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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Letter to a Young Food Writer

When people ask me what I "do" I tell them that I write about food, cooking, and dining culture. I know it sounds vague. Usually people assume that I write restaurant reviews, and get free meals because that's what dominates much of the PR driven media coverage when it comes to food. Ethical questions aside, there's no such thing as a free meal in food writing.

The proliferation of the blogosphere has helped to lower the barrier to entry in food writing. It's still staggering to me that with relative ease even a luddite can set up their own blog in minutes and begin broadcasting their viewpoints across the globe. One of the most touching experiences when I started blogging occurred when a South Asian immigrant living in London wrote to me to ask me how to cook the free anchovies he got from his Italian grocer. I hope my advice helped.

While editing Hungry? Boston I have come across many promising writers who aspire to be food writers. The lucrative business of seminars on food writing draw many ambitious food writers who are willing to fork over big bucks to learn the secrets of the trade from how to pitch, how to talk to editors without sounding like an idiot, how to come up with story ideas, etc...

Most of them won't make it. Very few can handle the fierce competition, the self imposed poverty, the inbred insecurity, and the swinging pendulum between the lonely solitude of writing and the exposure of putting yourself out there.

So, before you drop your fork to pick up a pen and piece of paper, take some of the lessons I've learned for what it's worth. And to quote Kanye West, "Welcome to the Good Life."

You have to have a strong stomach to be a food writer, and accept that you will always have somewhat of a spare tire, even if your clothing hides it well.

You have to cultivate loyal friendships, so your friends are more willing to put up with your numerous disastrous attempts at making souffle while drunk on champagne. With tears in their eyes, they end up chopping onions, doing the dreaded dishes and holding the hot stuff, while you take all the credit that they deserve.

You have to tip well, and possibly be the tip monitor for those who have never worked in the service industry. Gracefully, they sacrifice social lives and family holidays to serve 0thers and that deserves proper renumeration.

It is a glamorous job, only if you are passionate about food, cooking, and writing. In my mind, anyone who spends their days doing what they truly love has a glamorous job. I was never an early riser until I started seriously writing. I began calling my friends early in the mornings to chat while they were stuck in traffic on their way to work and they would ask me, what was wrong and why was I up so early. I had spent my entire life telling myself that I was NOT a morning person. But then curiously, suddenly my body started to spring out of bed just after dawn and the urge to get to my writing would rise up inside me. I changed my behavior after all those years, without conscious debate, because I now had a good reason to start my day early to pursue my true gift and passion.

Just because you eat out alot does not mean that you are an authority on food.
Most people in the world cannot afford to eat out regularly in restaurants. The best food I've ever tasted was made in someone's home. Think about it. When was the last time someone invited you over for dinner? In the United States a home cooked meal is facing extinction, and the $537 billion restaurant industry is counting on it.

You have to be okay with disappointing people. As soon as you put yourself out there you will be opening yourself up to criticism. Learn to deal with it. If you have something meaningful to say, people will be quick to point out why you're wrong. Every time I go into a modern art exhibit and I overhear people foolishly saying, "I could have painted that." The response in my head is always, "Well you didn't." Don't let those dissonant voices live rent free in your head--it will your writing into a fearful mush.

Why am I giving away my free advice when I mentioned above how competitive this business is? Because I believe in myself, my words and ideas. I know I'm not the only person on earth who can construct a good sentence. But I know that I have something important to contribute to the conversation, just as every human being does. Unfortunately, I was not born with this good self esteem. From an early age I was taught to take up as little space in the world as possible, my survival depended upon it. My father and I escaped Vietnam in the early 1980's as one of the "boat people" and I spent my early years in cramped, crowded quarters--first in a refugee camp, and then as an immigrant living in tiny apartments with many others in the same dismal situation.

By reaching out, and asking for support I have dealt with this traumatic start to my life. I have had countless cheerleaders and mentors who believed in me before I believed in myself. This kindness was not lost on me and I believe that all humans deserve to have a place in this world where they are valued, and able to live out their lives with dignity, meaning, and passion.

I almost drowned in the South China Sea because the boat was dilapidated and overcrowded, so I have learned to handle competition by completely turning the notion on its head.


Anonymous said...

I am proud to know you. And with each successive entry, I don't just learn more about food, but more about you as human and friend and ally. Bravo. -CY

mela said...

as a writer (not about food) your post was eloquent and right on. bravo!