Amber Royer writes a telenovela-style foodie-inspired space opera series of books that take place in the "Chocoverse." Amber also teaches creative writing for UT Arlington Continuing Education and Writing Workshops Dallas, and is the author of Story Like a Journalist: a Workbook For Novelists.
Tell us a little about your writing background.
I’m primarily a novelist. My Chocoverse trilogy is comic space opera about a future where chocolate is Earth’s only unique commodity.
I've met so many real chocolate makers and chocolatiers while researching and promoting these sci-fi books that I’ve started a new series – mysteries with a bean to bar chocolate maker as the sleuth. The first one, Grand Openings Can Be Murder, will be coming in February, from my imprint, Golden Tip Press.
I’m also a blogger and a writing instructor. I blog about awesome people I’ve met who do chocolate, about the craft of creative writing, and about places I’ve gotten to visit. I took a little time off from the blog this year, due to having to re-organize the rest of my work to take place on Zoom, but I’m setting up interviews and planning topics for later this fall.
Do you ever travel for food?
I miss getting to travel. Most of the time, for me, it's about checking out the food scene wherever we are already planning to go, rather than traveling specifically to try food.
But one time we did plan a road trip from Texas to South Carolina specifically to visit the only tea plantation in the continental United States. It was quite an educational experience.
Whatever city we visit, I try to find out what is cool or unique regarding coffee or chocolate, which means I’ve toured a cacao plantation in Samana (Dominican Republic), shopped at the Kit-Kat Chocolatory Store in Ginza (Tokyo – there’s a whole thing about Kit-Kat and Japan), sampled brigadeiros at a tiny shop in LA, and interviewed a couple of guys roasting craft coffee in El Paso.
I’ve just met so many amazing people who are passionate about chocolate and coffee and generous with their time and knowledge. A chocolate maker in Monterrey, Mexico, actually took the time to spend half a day with us, showing us his process and his factory, because we let him know I was doing book research.
Do you enjoy growing your own food?
We currently have a small patio herb garden. When we had a house and more space, we had an extensive herb garden, which was fun to work in and rewarding to have fresh herbs to share with friends.
Before COVID hit, we were working on a project documenting growing cacao trees indoors at my husband’s office. But since he has been working mainly from home, it has been difficult to get into the space to video the trees.
Cacao can’t survive outdoors in Texas (it gets both too hot and too cold), so the “Chocolate Trees,” will continue as office plants.
Hopefully, things will get sorted and we can resume the documentation project soon. The largest tree is about 5 feet tall, but it will be several more years before it starts producing flowers. The eventual intent is to make a batch of chocolate from trees grown in an office environment.
Do you like to create budget-friendly meals?
Just deciding to cook at home is going to help your budget, and living in Dallas, we’re a bit spoiled.
I live within easy driving distance of Mediterranean/Turkish, Japanese, Mexican, Korean, Chinese, and Indian grocery stores. We're able to find “gourmet” ingredients at more reasonable prices than if you went looking for the same thing at a specialty foods store.
One time, I was giving a presentation for the local herb festival, and when asked about my sourcing for the samples, I mentioned that all the herbs and spices had come from Fiesta and Bombay Bazaar, and I think my audience was a little shocked. (Don’t get me wrong – I love wandering in gourmet herb shops, and some things are worth the splurge.)
Budget friendly doesn’t have to mean deprivation or low quality. Many of the dishes we associate with fancy restaurant meals started out as a way to use less desirable cuts of meat. Especially anything calling for long braising. Coq au vin, beef bourguignon, osso bucco – all of these take a long time to cook, but turn inexpensive cuts into something delectable.
Recipes from different parts of the global kitchen can also help you maximize your creativity with cheap cuts of meat. That less-than-a-dollar-a-pound pork shoulder can be barbecued (in the oven if necessary) and turned into filling for Chinese-style Bao buns.
Grab skirt steak when it is on sale to make fajitas. Chicken thighs are actually more flavorful than the white meat (and oh, so much cheaper), and can be featured as Filipino-inspired Chicken Adobo.
