience lends itself to confidence that allows creativity and supports risks.

    I admit, I consider myself in that realm. I will make and blog about recipes from established sources…but most often, most meals? Thought of when scouring the pantry and refrigerator (yes, I do keep them both pretty well stocked!) and refined at the stove. It’s why I started a simple recipe website MANY years ago (back when Al Gore and I started the Internet! )…to easily share recipes with friends who had come for dinner the dishes that had come from my kitchen.

    Does that equate to what Bon Appetit is looking for? I would think not…but then my focus has always been on the end result and the company coming to enjoying it, not the job I could get as a result of it!

    • I think it’s essential that you’re a cook, like you say, but it’s more than that. It’s about the creation of the dishes — stuff that’s hip, current, exciting — not just the everyday of what you make at home. Unless of course, you’re a fabulously talented everyday cook who makes the kind of food that people like to eat in restaurants.

  11. Well, YES, anyone can develop a recipe. Even I can.
    The real issue seems to be whether just anyone can develop a professional grade recipe that is tested with standard benchmark procedures, equipment, supplies, and ingredients. Can I recreate my recipe 10 times and get the same exact result? Would I even want to? – no, not really. I look to the professional to hand feed me those that I KNOW will be successful. Thank you, Sara Kate! I can have the fun of cooking one of your recipes and knowing it will work. I can at the same time mess around with one of mine and hope I won’t be giving my dinner guests ptomaine poisoning.
    Can anyone write a poem? Sure they can, even I can. But lucky you, I won’t!!

    Karen

    • You’re funny, Karen. I doubt that Sara Kate will make a recipe 10 times. I should have asked her how many! But yes, absolutely, they have to work perfectly, or you’re out of a job.

  12. As part of my work, I use to develop recipes for global food companies. There was a lot of research and studies brought into the project by a qualified team. There were parameters set and considered in creating recipes: demographics, nutrition and affordability- issues I was guided by. It was not easy.

    In one project, I was told not to exceed $2 for a meal of four. Granted I lived in a third world country, the statistic that most of the consumers are on that economic level is a sobering thought. On the other, was creating dessert recipes using graham crackers without baking (statistics showing most Philippine households do not use an oven). It gets tougher on the 20th recipe.

    I believe the challenge in creating recipes for any demographic, with all or any limiting consideration, is that it can be executed at the very least with some understanding and that it is good.

    The reward for me always was when I knew the recipes were well received with a facsimile of a note to say they did the recipe, enjoyed it and none was left for the dog.

    Or die of ptomaine poisoning as Karen’s good post stated.

    • How satisfying, Melanie. It certainly does not sound easy.

      I did not consider these additional parameters you pointed out: people need to make the recipe successfully, and not leave leftovers.

      • Dianne,
        Laughing and loving your reply…
        M

        • Dianne -
          My happy dog would argue that last point about leftovers!! He does, however, regret the loss of his girlish figure over the last few testings!!
          Karen

  13. Fantastic article. As someone who has been doing this professionally for nearly 7 years now, everything Sara Kate says is spot-on. Recipe writing, testing, and development is not for everyone, and while there are many out there now doing it (thanks to blogging etc…) it is still a very unique craft IMHO that takes practice, practice, practice in order to do it well.

    I also love Sara Kate’s approach to pitching V. Von Biel. It is so important to not only be creative and succinct with one’s pitches, but to offer a wide array of choices, which essentially makes life very easy for your editors. This is so important when it comes to publishing and actually getting paid to write recipes, which is ultimately what most of us want.

    Great piece all the way around. Thanks!

    Kendra

    • You are most welcome, Kendra. Glad it sounded true to you. I didn’t ask her about how many times she has to make each dish, but I’m sure it’s part of the “practice, practice, practice” part.

  14. What a great article and interview–so inspiring! I’ve been creating ethnic recipes from scratch for two years and getting better at it over time. I guess I consider myself a recipe developer. One recipe takes much longer than I thought it would (testing different quantities of a spice, subbing in local produce, etc…). I wondered for a long while if there was a niche for me in the blogosphere, and I decided to go ahead with it simply to journal what I’m doing! Thanks for a great website Dianne. Wish I could take one of your courses

    • Thank you, Shef. Sounds like you fit the bill. I’ll have some online classes coming up — all you need is a phone!

  15. I loved this article and the discussion that follows. Recipe development, as is any other creative pursuit, something that comes with time, experimentation, and experience, like you’ve mentioned. I’ll give myself credit for experimentation rather than development and be satisfied with that. Congrats to Sara for her success — it’s inspirational.

    • Great points about the difference between experimentation and development. I was going to comment that most home cooks are developers of a sort, but not likely to be professionals. But the distinction you made is more appropriate.

      Good tips from Sara Kate for this burgeoning pro. Thanks Dianne.

      • So what is the difference between experimentation and development, then? Experience? Or maybe development is work and experimentation is strictly fun? Interesting to consider.

        You are most welcome, Cheryl.

  16. I know you don’t want to get into it on this post, but I can’t believe the negativity regarding payment to bloggers. As Sara Kate said, the online publishing world has a completely different business model to the print world.

    • Yeah, but that needs to change. From the writer’s standpoint, it’s the same amount of work to produce a recipe for a publication as it is for a website. In fact, it’s more by the time you add photos, links, etc.

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