Food writer Jerrelle Guy talks about her career and her recipe for success.
Jerrelle Guy is a renaissance woman. She’s a food scholar, an award-winning food photographer, a food stylist, blogger (check her blog, Chocolate for Basil, if you don't know it already) recipe developer, and now, with the release of Black Girl Baking: Wholesome Recipes Inspired by a Soulful Upbringing in February, she’s a cookbook author, too.
“I wouldn't say that I'm the typical cookbook author,” she warns Food & Wine, however. “My dad stressed we could be anything in the world we wanted to be,” she says, “and when I was five I told him I would be an artist. And that's how I’ve chosen to identify since—that or something just as vague.”
Indeed, Black Girl Baking isn’t your typical cookbook. Instead, it’s filled with memories photographed as food and written into recipes. Take Guy’s rosketti cookies: for Guy, they’re the taste of her mother’s childhood in Guam. On every page, there’s a recipe and a story conjuring family memories.
It's those personal touches that set Guy's book apart. “I love that writing cookbooks is so personal,” Guy says. “I love that they are the perfect platform for curating a gallery of recipes that are vignettes or little anecdotes, but that they all add up to one big theme or commentary or story. I love that food—because you can’t talk about it without getting personal and intimate—invites people in and sets the stage for sharing these intimate little discoveries. And I love that, for the most part, people come with an open mind because they want to connect and understand and eat with you.”
Here, Guy talks about her career path, what led her to eventually authoring a cookbook.
Building a Foundation
Guy attended Rhode Island School of Design to earn her bachelor’s degree in illustration—an education that heavily featured food. “I was always fascinated by food and my relationship to it,” she says, “and I made sure that it was the main topic in almost all my artwork.” She launched her food blog in college and amassed an Instagram following—one she credits with some of her cookbook’s success. “I later learned that publishers look for potential authors who have built a large-but-engaged following on social media, so I’m sure it helped,” Guy says.
She worked as a food photographer, stylist, and recipe developer, and then decided to pursue a master’s degree in gastronomy. It was then, Guy says, that she began to learn how to write recipes. “I submitted a few to the local newspaper, which were sent back because they were too complicated,” she admits. But, “the [newspaper] also sent me what was essentially a guidebook on how to write a proper recipe. There were a lot of formalities to learn—for good reason—and over time I started formatting my own recipes.”
With her new knowledge of recipe writing, Guy soon started drafting the proposal for what would become Black Girl Baking, “just for fun,” she says. “It was only the inception stage—where I honed the concept and wrote out the recipes. It was just me—no contract, no agent, and no publisher—and I think that was important. You have to love the book and believe it needs to be created before other people will feel the same.”
The work may be fun and rewarding, but it also never ends. In addition to running her popular food blog and writing the cookbook, Guy works as a food stylist and recipe developer for publications and companies that span from The Boston Globe to The Kitchn.
“I love recipe development because it mimics the process I go through when executing an art project, but with the added anticipation of it being an interactive piece in the end,” Guy explains. “You spend most of the time brainstorming the concept and justifying your choice of materials—in this case, ingredients—and tying that back into your overall concept. And from there, it’s getting your hands dirty and hoping you arrive where you planned to go.”
That said, when it comes to the actual testing, she's a realist. “I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I like measuring things or writing things down in the middle of cooking them—these things just come with the job description and are how to communicate my results with others,” Guy admits, calling those aspects the “science” of any recipe equation. “I love getting creative with food—and when I create something great in spite of my disregard for [the science of recipe development], I am very proud,” she says.
Going Your Own Way
“I’ve heard people advise aspiring writers to read lots of cookbooks before they can be adept at writing them, but I won’t completely sign off on this theory,” Guy says. “I didn’t take that approach myself. I definitely read the ones I was drawn to, but overall, I believe there comes a point when you should stop focusing on what everyone else is doing and spend time cooking and writing with yourself so you can develop your own style and rhythm and voice."
"You have to trust that, for the most part, you know what you’re doing in your kitchen if you’re making good food," she continues. "Figuring out what everyone else is doing doesn’t lead to originality, something I’ve learned publishers look for as well. Just do you.”
What’s more, she implores anyone who wants to write a cookbook not to let someone else tell you what you are (or aren’t) capable of.
“I got a short stint as a line cook when I first moved to Boston,” Guy says. “It was short because the head chef tried to discourage me. I wouldn't settle for what was barely minimum wage, and he warned me my expectations were too high and that people like me think we can come in and get a cookbook deal or a television show without working our way up in the industry from the bottom up—just like he did. I never went back. So, don't let people poison your perspective. No two paths are the same, but more importantly, there is no paved path toward cookbook author-dom.”