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There are a number of interesting similarities between Mr Parker and Mr Shaw.

I can't imagine that any individual -- especially not me -- will ever have as big an impact on the food world as Parker has had on the wine world, but if I can even be compared to him that's good for me. One big contrast, however, is that Parker is what I would call a consumerist -- a consumer advocate in the Ralph Nader tradition that takes as a given the need to protect consumers from sellers -- whereas I do not consider myself to be an advocate for anyone nor am I trying to protect anyone from anything. My only constituency is the cause of excellence in cuisine, and if that puts me at odds with consumers, restaurateurs, farmers, whomever . . . that's too bad. Actually it's good. I enjoy when people in the restaurant business call me a consumer advocate and consumers say I'm an industry apologist. If I'm calling everybody and everything into question, I'm doing something right. Parker's consumerism, informed by a Watergate era view of conflicts of interest that I think is ultimately conterproductive, is evident not only in his attitude but also in the direction in which he has taken his career. He's a reviewer of wines -- he tells people what wines are good and what wines are bad. I would find it mind-numbingly boring to produce those massive tomes of wine (or restaurant) reviews with numerical ratings and tasting notes. I'm more interested in encouraging people to judge for themselves.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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- Why doesn't your writing suck anymore?

Sometimes it does suck. I mean, Dave, you've edited plenty of my work and said things like "This is beneath you, Steven." In the early drafts of Turning the Tables there were parts of the manuscript that were so bad I would wake up in a cold sweat thinking "Oh my god oh my god oh my god, this book is going to suck." But, when I do write something good, it comes out that way for a few reasons:

First, there's practice -- and that doesn't just mean writing a lot. It means writing a lot and being aware of what's bad and good about it. It's just like in photography: you have to take a lot of photographs to get good at photography, but if you take a thousand photos and never look at them critically (a process that requires self-criticism and criticism by others) you won't learn anything just from the simple act of pressing the shutter a lot.

Second, there's breaking away from forms of writing that weren't appropriate to my subject matter. A restaurant review isn't a law review article. I know that seems obvious, but it takes some time to unlearn habits of writing and to learn new ones.

Third and, I think, most importantly, there's the thinking behind the writing. Writing itself -- as in the act of putting together readable sentences -- comes pretty easily to me. I mean, I was born in an English-speaking country, grew up with two college professors for parents and spent something like 22 years in elite schools. I don't have any serious learning disabilities or anything like that. So if I couldn't write at least passably I'd have to be considered a complete idiot. But writing well about a subject, in my opinion, requires that you think well about it first. Otherwise you're just stringing words together artfully (most food writing doesn't even accomplish that, and much of what is called good food writing accomplishes only that). This is what I think really marked a turning point in my writing. If you look at the work I was doing up through I guess about 2000, what you can see is a steady progression of improvement in the first and second areas I highlighted above, but a lack of very much in the way of ideas -- I was writing about food for the sake of writing about food because I found food interesting. Then a number of issues presented themselves to me all at once -- the media reactions to the Ducasse opening in New York, my mounting disillusionment with the Zagat survey, the decline (and now I'd say fall) of New York Times restaurant reviewing, the spread of Slow Food and various other movements and ideas that I think are deeply flawed, and of course the founding of eGullet -- and I realized that the next step for me was going to have to involve developing bigger ideas about food and, in particular, about dining and food media. Of course, that makes it possible to do "serious" writing about food, but that's not the point I'm making. The point is that when you have a foundation of serious though about a subject, everything you write about that subject is going to take on depth and dimensionality that couldn't have otherwise existed.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I won. He was guilty, I didn't feel great about it...

You didn't feel great about it? I wouldn't have felt great about it, either. I would have felt FABULOUS about it! What kind of lawyer were you? No wonder you quit! :biggrin:

Edited by SethG (log)

"I don't mean to brag, I don't mean to boast;

but we like hot butter on our breakfast toast!"

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Steven, how did you decide on the structure of your book? Did the idea come to you fully formed? Or in bits and pieces? Did you write the book from beginning to end, left to right, or did you write the various chapters in an order that made sense to you at the time, and then rearrange them?

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The original proposal had the working title How to Dine, and it was essentially a how-to book. We had a publisher interested in doing the How to Dine book, but at around the same time Susan Friedland at HarperCollins expressed interest in doing a book with me -- but she thought How to Dine wasn't significant enough. After meeting with her, it was clear that she was the right person to be working with, and not just because Harper has a lot of money -- she had vision, and more importantly she believed in me. She kept saying, "Is this the book you really want to write?" and "There needs to be more of you in the book."

So the whole How to Dine concept got refigured as Chapter 1 of Turning the Tables (which was originally called, ugh, Restaurants Revealed until Dave Scantland suggested Turning the Tables as the title and Susan came up with Restaurants from the Inside Out as the subtitle -- though we briefly flirted with "from the Outside In" as a possibility). After the introduction (some of which you've read above) you get the chapter (Chapter 1) on how to get what you want from restaurants. It covers all the basics -- it's the guerrilla dining guide: how to get that hard-to-get table, how to become a regular, how to behave at a sushi bar, etc. It's the most commercially appealing and potentially popular part of the book, which is why it's first. From there, the chapters progress as a walk through every aspect of the restaurant business: what goes on behind the kitchen door, the ins and outs of food sources (and related controversies), the media, the business of the restaurant business and, finally, the past, present and future of the American dining scene. So the rest of the chapters are not overt in their how-to-ness, but the idea is that as you learn more about all those facets of dining you will be a more informed and therefore more effective consumer.

