Elina Shatkin's Exit Interview: Top 10 Questions for Food Writers
After 16 glorious, fatty months, I'm filing my last story for L.A. Weekly. Instead of a windy "fare thee well" post, I decided to conduct my own exit interview, answering the top 10 questions I am asked.
This has been an amazing job, and I was lucky to have it. I was even more lucky to work for and with so many talented people. In my travels, I talked to hard-working dishwashers, adventurous chefs, crazy line cooks, radio raconteurs, ambitious bloggers, bartenders with funny mustaches and demented restaurateurs. I had the privilege and pleasure of learning from all of them.
1. What's it like being a food writer?
I prefer to think of myself as a sports writer who just happens to write about food. I like the kind of writing that has voice, opinion and a feeling of immediacy. I want to sound like someone who loves eating and loves sharing what I've found -- whether it's a remarkable koobideh or an obscure, ancient fruit.
2. How do you feel about all those food bloggers?
I don't make a lot of distinctions between "journalists" and "bloggers," and I don't generally care how others label me. I do make a distinction between good writing and bad writing. There are plenty of examples of both on both sides of the professional/amateur divide. I read Saveur and Lucky Peach, but I also read Chowhound, Grub Street, My Last Bite, Street Gourmet L.A., Thirsty in L.A. and tons of other local blogs.
3. That sounds like the coolest job ever.
It is a cool job. It's also one of those jobs that sounds much cooler than it is. It's not as though I'm eating one fantastic meal after another, then sitting around thinking deep thoughts.
Food writing is rigorous. It's demanding. You spend a lot of time alone. I understand I'm not breaking my back in a coal mine or picking lettuce in the blazing sun. I am getting paid to eat and write about it. I love what I do, but it is way less glamorous than it seems.
4. OK, what's your job really like?
A well-known novelist once asked me this question (at a fancy Scotch tasting). The deadline pressure is intense. I had to write three posts a day or 15 posts a week. There was no time to let ideas marinate. If you want to do it well, it's crushing. My editors wanted me to write more reviews. I did too, but I didn't have the time because I was trying to meet my 15-posts-per-week quota. I felt like I was constantly running in front of a wheat thresher trying not to get my heels bloodied.
5. What's it like working with Jonathan Gold? Is he the coolest person ever?
He is as erudite and amusing in person as he is in print. He's awesome. Both of us were usually driving in our own cars or sitting in front of our own computers, so I didn't get to eat with him as often as I would have wished. I think all of us who work with or around Jonathan are hoping a little of that Gold dust brushes off on us.
6. What's your favorite thing that you've written about?
My five favorite stories, in no particular order:
I was lucky. I had exceptionally supportive editors who gave me the freedom to write what I wanted.
7. What's the hardest thing about your job?
Finding synonyms for words like "crisp" and "salty." No, maybe the weight gain or the food poisoning. In the past year, I have gotten food poisoning more times than in my previous three decades combined. I also gained 20 pounds.
Learning to write reviews was excruciating. I had done a fair bit of food writing -- profiles, trend pieces, behind-the-scenes stories, etc. -- but not a lot of reviewing. I had only begun to find my voice as a reviewer when it was time for me to leave this job.
Actually, I know the hardest thing about my job. It's the writer's fatigue and constant sense of failure that sets in with doing 15 posts per week. I look back on every story and see how it can be improved. It's humbling.
8. How do I become a professional food writer?
DO NOT quit your despised but lucrative day job, move across the country and expect to get paid writing work based on your Yelp reviews.
Now, it's simple: WRITE.
My first question to aspiring writers is always: "Do you write?" You might be surprised -- or not -- how often the answer is no. If you want to be a writer, on food or anything else, you must spend a lot of time alone with nothing but your thoughts and a computer, a typewriter or a blank piece of paper.
In broad strokes, build a portfolio by writing for low-level websites, blogs and publications. Maybe start your own blog. You will make little or no money doing this, but you will have written stories and made connections that you can use to pitch editors for paid writing work. Keep in mind: Reviewing is only one type of food writing, and it is the subgenre for which you are least likely to get paid.
9. With the internet, can a restaurant critic really be anonymous anymore?
I doubt anonymity ever existed. Chefs and restaurateurs tell me that whatever restaurant they worked in, they knew who the restaurant critics were and they kept watch for them.
I don't think a kitchen can radically and immediately alter its food upon spotting a critic. I do think a chef can pay extra attention to someone's food. I don't know that the food changes, but the service definitely improves. I remember eating with Jonathan and Squid Ink editor Amy Scattergood at a restaurant where the staff clearly "made" him the moment we walked in. Suddenly, we experienced a level of attention that other tables didn't seem to be getting. It was amusing but also a little annoying.
10. What are you looking forward to now that you're no longer going to be a restaurant critic?
Going on a diet.
BONUS: How do I apply for your job?
Here's the Food Critic/Blogger listing on JournalismJobs. No, I have no idea who the Weekly plans to hire. They have not hired anyone yet. Any rumors you may have heard to suggest they have are untrue. If you want to know more, you can try bribing Amy Scattergood. Good luck!
P.S. - I'm leaving to take a senior editor gig at Los Angeles magazine. My career ambition is to work for every publication with "Los Angeles" in the title. Los Angeles Cat Fancier's Quarterly, when you have an opening... call me.
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