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mamster

Knowing your audience

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The Washington Post food section no doubt has the same dilemma as most newspaper food sections:  how to keep happy the readers who want to know about the latest ingredients, restaurants, and ethnic cooking trends, and the readers who want simple recipes that they can get on the table in an hour.  If this is an issue at the Post, how do you serve both masters?


Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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Yes, you’ve summed up the problem well. Only sometimes it doesn’t seem like two masters, it seems like 3,000. Our readers include chefs and other members of the restaurant community; cab drivers and diplomats, bureaucrats and lawyers and lobbyists and people from the West Wing and people from  the suburbs and people who stay at home and people who commute and people who never cook and people who love to cook and people who just want to know how to get dinner on the table every night. And that’s just for starters. Singles, and couples, and families, and empty nesters.

And it’s hard sometimes  as I choose stories and ideas not, to feel that all of these readers are looking over my shoulder. The absolutely LAST THING  I want a reader to do is pick up the section, look at it and think: Fat Chance, No Way, Who Are You Kidding.

We have a weekly feature on page 3 called Dinner in XX Minutes, where the XX is always 50 minutes or less, often more like 30. This is a very popular feature, tested and organized by Renee Schettler, the assistant editor. We try to choose a weeknight meal that consists of fresh, in-season, reasonably priced ingredients for this feature and we hope that it will always always always help those readers who are struggling to put decent food on the table every week night. We don’t use canned or boxed products here, unless it’s canned tomatoes or a box of pasta or rice.

When I’m really at sea about how to please the constituency, I repeat the same thing over and over: Good Stories.  It’s my hope that if we report and write good, solid interesting stories, our readers—all of them, regardless of  their particular food needs and tastes--will read them.

And of course most of these stories have recipes associated with them. So the next part of that mantra is Good Recipes. We test all of them, we dump A LOT down the garbage disposal. I think those recipes are just as important a part of our journalism as is our reporting and writing. We want readers to trust us. Trust us that if you buy  this $20 piece of salmon, it will make a great entrée for your dinner party. Trust us that the hour you spend chopping the herbs and mangos and onions and chili peppers for this salsa will be worth your time.

I think some members of the restaurant community in Washington think that we don’t write enough about them. The food section of The Post doesn’t have restaurant reviews, unlike many other food sections. The reviews of Food Critic Tom Sietsema appear  The Washington Magazine every Sunday, and the reviews of Eve Zibart appear in Friday’s Weekend section. I feel that the Wednesday Food section is really the only place to which the home cook can turn for help.

We do write pieces about restaurants and about chefs and personalities, but I would say it’s about 30 percent of our focus. We have a regular  column “The Weekly Dish” from Tom about restaurant news. And our FORAGING column also regularly  focuses on a dish or ingredient at a restaurant in town: the Frisee Salad at Bistro Bis, the Crab Cakes with Avocado at the Ritz Carlton. So we hope that if our lead story is addressed to the home cook, the restaurant goers and the restaurant folks will at least find some news of interest to them.

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