Not only did the order of those chapters change somewhat, but also what went into each chapter changed. I would look at something and one day I'd think it belonged in the "behind the kitchen door" chapter, and then I'd realize it was a much better fit for the "business of the restaurant business" chapter. Of course I had to rewrite the whole thing to make that work. In the end the flow of the book wound up going from -- surprise -- beginning to end, simple to complex, fun to serious. You know, like how a book is supposed to be. It's easier said than done, though.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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[...]Then a number of issues presented themselves to me all at once -- the media reactions to the Ducasse opening in New York, my mounting disillusionment with the Zagat survey, the decline (and now I'd say fall) of New York Times restaurant reviewing, the spread of Slow Food and various other movements and ideas that I think are deeply flawed, and of course the founding of eGullet -- and I realized that the next step for me was going to have to involve developing bigger ideas about food and, in particular, about dining and food media.[...]

I guess a critique of Slow Food would be beyond the scope of your book? I'd be interested in seeing you elaborate on how you feel like that movement is deeply flawed (if I understood you correctly). If this isn't an appropriate thread for that, we could start another.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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While I think plenty of the things Slow Food advocates are admirable, I have a problem with Slow Food's opposition to many other things. When the Slow Food people -- and by that I mean the leadership because there are plenty of well-meaning people involved in Slow Food who just enjoy the events and gourmet culture and don't realize the extent of what else they're supporting -- get into politics, they go off the deep end. In many ways it's a political movement disguised as or manifested as a culinary movement, and I don't agree with its anti-globalization, anti-progress ideology. But yes, I think the politics are beyond the scope of this topic and indeed beyond the scope of eG Forums discussion, so I'll leave it at that.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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You mention the importance of a foundation built from thinking deeply and clearly about your subject. When I read that it made perfect sense to me. Seems obvious, yet maybe it isn't.

How much do you think about the audience who will read your restaurant review, book, essay, etc. when you are writing? Does the audience impact what or how you write about a particular subject?

"Eat it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." TMJ Jr. R.I.P.

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I always consider my audience, but I won't pander to my audience. Amazingly, I think a lot of folks don't see a difference. I see myself as having an obligation to write what I believe -- I won't change my beliefs for my audience. However, of course, you have to explain your beliefs differently to different audiences, for example if you're giving lectures on food writing to, on the one hand, a group of fifth graders in career-day presentation and, on the other hand, the International Association of Culinary Professionals, you're going to present the same ideas differently.

Which isn't to say I always succeed. Especially when writing for magazines that are heavily edited, things often get diluted and dumbed down. And of course there are those assignments that totally lack substance, for example if somebody wants me to write some silly food-trends piece or recommend five restaurants in the theater district and I'm going to get paid $500 to do it, that's great -- I'm happy to take the money. But setting aside the money, in many ways I prefer writing online and writing books: I have more control over subject-matter and more involvement in the editing process (if there is any editing at all).

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I can quit any time I want.

What's for lunch?

Seriously though, do you know what is at the heart of your continued obsession with restaurants and food apart from the fact that your interest developed at a young age and that your father had a significant role to play?

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Hi there - the book looks wonderful. I have had many great dining experiences with my parents. They often refer to me, 6 months old, sitting in the high chair at the local chinese food place, chomping on a spare rib. We continue to share food experiences, now with my 3 yr old and 8 month old chomping on the spare ribs - it's wonderful.

My dad recently won, at an auction, a day in the kitchen with Michael Schlow of Radius, in Boston. I will join him there. If there was one thing that we should concentrate on or take away with us, what should it be?

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What you should do is concentrate on comfortable and safe shoes, otherwise your day will be remembered mostly for foot pain. I've never fully sorted out the shoe issue, but am pretty happy with my current strategy: Timberland light hikers. In any event, you need something with good arch support and with a good non-skid sole.

Then you should tell Mr. Schlow that you don't want to be protected or treated like a tourist -- that you want to do the actual work he'd give to, say, a stagiare from another restaurant who came to spend a day with him. That's how you're going to get a real feel for what happens in a professional kitchen: by doing menial labor and repeating it over and over again.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Seriously though, do you know what is at the heart of your continued obsession with restaurants and food apart from the fact that your interest developed at a young age and that your father had a significant role to play?

Well, you see, nobody gets to call it an obsession anymore, except for me when I write about myself. To everyone else, because I get paid to do it, it's now a profession. And everybody knows that you can't be obsessed with your profession. That you spend all your free time thinking about your profession (save for when you're thinking about sex or worrying about money) doesn't make you obsessed -- it just makes you especially professional.

That being said, my obsession . . . I mean my professional interest in food has been driven by a number of different things over the years, but probably the number one factor has been the Frankenstein effect. That is, the effect by which you create a monster and it takes on a life of its own and you no longer control it. Do you think, for example, that the beast known as the eGullet Society listens to me very much anymore? Nope. Everybody on staff has pretty much learned how to do without me, which by the way according to all the professional management texts means I am the world's best CEO.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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  • 4 weeks later...
- What is Eggs Professor?

The original egg-white omelet, from before egg-white omelets were cool and before Egg Beaters was a meme. The idea was to make an egg-white omelet with every vegetable in the restaurant's mise-en-place, except for green peppers -- never green peppers.

This strikes me as a great punch-line.

Seriously, though, why were green peppers excluded from Eggs Professor? Was it due to a food allergy or something medical? I do know that green vegetables interere with blood thinners.

There are two sides to every story and one side to a Möbius band.

borschtbelt.blogspot.com

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It was due to nothing more than a pure, unbridled, lifelong hatred of cooked green peppers. Mind you, he liked raw green peppers just fine.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Yes, it seems Amazon shipped copies over the weekend. Several people have mentioned this to me. I guess the idea is that they're supposed to ship so as to arrive approximately on the on-sale date?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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