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A Question For Food Writers


jkonick
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I am currently in college, and an aspring food writer. I am sort of confused however, as to how these two things are related, and how the former will ultimately help me in the future with a career in the latter. After doing some searching on this site, I've seen a lot of different backgrounds (a lot of lawyers, though I don't think I'll try the food writer via law school route), so I'm wondering what areas you've studied in, and if they have anything to do with your current profession.

My current plan is to study French and comparative literature - will these help me? I don't know. I do know that they interest me, and more importantly they are not math or science. I also plan on studying abroad in France, where I will undoubtedly eat a lot of good food, and hopefully get some good experience.

I've also been doing more or less weekly food stories for my school's (University of Washington) paper (www.thedaily.washington.edu), which, prior to me, had nothing except an online guide to teriyaki, pizza and thai restaurants around campus.

I look forward to hearing your replies and maybe advice as to which classes I should take next quarter!

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French is great and all, but learn Spanish too. It is the lingua franca of most kitchens in the US. And, some of the most innovative cooking in the world right now is going on in Spain. Even if you are not planning on actually cooking, knowing Spanish will allow you to be comfortable in kitchens, you may want to stage or interview cooks, or read Adria, travel, etc.

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I didn't know what college was for other than fun when i was there and i still don't. I always wanted to be a writer and set my sights on that, first on appallingly self conscious novels, then more succesfully with newspaper stories then magazines then books where i accidentally fell into food.

My advice: learn how to write first, about anything and everything. write every day. read great writers. travel all you can. look out rather than in. engage interesting strangers. become a spy. find out where the locals eat.

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And while you're busy learning how to write, why not learn how to cook?

Now there's a novel idea, food writers who know how to cook.

I went to cooking school and worked as a pastry chef. I also grew up speaking French. Both have served me well.

What served me best was not so much learning how to cook, but learning how to research, study, observe, and "get it." Returning to school (CIA) after so many years writing and cooking has helped me bump it up a notch. But my situation is a little different, I think.

The best advice I was given: Don't quit your day job! :biggrin:

"Oh, tuna. Tuna, tuna, tuna." -Andy Bernard, The Office
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Write, write, write. Travel, travel, travel. Eat, eat, eat. There is NOTHING that replaces experience.

We own a local newspaper and a menu directory in our neck of the wood. Many of the people who write to us to try and get an article published are not particularly knowledgeable. Others have tons of education but have no real 'taste' for eating - they simply think it is the 'flavour' of the month and that it will be profitable - but they aren't truely interested.

While you don't have to be a top chef, you should have experience in tasting wines, identifying varietals, experiencing the best and the worst of wine, before you write an article about wine. It's all in the details that you can't learn unless you live them. Some of the best pieces we have received have been personal accounts.

For example, if you lived around here and wanted to propose that you do a segment on attending local cooking school, we would be interested in that for the experience. Not so much of the "And then we did this, and then we chopped that". More for the experience of almost nipping off the end of your finger tip and having the chef take the big knife away from you!

Do you see where I am going?

Chantal

www.kawarthacuisine.ca

"Where there are vines, there is civilization"

from Mondovino

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I fell into food writing by accident, while I was doing my grad work in Asian languages and comparative literature. Writing is the most important skill, followed by passion for food and travel. I speak Japanese, Spanish, and French, and these have been invaluable. So are research skills and practical culinary knowledge.

I do wish I had studied journalism.

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I would recommend adding as much writing intensive coursework into your literature curriculum as you can, especially nonfiction or journalism. It can be quite handy for future freelancing etc.... Also, see if you can take some classes where fellow students "evaluate" your work as a group--this will give you an idea of what it's like to work multiple editors!

In addition, read, read, read and write, write, write on your own time. M.F.K. Fisher, Steingarten and Reichl are all good starts. Keep a journal. Start a web blog--whatever it takes to keep writing, so you don't get "cold".

On the food front, take cooking classes (even recreational) cook at home, collect cookbooks and read them front to back (these are all things that I did). People who choose food writing as a career are usually food obsessed in some way, so find what interests you most (styles of cooking, regions etc...). Start exploring and see what interests you--maybe later on this will help you find a focus.

For me, I went the writing route first--M.F.A. in creative nonfiction and then years of teaching writing. While I was doing this, I also went to cooking school, worked in many restaurants (hands on is best!) apprenticed with chefs in my area, catered, you name it. Simply immerse youself in both food and writing.

