This past weekend I gave a lecture at Food Blog South in Birmingham, Alabama. The title of my speech was “10 Food Blog Posts That’ll Get You Traffic” and though I was slightly nervous going in–this was my first time both attending and speaking at a food blog conference–I felt validated, after it was over, by the many people who thanked me for my presentation. Turns out, after nine years of food blogging, I have something to say on the subject. What follows, then, is basically the speech that I gave with images thrown in for good measure (I didn’t use PowerPoint when I spoke, so everyone just had to look at me and my colorful shoes). Hopefully the food bloggers among you will find this helpful.
In this week’s New York Magazine, there’s a story about a 27-year old who spends most of her life and her money eating out at trendy, of-the-moment restaurants. To be honest, I didn’t read the article—that’s the side of the food world I have zero interest in (fad-following)—but one line (highlighted by Eater) stood out for me to the point that I’ve been thinking a lot about it: “The food blogs are still big, but they really had their moment in the early aughts.”
At first, I rolled my eyes. But then I scratched my head. I mean, I don’t agree with the time frame—if food blogs had their moment, they were in the late aughts—but the larger question that this glib statement poses is a good one: are food blogs over?
In 2006, I graduated N.Y.U.’s dramatic writing program and moved to Brooklyn with my friend Diana. At the time, I’d been food blogging for two years and had just sold a book to Bantam/Dell that came with a pretty decent advance. Before I sold the book to Bantam, I had ads on my blog—Google Ads, BlogAds—but wasn’t generating enough money to pay rent. With the book advance, things changed. When that check came, I told my parents that I wouldn’t need their financial help anymore. I’d be able to take care of things from here on out.
And, for the most part, that’s what happened. The book advance only got me so far; at a certain point, I began making enough money—from the blog itself and other food ventures—to pay the bills. Here’s how I did that and how you might do that too.
In 2004, Atlanta Journal-Constitution food critic John Kessler wrote an article about me and my blog called “Welcome to Adam’s.” (You can read it here.)
At the time, food blogging was very, very new and Kessler was baffled and amused by my antics: “Why does this recent Emory law school grad record every meal he eats out — whether a lackluster slice at Johnny’s Pizza or an extravagant tasting menu at Per Se, the new Manhattan sibling to California’s French Laundry? Why does he post photos of everything?”
Inspired by this piece in the Guardian, in which several successful fiction writers (including Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, and Jonathan Franzen) give their ten rules for writing fiction, here are my ten rules for food blogging. (I hope my other senior food blogging colleagues write their own ten rules too.)
1. Have a hook. That hook might be cooking your way through a cookbook, deriding disastrous cakes, or advising fellow workers on where to eat in midtown.
3. If you don’t have a name, have a singular, stand-out voice that’s unlike any other voice out there.
4. If you don’t have a singular, stand-out voice, take beautiful pictures of beautiful food and include recipes.
5. Update frequently, at least three times a week. Even if you’re not a great photographer, include pictures in your posts; preferably, a lead picture at the top and several illustrative pictures studded throughout. (Edit these pictures in Photoshop, for maximum effect.)
For those of you who enjoyed those essays and are working on food blogs of your own, I’d like to tell you a story. Monday morning I woke up and I looked at my site. At the top of the page was a picture of a giant pancake called a Dutch Baby from my post, Weekend Breakfasts. I was about to do a post about a new technique for making Amanda Hesser’s almond cake, suggested by Amanda Hesser herself (it involves a food processor), when I realized that a picture of a powdered-sugar covered almond cake on top of a picture of a powdered-sugar covered pancake might be redundant. So I decided to write about broccoli.
I’ve defended food blogs many times in the past–I’m practically the Alan Dershowitz of food bloggers–and yet, lately, I’ve become more and more sensitive to a concern that’s often raised about food bloggers and our practices: namely, our tendency to review restaurants after only one visit.
