If you looked up the opposite of “slacker,” you’d see Melissa Clark‘s name highlighted in bold.
The prolific freelancer writes weekly recipes for the New York Times and Gilt Taste, among other freelance gigs. She has also written 32 cookbooks. Many are collaborations with chefs including Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, and White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses. Her latest cookbook, out in October, is Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can’t Wait to Make.
Oh, and in her copious spare time, she takes care of her young daughter and writes a blog.
In an interview, she spoke about her career as a food writer, including advice for those who want to be as successful:
Q. You’d been working as a cook and a caterer in New York. What made you want to become a food writer?
A. I always wanted to be a food writer. I started a catering business when I was in grad school. Food was in everything I wrote. It was my metaphor. This was the 1990s. People knew of restaurant critics and cookbooks writers, but food writing wasn’t a viable career. I felt like I was on an uncharted path.
Q. Is a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in writing a good way to learn about freelance writing and cookbook collaboration? Would you recommend it?
A. No. It’s a good way to find your voice as a writer. People don’t think about that. It’s just as important.
Q. As a freelancer, don’t you have to write the voice of the publication?
A. If you don’t even know who you are and what your voice is, it’s really hard to figure out how to make your voice fit into other molds. Voice has to have a point of view, the perspective that the piece is coming from.
It’s really good to know how to write in different perspectives (first person, second person, third person). You learn all different perspectives when you get an MFA.
I recommend that people take writing classes. It helps stretch you as a writer. It’s really good to challenge yourself.
Q. What was your first big break as a freelance writer?
A. I wrote for websites about food, including once a month for Hearst magazines. I wrote tons of content for Cuisinenet. They paid me real money. I could support myself if I catered on the side.
I also developed recipes for IMP, which put out recipe cards that went out in the mail, where they asked people to subscribe to a recipe club. They had bought (food) photos from Sweden, and they would give me a recipe in Swedish. I made a lot of coffeecakes and French pancakes.
If I were doing it today, I would start out blogging, because that is the path. The path (I described) is gone.
Q. Regarding collaborating on cookbooks, how difficult is it to convince great chefs to let you redo their recipes for home cooks?
A. Depends on the chef and their ego level. Some cling very tightly and want their food to be made exactly the way they make it. Other chefs are wiling to let go of it. I want to work with chefs who let me work with the recipe.
Q. How did you get your regular freelance column for the New York Times, “A Good Appetite?”
A. I started writing for the Times in 1998, doing general assignment reporting.
They came to me with a column in 2007. They wanted people to see into the mind of a confident cook who finds her way, how you get from point A to dinner. They said, “Let’s try it for 10 weeks.”
Q. What’s your the best advice for someone who want to freelance?
- Work really hard on your writing
- Write in different voices
- Make deadlines, have clean well-edited copy, be nice, be accommodating. Get back to them right away. That’s just as important as being a great writer
- Take (writing and cooking) classes
- Don’t think that people should come to you because you have a blog
- Intern, stage, and make yourself much more valuable
- Don’t say no. Just say yes and make it work.
Q, What would you tell someone who wants to write a cookbook?
A. It’s hard to sell a cookbook without a platform. Really work on that. (If you’re a blogger), editors care about how many readers you have and how many people comment. You have to build it.
The idea doesn’t have to be original. Everything is put through the lens of you. Really focus on your voice and market that.
I’m still learning. Every time I do a cookbook I have a new tutor.
Q. What’s the hardest thing about developing recipes?
A. I’m always humbled by what I don’t know. I try to learn when there’s something that doesn’t work and I don’t know why, especially with baking. I don’t take anything for granted.
Sometimes I make something and it doesn’t blow me away. How do I make it better? It’s always a fun challenge. But it can also be humbling when it doesn’t work.
I have a little trick that I always use. I retitle the recipe. So, if I burn the pasta in a pasta dish, I call it “browned garlic pasta. “
Q. How important is it to have a background as a professional cook, to become a food writer?
A. No one’s going to read you if you’re not an authority. You need to know more than the person next to you because you’re going to teach them. It’s all about improving your skills and your knowledge.
Q. What would you like to tell someone who wants to be successful?
A. The old Einstein quote: It’s 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. I work really hard. Also, don’t be so brittle. Criticism is good. It helps you. It makes you grow.