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Cliff's Notes for Food Writers


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Cabrales was on another thread disturbed that someone writing for the Washington Post food section didn't have a good handle on the geography of Michelin three-star restaurants. I asked her what she thought would be the minimum qualifications for a competent DC-area food writer and she suggested the following as a starting point:

(1) dining experience at all major restaurants in and around DC (including Baltimore, etc.), (2) familiarity with all major restaurants in the NY, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, Arizona's major destinations, New Orleans, LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Las Vegas, other similar cities and major restaurants in Napa/Sonoma, (3) significant knowledge of cooking methods, (4) significant understanding of French, Italian and Mexican cuisine and ideally understanding of certain Asian cuisines, (5) some knowledge of American culinary history and the history of restaurants in the US, (6) ability to identify all Michelin three-star restaurants (not just those in France) and general understanding of certain two-star restaurants, coupled with some dining experience at the three-star level, and (7) ability to recognize the 2 or 3 significant restaurants in Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Brazil, Vancouver, Toronto, etc.

Now of course we can't freeze the food from these restaurants and send it around, but the rest could easily be reduced to a cheat sheet. I think we should create this Cliff's Notes for Food Writers and send it around to those who need it. Maybe we could even do a study guide and a multiple choice test. Who wants to take the first crack at it?

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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"Ortolan is to Bresse chicken as ____ is to toro-zushi."

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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I'd appreciate members' input on which (if any) of the requirements listed above they consider appropriate for a Washington Post food writer to have. :wink: In another thread, I have professed to flunking all of the requirements except for (7).

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I have professed to flunking all of the requirements except for (7).

You're fired. :biggrin:

Sorry, I just forgot we weren't paying you, which brings up the issue of not what you should know or not know, but how important is it that a newspaper not print factually incorrect information. Clearly most information about where a chef is going to appear for a benefit is not going to start a world war, but why make guesses when facts can be checked. Would you pay a nickel more for the NY Times every day if you could trust the facts reported in it?

Shaw are you saying we're qualified to fill in the blanks and should do that as a public service for the industry? Will we vote on the choices and how will that affect Zagat's business?

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I'd appreciate members' input on which (if any) of the requirements listed above they consider appropriate for a Washington Post food writer to have. :wink: In another thread, I have professed to flunking all of the requirements except for (7).

I would consider all of them appropriate, but none of them necessary.

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 think we should create this Cliffs Notes for Food Writers. . . .Maybe we could even do a study guide . . .

I know you're being facetious, but the idea of little booklets standing in a little metal rack in the food section of the bookstore does sound theoretically helpful. One for each major city, like Zagats, only far more comprehensive and helpful. Imagine that--with the eGullet logo on each cover, of course.

Problem is, the texts of "Heart of Darkness" and "1984" don't change from year to year. They don't need constant updating, whereas our unlikely booklet project would. By the time they were published, the restaurant information would be at least partially obsolete--restaurants don't stay on-point forever. Magazines like Gourmet pick up the slack on a monthly basis, but there's still a one-or-two month lag time during which your "current" info gets a chill.

The obvious solution is the one we've got right here, and it's instantly updatable. Thanks to Internet access and eGullet, you can find a currently outstanding restaurant in Seattle or Atlanta (or Hong Kong) anytime.

Tell them they can get all the info they need right here. :biggrin:

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Deacon--I think Shaw is being completely serious--if we start summarizing everything we think aspiring writers of local newspaper food sections and freelancers for glossy magazine writers need to know--we'd be doing ourselves--let alone their editors--a huge service!

Off the top of my head, someone could:

list which 5 adjectives best describe the style or food of the most significant chefs. Start with Emeril, Bobby Flay, Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Pierre Gagnaire, Pierre Herme;

summarize the thread we had not too long ago about words to avoid in a restaurant review and compile a handy list of "go-to" adjectives just in case of a mental block. Start each list with sublime;

in fact, why not prepare a standard restaurant review--with fill-in-the-blanks--in just the right places;

identify the difference between the restaurants Zagat says are the best versus the restaurants that are really the best in any given city;

compose the list of culinary personalities/deities/books that would be sacreligious to ever, ever criticize or question. Start with Julia Child;

Top 10 reasons why I became a food writer in the first place;

list the most over-hyped, dumbed-down, simplistic books on a subject you actually know something about--say chocolate or desserts--and then list the very few worth reading and cooking from;

list the basic words and terms for a cuisine or a subject, and how to pronounce them, so you can at least sound like you know what you're talking about when you order chenin blanc or baklava;

list the basic interview questions and predicted answers for a given job or position--chef, sommelier, baker, winemaker; Example--so chef, what's the most important aspect of your cooking philosophy? Answer--the best locally-sourced organic ingredients possible.

list the differences between potentially confusing terms like winemaker and vintner;

list all essential acronyms--like EVOO;

Some one else?

