Jeff Potter is the author of Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food. Potter, who studied computer science and visual art at Brown University, has “done the cubicle thing, the startup thing, and the entrepreneur thing,” and through it all maintained his sanity by cooking for friends. With food science, experiments, interviews, and recipes, Cooking for Geeks (O’Reilly, 2010) is part high-school science textbook, part cookbook.
How does a “Computer Geek” become a cookbook writer? Why did you write Cooking for Geeks?
Accidentally. I didn’t start out with the intent of writing a book; I was just curious how things worked in the kitchen. I didn’t find many books out there to be particularly satisfying to the immediate questions at hand while cooking, so in some ways, I ended up writing the book to help answer my own questions. Cooking for Geeks is the book I wish I had ten years ago when I first started out on my own.
How is Cooking for Geeks different than other cookbooks?
Most cookbooks are collections of recipes, with very little food science or explanation about why things are done the way they are. Cooking for Geeks is really a food science book in disguise as a cookbook, although there are over 100 recipes to illustrate and explain the science.
What was your process for writing it? Getting it published?
Sheer dumb luck. I’d given a talk at a conference on food stuff for the fun of it, and an editor came up to me afterwards and twisted my arm: “You should write a book!” And I thought, “How hard can it possibly be?” Yikes. Hardest thing I’ve done in my life, but also the most rewarding.
What was your favorite part of writing Cooking for Geeks?
The interviews. Cooking for Geeks includes over two dozen interviews with folks like Harold McGee, author of On Food And Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, and Adam Savage, one of the co-hosts of Mythbusters. It was a true joy to speak with so many people, to hear their stories, and to share that with the readers of my book.
The greatest challenge?
It’s got to be the process of reading the scientific literature and reduce it down to layman’s terms. Scientists don’t say things like, “Water boils at 212°F”, because that’s not always true. They’ll say, “The pot of water we boiled under this conditions was observed to boil at 212°F”, or things like, “In theory, at standard temperature and pressure, pure water will boil at 212°F.” When you go to actually boil water, though, it might be 212. Or if you add salt, 217°F. Or if you’re in Denver, 205°F. When writing a book that translates science to everyday rules-of-thumb, it’s very difficult to keep the subtle nuances correct without making the whole thing impossible to understand.
What is the most important piece of advice you hope readers/potential cooks take from your book?
Just get in there and try it. Take an educated guess about why something isn’t going the way you want it to, take another educated guess on what it’d take to fix it, and give it a go. It might not always work, but you’ll learn something. Worst case? You can always order pizza.
What is your favorite recipe in the book? Why?
This is going to sound cheesy, but it’s whatever recipe that cause the reader to go, “Oh, so that’s why…” Since the recipes are there to illustrate the food science, which one will do that will depend on the reader’s background.
Advice for a non-writer who is interested in writing a book?
In a word: Don’t.
It’s more complicated than that, of course, and I hate to be so brutal up-front, but some people need to hear that. If you must write a book, then you’ll ignore my advice and write a book anyway. (Congratulations, and welcome to the club.)
But if you’re not sure about writing a book, understand your reasons for wanting to write a book, and then really ask yourself if writing a book will satisfy those reasons. If your great-grandmother who came from your original homeland is dying and you want to spend time capturing her story for a personal memento, go for it. If you want to put together a fun collection of essays and stories just for the sheer fun of it, go for it. But if you’re expecting to get a publisher and end up being interviewed on national TV and carried by most bookstores, the odds are very, very, very much against you.
Advice for non-fiction book writers?
Read every word on this blog post. Hands down, that was the difference between me ending up in the national press versus in the national insane asylum.
Also, dedicated time and space for writing is extremely important. Do not underestimate the importance of carving out both dedicated time and dedicated space for the process of writing.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started writing this book?
There’re a thousand little details—did you know you’re supposed to clip the wireless mic on the side of the shirt that you turn your head to when talking to an interviewer?—but you’ll figure all of those out along the way. I had an amazing number of friends, friend-of-friends, and friend-of-friends-of-friends help me throughout the process. Go out to lunch with anyone who will listen to you and give you advice. I had one friend-of-a-friend insist that I just had to go to lunch with a friend of hers in New York City who dealt with publicity. I think I learned more about PR in that 90 minutes than most college classes can cover in a semester.