Cooking From Every Angle

Advice for Future Food Writers

By • April 10, 2012 • 157 Comments

 

Past

- Amanda

Nearly every week for the past decade, someone has written to me to ask for career advice. Except for those messages that went to my spam box, I’ve answered every one. I do it because I too have been in that wandering state, unsure of what’s next. People helped me then, and now I want to keep the karma chain going.

I also help for selfish reasons. Because I like meeting young people with fresh ideas and following their progress; it’s a narrative that I get to observe and enjoy in bits and pieces. A few of the people I’ve spoken with have written books, some have started companies, we’ve hired a couple, and many have succeeded in other fields like law, fashion, and architecture.

What has struck me recently, though, is how sharply and suddenly my spiel to aspiring food writers has changed. Five years ago, I would take people through what I thought were the best steps toward getting hired at the limited number of food publications, and/or putting themselves in the best position to write books. This usually involved suggesting they go to cooking school, or, better yet, work in restaurants. Then I offered a few tips for getting a foot in the door at a newspaper food section like the L.A. Times or national magazine like Saveur or Gourmet (getting a face-to-face informational interview so an editor will remember you; getting clips not in your local paper but the smaller publications, like Edible or Gastronomica, that these editors read; structuring a pitch letter so it will catch an editor’s attention; sending editors something you’ve baked – everyone’s a sucker for a home-baked good) – I let them know it would be a difficult road but encouraged them to dive in.

About 2 years ago, I stopped giving this advice: I can no longer responsibly recommend that you drop everything to try to become a food writer. Except for a very small group of people (some of whom are clinging to jobs at magazines that pay more than the magazines' business models can actually afford), it’s nearly impossible to make a living as a food writer, and I think it’s only going to get worse.

If I weren’t working on Food52, I would not be a full-time writer because, even as an experienced journalist and best-selling author, I would not be able to pay my bills. Just 10 years ago, food writers with staff jobs were able to earn $80,000 to $150,000 a year, and freelancers were regularly paid $2 a word; today, these jobs barely exist. Advertising revenues, already on a steady decline, plummeted online. Online, $35,000 to $60,000 a year and $.25 to $.75 a word is more like it. New publications simply can’t pay very well, if at all. Just ask our writers.

And the real problem with these figures is that they're static – you don’t start at $40,000 and work your way up to $80,000. You either happily stay at $40,000, or leave and let the next young, bright writer take your spot. This $40,000 also comes with many fewer perks – no expense accounts and little travel budget. In 1998, the New York Times sent me to France for two weeks to find some stories. Today, this would be unimaginable.

Future

So what happens now if someone comes to me wanting to become a writer? I don’t totally crush their dreams. I just step on them a bit -- before trying to help the aspirant re-imagine his or her future in a whole new way.

Start a blog, pitch magazines, go after a book contract, I say, but instead of relying on writing as your bread and butter – and instead of torturing yourself with the rejection and struggle for respectable payment that this will entail -- look to other interests in the food industry. We’re in a moment of great change. There’s never been more opportunity to make a difference, to shift the way we think about buying and eating food, to create something new, to start a business. This is what you should be doing.

Don’t feel glum; this new era is actually better. Everyone who can write well is now welcome to. At the time I got started in the 1990s, I was considering becoming a bread baker, but you couldn’t get anyone to hire you as a writer if you worked “in the field.” There was widespread snobbery toward non-professional writers, and an assumption that it would be a conflict of interest – or just too much self-interest -- for a chef to write about cooking or a farmer about raising chickens.

The observers kept out the doers, a system that never really made sense. Now people want to hear from the doers. Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef at Prune, is a sought-after writer with a best-selling memoir; David Chang, founder of the Momofuku empire, has launched his own hit magazine, Lucky Peach; and Tamar Adler, a cook and csa director, has written “An Everlasting Meal.”

Blogs changed this exclusionary system, both for the better and the worse. While they gave an exciting new platform to those formerly shut out of gatekeeper publications like Food & Wine, The New York Times and Gourmet, they also created a new, more democratic but competitive arena in which, ultimately, most would fail. The best blogs would grow into their own self-sustaining brands, and the rest would be left to struggle and starve, or subsist as an unpaid hobby. The brand-achievers, the talented writers and photographers behind SmittenKitchen, The Pioneer Woman, and Simply Recipes are able to make more money than I would have dreamed of earning when I was a staff writer at the New York Times (then considered the pinnacle of food writing jobs). They are earning this money in part because they began before the huge growth spurt in blogging, but mostly because they've successfully built a committed and large audience that advertisers are willing to pay to reach -- and they should be lauded for both their prescience and business smarts.

Blogs also turned content into an inexpensive commodity, which spread ad dollars thinner and put even more downward pressure on writers’ pay.

You can aim to become one of these brands, but the journey will be unpredictable. Better to see writing as part of a more personally-crafted career that will allow you to pursue an array of interests -- and a career that you will need to treat in an entrepreneurial way, inventing and reinventing what you do along the way. Your lifestyle may still not be that lavish, but it will at least be yours to shape. You will have the chance to have a much more varied and engaging career; I wish mine had begun this way.

