Interview With Cookbook Author Sara Mellas
Today I’m delighted to introduce you to the talented Sara Mellas! I connected with her last year after I posted a photo on my Bookstagram of her newest cook book while I was trying it out.
Sara Mellas is an author, recipe developer, food stylist, and culinary host. Holding advanced degrees in music history, opera, and education, Sara worked professionally as a conductor and music teacher for many years, until she realized she could turn her aptitude for grocery shopping into a career.
Sara enjoys working with brands both large and small on a variety of projects, and takes pride in her versatility. She is the original recipe developer behind the Whirlpool Smart Cooking Appliances Guided Recipes, creating over 750 original dishes with step-by-step instructional videos and counting. In December 2018, Sara was named by Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi the winner of the first ever Kellogg’s Holiday Baking Championship.
Sara’s approach to food is fresh, colorful, and a little whimsical, with a focus on whole ingredients and seasonality. She strives to create reliable recipes for cooks and bakers of all skill levels, resulting in dishes that are as delicious to eat as they are beautiful to look at. When not in the kitchen or doing something musical, Sara enjoys training for NPC physique competitions, riding horses, and indulging in every stand up comedy special the Internet has to offer.
Sara was raised in New England, spent many years in San Francisco, and now lives in Nashville, TN with her one-year-old oven and three-year-old stand mixer.
Interview With Cookbook Author Sara Mellas
Ramona Mead: Your website describes you as a “culinary creative’” Can you give us an idea of what that means?
Sara Mellas: This is the self-given term I use to describe the diversity of my work in the culinary, publishing, and artistic worlds. In addition to writing cookbooks, I also work as a commercial food stylist, recipe developer, content creator, and editor.
RM: How did you get into writing cookbooks?
SM: Publishing a book of any kind had been a major life goal of mine since childhood. When my culinary work started to grow, so did the idea of writing a cookbook, but I had reservations as to how I could persuade a publisher to work with me as I’m not yet a celebrity, an accomplished restauranteur, nor do I run a high-traffic food blog (which seem to be the main categories for cookbook authors these days). Last fall, I decided to write a small e-book and self-publish it, which was around the same time a close colleague of mine published her own debut cookbook. I’m nothing if not opportunistic, so I researched her publisher, found contact information for their acquisition editors, and reached out. After a series of interviews and portfolio and writing samples, I was able to secure not one, but two book deals with them upon signing. I loved the writing process so much, I signed my third deal in the spring, and ended up finishing three full books between mid-December 2019 and June 2020.
RM: How is the writing you do in a cookbook similar or different from a “traditional” writer who is creating novels?
SM: Well for starters, I’m on my feet a whole lot more than a novel writer! The biggest effort in writing a cookbook is developing and testing the recipes, so the majority of my days are spent creating in the kitchen – on any given day I’m typically working on between 4 and 7 recipes. Once I finalize the ingredient ratios for a recipe, I’ll then sit down and write out the instructions. Of course, my books have more text than just ingredient lists and instructions; there are prefaces, introductory/preparational chapters, and headnotes for each recipe. I’ve found I prefer dedicating full days to working in the kitchen and full days to writing, as opposed to trying to divide my time between the two in the same day. So, when the recipes are mostly done, I’ll then transition into a more traditional writer’s role, crafting all the aforementioned additional text. The quality of my writing is just as important to me as the quality of the recipes themselves, as I believe including informative and enjoyable prose is what makes people want to buy a cookbook, as opposed to just pulling recipes from the Internet. Once the initial manuscript is complete, it then goes through multiple rounds of editing, just like a traditional novel.
RM: Do you have creative control over the photographs that are in your books?
SM: For my three existing books, I did not, and honestly that was a big frustration. The publisher I worked with on these titles prints very few photos in their cookbooks, and it’s not overlooked by readers, who often specify in their reviews how much they would have liked more images. I take nearly all the photos seen on my website and Instagram myself, though I do not consider myself a professional photographer (re: I have no idea what I’m doing). Though, being a professional food stylist, a huge part of my living is creating photos for photographers to photograph! So, even though I’m (mostly) happy with the images in my books, it was difficult to not be allowed any input. It’s the primary reason I’ll be working with a new publisher on my upcoming titles, for which I will be doing all the styling myself.
RM: The cookbooks you’ve written have a wide variety of subjects, donuts and casseroles are just two examples. How did you decide on the topic for each book?