Obviously, food bloggers don’t have the resources that professional critics do. We don’t have a newspaper picking up the tab when we go out to eat, it’d be impossible for most of us to eat our way through a menu without spending half our savings. So we go, our cameras in tow, and snap pictures of the two or three dishes we consume at this one meal and then scurry back to our computers to write it up. If you click “Restaurant Reviews” in my menu bar you’ll see I’ve done this well over 100 times.
I’m begining to understand why this isn’t the best way to go about things. This occurred to me when I returned to Chiles and Chocolate in Park Slope for the third time a few weeks ago. The first time I wrote it up, I praised the flan, shrugged over the quesadilla and dismissed the mole as too bitter. The place, I reckoned, was pretty good but not great.
Then I went back for lunch and had the chile relleno which I really enjoyed. Not only that, paired with the watermelon agua fresca, the fresh pico de gallo and tortilla chips, my lunch was significantly more enjoyable than it was on my first outing. Plus, the service was incredibly attentive: they asked me if I liked the music, they replaced plates and silverware with zeal. It was a rainy day in Park Slope, but it felt like a sunny day at a four-star restaurant uptown.
Then I went back again. And I gave the mole another chance and you know what? I hated it. I hated it more than I did the first time. Its bitter qualities totally overwhelmed the sweeter components; it paled in comparison to the mole I had at La Carta de Oaxaca in Seattle. PLUS–and this is what really did it in–the waitress had asked whether I wanted dark meat or white meat. I chose white meat–stupidly, I admit–and the chicken breast that the mole was served on top of was way overcooked, painfully dry, a horror show.
What do these three experiences have to do with food blogging? Well, if that third time had been my first time at Chiles & Chocolate in Park Slope, I would have written a savage review. If the second time had been my first time, I would have written it a love letter. But since my first time was my first time, I gave it a half-hearted nod and that’s the review that remains in my archives.
That’s a problem. Those three experiences add up to a fuller picture of the restaurant. Now I know that Chiles & Chocolate is inconsistent–a word that professional food critics use all the time. I know what stands out on the menu: the agua fresca, the chile relleno, the flan. And I know what to avoid: anything with chicken breast. If I were to write a review now, it would be more thoughtful, more measured, more complete and ultimately more useful.
The truth is that I often re-visit restaurants and have new reactions. Like Stand, the Union Square burger joint that I two-starred back in May. I went there recently with my friend Jimmy and we had a great experience: the burgers were perfectly done, the buns, this time, weren’t too daunting. I liked it way better than that first time around.
Other times, going back reconfirms what I suspected the first time. Like this place in Park Slope that I don’t want to name because it’s truly adorable and the people behind it seem like really good people, but God help me if I don’t think it’s the biggest rip-off joint on the block. The sandwiches cost $9 and they pile mediocre chicken salad on to seedy multigrain bread, top it with a mealy tomato, and put it in a plastic container. It’s bad and it was bad the second time I went there. Going back confirmed that.
Where does that leave us, then? Food blog restaurant reviews are still defensible in that they share the average person’s experience at a particular restaurant on a particular night. As I told Michael Ruhlman for an article he’s writing for September’s Restaurant Hospitality Magazine: “The average customer doesn’t return to a restaurant if they have a bad first experience, and I think that’s why food blog reviews are important. At their best, they offer very thorough accounts of a first impression of a restaurant and, for many people, that’s useful.”
It’s useful, but it’s not ideal. And I’m starting to recognize that. Food blogs will never displace newspapers because of the newspaper critic’s capacity to be thorough–to go back several times to a restaurant, to sample all of the items on the menu, to examine how a restaurant changes on different days of the week, at different times of the day. Maybe the aptest metaphor is sexual: a newspaper critic gets to sleep with a restaurant over and over again; the food blogger critic gets one shot. So when a reader asks, “Is the restaurant good in the sack?” both perspectives are valid–the food blogger might describe the experience with more gusto, there might even be pictures–but the newspaper critic can answer you much more assuredly. And that, I shall admit, gives the newspaper critic the leg up. Literally.
