What’s It Like to Be a Food Writer Right Now?

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Photo: Noah Fecks

This week’s issue of New York tackles a big topic: the media. Specifically, the case against the journalists, topics, and systems that exist now, as told by the people who work in the industry. Food media is something of a different beast, often focusing on the joy that comes from cooking and eating incredible things. Yet the industry nevertheless has its critics. (First We Feast recently laid out some of the common complaints.)

The magazine’s cover story seemed like as good an opportunity as any to sit down with a couple of food-media experts — Food52 founder and CEO Amanda Hesser and Saveur editor-in-chief Adam Sachs — to talk about the state of food media as it exists now. Over a lunch of stracciatella and Gorgonzola pasta at Café Altro Paradiso (there has to be food, right?), the two sat down with Grub’s Alan Sytsma to talk, in broad terms, about the state of the industry in which they work. Here are the excerpts from that conversation:

We’re talking about “food media,” which is an admittedly broad description for what we do. And what we’re really discussing today, because I think it’s fair to say this is what we cover in our outlets, is food as entertainment. Cooking and restaurants and travel as cultural pursuits. Is that valid to say?
Adam Sachs: It depends on how we define our terms. Is that your first question?

Let’s call it the first jumping-off point for the conversation. I think it’s important to clarify, right off the bat, that we’re not equating what we do with something like, say, war reporting, where the stakes are higher.
AS: For most of what we write about, it’s essentially an optional luxury pursuit. Eating isn’t optional, but thinking about food in terms of eating out, cooking a big dinner party, traveling to eat. All those things are optional. Talking about “food media” as one big homogeneous thing is weird because in other fields you split it up. But people who write restaurant criticism or industry news or about the politics and sustainability of food are doing different things than a writer who’s traveling somewhere, or writing about what they had for lunch at a new restaurant in town. But it all gets lumped together, and I think with people feeling like food is so important these days, we have an obligation to talk about the politics of it. That’s true, but we can also write about the fun parts and the celebration.

Amanda Hesser: Underlying the celebration and the seemingly lighter parts of “food media” are actually quite serious things. You’re talking about people’s relationships with their families, people’s health, decisions people make when they shop and how they spend their money. These are not small things. If someone is writing a business column about grocery shopping, that seems like a universally serious issue. Ultimately, you’re doing it because you need to feed yourself, and that’s completely relevant to food media. It’s easy to, in a snapshot, think it’s all very light, and I agree with you that the beauty of it is that you can have these different modes.

AS: You can celebrate sometimes and get into the serious stuff beneath the surface in other stories and other formats. Both are valid and necessary.

Do you feel like more serious aspects get pushed aside in bigger outlets, the places you’d consider “mainstream” food media? I think about the example of Gourmet, and some of the pieces they covered, versus what’s in food magazines now. You end up having to turn to places like Mother Jones or the non-food sections of the Times to find a lot of it. Granted, we don’t do a lot of it on Grub Street, either. People tend to think that it’s in the interest of traffic, or chasing clicks. But when we do write about those topics, we see a really big response. We ran a thorough piece about the political and environmental ramifications of all the different food we eat, and got a huge response. If the audience is there, why does it feel like we don’t see as many of these kinds of stories?
AS: There’s not less of that coverage in the world, though. If you’re interested in this stuff, you can find it. You mentioned Gourmet, and that’s a sliver of what Gourmet did, late into its existence. Most of it was the luxury side of things.

AH: I think it’s more that you’re confronted on the surface with the entertainment, bite-size stories. But if you dig in, most publications do have more interesting coverage, or deeper coverage.