SM: It was actually the publisher who proposed the topics of my first three books! They are different from many other cookbook publishers in that their model is based on data, and their market research affects everything from the subject matter, to the title, to the cover photo, to the internal design of their releases. When I originally queried them last fall, they were actively planning to publish a book on baked donuts and a book on one-pot casseroles; the timing was perfect, as both topics align very well with my “brand,” and I could not have been more eager to write about them. Shortly after finishing the second book, I made it well-known to the team that I’m a big fan of breakfast, and if they ever planned to release a new breakfast book, I’d be happy to write it. Sure enough, that opportunity arose this past spring, and the book is set to come out early next year.
RM: How do you balance being original with delivering recipes that are desirable and manageable for the readers/cooks?
SM: I can honestly say I’ve never had to think of this as a balance, but rather consider it my culinary style. The food I like to make and eat is hardly thehaute cuisine you’d find at a Michelin-starred restaurant or patisserie. But I do really love fresh, seasonal, and colorful ingredients. I like to think I make “elevated comfort food.” Foods that people simply love to eat, recipes that remind them of their childhood, family, or travels, only adapted to taste fresher, feature more interesting flavors, and use more wholesome ingredients.
RM: How many times do you try a recipe before you finalize it for a book?
SM: This varies considerably. At this point in my career I have a pretty solid understanding of ratios and always have a starting point in mind for a recipe. I’m typically able to get something how I want it within three trials, but there have certainly been some recipes that’ve taken far more attempts (here’s looking at you, Baked Yeast Donuts. 19? 20 tries?) I hold myself to a very high standard when developing recipes in wanting to ensure my readers have success every single time, because I know the frustration of wasting ingredients and time on a dish that flops! I don’t consider a recipe finalized until it tastes, looks, and behaves exactly how I envision it. There are even instances when I will revisit a recipe during the editing stages of a manuscript to ensure the instructions are written in the most explicit but concise way possible.
RM: What’s your favorite thing to cook?
SM: I really enjoy making Italian and Southern inspired dishes. Pastas and “down home” recipes are what I always gravitate towards. But I am truly a baker at heart, and there is nothing I love to make more than a birthday cake. For every cake, I try to channel the recipient’s personality into the flavors and design. Not only is it a fun opportunity to be really creative, but celebrating another year of someone’s life is just so special, and I’m always grateful to be a part of that.
RM: How do you get your creativity flowing?
SM: When it comes to thinking of recipes, my brain doesn’t seem to take a break – I can be dreaming of different dishes I want to make all day long. I stay really attentive to the foods my friends and family members love to eat (and by attentive, I mean “so what’s your favorite kind of pie?” is typically one of the first questions I’ll ask a new acquaintance after learning their name), as well as current food trends on social media and in restaurants. I travel frequently, both physically and virtually, to explore the food of various cultures. All this together provides me with seemingly endless inspiration, compounded by curiosity. If I come across a dish I’ve never made, I then have to figure out how to make it!
But as I said, the recipes are only part of a cookbook, and staying creative in my writing and storytelling is not always as easy. I’ve learned I can’t try to force the writing to happen, especially when I want it to be authentic. Realistically however, deadlines exist, so budgeting my time to allow some flexibility has proven really effective in inviting creativity to flow. If I’m staring at my computer trying to make words come out of my fingertips onto the keyboard, I get up and take a break. I go for a walk, or pace around my living room, or get (another) snack. I used to get irritated at myself thinking these breaks were unproductive, but then I started to realize how many sentences I craft in my head whilst on those walks or standing over the counter eating a bag of popcorn. Maybe there’s some physiological reason for this science can explain, but I just know it’s been working so far!
RM: Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?
SM: I do! I love to read, and have always believed being an active reader from a young age helped me develop strong written and verbal communication skills that have been invaluable to me professionally and personally. I’ve many favorite authors, but Zora Neale Hurston comes to mind as one who changed my life and entire view of the world. A few modern authors whose work I can’t get enough of are Samantha Irby and Julie Murphy (because I still love a good YA novel!)
RM: What else would you like my readers to know about the world of creating cookbooks?
SM: As one might imagine, when I’m actively writing cookbooks, I have SO much food left at the end of each day. Unfortunately, there are a lot of regulations and restrictions around providing food to homeless shelters, so I am constantly seeking out people to take it off my hands! If anyone reading happens to be hungry and local to Nashville, feel free to send me an email or Instagram message!