And so, if you want my advice, here’s what I would do if I just graduated from college and wanted to become a food writer:

1. Right away: get your hands dirty, in as many places as possible. Skip journalism and cooking school. Instead, use that money to support yourself while you do mostly low-paying food jobs. Wash dishes in a restaurant. Work on a farm. Get a job in a food factory. Assist a commercial fisherman. Intern at a start-up (I know the perfect place for you…). Volunteer at a co-op.

2. Broaden your skills so you can control your destiny. Take a photography class. Learn to edit video. Study HTML and CSS. If you’re entrepreneurial, go to business school.

3. Never eat the same meal twice. If you want to be knowledgeable about food, you need to experience it yourself.

4. Later on, try to work at a place that’s making change, where you get to become expert in some area of our food system. (See Stone Barns, Five Acre Farms, Randwiches, Real Time Farms)

5. Create a blog and write about what you do.

6. Start your own venture. An online service for pantry staples a la Diapers.com. Start a network of small slaughterhouses (there's a need). Create a solution for distributing the goods of small farmers beyond farmers markets.

7. Last but sort of least: write articles or a book on the side.

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: food writing, blogs, career, pay, new era

Comments (157)

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Carine_

2 months ago sweetashoneynz

That is a beautiful article. The biggest issue is that everyone want to make money with food writing. I love writing about food on my blog but I do it for love and passion and I am selling my baking to pay bills. That is probably the easiest way !

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3 months ago Jason

I studied photography and journalism at uni, where I was struck with the cooking bug. I decided food writing seemed a good direction to head in, so got relevant work experience at magazines, with freelancers etc. When I finished my degree (summer 2012) I couldn't get any Journalism jobs, so I started photographing food, which thus far hasn't proved much easier in terms of employment. I have now been offered a year's apprenticeship as a chef, which would mean giving up the photography (for the moment at least) and a messy CV, but obviously I would gain knowledge and experience in the food world. What should I do? Thoughts appreciated!

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3 months ago Jason

PS - Thanks for this article; very informative! :)

Tad_and_amanda_in_the_kitchen

3 months ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

Hi Jason, thanks for your note. I'd focus on what you'd like to do in the food world (other than writing or photography) and work toward a good (and paying!) job in this area. Then you can later get back to writing and photography on the side. Having a specific area of expertise in the food industry will also help you build your knowledge and reputation so that when you do write, you'll likely get better traction. For instance, I've been seeing a lot of bartenders writing about cocktails in larger publications -- they established their reputations, and then began writing about their craft.
This is just one point of view, so please talk to a bunch of people and of course, listen to your gut, before you make a decision. Best wishes.

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3 months ago Jason

Hi Amanda, thanks so much for your response, that is indeed helpful. Best, Jason

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3 months ago ronaldjosephkule

How was it to play in the movie, Amanda?

Tad_and_amanda_in_the_kitchen

3 months ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

A little strange and very fun.

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3 months ago ronaldjosephkule

P.S. Your article is generous with its advice and works on several levels.

Tad_and_amanda_in_the_kitchen

3 months ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

Thank you -- I'm so glad to hear this. I'm sorry to tell you that I don't know where Elaine Tait is. I'll ask on Twitter and let you know if I hear anything.

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3 months ago ronaldjosephkule

Amanda, thanks for your reply. Elaine's whereabouts is a real mystery. Did you know her personally at all?

Tad_and_amanda_in_the_kitchen

3 months ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

I didn't know her, but Craig LaBan, the restaurant critic for the Inquirer, wrote me back on Twitter to say: Last I talked 2 Elaine Tait (4 Chef Tell obit) she was living on Md Eastern Shore painting & eating oysters

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3 months ago ronaldjosephkule

Amanda, thanks so much for your research with Craig. At least, I can focus there and see if I find a string to pull.

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3 months ago ronaldjosephkule

Amanda, would you happen to know where Elaine Tait is these days? She was the food writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1970's and 1980's, and a fan of my (late) brother-in-law, Chef Tell Erhardt. I wrote Tell's biography and would like to get a copy to Tait -- the book is dedicated, in part, to her for her inspiration.

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6 months ago Onil Chibas

Great article and very helpful advice to develop as a genuine food professional and not just a food celebrity. Thank you.

Tad_and_amanda_in_the_kitchen

6 months ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.


Glad you found it helpful!

Stringio

8 months ago Patrick Hieger

It's nice to read these bits of advice and realize that you're already doing nearly 90% of this. First book due out December, and I'm seven months in on this beauty: www.comosur.com. Trained chef, writer, caterer, and so on... Promoting the food industry, not slaving in it!
Food52 is great. Keep up the good work.

Tad_and_amanda_in_the_kitchen

8 months ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

Thank you, and congrats.

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11 months ago Deepak

Hello Miss Amanada,
it was nice to read your article and inspiring too.I am working in Dubai as a chef at the moment. The love for food and the passion to innovate has helped me develop the skills needed to prepare quality dishes with the right taste, texture, appearance and combination of the finest ingredients.However the urge to write about food,the magic behind each ingredient and healthy recipes and tips is what I am wishing to do.I would like to no as to go about this..Any help from you will be appreciated.