Do they, though? Saveur or Bon Appétit don’t really cover those kinds of stories.
AS: We do it in our way. We have a story in the summer issue about populating Hawaiian islands with breadfruit, and how people take this weird, ugly-looking fruit and fight hunger there. But we’re a travel and food magazine. We hit those things in our way. It’s never going to be the bulk of what we do, but there are ways to tell stories about people making food, and the food world in general, that confronts real issues. This is what I meant earlier: I don’t think we do our publications or our readers any favors by trying to be all things to all people. If we try to be a recipe magazine and a politics magazine, that’s a little confusing. How do you figure out that mix? If we try to be a travel and lifestyle magazine, and also do a deep dive into the lives of farmers, or the production side of things. I think there are stories you can tell about all that stuff, but you shouldn’t presume that every publication should cover it all in the same way.

What’s the makeup of “food media” right now? Who are the people putting the stories together?
AH: There’s a deep lack of diversity in food media in general.

How does that affect that kinds of stories that get written?
AH: It just naturally affects what gets covered. Similarly, and this is maybe not such a bad thing, but for a long time food media was really owned by a certain, I would say older, more mature group. The top end of food media, urbane writers. Predominately white. With expense accounts. And so that was the era of celebration of really high-end restaurants, and a very different restaurant culture than today. Blogging came along; it democratized food writing. There’s still some work to do with cultural diversity, but now there’s age diversity, geographic diversity, and that really drove this shift … The younger group wasn’t going to be going and dining at places where you need an expense account, so it’s natural that they’ll celebrate the food trucks. There has been improvement in broadening the food media, but it still feels like there’s a long way to go. But there’s still a big socioeconomic divide. It’s something I’ve been feeling over recent years, that I don’t like. I like that it’s less snobby than it used to be, but it also makes you realize it has so much further to go.

AS: It’s less snobby, but it’s no less cliquey. This is what I was trying to say a little bit about, comparing it to other kinds of writing. Being a food nerd is now almost necessary in order to be a sophisticated person in the world. It so suddenly became this thing that everyone obsessed over, that we’re all talking about like it’s the same thing. It’s okay to be into some things, and not be into fine dining, or the other way. But there’s a lot of infighting, and people jockeying to say “this is legitimate food writing,” or what’s acceptable. Compare that to something that’s more mature, like being a music fan. No indie-rock fan tries to talk someone out of being a jazz fan. You don’t have to fight for it because it’s not the same. But with food we all feel compelled to say things like tasting menus and avant-garde cooking affect the way I eat, and I’m going to fight about it. I know everyone has needed food to survive forever, but it feels like growing pains for this rampant obsession, which is a young kind of thing.

Who are the cliques? Is somebody leading this conversation about what’s okay to write and what isn’t? Is the lack of diversity part of that?
AS: If you’re asking who leads the conversation, the hive mind leads it. Look at the farm-to-table exposé in the Tampa Bay Times. In the old days, I’d have no idea what was happening in Tampa, or the restaurants there. But now that comes out, the story lights Twitter on fire, and suddenly it’s part of the conversation and the story has the attention of the established, New York, coastal people who might not have paid attention before. So nobody’s leading it, but anyone with an interesting story can be heard.

I think the success of that story specifically hinged on the way it tapped into some prevailing narratives. The first is the “us versus them” mentality that seems pervasive in the restaurant world. Owners and chefs feel like they can’t get people to appreciate the amount of money and work that’s required to run a successful restaurant, while diners still think they’re being ripped off and the staff doesn’t treat them as well as they should. That friction still exists, and the Tampa story shined such a light on the diner side of it. One of the big takeaways was that if you’re predisposed to thinking chefs are ripping you off, this would reinforce the idea that unscrupulous owners are full of shit.
AS: The unfortunate thing about food right now, and food fandom, and food mania, is that people are so eager see that and say, “See? It’s all bullshit. Those terms are bullshit.” But it’s not the idea of farm-to-table that’s bad. It’s that people were lying about it.

