“In the same way as writing a novel, where you’re trying to communicate certain emotions through the way a character acts, or how a scene changes, with a cookbook you’re using a whole completely different set of stimuli,” Adam Liaw says of his experience writing his first book. “Whether it’s the choice of recipes, the photo, the styling, the words you use to describe it, the list of ingredients, even the types of ingredients that they are, all come together to create the whole picture of the book. So I find it really challenging and interesting to write a cookbook. It’s certainly one of the deeper things that I’ve done.”
If, like me, you were one of the many swept up in Masterchef fever when the series was still a ratings juggernaut (and the contestants could actually cook) you would know Adam Liaw as the winner of the second season.
While researching for this interview, I realised that I live-blogged his 2010 Masterchef finale for my undergrad uni magazine, and I narrowly resist the temptation to ask him if the highlight of his Masterchef experience was when a fellow contestant, upon choosing kidney instead of liver, said they’d made an “offal mistake.”
In the years since the Masterchef confetti fell, Liaw has published a cookbook (with another on the way) and has a successful SBS TV series Destination Flavour. Yet, what has been particularly striking is his writing – Liaw has a food column for the Wall Street Journal, frequently recaps Masterchef for Fairfax, and has a twitter account that would almost certainly have been retweeted into your timeline for his hilarious live-tweets, playfully lampooning – among other things – the very series that made him successful.
“It’s been great to look at writing from all kinds of perspectives,” Liaw says of the different opportunities that he’s been given since Masterchef. “So, I do cookbooks on the one side, and then I get to write a journalistic-style opinion column on the other side, and when I write magazine features it’s another style of writing again. It’s kind of like cross-training I guess, it makes you a much better writer in total.”
I ask Liaw if he feels it’s necessary to have a public profile, that whether through an appearance on a reality TV show or otherwise, it’s difficult to gain a publishing contract unless you’ve established yourself publicly in some way.
“Well, I think you’ve just got to be realistic about the whole thing. If you want to write, feel free to go and write. But if you want to write for other people, you have to make other people want to read what you write. So whether the profile comes first or after, it’s going to have to be there – nobody’s going to give you a deal to write a book that no-one’s going to want to buy or read.”
“You’ve got to manage your public profile intelligently and faithfully and if you have a voice that people want to hear, then it will take care of itself, but if you go out there and start to try and be popular and try and increase your profile by not being who you are then you’re not doing yourself any favours.”
We discuss his experience writing a cookbook, and working with a publisher to create Two Asian Kitchens.
“For my first book it was a real learning process. I had thought that you write a cookbook by just turning up in the kitchen, you cook a whole bunch of stuff, you write it down and there’s a cookbook,” he laughs. “But it’s so much more complex than that, you’ve got to think about what style of recipes you’re writing, how you’re writing them, what’s the purpose of the book.”
“I think writing cookbooks is a very interesting skill because you have a more limited palette of tools with which to convey yourself. It’s one thing to be able to write very factually like an instruction manual – do this, do that, here’s the list of ingredients, and this is what you do to them to end up with this result – that’s what a cookbook may look like from the outset, but it’s really not at all, it’s about conveying a story or an emotion, with a very limited number of words. You might have an introduction of only 100 or 75 words to introduce the recipe and explain why it’s there in the book itself.”
I ask Liaw about writing a column for the Wall Street Journal, which he says has been great, but that having an editor who can point you in the right direction was really important.
“It has really taught me a lot about writing, and the right and wrong ways to go about it, particularly in food which I think is a really challenging discipline to write in. Because it is so often incredibly clichéd and really quite awful.”
“I think the thing that I think about food writing in general is that it’s never about food. It’s always about something else and you’re using food as a medium to convey that, it’s why you see so many food and health articles, or food and travel articles, food and family articles – every piece about food is always about something else using food as the medium to convey it. I think once you come around to that it becomes much easier to write about food.”
We discuss the potential for cliché in food criticism, and the difficulties of conveying flavour in language, a complicated thing to do well. “When you are trying to explain something that nobody can experience directly through the writing – whether it’s the atmosphere or the flavour – I think that’s why people tend to use clichés because it’s the only way that, when you’re feeling a bit lazy and you can’t really explain what you want to get across, it’s easy to fall into. And it’s easy for the reader to see the cliché there and to understand what you mean by that, rather than come up with something original.”
In two weeks, Liaw will be in Newcastle to be part of two events for the National Young Writers’ Festival – one on his culinary writing and another on stories of memorable meals. I ask Liaw about the idea of memorable meals, and whether the food is really important at all in such stories, that perhaps it’s more about the occasion?
“The occasion certainly plays a part – nobody when they’re asked about the best meal they’ve ever had in their life says, ‘It was last Thursday watching tv and I had an amazing pizza’ even if it was the most amazing pizza, in the context of a Thursday night dinner it’s never going to stand out,” he laughs.
“So whenever you ask someone what their most amazing meal was it’s always ‘I remember we hiked through the rain and we turned up to this little café in the mountains of Italy and we had the most amazing local produce’ you know, we romanticise food far beyond what it is that we actually taste. And I’m not making a judgment about that, that’s the role that food plays in our lives – it has a very boring purpose which is to keep us alive from one day to the next, but it also facilitates these amazing memories of places we’ve been to or cultures we’ve experienced or people that we’ve met, and people that have cared for us and that we’ve grown with.”
I ask Liaw if he has any advice for young writers wanting to get into food writing?
“The only advice I would ever have would be to just continue writing as much and as frequently as possible, and for as many people as possible. So whether you’re lucky enough to get a Wall Street Journal column, or you’re just writing for your local paper or a blog or anywhere people are going to read it, that feedback and criticism is so important for writers to find their own voice.”
“To take the comparison to food – I cooked a lot of different things, and I enjoyed that variety in my cooking, and then you go on Masterchef, and all of a sudden you’re getting your food critiqued by somebody else, it puts it into really stark contrast. I think it wasn’t until I went on Masterchef that I really discovered what made me tick in food. It was a really important discovery for me understanding my own style and the way I cook and the way I think when it comes to food. And I think writing’s the same thing, until you find your own style and your own voice, you may as well not be doing it, and the only way you can do that is to have other people critique your work and to write for other people.”
— This interview is cross-posted from the National Young Writers’ Festival.
— Adam Liaw is appearing at the National Young Writers’ Festival in two events: Salad Days: Stories of Memorable Meals (Saturday October 5, 1pm-2pm) and Recipe for Success (Saturday October 5, 6pm-7pm).