A noted food journalist–one of my first mentors–got on the phone with me earlier this year to talk about my future. I told him that I wanted to get a regular job for a newspaper food section. What should I do? “Adam,” he said, “you’ve got to be kidding. What you’re doing right now is what most newspapers are desperate to do for themselves. Old media is on its way out. Your blog is the future!”
Since that conversation, the evidence to support his claim is overwhelming: food critics, food writers, magazine editors, seasoned journalists, cookbook authors, and even cab drivers are all getting into the game, and with fervor. Newspaper food sections are becoming less and less relevant as food blogs are becoming more and more popular. And to that I say: woohoo!
Woo-hoo because I love food blogs. I love reading them. I have about 30 food blogs bookmarked in my browser and many more that I click on throughout the day. Whereas traditional food media (The New York Times food section, for example) often feels fussy and strained, like a college roundtable discussion of “Beowulf,” food blogs feel fresh and exciting–like hanging out with a new group of friends or an old group of friends, depending on how long you’ve been reading food blogs.
And yet, Mario Batali slammed food blogs last week on Eater. In his essay Why I Hate Food Bloggers, Mario wrote: “Many of the anonymous authors who vent on blogs rant their snarky vituperatives from behind the smoky curtain of the web. This allows them a peculiar and nasty vocabulary that seems to be taken as truth by virtue of the fact that it has been printed somewhere.”
As many have noted in the comments of that post, what Mario seems to be ranting about isn’t so much food blogs as restaurant industry blogs that give false reports about his comings and goings (notably, the very site where his rant appears). I find his rant funny because when I met him a few months ago he said the same thing to me: that he hates food bloggers and anonymous people posting nasty reviews all over the web. “It’s the worst thing to happen to food journalism in a long time,” he told me, apparently unaware that he was speaking to the enemy.
But am I the enemy? I’d like to think not. I’d like to think that food bloggers like me, who write about food and cooking and the occasional meal out, are allies of good, honest, hard-working chefs who have quality food to share and, perhaps, very few outlets in which to promote that food. David Chang, of Momofuku and Ssam Bar, is the darling of the food blog world (even Jason Kottke, not a food blogger, used his blog to rave) and I would guess that it’s a big boon to Chang’s business. Chang himself is friendly with food bloggers (check out his stuff on Eater) and his young age–he’s only 29–suggests a familiarity and comfort level with the internet that, perhaps, Mario lacks.
What food blogs offer, ultimately, is the democratization of food criticism. In Arthur Miller’s autobiography “Timebends,” the famous playwright recalls the period in 1967 when the Herald Tribune vanished and The New York Times became the sole critical force in New York theater. Miller writes:
Monopoly in anything is not only an evil but an insidious one, and there was actually a moment, in 1967, soon after the Herald Tribune vanished, when Clifton Daniel, then the Times managing editor, convoked a meeting of some hundred authors, newspeople, producers, and actors in a midtown restaurant to discuss what might be done to mitigate the paper’s awesome new power and its unhealthy, undemocratic potentialities. The Times, Daniel declared, did not create this monopoly and did not wish to hold the power it had been handed by history. After some wayward discussion, I suggested that since the nub of the issue was the danger of injustice in a single critic carrying all the immense prestige of the Times, perhaps the solution was to send two or three critics to write independent notices, maybe even on occasion asking an informed theatergoer to write his impressions of a show in a paragraph or two…. Daniel thought for a moment and said that my idea was impossible, and when I asked him his reasons, he replied, “But who would be speaking for The New York Times?”
Miller’s dream of an egalitarian system for criticism–a system that “would broaden the public’s awareness of how fictional, rather than a matter of plain fact, all criticism really is, which is to say, how subjective”–is being realized today, at least in the food world, with food blogs. Because of our varying voices, our palpable passions, and–most importantly–our lack of editorial control, we are the distant drums in the distance growing closer and closer, our torches waving, our laptops poised for posting. Mario will disagree, but I think food blogs are the best thing to happen to food journalism in a long time. To quote a friend and mentor: we are the future.