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How to Go From Home Cook to Professional Recipe Developer

Jenn de la Vega recalls an assignment from her seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Hill, that foreshadowed her future as a recipe developer. Mr. Hill told his class to write exact instructions on how to make a sandwich. If he could make the sandwich correctly, he would eat it. If he made it incorrectly, the kids had to eat their own creations.

While most of the class dreamed up combinations like anchovies and peanut butter, de la Vega strived for simplicity and accuracy. “It was a ham and Swiss sandwich with mayo on one side and mustard on the other,” she says. “It helped me understand writing for recipes.”

For every celebrity chef, television personality and cookbook author, there are many more professionals working behind the scenes to develop and perfect recipes. Recipe development involves researching dishes and techniques, shopping for ingredients, testing the dish or drink multiple times, recording every step and writing clear instructions others can easily follow.

If you’re a curious home cook or bartender with an eye for detail, there are lots of opportunities. To help you break into the field, six pros tell us their paths to careers in recipe development.

LEFT: Fruit Carpaccio. RIGHT: Kara Mickelson / Photos by Shane O'Donnell
Left: Fruit Carpaccio; Right: Kara Mickelson / Photos by Shane O’Donnell

An Event Planner Changes Course

Kara Mickelson was a corporate event planner for Toyota Motor Sales, a job for which she oversaw client trips to five-star resorts in far-flung destinations like Bora Bora. However, in 2007, Mickelson decided to nurture her love of cooking and enrolled in the now-shuttered Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, California.

While she originally intended to focus on food styling, her English degree, along with culinary school and the production skills she accumulated as an event planner, nudged Mickelson to recipe development. She began a new career with Southbay magazine and now develops for cookbooks, including the upcoming Friends: The Official Central Perk Cookbook.

“You have to look out for yourself and maintain an online presence. Nobody’s lining up to give you work.” —Kara Mickelson

For Mickelson, culinary school was essential to the transition from power suits to aprons. “There was a lot of depth in my classes, especially with the caliber of instructors I had,” she says. “If you don’t have foundational skills, it’s hard to craft a recipe, especially when you get into baking.”

Because she is a freelancer, Mickelson’s calendar is booked with a hodgepodge of projects: branded recipe development, cookbooks, seasonal recipe features, feature and travel writing, and food and prop styling. Most of these are executed in her small but functional home kitchen.

Mickelson’s Pro Tip: “A lot of my work comes through Facebook. There are lots of people out there looking for help, but there’s also a lot of competition. It’s about being bold, not pushy. You have to look out for yourself and maintain an online presence. Nobody’s lining up to give you work.”

LEFT_Aaron Hutcherson's Rye chocolate chip cookies on wire cooling rack. RIGHT: Aaron Hutcherson. Photos courtesy Aaron Hutcherson
Left: Rye chocolate chip cookies; Right: Aaron Hutcherson / Photos courtesy Aaron Hutcherson

The Slow Build to a Staff Position

Aaron Hutcherson launched The Hungry Hutch shortly after moving to New York City and starting a career on Wall Street. Like Mickelson, he turned to culinary school—in his case the French Culinary Institute, which is now part of the Institute of Culinary Education—to help solidify his kitchen skills and break into food media.

It was slow going.

“I would try and apply to any openings I saw in test kitchens and recipe development,” says Hutcherson. “None of them worked out for some reason.” He continued to create, photograph and post his own recipes, all unpaid. Eventually, brands and publications began to notice and Pillsbury contacted him about contributing to their site in 2015. This was followed by work for publications like Simply Recipes, Food52 and Taste. (Hutcherson has also written for Wine Enthusiast.)

In 2020, a full 12 years after he began his food blog, Hutcherson joined The Washington Post as a writer and recipe developer.

“Whenever I go out to eat, if there’s a menu item or some combination I’ve never tried and don’t know if it will work, I’m always like, ‘Let me try and see.’ ” —Aaron Hutcherson

It took persistence and time, says Hutcherson, for recipe development and writing to pay the bills. But now, for a major national newspaper, he’s testing TikTok trends (like the failure that is pasta chips), teaching readers about summer squash varieties and developing a recipe for the perfect ranch dressing. He’s also worked to advance his photography skills over the years, and WaPo occasionally runs Hutcherson’s images.

Unfortunately, because of Covid restrictions, Hutcherson is working from home without a dishwasher. “They’re all washed by hand,” he says.

Hutcherson’s Pro Tip: “One of the most important things is developing your palate. As much as possible, try new dishes and ingredients. Whenever I go out to eat, if there’s a menu item or some combination I’ve never tried and don’t know if it will work, I’m always like, ‘Let me try and see.’ Maybe I can take it back with me and use it in some capacity.”

LEFT: Ashlee Redger. RIGHT: Strawberry Shortcake. Photos courtesy Ashlee Redger
Left: Ashlee Redger; Right: Strawberry Shortcake / Photos courtesy Ashlee Redger

Writing Recipes for Working Chefs

After high school, Ashlee Redger attended a four-year culinary program at Johnson & Wales University. She earned a degree in nutrition with a focus on research and development, and quickly earned a role with a regional spice company for whom she created consumer recipes and developed new products.

