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A Question For Food Writers


jkonick
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First, jkonick, you're welcome to join us over on the Pacific NW board; lots of good Seattle food discussion.

From my acquaintance with several food writers, I think it would be a good idea to look into becoming either a writer who focuses on food or a food professional who writes, rather than just a "food writer." I think that is a narrow focus for building a career; you'll want to have a broader and more marketable skill set than just food writing.

Also, if you become a freelance food writer (like my husband) it's very helpful to have a spouse/partner with a salary and health insurance (that's me).

Hungry Monkey May 2009
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Thanks, LaurieA-B for the invite to the NW board. I lurk pretty often but maybe I'll throw a post in there now and then.

The culinary school argument is interesting. For now I'll stick with just "regular" college, as that's all that time and money permit, but if the chance arises I would definitely do it, if for no other reason than to sharpen my own cooking abilities. It's something I've been thinking about doing for a while.

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Must you have a culinary ed or line cook or wait staff experience, no.  but i sure wish more of the journalists out there did.  Sage Parsons has gotten by more than fine without it.  but he's been at this, what, some fifty years now, he knows what he's talking about.  getting a culinary ed or working for six month at a really good restaurant, because time happens differently in such circs, can build up a lot of knowledge in a short time, a lot faster than old-fashioned legwork.

In that FCI course I took, written about on another thread, we had Sam Sifton (former Times dining ed.) speak to our class. He said working in a restaurant or as a cook wasn't really necessary. Dean Richman said the same, for various reasons. But everyone who has done both agrees with what Mr. Ruhlmann said right here.

I think you can write about stuff. Or, you can 'get' it. It makes a real difference to the readers, and to the people you're writing about. I've found that the people you're covering respect that you've done what it takes to understand them. And that can be pretty nice.

Writing, like cooking, is a skill that takes lots of work and dedication to perfect, and pardon me if the following sounds a little sharp-elbowed, but I would suggest that a culinary professional who has written little or no prose will be just about as good a food writer as a writer who has little or no familiarity with the inner workings of the places where food is prepared or produced. But the writer has the distinct leg up in this particular pairing if for no other reason than that he or she can organize thoughts and observations into understandable and we hope engaging prose.

This, BTW, is not unique to food writing. The fact that the majority of journalists working in the US majored in journalism or English or communications rather than the subjects they are interested in should tell you (a) what skill counts most when it comes to entering the profession and (b) why the profession has the shortcomings it has. However, if this were not the case, we would have far less readable newspapers and magazines, even if their content contained fewer errors and a deeper understanding of the subjects being reported upon.

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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[ I would suggest that a culinary professional who has written little or no prose will be just about as good a food writer as a writer who has little or no familiarity with the inner workings of the places where food is prepared or produced.  But the writer has the distinct leg up in this particular pairing if for no other reason than that he or she can organize thoughts and observations into understandable and we hope engaging prose.

uh, sandy, isn't that a bit like saying anybody can cook but someone who knows how will do a better job because the food will taste good?

two things that i think are critical:

it's called "food writing" not "possessing food knowledge." the whole point of the profession is to be able to transmit information to other people. in this we are different from academia because our writings are judged on how clearly we do this.

and it's called "food writing" not "restaurant writing." i really do find it appalling how many people who claim to be fascinated by food really seem to only be interested in it when it is served to them. it's a big wide food world out there folks, and restaurants are only one small (but admittedly glamorous--and fun) slice of it.

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I totally agree with the networking thing. Along with a well balanced educational life and work life (meaning, immersing yourself as much as you can in writing, cooking, food wine, travel etc...) don't forget to attend those writing conferences, join writer's groups, read and post like crazy here on egullet.

There's an awesome food writer's conference held at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia every year. It's not cheap, but there are scholarships available. Get some more writing under your belt (since most, if not all, of the scholarships involve the submission of published clips) or save your pennies (lots of pennies!) and try to go, even if just one time. Note: this is a symposium for professional food writers, so it may not be something you will want to pursue until after you graduate, but attending this conference is something I would recommend pursuing shortly after graduation. You never know what may come out of it--and talk about internship opps!

It was one of the best networking moves I ever made (got my first cookbook deal out it) and I learned so much about the various aspects of food writing from successful folks in the biz-- everything from journalism to professional editing to writing food-related memoirs--you name it. The conference is an excellent resource, especially if you want see how other's actually make a living in this crazy business.

