[Originally written and posted on Stu Helm: Food Fan blog June 1, 2016]
If you wanna be a food writer follow these simple instructions…
1. Eat food!
2. Write about it.
3. Repeat often.
Yeah, Man! I’ve got a great job. I eat food, and then I write about it. Well, it’s not so much a job as it is a very expensive hobby that I sometimes get paid for. I haven’t been doing it for very long… the writing and getting paid part… and I don’t make a ton of money, but I make just enough that I recently started telling people that I’m a “food writer,” when they ask me what I do for a living. As I stated previously, yeah man!
In truth I still make most of my living by doing artwork, logos, and graphic design, which I’ve been doing for a couple of decades, prior to taking a stab at being a food writer. Here’s some stuff I recently did for Chef Steven Goff’s latest culinary adventure.
Art is fun! And being a successful working artist has been awesome! It has sustained me for many long years, and given me an unlimited belief in my own ability to earn a living by following my dreams, no matter what those dreams are. If I can pay my rent and bills by drawing pictures of aliens smoking bongs and sexy cowgirls riding atomic bombs for 20 years, I feel confident that it will eventually turn food writing into the lucrative career that art and graphic design eventually became for me. I’m happy to say that I’ve already reached a certain level of success. Woo hoo!
I have a large number of readers on Ashvegas.com, and because of that I enjoy relatively high visibility as a minor small-town celebrity, as well as a fairly decent reputation as a forth-right reporter, and some very good friends and solid connections in the local food and media scenes. I’m lucky enough to do a podcast twice a month with Chef Joe Scully from Chestnut and Corner Kitchen, which is listened to by hundreds of local and regional eaters and food industry people alike, and is underwritten by some staunch members of the local food community. I’m always excited to talk about, write about, read about, and listen to news about the local food scene, and I’m happy with my role in it, sub-tertiary though it may be. I feel good about the small amount of success that I’ve had so far in chasing this relatively new dream of mine.
Since people do often ask me how I started writing about food, and they just as often say to me “I wanna do what you do,” I think it’s okay for me to pass along some lighthearted, though heartfelt advice to people who might aspire to write about food. I’m no expert, I’m a novice, and a student of other people far more skilled and experienced than me, and I’m certainly not as successful yet as I hope to become, but I have made purposeful moves and well considered decisions along the way that I believe have paid off, and I don’t mind sharing…
8 or 9 things that I believe have contributed to my small success as a food writer:
1) I AM AN IDIOT – I know absolutely nothin’ about nothin’ and I ain’t afraid to admit it. In other words, I’m not schooled in the culinary arts, I’m not an expert on wine, beer, coffee, or cream puffs. I have never owned a restaurant, or worked for any notable period of time in a professional kitchen. I’m a decent home cook, but I don’t know a lot about ingredients or terminology, and the last time I tried to make biscuits, they looked like anemic sugar cookies. Very, very, bland, dry, flavorless, flat, pale, anemic sugar cookies, no sugar. When I first started writing about food for Ashvegas, the trolls loved to complain that I was “unqualified.” and I was like, yeah, no shit, Fucknuts. I eat out a lot and I write about it. Duh. It ain’t rocket surgery, and I ain’t claiming to have any qualifications what-so-ever, because you’re right, I ain’t got none! I think my willingness to be the average schmoe at a high-end restaurant, gawking at the baked Alaska when it goes up in flames, bitching about garlic paper on my plate, and feeling totally free to write an honest opinion in a public forum with zero pretense that I’m somehow qualified to do so has contributed to the number of readers that I have on Ashvegas. So, if you wanna be a food writer, just admit you’re an idiot, and have at it! No degree required.