Good luck!

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What kind of food writing do you want to do? Do you have a specific area of interest?

I regret not taking any writing classes in University - though I always wanted to write, I got a BS (really) in hotel/restaurant management. I doubt learning French or Spanish would help me - because of my subject of choice. It depends where you are and what you're writing about.

Study writing - and write. Learn all you can about food and cooking. I agree with everybody else who told you to travel, write and eat. And don't give up. It can take a lot of persistence to get yourself published.

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As someone who's doing many of the same things as you, let me make a couple suggestions based on my experiences.

Obviously, read, write, eat, research. That goes without saying.

Also, you seem to write predominantly about Asian cuisine and trends. That might be what's available in your area or what you feel most comfortable with, but I encourage you to branch out. You're writing to college kids who aren't going to notice if you're writing a little bit outside of your comfort level. Exposing yourself to new cuisines and really researching them can only help. The same idea extends toward searching out that obscure Ethiopian restaurant or the hole-in-the-wall taqueria. By becoming more and more familiar with the wide variety of cuisines in your area, you'll only become a better, more experienced writer.

Since you're writing for a student newspaper, perhaps you might want to be more whimsicial. (I liked the line about the ridge-y Foreman pancakes.) This may be a function of your newspaper's journalistic style, but it's hard for a college student to read through 500+ words on the merits of one blend of tea over another, or the nuances between different pho broths. By making your writing more fun you might garner more readers who might get a laugh while also learning something valuable about food.

I also might suggest

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Thanks for the answers everyone. BryanZ, I definitely know what you're talking about. The UW is surrounded by a LOT of Asian restaurants, and also has a big Asian population, so in the context of having to write about food specifically in the area, Asian food is pretty predominant. Japanese food also happens to be somewhat of an obsession of mine (I have with me, in the dorms, seven Japanese cookbooks). My next few articles are much less Asian-oriented (no pun intended).

As far as eating, writing and travelling, I've been doing a lot of that. Last summer my family went on a three week road trip through California and the Southwest, and I kept a journal of restaurants we went to that ended up being about 20 pages. I'm heading to San Francisco next weekend and my first stop after I get off the plane is Y. Ben House for dim sum, which I've been craving since I last ate there in July. I try to write pretty often about food just in my own spare time, and I definitely read a lot as well. I'm currently working on Best Food Writing of 2005 and The Art of Eating between Faulkner and French homework.

Cooking is a passion too, and despite living in the dorms, I've still managed to do a lot of it. My parents, though I love them, are not great cooks, and acknowledge that, so I get to make dinner pretty often at home. I try to read cookbooks and test out new recipes or techniques I haven't tried before. As far as culinary school goes, I'd love to do it, but definitely can't afford that and UW tuition at the same time. I do have a food handler's permit however, so I suppose I could just try to get a job at a restaurant this summer. I did work at Subway a few years ago...

Spanish is a good idea too. I picked up a little at Disneyland this summer because everything there is in English and Spanish. Don't think "please watch your children" will help me in any restaurant kitchens though. :raz: The advice for non-fiction English classes is good too. I think my writing is OK, but I haven't really taken many writing classes so I could definitely benefit from some actual instruction. Likewise with journalism - food writing may not be "hard news" but I should probably know the basics.

Thanks for all your advice!

Edited by jkonick (log)
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Write, write, write.  Travel, travel, travel.  Eat, eat, eat.  There is NOTHING that replaces experience.

To this I would add...listen, listen, listen.

...And learn from others. Talk to that old pizza guy behind the counter who has been baking coal-fired pies for 30 years....and take notes.

I am not a food writer, per se, just a general journalist and pop culturist (another name for celebrity stalker without a record). But I have written food features and conducted interviews with chefs and others in the food world.

Start by writing...and then do some more writing...it's the only way.

Edited by TrishCT (log)
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The advice for non-fiction English classes is good too. I think my writing is OK, but I haven't really taken many writing classes so I could definitely benefit from some actual instruction. Likewise with journalism - food writing may not be "hard news" but I should probably know the basics.

Thanks for all your advice!