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There are a number of useful suggestions already posited here. Cooking, language, and writing - via reading, education, and work experience - are each valuable; the last - writing - is the most difficult to learn.

Here are a few things that have served me particularly well over the years:

1. A 'Needs Satisfaction' course, such as that taught by companies such as Xerox to their sales and marketing reps. The most valuable part of the course for you will be in discovering how to form direct and indirect questions, and support and summary statements in order to get the information that you require. While some clever journalists enjoy this skill intuitively, learning it early will make your information retrieval better faster, and a much better listener. A strong side benefit is that it will aslo teach you how to sell your work. Xerox Learning Systems and other companies market these courses to outsiders.

2. Follow the Money. Few food writers (and surprisingy few restaurant critics, some who aren't even conversant with basics such as food costs) have deep knowledge on the economics of food, distribution, restaurant operations and the like. First, it provides empathy with your subject if you understand their financial landscape. Second, it gives you two stories every time you write one; there is a growing marketplce for the business of food stories. Third, it grounds you, tempering the flowery language and faux-romance with reality, and should allow you to stare past the hyperbole and flackery with confidence. Last, if nothing else, it will set you apart from your peers.

3. Don't lose your voice. Some (especially middlebrow glossy) periodicals and their editors will endeavour to give you laryngitis. Listen, adapt. But just as all politics and food is local, never give up your own local voice and perspective.

4. Humour: There is an vast oversupply of food writers who take themselves too seriously, as if yet another cookbook or history of cocktail weenies could reverse global warming. Equally, there's a dearth of funny, self-deprecators out there which probably explains why Calvin Trillin sells well in reprint. The last comes pretty naturally to me (Post # 137) as there's ample room. Share your humour with others.

5. Always remember, "If you're talking too much about the food, you're eating with the wrong people."

6. Many outstanding writers (food and otherwise) do something else completely different during daylight hours. I do and I enjoy both equally. In fact I couldn't do one without the other.

7. For restaurant reviewing, there's a Methodology Template at Post # 51 here.

8. All successful businesses thrive because they offer either a unique good or service, or do something better than the competition does faster, or the reverse. Decide what makes your business - your business of writing - unique.

9. You're blessed to live in an area where local ingredients fairly leap out of the sea and from the farms; the wines are excellent too. As an early exercise, for a feature, try following one ingredient such as a fish or grape, along every route of groeth, harvest, processing, packaging, distribution, retailing or cooking in a restaurant. Interview its tenders, document the added monetary value at each stage.

I hope this helps.

Cheers,

Jamie

Edited by jamiemaw (log)

from the thinly veneered desk of:

Jamie Maw

Food Editor

Vancouver magazine

www.vancouvermagazine.com

Foodblog: In the Belly of the Feast - Eating BC

"Profumo profondo della mia carne"

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I'm going to pose a somewhat related question. Hopefully I'll get some answers.

What do you think is a fair policy toward receiving comp'd meals? Generally, I'm against this, as is my newspaper, but my budget won't allow me to review a couple significant restaurants. If I've been offered to come in by a restaurant publicist or something like that, is it unethical to accept? If accepting a comp'd meal will get me what I think is a good and interesting story, is it worth fighting my higher-ups to let me take it?

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BryanZ: So is your newspaper a student club then? What is it? That's pretty harsh either way, not getting money OR credit. At least you get clips. What school do you go to? And is your paper online? I'd be interested in reading your stories, seeing what kind of competition I'm up against :biggrin:

Jamie: Those are all great tips, thanks. I really am lucky to live in the Seattle where there is an abundance of food (not to mention a relatively short drive to Vancouver or slightly longer road trip to somewhere like San Francisco). Your idea about tracing one food product from its source to the plate is really interesting. Most of my articles have to be related to the UW community in one way or another, so I'll have to see if any food comes from the UW... I know WSU in Eastern Washington makes their own cheese. Granted, that's in the middle of nowhere, and I doubt there are many dairy cows living in the U. District (though the UW has a pretty big campus so they could be hiding them somewhere).