My family is predominately Cajun, which has always meant cooking with ingredients that are at hand (which is why Cajun food is so different in different parts of Louisiana/Southeast Texas). Don’t have shrimp and crab to put in the gumbo? Do it with chicken and sausage.
You can apply that philosophy to cooking in general. Look at what’s on sale at the grocery store. How can you use those ingredients in recipes you already rely on? Or maybe you can try something entirely new.
How often do you write about food?
I frequently Instagram about food, especially coffee and chocolate. I love the immediate response and the micro-article format. I consider it food writing, because an Instagram photo of food without a mini-story caption lacks context and feels relatively meaningless.
I’ve started including recipes with some of the photos, if there isn’t a personal story. People seem to really respond to those posts – especially if they involve coffee. I try to do a post every Monday that’s a virtual coffee break. I post my coffee, say something about what it is, where I got it, or the cup it's in – and then I talk about my week as a writer.
My husband and I spend time together in the kitchen, and we used to do events for the local herb society. We put together a couple of pamphlet-style cookbooks (currently out of print) for herb society festivals.
After the chocolate related novels came out, people started finding the listing for the out-of-print chocolate and herbs cookbook, and so many people asked for it that we expanded the project into a full-sized color-illustrated cookbook, There are Herbs in My Chocolate.
Jake and I had so much fun brainstorming different ways to get culinary herbs into the foods we were making with chocolate. One of the most interesting was when we did a chocolate cinnamon cupcake. For the frosting, I infused lemongrass into the butter I used to make the buttercream and added a bit of Fireball for an extra cinnamon kick. So you get the lemongrass flavor first, and then as that fades, the cinnamon hits. Which makes it fun to watch people tasting it.
I also used to have a column on Dave’s Garden where I got to do articles about cooking with things we were growing in our garden.
Do you believe that being a writer helps you enjoy or appreciate food more?
I occasionally teach a cookbook writing class at the local university, and one thing I ask my students to do is to describe food on the page, without using circular words. Don’t tell me that chocolate is chocolaty. What does it really taste like? Nutty, earthy, astringent, bitter? Sweet, creamy, caramelly, melty? It depends on the chocolate, right?
Being a writer, in general, requires you to be aware of the world around you, if you are to have any hope of being able to translate what you see and experience on the page.
People sometimes tell me my books make them hungry. I think that’s because I take the time to notice details, including what food looks and tastes like. Which makes me more thoughtful about eating it.
Also, because I write a lot about chocolate and coffee, I have learned a lot about what goes into getting these products from the farm to your barista or chocolatier.
Learning the stories of individual craft chocolate makers, or families of farmers, or European-trained pastry chefs, certainly goes a long way to make you appreciate what you are eating and drinking. Even if it’s your first cup of coffee in the morning, and your eyes are barely open.
Next time you pick up a new brand of chocolate, take a moment to get on the company’s website and learn a little about the story behind it. Is the company in Europe, creating in a Swiss or Italian tradition? Or in Mexico or Brazil, working with local farmers and beans? A large company, or someone working alone? Whatever it is, you’re sure to find something unique to appreciate.
Do you have any favorite food books/cookbooks or kitchen products you love?
My favorite cookbook right now is Ratio by Michael Rhulman. It's more about the concepts behind how foods combine, so that you know what ratios of solids to liquids to use in recipe creation and on-the-fly cooking.
As far as chocolate, there’s my cookbook, obviously. But there’s this amazing book by Dandelion Chocolate, which teaches you how to become a chocolate maker from the ground up. And if you just like reading about the process, but want to cook with somebody else’s chocolate in your home kitchen, Dandelion also shares recipes from their café.
So kitchen gadgets . . . . I used to sell Pampered Chef. I’m still a big fan of their knives, peelers and baking stones, though some of the “gadgety” gadgets turned out to be more trouble than they were worth. I’m sure my espresso machine counts as a gadget, and it is one of my favorite things in the kitchen. I’m also fond of our pasta rolling machine, my KitchenAid stand mixer, my Instant Pot and my manual nut grinder.