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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list the signature dishes (including seasonal availability) of each past and present Michelin three-star chef

prepare a family tree of each major chef, showing his disciples, their progeny, etc.

list dishes at restaurants that require pre-ordering (e.g., chicken at Lespinasse)

list available off-menu dishes (e.g., the chocolate "bomb" and little molten-chocolate-center madelaine/beignet-type items -- a single dessert -- at Town; probably one of the better desserts at the restaurant, although that may not necessarily be saying much) at restaurants

list the signature dishes of applicable US pastry chefs :laugh:

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Any input on how much food science knowledge a food writer (ok, restaurant reviewer) should have?

After reading in a local restaurant review that a restaurant boiled melted butter to "reduce its fat content", I wonder....

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Deacon--I think Shaw is being completely serious--if we start summarizing everything we think aspiring writers of local newspaper food sections and freelancers for glossy magazine writers need to know--we'd be doing ourselves--let alone their editors--a huge service!

* * * * *

. . . you know what you're talking about when you order chenin blanc or baklava . . .

baklava -- synonym for ski-mask

Zagat -- a popular 50's candy bar with nuts

mille feuille -- a popular 60's children's card game about cars

shirred eggs -- eggs that pretend to be playing blackjack to lure real players to a table

tiramisu -- a Japanese dessert

omakase -- "please charge me as much as possible" (Japanese)

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I don't think somebody should have to know all the things mentioned to be a food writer. I think good food writers, like all good writers, are interested in and engaged by their subject and can convey their enthusiasm through their words.

That being said, I think there should be more requirements for writing some specific types of materials, and that given publications should have criteria for the writers they will hire or publish regularly. I do think the Washington Post holds itself back by having such a strong "this could be done in YOUR kitchen" bent. I wouldn't want to see the Post food section become a rant for everything that's wrong with DC dining and food, but I would like to see some perspective and awareness of why DC isn't a destination for foodies like other cities...and why that's a problem.

Perspective, in general, seems to be a theme in this thread for what food writers are lacking. But what's the best way to go about getting perspective? I think the process of gaining perspective makes for a great story, and you don't have to be a pro to write well about that. Writing in a bubble, such as the bubble reflected in the Wash Post Food section, is far worse than writing about things that may be inaccessible to the readership.

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mille fuille -- a popular 60's children's card game about cars

I loved that game! My brother and I used to play it a lot. For some reason I used to get a big kick out the french word for tire, "pneu". Was just thinking about it recently, too, when thinking of good new games to play as a family. Actually, I wish they'd come out with a similar game for cycling, based on the Tour de France.

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Writing in a bubble, such as the bubble reflected in the Wash Post Food section, is far worse than writing about things that may be inaccessible to the readership.

Malawry -- A corollary question is what materials are "inaccessible" to a newspaper's readership. Does inaccessible mean, for example, description of restaurants and dishes that a reader woud never have a chance to sample (in which case there may be a counterargument that a vicarious experience is nonetheless meaningful and potentially interesting to readers)?

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My mention of "inaccessible" came directly from Jeanne McManus's Q&A, in which she described the Food section's approach as avoiding stories that cover inaccessible food experiences (e.g., restaurants and trends in other cities and countries). I happen to agree that a vicarious experience, if well written, can be an informative and enjoyable read even if there's no way I'll ever be able to share that experience myself. And I think that the Post food section holds itself back unnecessarily by sticking to such criteria.

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Is it difficult to be a good food writer if you yourself don't have any practical experience of cooking?

Clearly it isn't necessary to be a professional cook to be a food writer, and there are excellent food writers who apparently never cook.

I, at least, appreciate and understand fine restaurant food a lot more because I've spent a fair bit of time in the kitchen. I know how difficult it is to do simple things properly -- e.g. getting a piece of fish cooked exactly right and still nicely warm when it is placed in front of the diner. And I know that some things that look very tricky (stacks and squeeze bottled swirls of sauce and the like) are anything but.

I would think that being a non-cooking food writer would be like being a music critic without ever touching an instrument or learning to read music. Not impossible, but difficult.

Should "practical cooking experience" be added to Cabrales's daunting list of qualifications?

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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We should add lots of things to the list, then crumple it up and throw it in the garbage because the only list that matters is Steve Klc's: "A talented writer with an open mind who enjoys cooking and dining out at least occasionally."

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 forgot to add

"Familiarity with a wide range of appropriate adjectives and adverbs when composing a restaurant review/general food interest articles"

I cringe every time I read a so-called food writer who shows a limited awareness of the depth of the English language in his or her articles.

The SF Chronicle's main food critic comes to mind....what's his name? -- he popped up as a link in the "Compromised Critics" thread.

SA

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Yessss Deacon! I have been omakased beyond belief at Matsuhisa and Sushisay...(but I have to admit...as horrible as the final bills were...enough sake {read anesthesia} dulled the pain...and the meals were spectacular...but, those memories had faded when the monthly cc bill arrived!) :wacko:

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