Earlier this week, I finished Blood, Bones, and Butter: The inadvertent education of a reluctant chef by Gabrielle Hamilton. I was taken with it from page one. To say that I’m not the target audience for this book is an understatement. I’m one of those people who eats to live, rather than lives to eat. I despise cooking and prefer not to enter my kitchen at all save for washing the dishes. I’ve never been to Italy and it’s not #1 on my choice of travel destinations. I have a healthy, awesomely boring relationship with my husband. None of this mattered. I was with Chef Hamilton in every scene. I admired her bravery as she pursued foreign countries in search of learning not just about food, but what it means to give people an excellent food experience. I admired how tough and exacting she was in her cooking and the business of restaurant ownership. Things that would have sent me running screaming in the opposite direction, she faced head on.
As I read, though, I didn’t quite understand what the title meant by “reluctant chef.” Food is the primary focus of the book. It seemed to me that being a chef was all she was ever meant to do. Wasn’t she fascinated with food and hospitality from the time she was a child? It wasn’t until I watched this video shortly after reading the book that I really got what she meant, where she talked about wanting to be a writer but knowing she had to have a job that enabled her to make some sort of living:
http://www.makers.com/gabrielle-hamilton (direct link because I can’t embed the video)
(starts around 1:45)
“I’m not convinced that it’s important to make a living at the thing you aspire to. I have a skill set in a kitchen. That’s where I had my first job as a dishwasher and I’ve been in a kitchen ever since. I’m glad that I have a life to write about.”
Regardless of my dislike of cooking, that sentence spoke to me. Skill set can be something completely opposite from passion, and those who can combine both are lucky. I possess at least one skill set that I have zero passion for. I also possess passion for things at which I have zero skill. And after my many years of training in music, I can tell you that sometimes, no amount of passion will ever give you the skills to succeed. I know, not inspiring, but true.
It’s about being honest regarding your skill set versus your passion. Sometimes the two line up. Sometimes they don’t, and that’s a big part of why I pass on a lot manuscripts. I’ve read fiction by authors who were experts in a nonfiction field but couldn’t craft relatable, interesting fictional characters. The skill couldn’t meet the passion of the moment.
Chef Hamilton improved her kitchen skills by traveling and experiencing new and different parts of the world. Her experiences taught her what it meant to be hungry, to be vigilant, to be hospitable, and to make great food. Just as she expanded her skill set, so can writers. There’s no one right way to do it, but if you want to make a living as a writer you have to have skills. It’s not enough to have passion. Grammar matters. Voice matters. Pacing and setting and a great hook matter. Mix passion and skill, serve, and I’ll come back for more.