Monday, November 20, 2006

Beyond Salmon Turns 1!

No, I did not forget my blog’s birthday. It turned 1 years old on October 8th. This last year brought some great changes in my life, and I was just waiting for the right time to share my big news with you. Last week, I quit my software job to devote all my energy to teaching cooking classes. Although this blog did not directly make it happen, it contributed quite a bit. I’d like to dedicate this post to you my readers. Thanks for your curiosity, desire to learn about new cooking techniques, willingness to try new ingredients, and most of all for helping me find my true calling. How did this whole thing happen? To answer this question, I have to backtrack to the depressing day of October 8, 2005.

I opened yet another rejection letter from a literary agent. After spending a year doing research for my fish cookbook and polishing my proposal, I realized that it was all for nothing. There were over a 100 fish cookbooks already on the market, I was a no name adult ed cooking instructor without the slightest clue of how to make fish cooking (or any food writing for that matter) into a sexy page turner the agents wanted. Whom was I kidding? This fish book was never going to happen.

The problem was what to do with all my fish research? I was hoping for a wider audience than my One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish classes and no number of rejections was going to stop me. That is how Beyond Salmon blog was born. I just couldn’t let the chapters on Doneness, Fish Personalities, and Buying Fish go to waste.

To tell you the truth, I was relieved the book didn’t work out. Writing was always hard for me and it happened more naturally on my blog, without the pressure of a cookbook. Instead, I decided to concentrate on something that was easy and pure fun – teaching. I’ve been teaching at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education for several years, and had toyed with the idea of starting my own little cooking school. It always felt like some sort of fantasy that might happen in some far future. But after coming across the Culinary Communion Cooking School in Seattle, I thought “Why not here in Boston?” This would be a cool thing to do when Jason finishes his Ph.D. and I would be able to take a year sabbatical from the software industry. But my impatience got the best of me, and I couldn’t help starting to investigate what it would take. According to the state of Massachusetts and the Town of Belmont, I wouldn’t need a commercial kitchen required for caterers and restaurants (none of the adult ed places had ones either). When you are selling an educational service and not a food product, the regulations are less stringent. All I needed was liability insurance. A few calls later, I got a number of quotes, and realized that it’s not such big bucks after all. With a little nudging from Jason, I got the insurance, put up a website, and by January 1, 2006 Helen’s Kitchen was opened for business.

But as I was waiting for the customers to call, guess who called instead? A literary agent. She loved the Fish Personalities chapter and thought this book had potential. But after a few phone conversations and sleepless nights, I realized that our visions for this book were very different. Since the book wouldn’t have any photography, the agent wanted at least 200 recipes to give the book some weight and make it look like “you could really cook from this thing.” I didn’t think it was the lack of recipes that was stopping people from cooking fish. Just do a search on epicurious. The real road blocks I kept hearing about in my classes were not knowing how to buy it, how long to keep it, how to test it for doneness, and how to substitute one fish for the other.

The whole reason I wanted to leave the corporate world was my inability to bend to the will and vision of others. I knew what I wanted to do with this book, and if that’s not what the cookbook industry wanted, so be it. I was perfectly happy with my blog. Yes, I know, it looks a little backwards. Most food writers start with a blog and upgrade to a book, and I started with a book and downgraded to a blog. That’s how I realized that professional food writing is not something I could ever make a career out of. Plain old writing was hard enough, but writing on demand was simply impossible for me.

Meanwhile, the calls for Helen’s Kitchen started to come in. Having a blog gave me more web presence, which meant higher Google rankings. Some people would sign up for classes because they found my blog. Others would take a class and then start reading the blog. So between Google, Blog, and word of mouth, I found myself teaching several times a week.

This didn’t leave much time for sleeping or having a life. All my “free” time was spent teaching and staying up till 1am to blog. That’s when I realized that something had to give. After a few months of thinking and weighing my options, I decided to leave my office job. Am I making enough money with cooking classes to replace my salary? Yeah, right! But I am loving every minute of it.


Kalyn Denny said...

Very exciting news for you. Congratulations on both the blog birthday (writing a blog for one year is an accomplishment in itself!) and the new career direction. Best of luck in both.

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday blog!
Congratulations on quiting your day job!!!
I'm not sure that the blog is a downgrade from a book. Anytime you can follow your bliss - that's certainly an upgrade in my book.
I wish you great success.

Alanna Kellogg said...

Many congratulations!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Helen, both on the blog birthday and throwing yourself full time into the cooking school!

I agree with Tanna about the blog not necessarily being a downgrade from a book. My first taste of publishing was an underground literary magazine I started in high school, followed by the same in college, followed by a weekly paper in Chicago which was fun, but went broke quick. The publishing bug has never gone away, though, and a blog was the perfect way for me to jump back into it. Not only is it dirt cheap to do, but it can be as do-it-yourself and as interactive and immediate as you want it to be. And blogs like yours are an inspiration to us all.

Helen said...

Hi guys,

Thank you so much for your good wishes. They mean so much to me. About "downgrade" from the book to a blog. I meant it as a joke. I find blogs to be a much more flexible and interesting media than the printed books. In fact, I learn from your blogs every day :) Keep up your creativity and resourcefulness. You are all an inspiration to me.


Anonymous said...

Helen...congrats on reaching the one-year mark with Beyond Salmon...I read every post and learn something or am inspired (or both) every time...and about the career change, may I be the first to GO, girl!

best, Stephen

Helen said...

Hi Stephen,

Thanks so much for the good wishes and Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!


Mrs. M. said...

Congrats, Helen.

Beyond Salmon is a great mix of personal stories and practical cooking how-tos. Your guide to making pate brisee is perhaps the most useful thing I've ever read on a blog!

Keep writing.

Veena said...

Way to go following your heart, Helen! I wish you all the best with everything. Love your blog, and even tried your onion-tomato tart :). Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the transition! It is very courageous of you. In the end, whatever makes us happy, we should pursue, right?

I love your blog. I wish you great success.

Oh, and yes, happy Thanksgiving.

GS said...

Congrats - on the birthday and following your passion. I love stories of people finding the courage to leave corporate life.

With a growing number of students perhaps you can self publish and sell directly to them and through the blog. Cut out the middle man. There have been some great examples of this - I think Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way" was originally self published (?) and Dr Sandra Cabot of the "Liver Cleansing Diet" fame in Australia (#1 best seller for months.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Helen!

That's wonderful news!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Helen on making that final leap! I can tell you that it is all very rewarding, hard work, long days, but in the end, it is the schedule of your choosing and sometimes that is the best reward of all.
Best of luck and good wishes to you.


Boston Chef said...

Congratulations, Helen - your blog is one of the best fish blogs out there and we love reading all of your stuff!! Great news!

mary grimm said...

What a great story. Blogging has been revolutionary for me, too--I started when I was trying to jumpstart my writing after a long difficult phase of writers' block. Blogging gave me a place to be creative anonymously and w/o pressure, and it led me back to the fun of writing, which I thought I'd lost.
I wish I was in range of your class--I'd love to take it.

Helen said...

Hi Lucette,

So glad you are writing again! It's such hard work, but also one of the most rewarding experiences.

Let me know if you are ever in Boston. It would be fun to get together :)


Pyewacket said...

Congratulations, Helen! Your passion for your subject definitely comes through in your blog. I don't think you should put away the book idea forever. I am glad to hear that your cooking class project is going well. That sounds really scary to me - I get nervouw cooking with friend in the kitchen, forget about doing demos! It's great that you're finding success in something youn love. That's all too rare.

Happy birthday!