AH: But one could argue, too, that the fact that the farm-to-table movement has infused the restaurant culture so deeply that there’s even fraud to talk about means it’s had an effect. Of course there are issues, but it’s a little like the complaints you used to hear about Food Network. And I wrote a piece about how it was dumbing down cooking, but ultimately its success has led to shows on major networks, and getting a much larger group of Americans interested in food, and whatever the depth of their interest I’m just happy that it’s there. That it’s fueling all of the stuff we’re doing. And there’s an audience for it, which is a great thing. These are almost like refinements that will naturally be made over time. I think it’s great that there’s a journalist who called out the restaurants. But there’s been lots of that, testing the fish at markets and whether the sourcing is accurate. Those are great, evergreen food stories. To me that’s not a contentious thing. That’s just good journalism, and it should be celebrated.

What about the way stories get written for the web? It’s a very different approach than you’d take if you were writing something for a legacy food magazine.
AH: I think the thing that we probably all get caught up in, and what has probably been the most dangerous development, is SEO and knowing what’s clickable. Just before I came here I was looking on our site, your site, Saveur’s.

AS: Thank you for the traffic. I hope you opened a lot of pages.

AH: The headlines have gotten to a point where it’s hard to distinguish between a Saveur headline and a BuzzFeed headline, and it’s kind of infected all of us, this incredible lust for hyperbole, which demeans some of the work beneath. It plays to the entertainment value, but that to me is the most worrisome part. How do we get away from that? There are now these established models.

Well, there’s an easy way to get away from that, but there’s a trade-off.
AH: Well, sure, but we all know it works.

AS: We know 30 Amazing Ways It Works.

AH: This isn’t new, but if you put a hamburger or a sundae in your newsletter, you’re going to get clicks. But if you do it every week, you’ll lose audience. You want to push the conversation forward, but I’m also responsible for getting people to engage. So there’s this balance.

AS: I don’t think it sounds too defensive to say that the challenge with that for food media is no different than it would be if we were writing about travel or anything. That’s just media now. We’re in this moment where the old way of making money is at best kind of flat and everyone’s still learning the rules about the new way. It is a really challenging thing. Again, without trying to let ourselves off the hook, I don’t know how much of that is food-specific.

AH: We’re trying to fight it. We have a headline every week and look at examples of bad and good ones we use and finding out what we can learn from it. Because it feels like this play.

I’m sort of optimistic about it. The web is filled with those kinds of stories, of course, but it seems like readers are willing to look past it. We just ran a story about Daniel Boulud putting together a Colombian menu that honors the heritage of one of his sous-chefs. I don’t think anyone would say that falls under the traditional parameters of click bait, but we nevertheless saw a strong response.
AH: Do you think that’s the human-interest angle? What do you think drove that?

There’s definitely something to that. It made me feel good that people responded to it so well, and it wasn’t the kind of story that’s a guaranteed blockbuster.
AS: It’d be easier to be optimistic about the idea that we’ll move away from a tabloid culture if Donald Trump wasn’t just named the presidential nominee of a major political party.

Luckily, he has almost nothing to do with the food world.

Another broad question: Is there anything we can do to serve readers better?
AS: No. Definitely not. [Laughs.] I mean, of course. But, again, I think there’s a concern if you try to be everything to everybody. There’s enough room in the landscape for different brands with different voices and different missions. And the best thing we can do, not knowing how this is going to shake out, is stick to what we do well. Since I’ve gotten to Saveur, the things that we’ve done that haven’t worked are when we do anything that’s food without some kind of context. If we just do “6 Things to Do With Carrots,” there are a million other people who can do that and do that well, but it’s not a very Saveur-friendly story … Not to say you shouldn’t be open to looking at stories that challenge your thinking or that you might find unsettling. It’s definitely easy to do classic food luxury stuff and seem smug, so I don’t want to do that, but I also don’t want to chase every kind of story.

AH: We’ve focused on stories and written food media, but so much of it now is multimedia and social. Think about how much energy our companies spend on social media and videos and GIFs and these other ways to tell stories that didn’t exist not that long ago. That’s part of it, too. Food media is this very complex beast these days, and we’re telling stories in different formats. It’s exciting, but it presents a whole new set of challenges.