Yup, definitely take some non-fiction and journalism classes. A good writer is a good writer, no matter what the subject. Knowing narrative arc, building tension and the gentle tug and release of good fiction applies to non-fiction as well. BUT, you also need to be a good reporter, researcher, analyst and synthesizer of knowledge. A lot of that comes from journalism classwork and fieldwork.

By the way, eGullet has its own class on How to Be A Better Food Writer with David Leite. Definitely worth a thorough read.

Chad

Chad Ward

An Edge in the Kitchen

William Morrow Cookbooks

www.chadwrites.com

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Everyone is giving such great advice! Here is a dab more...

When I was in college, I loved food. I interned in the "Lifestyles" department of the local paper? Why? To know the food editor! Of course! Okay, so I reported on weddings, society events and such, I was still sitting near the FOOD desk. A few requests and examples of my writing later...voila! For free I was writing food. Clips. Oh so important. Of course, I gave that up for a while for more lucrative tasks. Then, when I really wanted to know food, I went to the CIA, knowing I could support myself freelancing other stuff while I learned. Well, darned it! While I was there, didn't I become a food critic? I've had to give that wonderful gig up so I can cook (see what the CIA does to you?); however, I still freelance food writing and adore it...

So, there is my advice. Get into the local paper and go from there...eat everything, and more importantly DIGEST everything! Best of luck!

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Here's my 2 sense. Although people will give me a bunch of flack for saying this....

Simply put. QUIT SCHOOL! There is no substitution for experience. Real Life University is the key. Read, Write, Travel, Cook. I think learning to cook is a great idea for food writers. It will make it easier to understand what is really going on with the food. Why it may taste a certain way. So you can "get it".

If you need to learn the technical stuff, find a good Jr. College, or take some classes at UCLA Extention. But you aren't going to get where you want to go by waisting valuable time over the then 4 or so years.

Trust me. I did the whole 4 year UCLA thing, and then the Culinary School thing. And I learned more about cooking when I started to travel and work for a living.

Find a great author who might be willing to take some time out of thier busy schedule to look at your stuff, comment on it, help you, and mentor you. Who knows, maybe someone like Ruhlman would be happy to be your mentor. Just ask. People are more willing than you think to help a young ambitious person.

Ian W

Former Chef / Partner, Cafe La Terre and Bistro V Express

Sebastopol, CA

Currently living the culinary dream in South East Asia.

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Here's my 2 sense. Although people will give me a bunch of flack for saying this....

Simply put. QUIT SCHOOL! There is no substitution for experience. Real Life University is the key. Read, Write, Travel, Cook. I think learning to cook is a great idea for food writers. It will make it easier to understand what is really going on with the food. Why it may taste a certain way. So you can "get it".

If you need to learn the technical stuff, find a good Jr. College, or take some classes at UCLA Extention. But you aren't going to get where you want to go by waisting valuable time over the then 4 or so years.

Trust me. I did the whole 4 year UCLA thing, and then the Culinary School thing. And I learned more about cooking when I started to travel and work for a living.

Find a great author who might be willing to take some time out of thier busy schedule to look at your stuff, comment on it, help you, and mentor you. Who knows, maybe someone like Ruhlman would be happy to be your mentor. Just ask. People are more willing than you think to help a young ambitious person.

I have to disagree...and I am not a disagreeable person! Finish school! The reality is that a BA degree in today's society is practically meaningless...keep going and get your Masters if you can..while you intern at a reputable paper and keep digesting while you get a great base of clips.

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This is a little cart-before-the-horseish, but once you're getting published (and I'll reiterate: don't give up!), try and find an editor who you really respect, and carefully watch how they work with your text.

My writing has improved dramatically since working with a very meticulous, thoughtful editor (Ed Behr). He's usually considerate enough to leave my text and his in place so that I can see the change right away and understand why his version works. Largely because of him, I now have a mental checklist I use when writing a draft for any publication (and even my own site; I spend more time editing my blog posts than writing them).

My experience with writing classes (which is not extensive) is that students are too polite to each other. You don't want polite; you want helpful. So look for teachers that other students describe as really hard or picky or tiring. Maybe s/he is just a tyrant, but there's a good chance you'll learn a lot from him/her.

Derrick Schneider

My blog: http://www.obsessionwithfood.com

You have to eat. You might as well enjoy it!

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Here's my 2 sense. Although people will give me a bunch of flack for saying this....

