The Business of Being a (Food) Writer

Michael Ruhlman the author of the captivating inside look into the Culinary Institute of America (see his Soul of a Chef trilogy) and more recently the author of Ratio and Twenty, was also the author of this Tweet on a recent morning:

"email to cia student: learn 2 b excellent writer first, then turn that skill toward food. no one should set out to be a food writer."

This got me thinking of all the emails I've gotten and networking coffees I have drunk, when a friend of a friend calls to discuss "becoming a food writer." Not one of these coffee dates in recent memory resulted in the kid taking me up on my offer to review their work. Many have even forgotten to toss off a quick email thanking me for my time (which is also my money, meaning the time I sat with you to discuss why you think you could do my job, I wasn't making any money, or querying anyone else about my next paid piece of work.)

I do a lot fewer of these than I used to.

A Day in the Life:

People often ask me "what do you DO all day?" Just to give you some idea of how my day goes, today I'm:

  • Trying to learn what I need to add to my iPad to make it not only fun, but also a useful and productive tool.
  • Looking forward to, and preparing for, a speaking engagement tomorrow for a group called ASPIRE that reaches out to Asian American women. We are a panel in the food industry and I'm eager to hear what Patricia Yeo (Om) and Alison Fong (Bon ME)  have to say. I think it's interesting that all three of us have taken unconventional paths to where we are.
  • I'm also setting up and shooting photos for two other posts.
  • Troubleshooting my camera flash card reader. Why now?
  • Outlining my Thanksgiving wrap up post.
  • Following up on sponsor queries. ("Hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful...")
  • Tackling a billing problem with AT&T who suspended my service for no apparent reason. Yesterday my one and only phone, the one I use for business, was suspended. (Victory: I got a big credit and a sincere apology, acknowledging that not one, but two people dropped the ball on their end. Never mind it took the better part of an hour. And the two calls that took more than two hours in the past two weeks.)
  • Planning dinner (which includes a recipe to test and photos to shoot), post to outline.
  • It's time to go for a walk (it's late actually, but I had to shoot while the light was good and then I discovered the card reader broke.) I gave up the gym and now walk for exercise. One of the dangers of working from home is living close to the refrigerator, testing recipes doesn't help. Yoga pants are not your friend.
  • Drafting my holiday gift guide. (90% done)
  • Looking at the pile of books to be reviewed and thinking how I can turn it into a post or two.
  • Reminding myself of the in-flight magazine query I have nearly ready to go...


A Big Milestone and a Big Decision

With the publication of my first piece in The Washington Post, I was inundated with emails thanking me for the piece. I am thrilled. And, I'm broke. This dichotomy has me thinking a lot about the business of being a writer. It's never been more difficult to be a writer. Like the back end of a horse, or a peek inside the sausage factory, people seem not to want to pay attention to the realities of being a writer. Like the beret-wearing, Moleskin-toting café denizen I like to call "Existential Crisis Dude", after every other boy I met in college, writing is often a solitary and unrewarded affair. But is it a job? I think it can be.

First and foremost, as a writer (whether it's about food or anything else) you are your own business. While the appeal of being your own boss is real (and there are benefits) most folks don't think beyond that.

Here is a quick post I put up on Facebook a few weeks back:

I wish to lodge a complaint with my Manager (me) that my IT Dept (me) is taking far too much time away from my employee's (my) productive work. Also, the Marketing Dept (me) is so terribly far behind that the Accounts Receivable Dept (me) is going to blow a gasket. Accounts Payable (me) is not happy either.

HR (me) is quite concerned, especially with all the personal time this employee (me) has been taking do deal with "family matters." Legal (me) is looking into this. We may need to involve the EAP (me).

Sales (me) as usual, is just hitting the bricks and trying to make a buck to keep this whole operation afloat. Sure hope the Executive Planning Committee (me) is taking note.

There was a period when everything broke or went South at once (the dishwasher, the refrigerator, the computer, etc.) and medical and family matters reared their heads, too. Inevitably, these things happen at once. So you're trying to follow up on queries to editors, scare up some news sponsors, while fielding calls to repairmen on the dishwasher, while scheduling the refrigerator repairman, and watching appointments vanish from your calendar while your support person says "I've never seen that happen!" And so on. People have said, "Oh, I hate when that happens." But they are collecting a paycheck and making those calls from work, from a desk which someone else paid for, by lights that someone else is paying to keep on. I'm still in a hole from the "everything's broken/breaking" period.

Being self employed also means you cannot take a sick day, even if you get sick. No one pays you for a personal day to run to a specialist doctor it took you six months to book an appointment with. The upside is if it's not a delusional fever you have, you can stay in bed in your jammies and get something done. Even if it's just photo editing. People often think if you have not posted anything you have not been working. Each piece you post has been written, edited, photos have been planned, recipes tested, etc. It's not that I've been sitting on the sofa watching Judge Judy.