After a three-month internship at America’s Test Kitchen, Redger landed at Snooze, a breakfast-focused restaurant with 49 U.S. locations. At Snooze, she creates dishes that keep menus seasonal and relevant. Redger writes for an audience of professional cooks, not consumers. When she considers dishes, like a recent summery strawberry shortcake pancake plate, she must factor in practical concerns like ingredient costs, restaurants’ existing pantry items and how quickly cooks can expedite the item.

“Anyone can create a wonderful dish, but you have to be able to communicate that to others.” —Ashlee Redger

In addition to the time in the kitchen, Redger writes recipes and training materials, leads corporate tastings, shops for supplies and participates in photo shoots. Although a degree gave her a clear path to her current job, Redger thinks hands-on training in kitchens, coupled with a writing curriculum, would have been just as beneficial—and less expensive.

“Recipe development for me, the secret spice of it, comes from English and taking journalism classes,” she says. “Anyone can create a wonderful dish, but you have to be able to communicate that to others. As with writing any other kind of essay or technical document, you need to write clearly and concisely and think ahead.”

Redger’s Pro Tip: “Create a simple but professional portfolio, even if it’s just on Instagram or a WordPress site. Having your name in the web domain is important, too. It’s an easy way to showcase your work and gather it in one place.”

LEFT: Jenn de la Vega. RIGHT: Lechon Kawali dish. Photos by Ada Jane McNulty.
Left: Jenn de la Vega; Right: Lechon Kawali dish / Photos by Ada Jane McNulty

Catering as a Springboard to Cookbooks

De la Vega took a wandering path to recipe development. Among other ventures, she got a degree in English, became an affineuse at Murray’s Cheese, hosted a grilled cheese pop-up and led the kitchen at a small wine bar. Eventually, the wine bar started catering weddings, and de la Vega found herself reinventing and scaling restaurant dishes for events.

“Recipe development requires that same level of exactitude,” she says. “I didn’t know it, but catering was setting me up for projects in the future.”

As focused as Redger’s work is for Snooze, de la Vega’s is the near opposite. She owns a catering company, edits the food zine Put A Egg On It, competes and judges culinary competitions and has completed residencies at an art gallery, Taste and Kickstarter. She wrote the cookbook Showdown: Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ in 2017, and also regularly contributes to Wine Enthusiast.

“Culinary schools prioritize French cooking, and France isn’t the only country that cooks.” —Jenn de la Vega

When catering work dried up last year, de la Vega turned her attention back to cookbooks, helping author Nicole Taylor with recipes for Tracy Morgan’s The Last O.G. Cookbook. She has three more book projects in the works, focusing on cuisines from the Philippines, traditional island cultures and Black Americans.

De la Vega believes it’s her range of cooking expertise that has helped her secure work.

“Culinary schools prioritize French cooking, and France isn’t the only country that cooks,” says de la Vega, who regularly scours cookbooks, brushes up on molecular gastronomy and studies techniques from across the globe. “I created my own intense self-study. I have my own reading regimen.”

De la Vega’s Pro Tip: “Stay on top of what food writers are working on and see who’s thinking about writing a book. As soon as I meet someone and we click, belief-wise with food, I plant that seed. I tell them, ‘I would love to help you.’ ”

Mary Cressler and Sean Martin of Vindugle standing by smoker
Mary Cressler and Sean Martin of Vindugle, and their smoker / Photo courtesy Mary Cressler and Sean Martin

Recipe Development Yields a Lifestyle Brand

Wife and husband team Mary Cressler and Sean Martin launched Vindulge as a wine blog 11 years ago. A few years in, Cressler began to add recipes and wine pairing suggestions to the site. She scoured books like Will Write for Food and Ratio to learn how to write recipes, and studied food photography and styling to enhance her imagery and help draw in readers.

Almost immediately, the recipes boosted site traffic, and Cressler and Martin started getting invitations to cook at wine events in the Willamette Valley. Soon, the two home cooks found themselves running an award-winning catering company. “We thought, ‘How hard can that be?’ ” says Martin, with a laugh. A self-described backyard chef, he enlisted local chefs to help them dial in scaling and portions for crowds.

As it did for de la Vega, catering and all its moving parts strengthened their recipe writing, which focuses on grilling, smoking and outdoor cooking. The couple published a cookbook, Fire + Wine, in March 2020. They continue to produce around 175 recipes a year for their site, in addition to recipe development for wineries like Phelps Creek, Mira and Stoller.

This year, Cressler and Martin are launching an ecommerce wine site that will feature some of their favorite producers, with a wine club set to follow. The pair also plan on creating food and wine experiences on their five-acre farm in Oregon wine country.

“Through recipe development, we were able to find out what we loved, and then create a new vision and dreams,” says Cressler. “[Vindulge] is about finding great wines to pair and sharing great experiences with family and friends, and it all stems from that base idea of recipes.”

Cressler’s Pro Tip: “Start by learning how to write a recipe. So often, when I Google something, it’s so poorly written. Learn how to do it, then experiment, and make sure everything is tested.”

Martin’s Pro Tip: “I’ve learned patience. People say, ‘How come I’m not doing XYZ yet?’ But over time, it will work out in your favor. I used to have a full-time job but quit in March, and the blog and brand now allows us to live our life without it being a side project. It’s easy for us to look at other people’s success, but it’s better to focus on the audience that keeps coming back.”