Simply put. QUIT SCHOOL! There is no substitution for experience. Real Life University is the key. Read, Write, Travel, Cook. I think learning to cook is a great idea for food writers. It will make it easier to understand what is really going on with the food. Why it may taste a certain way. So you can "get it".

People are more willing than you think to help a young ambitious person.

That's got to be about the least useful thing I've ever read on eG, no personal attack intended. People may be willing to help a young ambitious person, but are pretty unlikely to help an ambitious person without a college degree.

Try even getting in the door of any reputable newspaper or magazine without a college degree. I assure you that in today's job market it's not going to happen.

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Here's my 2 sense. Although people will give me a bunch of flack for saying this....

Simply put. QUIT SCHOOL! There is no substitution for experience. Real Life University is the key. Read, Write, Travel, Cook. I think learning to cook is a great idea for food writers. It will make it easier to understand what is really going on with the food. Why it may taste a certain way. So you can "get it".

If you need to learn the technical stuff, find a good Jr. College, or take some classes at UCLA Extention. But you aren't going to get where you want to go by waisting valuable time over the then 4 or so years.

Trust me. I did the whole 4 year UCLA thing, and then the Culinary School thing. And I learned more about cooking when I started to travel and work for a living.

Find a great author who might be willing to take some time out of thier busy schedule to look at your stuff, comment on it, help you, and mentor you. Who knows, maybe someone like Ruhlman would be happy to be your mentor. Just ask. People are more willing than you think to help a young ambitious person.

Ouch. Sorry, but yes - you will get some flack for saying this.

First of all, the question is about learning to write about food, not simply learning about "getting it" or "finding why it may taste a certain way". There is more to writing than "getting it".

In your post alone, there are enough spelling and grammar mistakes to make any knowledgeable reader grimace. . .and unfortunately they are not the sort of "mistakes" that are simple to make. The mistakes show ignorance about "how to write".

Did you take English classes at UCLA? What were your grades?

Have YOU found a "great author" to mentor YOU? Can you give us an example of how you know it possible and it seems perhaps even probable that "great authors" (who do have their own lives to lead, books to write, and income to make) will merrily find the time to mentor a "young ambitious person"?

Please note: I am not against the idea of working to learn, and am fully accepting of the idea that life often offers a "better" education than college.

But it is also true that the most practical time for a person to attend university is when they are young, when they do NOT have the pressures of family or financial responsibilities.

Any young person that has this opportunity should, in this day of credentialism in all fields, including the food business AND the writing business, take full advantage of it.

To say "Quit" to someone shows a lack of forethought or of care.

You have had the opportunity and you did it. Perhaps it *was* a waste of time for you. But it may not be, and generally is not considered to be - for most people.

My final conclusion is that you must be writing a column at the moment on comparative tastings of spirits and have forgotten to spit and are swallowing intead. This is the only reasonable explanation for your presentation and your recommendation.

:smile:

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My advice is to eat, ask lots of questions, learn how to know when something is made well, even if you dont like it.

Develop a style and make it your own, hit up the local paper and offer to write some stuff for them, for free if you have to, once you get published it just gets easier from there...

Thats what I did and its working out well for me so far....

I am based in L.A. but in NYC now waiting to judge an Iron Chef battle in the morning...Had my first NYC meal at Patsis Braserie tonight...not bad, but not what I expected for 72 bucks....looking forward to checking out the eats in the great city for the rest of the week...

Best of luck..

Moo, Cluck, Oink.....they all taste good!

The Hungry Detective

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Here's my 2 sense. Although people will give me a bunch of flack for saying this....

Simply put. QUIT SCHOOL! There is no substitution for experience. Real Life University is the key. Read, Write, Travel, Cook. I think learning to cook is a great idea for food writers. It will make it easier to understand what is really going on with the food. Why it may taste a certain way. So you can "get it".

People are more willing than you think to help a young ambitious person.

That's got to be about the least useful thing I've ever read on eG, no personal attack intended. People may be willing to help a young ambitious person, but are pretty unlikely to help an ambitious person without a college degree.

Try even getting in the door of any reputable newspaper or magazine without a college degree. I assure you that in today's job market it's not going to happen.

I knew many people would disagree. But the least usefull thing you ever read? I don't quite know about that. It all really depends on the type of person you are. But personally, I have never once gotten a job based on my schooling. It may be different because I am a chef, not a writer. But in any job skill will always outway schooling.