Work like mine is not for the faint of heart. I am in awe of people like Michael Ruhlman and all the published authors I know, who somehow manage to get it done and support themselves in the process. I'm very tough, thick-skinned, creative at problem-solving and entrepreneurial by nature. I'm organized, I'm confident. And yet, it is a struggle. Very few writers I know actually support themselves with writing alone. Editors are beleaguered, many of them are now writing what they used to pay freelancers to write for their publications. People who used to pay for workshops now have no budget, or are hopeful they'll have one again in the Spring.

More successful writers than I advise me to "never work for less than a dollar a word." As far as I can tell, that mostly means "never work (period)." It's been a long, long time since I've found anyone paying that rate. If you want to be a (food) writer, my first piece of advice is: do not quit your current job. This is no economy in which to be casual about things like a paycheck, medical benefits, retirement accounts.

My second piece of advice echoes Ruhlman's - be a writer. DO the work. Ask for feedback, but be mindful of the time of those you are imposing on. The availability of free blogging platforms means anyone can have a blog. This is mostly a mixed bag. Too many people give away their work for free. Then they ask me how I make money as a food writer. Here's a hint: stop giving your work away for free. Just because you have a computer and a blog, doesn't make you are a writer. Just as having a camera doesn't make you Ansel Adams; you must work at your craft. Do it every day, get better. Treat it like exercise. Do something every day.

Be tenacious, flexible and thick-skinned. Be professional. (I cannot tell you how many editors tell me that freelancers regularly miss deadlines. I cannot believe it, but they swear it's true.)

The writing I want to do, the writing I cannot not do, will not get done while I'm chasing payments, querying editors and negotiating fees above twenty cents a word. So, while Mom asks if my Washington Post piece has "resulted in any offers" (if only it worked like that!), I have decided to go back into job search mode.

Yes, for the first time in five years, I'm looking for a conventional job. A "real job". I don't need benefits, I don't need to advance in an organization. I'd like something that allows me to make a contribution, maybe exercise the gray matter, and I will write before or after work. We'll see how this next chapter unfolds.

I will continue to write and hopefully, my readers and sponsors will stick around. In the meantime, if you know of anyone's a little about what I've done in the not-too-distant past.

Before I became a Writer...

I moved to Boston for law school in 1985, having been convinced that this was my route to having an impact while earning a living. This was prior to our city’s culinary renaissance and it is no exaggeration to say that the quality of food in this city at that time nearly caused me to leave. While new opportunities kept me here much longer than anticipated, I watched our city discover its capacity for more than boiled potatoes and broiled cod.

I have enjoyed many aspects of success in conventional employment, all the while keeping connected to the food world through volunteer experiences. (I’ve co-chaired charity events at nationally acclaimed restaurants, I’ve also volunteered teaching cooking skills to at-risk kids, developed marketing plan for a specialty food product, and I’ve looked at culinary school and other hands-on cooking jobs, too.)

After two years of law, left it for the consulting field and enjoyed the fit of business over law. I used the skills learned in practice to succeed in account executive and consulting roles. Strategic thinking and client focus enabled me to successfully prospect business, develop high level client relationships at Fortune 500 companies, and to consistently exceed goals. Some of my corporate accomplishments include:

  • Simultaneous management of all 13 GE business unit relationships; effectively developing those with strategic opportunity and turning those into partner, rather than vendor,     relationships. These resulted in new revenue streams for my company and in my being invited to speak at Crotonville, GE's leadership training center.
  • Turned around an at-risk client making it into a high-margin, high-satisfaction client. Developed, and was only outsider invited to, cross-business, cross-functional steering committee.
  • Grew Fidelity speaking engagement (Spring Leadership Conference) into a consulting project with Systems Company. Resulted in higher customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction for units that implemented our flexible work arrangements system. Fidelity is now implementing the system corporate-wide.

Within my own company, I designed and implemented organizational effectiveness manual and training, developed the first cross-functional account team, and was project manager and contributing writer to the telecommuting handbook.

After years of consulting, I took a spin through several startups, with great successes, followed too closely by pink slip after pink slip. I love the ability to contribute whatever you can in a startup environment, unfettered by title. Often one can contribute in ways that are not possible in larger more evolved organizations. Some of the startup successes I enjoyed included:


  • Closing a multi-million dollar deal for the first national extra-net VOIP network. (I knew nothing of hardware technology before taking that job but learned it, and impressed people with my ability to make deals, build relationships.)
  • Creating a joint venture between a major insurer and a hi tech company with innovative supply chain protection tool.
  • Developing new verticals and bringing at-risk clients back to a technology driven, distance-learning company.

Since my career path is unconventional, HR software will screen me out of most jobs I might apply to. So, I'll be reaching out to friends and acquaintances, networking like nobody's business. Put your thinking caps on and accept my gratitude in advance.