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BryanZ: So is your newspaper a student club then? What is it? That's pretty harsh either way, not getting money OR credit. At least you get clips. What school do you go to? And is your paper online? I'd be interested in reading your stories, seeing what kind of competition I'm up against  :biggrin:

Jamie: Those are all great tips, thanks. I really am lucky to live in the Seattle where there is an abundance of food (not to mention a relatively short drive to Vancouver or slightly longer road trip to somewhere like San Francisco). Your idea about tracing one food product from its source to the plate is really interesting. Most of my articles have to be related to the UW community in one way or another, so I'll have to see if any food comes from the UW... I know WSU in Eastern Washington makes their own cheese. Granted, that's in the middle of nowhere, and I doubt there are many dairy cows living in the U. District (though the UW has a pretty big campus so they could be hiding them somewhere).

Thinking just slightly outside the bento box, you may want to interview the director of UW food services and find out where the campus buffeteria food emanates from (probably a warehouse in Auburn) and trace it back, in staggering quantities, onto the plate. Ditto food production in a Frat House, if they serve meals at UDub.

Cheers,

Jamie

from the thinly veneered desk of:

Jamie Maw

Food Editor

Vancouver magazine

www.vancouvermagazine.com

Foodblog: In the Belly of the Feast - Eating BC

"Profumo profondo della mia carne"

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[Thinking just slightly outside the bento box, you may want to interview the director of UW food services and find out where the campus buffeteria food emanates from (probably a warehouse in Auburn) and trace it back, in staggering quantities, onto the plate. Ditto food production in a Frat House, if they serve meals at UDub.

on the other hand, maybe not. one of the big pushes on campus now is sustainable dining, believe it or not. i spoke at a small farm conference at the cia-napa a couple of years ago and the colleges were out in force. dining is one of the big perks that draws students and it appears some colleges are willing to spend a little money on it.

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Thinking just slightly outside the bento box, you may want to interview the director of UW food services and find out where the campus buffeteria food emanates from (probably a warehouse in Auburn) and trace it back, in staggering quantities, onto the plate. Ditto food production in a Frat House, if they serve meals at UDub.

That would be interesting. I think the UW gets their food from a lot of different places, at least as far as I can tell. The on-campus convenience stores have a lot of pre-made food that comes from sood of mall food court type places. A lot of it is total garbage. We also get some good stuff, like these sodas that apparently usually only go to restaurants, but Housing and Food Services somehow managed to snag some. I also know that everything they serve seems to have a lot of zucchini... I ought to find out where it's all coming from.

As for food coming from smaller producers or organic farms, I'm not sure. I'm sure colleges like Evergreen in Olympia do that, but I don't know about UW. They do seem to have a lot of the same ingredients showing up in dishes all over campus, so regardless there's probably an interesting story behind where it all comes from.

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BryanZ: So is your newspaper a student club then? What is it? That's pretty harsh either way, not getting money OR credit. At least you get clips. What school do you go to? And is your paper online? I'd be interested in reading your stories, seeing what kind of competition I'm up against  :biggrin:

I go to Duke. We put out one of the better student newspapers in the Southeast. I don't really see it as harsh, since I didn't know that kids at other schools got paid or got credit. Go figure. I enjoy it and eat out a lot anyway, so yeah.

I think the reason we don't get credit or pay is because we're independent. As in, we're not explicitly sponsored (though we are the official student daily newspaper) by the school so that means we aren't pressured to write according to the bias of the school's administration. It's a lot of political b.s. but I think we do a good job.

If you're so inclined you can find me at www.chronicle.duke.edu and search for my last name "zupon." I've got some decently big stories coming up in the next couple weeks, and I'm doing everything I can to expand my role as both a student voice and student educator.

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You've already found one of the surest paths to unlocking your potential as a food writer: it's called the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. Just ask JJ Goode, who parlayed his Daily Gullet internship into an internship at Saveur and now a job at Conde Nast.

Steven's right! I graduated from college in 2003--I can't believe I've been out for three years--and joined eGullet during my senior year. I had been writing occasionally about food for my college newspaper, but my editors knew no more about food and writing than I did. No one was telling me that my writing was weak; I was writing about whatever I wanted, in whatever style I chose. In other words, I wasn't improving, and I wasn't learning about the challenge professional writers face: selling your ideas, selling yourself, writing in the very different styles of various publications, and building a portfolio.

