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Insider Secrets of Being a Food Writer

Welcome to Bolt’s insider secrets series! This series will take you behind the scenes into the worlds of writers from different industries. Here, you’ll find out everything from what their jobs are like to how to get started in their field.

food writer

Nicholas Chen, Ex-Managing Editor at Eatbook

Nicholas is a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America with a BA in Culinary Arts Management. He has also held positions as a food writer at The Smart Local and was the Managing Editor at Eatbook, a local food portal. He’s written and curated reviews lists and content that have achieved thousands of shares across the social space. Nicholas is currently a Content Strategist at Bolt, creating and curating content to drive brand awareness.

What do you do as a food writer?

food writer
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I cover food news, restaurant reviews and created guides. So I spent a lot of time doing research for our guides, curating the content and scouring the web for the latest news.

Part of the job is also eating, which as you can imagine is one of the best parts of the job and one aspect I greatly miss. Food writers are often invited to restaurants when there’s a new menu or to restaurant openings, where we’re served some of the restaurant’s best dishes. We also scout around on our own to cover hawker stalls and indie cafes that might not have the funding to hire PR companies. The rest of the day is then spent battling a food-induced coma while trying to get articles out on the site.

Do you get free food?

Yes, tastings are free for writers.

Doesn’t that make it impossible for you to be objective?

I’m sure many others will have strong opinions against mine, but no, I don’t think so. My solution was to always think if I would revisit the dish again at that price. I always keep that in mind when I mention ‘value’ in my reviews.

Greatest moment on the job so far?

The greatest part for me was meeting some amazing folks in the industry. Really talented chefs and passionate service staff who believe in their work. For an ex-culinary student like me, it was really like meeting your personal heroes.

The job also gave me the opportunity to refine my palate which is arguably one of the more important assets a food writer or even a chef could have. I got to taste food from different cultures, experience the products of different cooking techniques and that has allowed me to expand my knowledge exponentially.

What was your most challenging moment on the job, and how did you deal with it?

food writer
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There’s one experience I will never forget. I had been offered improvement feedback for the photos I was taking to accompany my food reviews, so on my tasting that day, I put in more effort than usual in photo-taking. Unfortunately, that meant also being that obnoxious guy floating around a table trying to get the perfect angle and shifting the plate of food all over the restaurant trying to find good light.

The chef at the restaurant noticed me from the bar and must have remarked on what a strange fellow I was and came to confront me. It was clear after a few exchanges that he wasn’t a fan of food journalists and resented having his work judged by folks who didn’t know anything about being in a kitchen. He decided to challenge me to a cook-off in the kitchen, which despite my better judgement, I agreed to.

In the kitchen, he challenged me to cook a simple sunny side up, which I was feeling very confident about after hours of making the exact same thing in culinary school. I got to work and started cracking my egg, the first yolk split, and I heard him scoff and tell me to start again. I cracked the second one and to my dismay, it also broke. At this point, he was grinning – assured of his victory. This time, he cracked the third egg, and it split yet again! I asked him if his eggs were old but he dismissed my observation. Instead, he summoned his kitchen team and demanded to know why the eggs weren’t stored properly.

He then continued cooking his broken egg and lectured me on the unpredictable nature of the restaurant kitchen while he finished my order. The rest of the evening went by pretty smoothly and I actually gave the restaurant a good review in the end because the food was so good!

Tips and tricks for your industry

Do your research so you don’t look like an idiot when you talk to the chef. Knowing what the restaurant specialises in, the cooking techniques used and the ingredients will go a long way when interacting with industry folks. Stay humble, don’t let ego get to your head and start demanding things in restaurants.

Learn how to take good photographs. Food journalism in Singapore is unfortunately very superficial, and a good photo will more often sell your story way more than the actual content will. As sad as that sounds, I would urge you not to compromise on the writing front.

Things you wish you knew before you entered the industry?

Learn how to pace yourself, tastings can drag on for hours and feature more courses than you can handle. A couple of bites of every dish is often more than enough to fill you up!