AS: Under the big question of: Can you trust the media? I don’t think anyone looks at a hands-in-bowl video of chocolate fluff cake and thinks they can’t trust it. People get bored of it, and they want novelty. But people don’t get angry.

AH: I don’t know if I totally agree with that. Some of the recipe comments can get quite fiery. Particularly if you call for shortening. Or some ingredient that people don’t deem accessible or appropriate.

AS: People are very angry about almost everything on Facebook.

AH: They get fired up. I always tell people it’s good, though. With all the stories out there, if people zero in and want to engage in something you’ve done, that’s great.

AS: I just wish they’d be more civil about it.

That’s not really how the internet works.
AS: It’s part of this culture of distrust of the media. And it’s become this sanctioned, okay, knee-jerk feeling to think “They’re lying to us. They’re in the pocket of somebody. They’re only telling you to put that brand of mayonnaise in that potato salad because they’re being paid, or they’re so lost in their world that they don’t know that mayonnaise is too expensive.” Some of that is valid, but this is not Watergate. It’s mayonnaise. Your mother may have made this recipe differently, but you don’t need to get so upset or feel like your ability to detect bullshit is always right.

AH: I did a recipe for a tortilla, you know the potato — it’s so funny. I’m so scarred by the comments that I’m not sure even what the right way is to describe it.

Like a Spanish omelette.
AH: Yes. Which I know how to properly make. But in this recipe I baked it more like a frittata and didn’t flip it as a shortcut.

AS: I’m this close to walking out in disgust.

AH: The venom! I appreciate it. I felt like the commenters were right

AS: … But they can be right without you also being a bad person.

Or having an ulterior motive.
AH: It’s fair. People feel like I’m taking this Italian technique and calling it a Spanish tortilla, and that’s obnoxious for an American to do. But I do think part of it is that there are examples in history that people can point to the media and prove it was distrustful. But I think it has more to do with people feeling like they aren’t being heard. Just showing up and responding to people and engaging in a personal way has a huge effect on the way people treat.

AS: I think that’s the genius of what you do. If you explicitly make it about community, there’s a sense of opting in, and there’s a civic duty. Once you’ve been heard, you’re not just shouting at a website. There’s a generosity there that people respond to.

AH: As an organization, it’s important to do. If there’s a general sense of presence and you get back to some of the people, that will be seen by everyone who’s scrolling through. The internet is so vast that it feels like a place where you can mouth off without being caught in a way that you never do in person-to-person, and if you infuse things with a human element and make people understand they are being heard. Every publication you see, people do read the comments.

AS: I’m in the shower rehearsing responses to people who send me angry letters and comments. They have no idea how direct a hit they make.

AH: I walked a block past where I was supposed to go today because I was, in my head, telling somebody off.

AS: Having a sense of openness and conversation can come out through the tone, too. If you write something in what I think of as a very old-fashioned food way, getting up on the mountaintop declaring, “This is the best roast chicken,” and I don’t even have to state my credentials because the job is the credential, it’s a one-way street and it’s so confident. But if you open up and discuss the process and how you came up with the story, it takes away a lot of the ammunition for people who feel like you aren’t doing something the right way, or there’s only one true way.

I’d argue that part of it is, this job is great. I feel very lucky to be able to do this. And as a reader, if I saw somebody I didn’t trust or didn’t think was worthy of doing this incredible thing, I’d wonder, too, why this idiot gets to do this if I know more than they do.
AS: Of course. And that’s the flip side of social media. As we’re cataloguing our eating life, it’s easy to look and feel like an asshole. Or you were kind enough to let me do a Grub Street Diet, and everything I put in there was true, but you’re still presenting a certain side of your food-eating life, and it’s all nicely choreographed and you have to avoid seeming like a self-satisfied, overfed ass.

What It’s Like to Be a Food Writer Right Now