When I started writing, and later editing articles, for the Daily Gullet, I was interacting with editors, getting a sense of the editorial process, and being forced to raise the level of my writing. I went from having no way to prove that I was qualified to edit a greeting card to having a resume sporting experience with a respected and adult-sounding organization (eGullet Society sounds so much more real-deal than college newspaper :smile:). I owe almost every success I've had to my time with eGullet, and no, Steven didn't pay me to say that.

Don't get me wrong, though. Working for your college newspaper is great--anything to keep you writing. Make sure to write articles about various subjects, but also work to develop expertise in a specific subject, preferrably one there aren't a lot of experts on. Plently of people know French and Spanish food, so try learning about Laotian food or spirits or, I don't know, Japanese dishware--anything that might some day be big. Then magazines and newspapers might even come to you. :smile:

Edited by jogoode (log)

JJ Goode

Co-author of Serious Barbecue, which is in stores now!

www.jjgoode.com

"For those of you following along, JJ is one of these hummingbird-metabolism types. He weighs something like eleven pounds but he can eat more than me and Jason put together..." -Fat Guy

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jogoode: Great to know there are some eGullet success stories out there! Gives me some encouragement for sure.

I can definitely relate with clueless writers. To give an example of our paper's food writing prior to mine, there was a restaurant review that called nigiri sushi "sashimi sushi." Now I can understand not knowing what nigiri is, but I've been to that restaurant and it's printed right there on the menu... :hmmm:

Similarly, my editor is fine, but she doesn't really know much about food writing. In fact, in the article I did for our restaurant guide, the editor was just one of the news editors, and she made my article all choppy and weird sounding. For a front page news article it would've been great, but it ruined the flow of story. I've basically had the same experience: my editor lets me write about whatever I want, and as long as it's under about 700 words it goes into print. My articles are almost never edited, and I know I'm not that good.

As for a specialty - funny you should mention Japanese. I'm sort of obsessed, and it shows in my articles I think because I tend to include something about Japanese food where ever I can. I'll have to look into that dishware...

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[Thinking just slightly outside the bento box, you may want to interview the director of UW food services and find out where the campus buffeteria food emanates from (probably a warehouse in Auburn) and trace it back, in staggering quantities, onto the plate. Ditto food production in a Frat House, if they serve meals at UDub.

on the other hand, maybe not. one of the big pushes on campus now is sustainable dining, believe it or not. i spoke at a small farm conference at the cia-napa a couple of years ago and the colleges were out in force. dining is one of the big perks that draws students and it appears some colleges are willing to spend a little money on it.

It's coming, I think Russ, but I also believe the exception you cite proves the still-extant rule. One way to push forward, of course, is for student-journalists to do the research and expose the financials: alas, the budget per student per day typically defies gravity, and often even gravy.

Edited by jamiemaw (log)

from the thinly veneered desk of:

Jamie Maw

Food Editor

Vancouver magazine

www.vancouvermagazine.com

Foodblog: In the Belly of the Feast - Eating BC

"Profumo profondo della mia carne"

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You mean we aren't going to eat for free? Dammit. That stipulation was NOT indicated on my Wretchedly Underpaid Writers Guild membership application. I'm demanding a refund.

:biggrin:

To echo what JJ said, I found that nothing improved my writing like editing professionally; to communicate a thought is one endeavor, but to make words sing is entirely another. Now I scrutinize more carefully, always striving to improve flow and melody. Of course, I also continue to endure trauma regarding the serial comma, as I never used it before that editing gig, and now it is like a parasite on my psyche. :sad:

Oh, one other potential path to food writing cum profession: Remain in denial and make as much money as you can doing a normal job (food related, if possible, to gain knowledge) before succumbing to the absolute demand of the soul to write for a living. After a decade of kicking, screaming, and fighting (note comma), I gave in to my restlessness. The words...they own me. :::grumble:::

Jennifer L. Iannolo

Founder, Editor-in-Chief

The Gilded Fork

Food Philosophy. Sensuality. Sass.

Home of the Culinary Podcast Network

Never trust a woman who doesn't like to eat. She is probably lousy in bed. (attributed to Federico Fellini)

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Many people entertain romantic notions about being a food writer, like you eat for free in restaurants. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ahem.

You become a cook/chef to eat for free. Work for food.

I can be reached via email chefzadi AT gmail DOT com

Dean of Culinary Arts

Ecole de Cuisine: Culinary School Los Angeles

http://ecolecuisine.com

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Yes, of course those are essential, chefzadi -- and the starting point -- but one must also have solid tools to work with. A chef who is just starting out is in precisely the same position, and passion does not always equal talent. Rather, the passion serves as a catalyst (hopefully) for constant improvement and honing of skill.