How to get started in your industry?

There are plenty of bloggers out there, and I guess you could start as one as well. But I think if you want to join the magazines and big websites, you need to learn how to write about food. Learn how to properly critique a dish and express your thoughts in a coherent way.

Way too many food blogs read like an extended version of the menu, going on to list out all the ingredients, how many hours it was cooked – then slap on a comment at the end like “oh and it was pretty good.”  It offers no value whatsoever, and if your content is something I could get by just talking to a server or reading a recipe, you’re not going to make it.

Favourite books, reference material, essential texts to read?

There are so many! I think to be a food writer you need to know your stuff, so load up on cookbooks, read food magazines and websites you like and look up to. I’m a fan of Eater and of course, where better to learn how to write a restaurant review than The New York Times?

I’d also recommend Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, it’ll give you some insight into being a chef and the struggles they go through. It’s important to understand that because your work can sometimes directly affect their livelihoods, and it will help you be more understanding of the industry’s quirks.

How did your culinary training give you an advantage as a food writer?

food writer

Obviously, I had a leg up in terms of product and knowledge of different cuisines in general. But culinary school also taught me how to properly judge a dish, and how different components came together to form a unique experience.

I was also immersed in the culture of the kitchen and all my friends were chefs, so I think that allowed me to connect more with the F&B circle, and I was able to understand why certain things were done the way they were. When I saw chefs cook and prepare food in open kitchens, I could understand what was going on. 

What is your thought process when you approach a food review?

I usually do some research before I head to the restaurant and think about my experiences at similar restaurants that I liked to figure out what I’m in for. Writing a review isn’t just about the food, a restaurant offers an experience, and that encompasses everything from the ambience, the way the tables are laid out, the choice of flatware to the service.

I don’t usually talk about service since restaurants always brief their servers when food writers are around so they are on their best behaviour. It’s not an accurate reflection of the customer experience, so I don’t factor it in unless it’s really bad. I mean if it was bad for us, I can’t imagine how it would be for actual paying customers.

When the food arrives I examine it with all my senses, from how it looks, smells, tastes, feels and sometimes sounds. I make note of anything that stands out and the flavours that really distinguish a dish. I think about how everything comes together on the plate. If the flavours are balanced, if the ingredients complement each other, the inspirations behind it, and if I’d pay full price for it.

What are your views towards recent criticisms hurled at the food blogging space?

I think they are legitimate, I know how hard chefs and service staff work, and random people coming in to judge them for it is a very hard pill to swallow. The thing is, that’s the way marketing works now, and whining about the good ol’ days before influencers and 17-year-old bloggers isn’t going to bring it back.

We need to find common ground. Writers need to get more educated because they are responsible for the content they put out. Restaurants need to learn how to deal with complaints in an amicable way, by educating instead of berating customers or bloggers. But most importantly readers need to recognise and demand better quality writing and content. They are the market force, and they are the true determinant of what gets put out there in the long run.

The trouble is, there’s a very small percentage of readers who actually recognise good content, and they aren’t the ones reading the click-bait articles shown on their social media newsfeeds. They’re reading The New York Times, The Economist or what have you. Most people still draw value from the sites and personalities mainstream media loves to villainize, and honestly, there’s nothing really wrong with that! If your decision to eat at a restaurant is based on how pretty the food looks, I have absolutely no right to tell you otherwise.

I can tell you there may be a better way: by learning to understand food and think about it a little more, but most people aren’t willing to walk down that road. That’s fine, we can’t all spend hours pouring through recipe books and deliberating the nuances of the hollandaise sauce you had on your eggs benedict for Sunday brunch. Even the content some people might label as “bad” really isn’t entirely so, because somewhere out there someone is reading it and thinking, “this is exactly what I’m looking for!”.

Nicholas will be hosting a food writing workshop on March 5, 2016, where he will be discussing techniques and philosophies behind food writing. For more information or to sign up, click here.

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