A 'Tiger in the Kitchen,' laid-off reporter evolves into an author

January was all about the Tiger Mom. February has A Tiger in the Kitchen.

Less than two years ago, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan left her job at The Wall Street Journal -- laid off -- and went to a bar with friends. Sympathetically, they asked her what she was going to do next. She nearly burst as she told them she had signed a book contract -- that day.

[caption id="attachment_118053" align="alignleft" width="120" caption="Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan"][/caption]

Tan's book, "A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family," will be released Tuesday, Feb. 8.

The book opens the next career chapter for Tan, a journalist who also has worked for The Baltimore Sun and InStyle magazine.

January's Tiger Mom is Amy Chua, who gained notoriety with her book about tough-love parenting. Tan is a different kind of tiger.

When it became clear in early 2009 that The Wall Street Journal would close the Retail and Luxury Goods bureau founded in pre-recessionary times, Tan already was thinking of writing about food and cooking. She wanted to use it to reconnect with the family she had left in Singapore when she came to the United States to study journalism at Northwestern University.

"This book ... came out of a piece I did for The Wall Street Journal about going back to Singapore to make my late grandmother's pineapple tarts," said Tan. "It was the spark for the whole book."

Tan could have applied for other jobs at The Journal, but said, "It was like deciding to stay with your safe boyfriend or jump on the back of the motorbike with this really exciting guy and see where it goes." (For the record, Tan thanks her husband, Mike Hale of The New York Times, at the front and end of the book.)

"I decided to give myself a month, and things happened very quickly," she said. With a self-imposed deadline stoking that fire, she wrote a 11,000-word proposal in a week.

"It all came together so quickly because being a journalist really prepares you to react quickly to situations," she said. "Whether you're covering 9/11 or covering cops (she has done both), there's no time to panic. Clarity of mind is so useful when you are in the job and is crucial when you are making a big decision."

She used her network. "I got the agent by asking everyone I knew if they knew a good agent," she said. "As journalists, we have connections to everyone. I ended up talking to four people." Tan picked one and she soon had Tan's manuscript in an auction among publishers. Hyperion won.

"This grew out of journalism, and the approach I took in researching the book was very journalistic," Tan said. "I carried a notebook with me whenever I went into the kitchen or whenever my family was telling stories. Everyone has a different version of events." She used a camera and audio recorder to take notes.

As she reported and wrote, Tan found material that she knew would not make the book. She poured that into her blog. The writing there already has helped her land a magazine piece with Food & Wine. She does a weekly piece now for The Wall Street Journal and will have a piece about her book this week in Newsweek.

Reviewing restaurants, another possible avenue in her new career, intimidated Tan, who traditionally had been a retail and fashion writer. A friend explained that restaurant reviews simply come down to stating an opinion and then backing it up by deconstructing the meal with reporting.

With her book's formal release -- she joked about having a sore hand from signing copies last week -- Tan said she hopes she can make a career of writing about fashion, food and travel, which for her usually means food too.

But first, this laid-off reporter has to sell some books.

  • Joe Grimm

    Joe Grimm is a visiting editor in residence at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He runs the JobsPage Website.


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