That is the one detriment of web publishing: I could likely spend the rest of my living days re-editing what I've already published. Oh, wait, that's a psychological disorder. Nevermind.

Jennifer L. Iannolo

Founder, Editor-in-Chief

The Gilded Fork

Food Philosophy. Sensuality. Sass.

Home of the Culinary Podcast Network

Never trust a woman who doesn't like to eat. She is probably lousy in bed. (attributed to Federico Fellini)

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This may be stating the obvious, but another thing you can do as a student is spend a year or a semester "abroad" (do they still put it that way?) Some programs require a concentration in the right language but some do not. That's a huge opportunity and something that's much harder to do once you are out of school.

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This may be stating the obvious, but another thing you can do as a student is spend a year or a semester "abroad" (do they still put it that way?) Some programs require a concentration in the right language but some do not. That's a huge opportunity and something that's much harder to do once you are out of school.

I'm planning on spending a year in France and a quarter in Japan. We'll see what else happens!

Jamie/Russ: the truth will be discovered (for UW anyway) soon enough. I emailed my editor about doing a story on where our food comes from, and barring any unforseen complications it should be out in a few weeks.

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jogoode: Great to know there are some eGullet success stories out there! Gives me some encouragement for sure.

I can definitely relate with clueless writers. To give an example of our paper's food writing prior to mine, there was a restaurant review that called nigiri sushi "sashimi sushi." Now I can understand not knowing what nigiri is, but I've been to that restaurant and it's printed right there on the menu...  :hmmm:

Similarly, my editor is fine, but she doesn't really know much about food writing. In fact, in the article I did for our restaurant guide, the editor was just one of the news editors, and she made my article all choppy and weird sounding. For a front page news article it would've been great, but it ruined the flow of story. I've basically had the same experience: my editor lets me write about whatever I want, and as long as it's under about 700 words it goes into print. My articles are almost never edited, and I know I'm not that good.

As for a specialty - funny you should mention Japanese. I'm sort of obsessed, and it shows in my articles I think because I tend to include something about Japanese food where ever I can. I'll have to look into that dishware...

Sashimi sushi! My God!

If you ever want to chat more about eGullet or about what other steps you can take, feel free to PM anytime!

JJ Goode

Co-author of Serious Barbecue, which is in stores now!

www.jjgoode.com

"For those of you following along, JJ is one of these hummingbird-metabolism types. He weighs something like eleven pounds but he can eat more than me and Jason put together..." -Fat Guy

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Many people entertain romantic notions about being a food writer, like you eat for free in restaurants. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ahem.

You become a cook/chef to eat for free. Work for food.

Y'know, "Will Work for Food" would make a great title for a chef's autobiography.

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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[ go to Duke.  We put out one of the better student newspapers in the Southeast.  I don't really see it as harsh, since I didn't know that kids at other schools got paid or got credit.  Go figure.  I enjoy it and eat out a lot anyway, so yeah.

I think the reason we don't get credit or pay is because we're independent.  As in, we're not explicitly sponsored (though we are the official student daily newspaper) by the school so that means we aren't pressured to write according to the bias of the school's administration.  It's a lot of political b.s. but I think we do a good job.

What's a lot of political b.s.? Not being pressured to toe the administration line?

I would think that independence would serve you well. I can't think of a student newspaper at an Ivy League-class university (a group that includes Duke, Stanford, MIT, Caltech and Chicago) that isn't. (I think the student newspapers at the "public Ivies" -- Cal-Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, Virginia et al. -- are connected to their universities' J-schools, but I'm not absolutely certain about this.)

Which isn't to say that the administration doesn't try to influence what gets in the papers. I know that just about every director of public affairs and Vice President for University Communications at Penn tried to work the editors of The Daily Pennsylvanian, with varying degrees of success. The two most recent Penn presidents have had a greater deal of success at doing this.

If you're so inclined you can find me at www.chronicle.duke.edu and search for my last name "zupon."  I've got some decently big stories coming up in the next couple weeks, and I'm doing everything I can to expand my role as both a student voice and student educator.

I plan a surfing safari within the next few days. Could you do us a favor and give a heads-up on the important stories that are upcoming?

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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