Stringio

over 1 year ago Lauren Hardy

Last week, a pitch of mine was accepted by the first time by the national magazine Honest Cooking. I love food writing and I blog about my kitchen adventures at "Making Life Sweet" at laurenhardy.com. Thank you so much for this article. It is very inspiring!

Tad_and_amanda_in_the_kitchen

over 1 year ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

Congratulations!

Stringio

over 1 year ago Lauren Hardy

Thanks, Amanda!
Happy cooking + baking!

-Lauren

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over 1 year ago gypsygrub

I am a young and aspiring food writer and this article helped me so much thank you!
Please check out my food and travel blog at http://gypsygrub.com/ thank you so much!

Kimmi_headshot_bw

over 1 year ago Grubarazzi

This is such a fresh perspective on the industry, and I appreciate it. I recently discovered how much I love food writing although it feels like an impossible career change. This has helped me see it in the right light. Thanks so much!

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over 1 year ago Fresser

Oh my God, PLEASE don't use The Pioneer Woman as an example to be followed. I've just discovered that she appropriated a recipe (for Lemon Parmesan Spaghetti) that I posted on AllRecipes.com in 2002 and posted it as her own on her blog in 2009 (calling it Baked Lemon Spaghetti). "Repurposing" recipes is one thing; lifting them exactly from other sources (oh yeah - she added a garlic clove) and passing them off as original without crediting their source is another entirely.

And yeah, I'm a "doer" (former pastry chef) who wrote a bit for food publications in the '90s (they sought me out) and I know that everyone learns from everyone else, but wholesale appropriation is not a good lesson for aspiring writers. It's the wrong message. Please direct your acolytes to more deserving, and more honest, food writers and bloggers.

Zester_003

over 1 year ago pierino

pierino is a trusted source on General Cooking and Tough Love.

I would like to strongly second Fresser's point for a couple of reasons 1) I used to work in the publishing industry and 2)It has happened to me too.
The full provenance of a recipe that's more than 100 years old can be pretty vague---the French wrote everything down the Italians and Spanish were less careful about that. Over time these things develop incrementally, but for contemporary dishes attribution is important. I'm not going to copy a David Chang recipe and slap my name on it. David Ruggerio exemplifies the worst of this;he copied a recipe from Guliano Bugialli ingredient for ingredient and then slapped his own head notes on, said he learned it from his grandmother. Exactly 24 basil leaves? Really? Eventually his editor had to cop to it. But far worse Ruggerio was caught stealing from his customers' credit cards. "Hey, how ya doin?"

Food history is an important thing to me. I study it constantly. But taking the shortcut of claiming somebody else's work as your own is reprehensible.

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over 1 year ago Bael Juice

I ran into this article by accident, but somehow it's so good to read how's the life for food writer in America. I am a food writer in Thailand for 5 years now. I must say it's not easy at all even though food industry in Thailand seems to growing fast. Just like your article, I started by working at fast food restaurant, and it was a long way to where I am today, so I would like to send all my best wishes and encourage whoever want to be food writer. If I can do it then you can do it too. Keep fighting!

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almost 2 years ago Hugh Amano

Thank you for the great article. I'm in the "I've had a sorta-kinda-somewhat-semi-successful blog for a few years and have cheffed for a decade and now I really don't know where else I can go" doldrums, and it is helpful to hear your history and how the industry has changed. There is just so much about food out there these days! I love the fact that I can write pretty much anything I want in any style I want and "self-publish" for free, but at the end of the day, it would be great to eek out a living as a writer, and save my body and mind (and hair) from the rigors of cheffing. At any rate, thank you for the inspiration!

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about 2 years ago junROD

I wrote several food articles in my blog http://www.triond.com/users... and found out that I need to improve a lot in my writing styles AFTER READING YOUR PIECES. Thanks. I have singed-up to your website and is now your fan forever.

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about 2 years ago Sophie Ratz

I loved your blog, I constantly send my family and friends over to your site to educated themselves on their own time. I’ve even converted a few! Thank you for taking the time to lay out the in and outs of real food eating!!!

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about 2 years ago Pixie Caramel

Hi There

Love your blog and fabulous advice for anyone wanting a career in the food industry, work hard, play hard and love what you do and step up to every challenge because its a roller coaster ride all the way, thats why its soooo addictive.


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about 2 years ago Tomatom

Amanda, i'm glad you wrote this. I was feeling Curmudgeonly while painting a similar picture speaking at a recent freelancers conference in Australia, where incident.ynrates would have been anout half what is paid in the US even 10 years ago.

The_cook

over 2 years ago Gourmet Metrics

Well written, right on, and the reason I have joined the Food52 community.

Ozoz_profile

over 2 years ago Kitchen Butterfly

Just because you love it doesn't mean it won't be hard. And just because it is difficult, doesn't mean it is bad. Amanda, I'll keep reading this - thank you. The comments are fascinating and comforting. Overall, I'm not looking for solid reasons to love my day job, which makes a LOT of other things possible = like growing my passion for food. Thank you everyone