2) PEOPLE LIKE TO LAUGH – This is a basic maxim that I have kept in mind all throughout my entire life, successfully applying it to everything from dating, to doing business, to writing about food. I enjoy amusing other people, as well as imparting information to them, so I have endeavored from the very beginning to “amuse and inform” my readers. The greatest reward for me (apart from complimentary pie) is when a reader tells me that they laughed out loud at one of my jokes, or that they read parts of my column to a friend or group of co-workers and they all laughed “their asses off.” I know for a fact that making people laugh on a consistent basis is a great way to build repeat reader-ship, and word of mouth. People love to share things that made them laugh. So, If you want to write about food, or anything else, it sure doesn’t hurt to have a sense of humor.
3) FOR FUCK’S SAKE, DESCRIBE THE FOOD! – I learned this one very early on. I honestly never thought that people would actually enjoy reading descriptions of food, but they do, they really really do. Straight-up, ain’t no joke, if I write a review and I don’t describe the food, people get upset. They will not be satisfied with “this was the greatest bacon double cheeseburger I ever ate in my fucking life!” They want, they neeeeed, food writers to describe the food to them in detail. As in: “This bacon double cheeseburger had a white squishy bun with a butter-glaze top; two flat, greasy beef patties from lah-dee-dah farms; a slice of super trashy American cheese that melted and stuck to three of my french fries; thick cut, maple smoked bacon; caramelized onions; and house-made ketchup oozing out the sides.” I mean, I understand why the public craves detailed descriptions of food. Descriptions of food make people hungry. It’s a fact. Now I really want that hypothetical bacon double cheeseburger. Dang it! So, if you wanna be a food writer, take notes and pictures while you eat, and describe the food in detail when you write about it later.
4) TELL A STORY – Is there anything more boring than a story that’s not a story? YAWWWNDERSNOOZLES! All of my stories are written in the first person, because that’s the easiest way for me to write about my own experiences. “I ate food. It was bad,” is always a festive place to start a story for me, and then I try to be amusing and informative. “I went to Yimmy Yon’s, and swallowed a turd. Now I hate everybody,” is good, but if I can weave a fun story-line into a piece of food writing, it’s more likely to keep the reader’s interest. “I went to Yimmy’s Yon’s against my better judgement, because my friend said it’s decent, and I trusted my friend, but just as I originally suspected, they served me a turd sandwich, and now I hate my friend, and the entire world for even giving birth to a concept as horrid as a turd sandwich from Yimmy Yon’s.” If you wanna be a food writer, you gotta realize that every meal, every dish, every bite is a potential story. This story about the turd sandwich was entirely made-up BTW. I wouldn’t go to Yimmy Yons if it was the last turd-knockin’ sandwich-factory on Earth. So, yeah, if you wanna be a food writer, learn how to tell a fucking story.
5) WRITE IN YOUR OWN “VOICE” – Them’s fancy writer-words for be yourself. I think people were shocked/super-fucking-annoyed at first when I starting writing for Ashvegas. My “anyhoodleses” and smiley-face emoticons drove them crazy, not to mention my prolific use of bad, bad, evil curse words really rubbed some folks the wrong way. Oh fuck! Oh Jesus! I didn’t give a shitterdoodles. People complained to Ashvegas founder / editor / publisher Jason Sandford about me, I remember one guy even said something like, “any writer who uses the word ‘unfortch’ is a joke.” Jason told them all, “Hey, don’t read it if you don’t like it.” Yay! My boyfriend Jason, let’s me be me, but more importantly, I let myself be me. I’ve never tried to hide my personality from my readers, both the good and the bad aspects of me are there to see. Believe it or not, I write the way I talk, as unfortch as that might be. Sad emoticon face. So, if you wanna be a food writer, I think you gotta let your personality shine. Unless you don’t have a personality, in which case you’re fucked.