If leaving school is not your "style" then for sure, take the other advice about getting into journalism classes and all that. I was just letting you know that thier are other ways. I never said I was a hotshot writer and to follow me for I am all knowing. A question was asked, and I simply offered my opinion.

Ian W

Former Chef / Partner, Cafe La Terre and Bistro V Express

Sebastopol, CA

Currently living the culinary dream in South East Asia.

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Develop a style and make it your own, hit up the local paper and offer to write some stuff for them, for free if you have to, once you get published it just gets easier from there...

And I'd add, write for free as a last resort. Pubs are very accustomed to eager young food writers who are willing to work for free or close to it. If you lower your wages now, it'll come back to bite you later when you can't get paid adequately for your experience.

I once heard a magazine publisher say they didn't need to pay me well because there were plenty of people who were lined up to write for nothing. You get what you pay for, I retorted.

Unpaid food writing keeps the wages low for everyone.

(And yes, I know sometimes writing for free is the only option--I've done it--and I know most magazines and newspapers don't have big budgets, but you'll set a bad precedent for yourself)

Derrick Schneider

My blog: http://www.obsessionwithfood.com

You have to eat. You might as well enjoy it!

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But personally, I have never once gotten a job based on my schooling. It may be different because I am a chef, not a writer.

You think?

The original poster is writing for a major university's student paper and has these few years to build up a good clippings file and to use the university's network to line up jobs. Throwing that away with the vague hope of getting a famous writer to mentor you? Just nuts, in my opinion.

If you hate school, leave. You're not going to get much out of it if you haven't the interest or the motivation. But journalism is one thing you can get a lot of practice in during college. And also, no stigma attaches to writing for free if it's your college paper. In the meantime you can also be studying languages, sciences and any number of other things that can help you deepen as a writer.

Edited by Tess (log)
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Here's my 2 sense. Although people will give me a bunch of flack for saying this....

Simply put. QUIT SCHOOL! There is no substitution for experience. Real Life University is the key. Read, Write, Travel, Cook. I think learning to cook is a great idea for food writers. It will make it easier to understand what is really going on with the food. Why it may taste a certain way. So you can "get it".

I agree that there is no substitution for experience, but I think the college experience can be as important as real-life experience. Everyone is different, but for me college gave me the foundation to build my life experiences on. I don't think the life experiences would have been as helpful to me if I hadn't done the college thing first. (And as an added bonus, a college degree helped me get good jobs in the publishing industry to add to my experience, and the cushy temp jobs in between writing assignments.)

Yup, definitely take some non-fiction and journalism classes. A good writer is a good writer, no matter what the subject. Knowing narrative arc, building tension and the gentle tug and release of good fiction applies to non-fiction as well. BUT, you also need to be a good reporter, researcher, analyst and synthesizer of knowledge. A lot of that comes from journalism classwork and fieldwork.

I took as many journalism and writing classes as I could, including creative writing. I also took a wide variety of electives -- economics, anthropology, art history, and more -- basically anything that interested me. I think when you know a little bit about a lot of things, it helps you see subject matter from a lot of different angles which can help keep your perspective as a writer fresh and appealing.

Edited by TPO (log)

Tammy Olson aka "TPO"

The Practical Pantry

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Thanks BouchonIntern for the advice, but I think I'll stay in school for now anyway. If nothing else, I'm pretty sure my parents would have a fit if all their money went down the drain (regardless of whether you think it may be going there already). Ideally I will be able to get some of that real world experience and go to school at the same time. My school schedule is not so crazy that I don't have time for extracurricular culinary and travel forays.

I will definitely also follow the advice of looking to write for local papers/doing internships. I am actually getting paid right now to write for my school's paper, which is pretty cool. And, being a freshman, unless something comes up, I'll be able to keep this gig for at least another four years. Of course, writing for a publication that has a wider distribution would be really cool, but as for now I'm at least getting a lot of clips which will hopefully lead to later jobs.

Also, for those of you who did internships out of college, tell me more about that. Did you just do an internship for a paper and hang around with the food writer? What about internships for food magazines? Or other food publications, websites, etc. Do many food news outlets have interns?

Thanks again for all the great advice!

Edited by jkonick (log)
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