What it Takes to be a Recipe Developer for Bon Appetit

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.”