6) TELL THE TRUTH – One of the worst things that can happen to any small city media scene is a phenomenon that I call “No Bad News,” a sometimes subtle reluctance on the part of media to report bad things or express negative opinions. It often stems from the relationship between advertisers and media outlets, but can also come from a certain type of “fear” on the part of individual writers or reporters that they will find themselves disliked by and ostracized from the small community that they cover if they write a negative review of local goods and services. It’s a legit fear, and I’ve certainly felt the displeasure of a chef or restaurateur here and there because of a bad review, but I soldier forth, and hope for a reconciliation — and perhaps a better meal — in the future. I decided early on that I can not hesitate from telling the truth as I see it, which is another way of saying that I try to express my honest opinions. I have internal dialogs to make decisions. “Did I just eat a bad meal?” I might ask myself. If the answer is yes, then I ask, “Should I write about it?” I don’t report on every bad forkful that I put in my mouth, but sometimes, based on a series of questions that I might ask myself, I determine that yeah, no, this food sucks and I gotta bitch about this plate of complete bullshit, or slice of horrid dry-wall, or cup of plastic coleslaw. That being said…
7) BE NICE, BUT NOT TOO NICE, BUT NOT TOO NOT NICE! – I’m way more of a dick than most small town food writers are, so don’t write like me unless you’re ready to suffer the occasional cold reception, or even outright hostility from the subject of your dickishness. In the big city they be dicks all they want, and whatever, but in small towns it’s definitely weird when you write a negative review of a venue, and you basically know the people you’re writing about. You run the risk of never being able to go back, and having super-awk moments in line at Greenlife. “Oh hi, Chef Grumpy-Face, how much are you hating me right now?” When I first started writing reviews, they were strictly for FaceBook, and I was a completely merciless dick most of the time. I always went straight for the jugular, and spared no one’s feelings in my attempts at humor. When some of those early reviews got republished on Ashvegas, and the public at large saw them, I was suddenly confronted by the reality that I actually was hurting people’s feelings and/or possibly even damaging their ability to earn a living. Chef Mike Moore of Blind Pig fame was one of the people who helped me to see that I needed to temper my schtick if I wanted to have any longevity as a writer in this town. I went all mean girl on his restaurant 7 Sows, and gave it a solidly horrible review. Instead of acting angry, he wrote me a super nice note, apologized, and asked me to come back to 7 Sows, which I did, and I had a much better meal, which I reported in my next column. I returned to 7 Sows several times while it was around, and had great food, and good times. I don’t regret writing the bad review of the first experience, but I realize after meeting Mike and his staff, that my jokes were just too mean, and that actual people were on the receiving end. Nice people. With feelings. Damn it! Fucking feelings. I just wanna be all mean and funny about food without hurting the feelings of the people who make it, but that’s not always easy to do. I still write bad reviews, and they might be considered mean by some standards, but believe me, I’ve really toned it down, and these days, I’m actually being as nice as I can possibly be without being a complete tool. So if you want to be a good food writer you gotta be willing to express honest opinions, even negative opinions, but you you also have to figure out on your own how just mean or how nice you’re gonna be about it.
8) WRITE A LOT – Holy fuck, I write a lot. Columns, lists, reviews, articles, scripts, press releases, Facebook posts, Instagram captions, cover letters, proposals, thank you notes, inquiries, replies, comments… tweets. Gotta do it, Yo. I tell myself every day, “If you ain’t writing, you ain’t a writer.” And then I get right up in my grill and I’m all, like, screamin’ at the top of my lungs, “DO YOU WANNA BE A WRITER, MAGGOT?!?!” It’s intense. If you wanna be a food writer: Write about food!
Okay, so there you go. 8 tips on how to be just like me: A slightly successful small town food writer, who actually spends more money on food than he earns writing about it, and largely supports himself with art, which isn’t a bad fucking gig either, and in fact at one time Art was my dream-job-come-true, so it’s pretty fucking cool that my fall-back job while I pursue my new dream job is my old dream job.
Aaanyhoodles, my last piece of advice for people who tell me that they want to do what I do, is to be your own media, by blogging, blowing up social, podcasting, making videos, and doing every thing you can do to network with the other misfit toys and promote yourself and your writing. There are so many awesome ways to reach targeted demographics of readers and eaters through the internets and technology, it’s just soops stoops to not use it to it’s utmost. When people tell me they’re not on FaceBook, I haz a sad.
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Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.