Do you have any favorite food writers, chefs, food TV shows, restaurants or food travel destinations?
I’m a bit addicted to food competition shows, especially ones where there’s an element of art involved. Some of the challenges set by chefs like Adriano Zumbo on Zumbo’s Just Desserts and Sugar Rush are astounding. Seriously. Go watch the finales of both seasons of Just Desserts, if nothing else.
I also love travel cooking shows, and was a HUGE fan of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, whose loss will be felt by the culinary world for a long time. I’ve been watching one of his earlier shows lately, A Cook’s Tour. Some of the foods he tries in both shows are just disturbing, but it’s truly eye opening about the range of foods people eat in different parts of the globe – and close to home.
I’m a food science geek, so of course Good Eats has been a long-term inspiration. Yes, it’s cheesy and over-the-top corny, but Alton Brown does a good job combining the gags and the educational stuff.
And when I need a little bit of flat-out funny cooking TV, I turn to Nailed It. If you haven’t see this one, get thee to Netflix now. It’s a riff on that Instagram meme, where people post what a professional cake artist did next to their own failed attempts with the caption Nailed It! Do not expect perfection. Sometimes someone wins because they are the only one with a completed cake/cookie/etc. to present to the judges. But Jacque Torres will always be there to explain exactly what went wrong.
Locally, I know a number of pastry chef and chocolate makers. If you are ever in the Dallas area, check out: CocoAndré Chocolatier and Horchatería (A mother-daughter owned venture where you can get chocolate made on site with beans from Chiapas, Mexico), Yelibelly Chocolates (She does these disks of chocolate that you float on coffee called Cocoacino, which you can enjoy while taking one of her online cooking with chocolate classes), Haute Sweets Patisserie (Get the macarons. Or the chocolate cream pie cookies), Isabelly’s Chocolates and Sweet Treats (Another family owned venture, with amazing horchata truffles), Buster’s Bakeshop (This is Thuy’s home-based baking business, named for her adorable dog – she trained with some of the best – get anything. It will be amazing.) If you don’t mind a drive, also check out Wiseman House in Hico, roughly midway between Dallas and Austin (Kevin is known for his toffee. And for being Gluten Free).
If you’re in the mood for something savory, check out LA Burger (it’s not on the official menu, but they will make you a bulgogi burger), Ken Bistro (we get the bento options), Besa’s (family owned Italian), Pho OK (their Vietnamese coffee is THE BOMB), or Blue Charcoal (Brazilian steakhouse, with grilled pineapple that is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten).
Where do you turn for great food or food inspiration?
I like to collect recipes, and I have a master recipe book (stored as a Word document) for the ones people have given me over the years.
A lot of these came from my family, or my husband’s family. If I’m not sure what to make, but I want comfort food, I scroll through the table of contents for this. The book also contains recipes collected on trips we’ve taken over the years, such as the teriyaki marinade recipe we got from a great beachside restaurant in Maui.
I’m a very visual person, so if I'm looking for inspiration to try something new, I will do a search online for the kind of dish I want to make, or for two or three major ingredients I happen to have on hand, and then look at pictures until I see something that makes me hungry.
I know it may be just the photography skills of whoever posted the image, but I will pick one recipe over another if there is more depth of color to a sauce (implying more depth of flavor) or brightness to a filling. Then I look at the ingredients list and technique to see if I am likely to actually wind up with something that looks like the picture (I’ve been burned before by recipes that obviously were never tested – you have to use common sense).
What's your go-to snack when on deadline?
There’s a lot of coffee involved. I tend to snack on sunflower butter on apples, or peanuts with a square of good chocolate to keep myself fueled when I’m spending a long time at the keyboard. Fortunately, I have a very supportive spouse who is also talented in the kitchen. He makes sure there’s something good for dinner when I’m too time crunched to handle it.