E Gullet — the online community that launched food careers
I wrote this for a recent edition of Fire & Knives. It’s a long piece about how some of the UK’s food writers all got their break through a website called eGullet. I could not have written this without generous help from Bob Granleese, Audrey Gillan, Tim Hayward, Allan Jenkins, Andy Lynes, Simon Majumdar, Gary Marshall, Adrian Oliver, Marina O’Loughlin and Jay Rayner. Tim Hayward (@TimHayward) who publishes Fire & Knives has kindly given me permission to reproduce the article here. This version has not been subbed, errors all mine.
eGullet — the online community that launched food careers
“Before eGullet there was no food community for obsessives. Joining it was like Narnia at the back of your fridge.” That’s how Simon Majumdar, author and Iron Chef judge, felt about seeing the eGullet online bulletin board for the first time. eGullet brought people together into a virtual community which spilled over into real life gatherings. That was unheard of at the time because of the fear that everyone from the internet was an axe murderer.
eGullet wasn’t just a website, it was a social occasion, a career launch pad and a community. eGullet allowed food writers to find their voices and launched careers for Majumdar, Andy Lynes (food writer & critic) and Tim Hayward (author, restaurateur and publisher of Fire & Knives). No matter what happens to the food media industry, being a good writer is not enough — writers need patronage and community too if they want to make it work today.
Interrupting her potato scones breakfast, Marina O’Loughlin seemed pleased that eGullet was a key to furthering her work avoidance ambitions. “In those days, technology was a genuine community and wasn’t about mass exposure — it really was for spoddy people to talk about our obsession. Anyone looking at it must have thought that it was bizarre.” O’Loughlin was holding down jobs as a copywriter and as the Metro’s food critic and eGullet was a curious distraction. “I was a single mother and isolated by those circumstances and I joined eGullet because I thought that I was on my own in my food obsession.” O’Loughlin had never seen an online forum before “I lurked for ages before signing up” she confessed.
Jason Perlow, a food enthusiast set up eGullet out of dissatisfaction with the way Chowhound.com was managed. He co-founded it in 2001 with Stephen Shaw. Shaw wanted eGullet to be a worldwide community of food enthusiasts and appointed Andy Lynes as eGullet UK’s founding member.
Lynes worked as an auditor for BT until 2004 travelling around the world, eating on expenses and writing about it online. “My own website [Foodstore, later UK Gourmet] wouldn’t have amounted to anything, but being part of eGullet, another platform, was very inspiring and what ultimately lead to career in writing.” Meeting Perlow, who was charming and encouraging, during a trip to the US galvanised Lynes’ to be a food writer; but it was Shaw’s words that did it for Lynes “you owe it to yourself and us to write more.”
Lynes remembers the ambitions “Shaw was keen to only be about food in order to attract the big names of the food world to the site.” Lynes edited ‘The Daily Gullet’ and edited others’ contributions to the site. “It took up a lot of time and it involved management & posting duties. There was loads of traffic at the time.” eGullet was managed from a hidden forum with direction mainly from Shaw. The “management” was really a loose affiliation of the eGullet moderators worldwide. Lynes was busy maintaining eGullet in the UK with every spare moment and his efforts attracted some remarkable food lovers.
Majumdar, a prolific eGullet user, traces his food media career back to eGullet. “If it wasn’t for those boards [such as eGullet] I wouldn’t be doing what I do now”. One minute he was writing on an obscure website about his dinner and the next getting drunk with Anthony Bourdain at the Wenlock Arms. Behind Majumdar’s natural gregariousness, some deeply personal events, which Majumdar was hesitant to talk about, spurred him to re-evaluate his life. He decided to travel around the world, to eat.
Majumdar was never far from his publishing roots and thought that a book about his adventures could work. Majumdar turned to the eGullet community and asked for help with the proposal. Online conversations which built rapport, which turned into meetings and then relationships, landed Majumdar some much needed patronage. “I am incredibly grateful to Jay [Rayner], Marina [O’Loughlin] and Anthony [Bourdain] who gave quotes for my proposal which helped me to meet publishers — they opened doors!”
Majumdar’s idea worked. Enough people read the book in the UK for the publisher to sell it into America. Majumdar was on a plane for his US book tour. However it was writing an article about the world’s best sandwiches for the Guardian, another eGullet created opportunity that launched brand Majumdar. “There was such a massive response [to the Guardian article] that BBC World interviewed me in New York. The chap who is now my manager heard it on his way to work in LA and arranged to meet me.” Soon after, Simon was the new judge on television’s Iron Chef.
It was a long way from Majumdar’s early days as eGullet’s self-anointed social secretary. Majumdar organised regular events for the eGullet family where “people would come from all over and even from the US to be part of these events.” Majumdar’s first gathering was at St John’s in 2001. “I had a flair for it and so I kept organising them.” Lynes was also key in bringing people together with his memorable effort the legendary Fat Duck lunch. Lynes, O’Loughlin and writer Audrey Gillan remember it well.
The small Bray restaurant was filled with eGullet members, all, if nothing else curious about each other. Gillan’s story encapsulates the real community behind the virtual one. Gillan booked her place for the lunch before she went to Iraq to cover the war embedded in a tank. Gillan was thankful “They kept my place open and to celebrate being utterly alive and back from Iraq I went to lunch with those loons. It was so weird after six weeks after eating hot sick in a bag.”
For O’Loughlin it was simply a chance to go to a restaurant that she wanted to eat at but her friends baulked. “I couldn’t review the Fat Duck for the Metro because it had been done, but I still wanted someone to go to the Fat Duck with.” eGullet was now at a stage where for some the community was enough, but for others it could open doors. A conversation between Lynes and O’Loughlin at that lunch ultimately led to him covering her column in the Metro when she was on holidays. “I got the Metro gig because of that lunch!” Lynes recalled.
Lynes first credits Joe Warwick who edited Restaurant magazine (now a Metro food critic alongside Lynes) for giving him his first paid commission to write about Claude Bosi. Warwick discovered Lynes through eGullet and Lynes, whilst flattered by the commission wasn’t surprised, “the who’s who of the food world read or contributed to eGullet. Lulu Grimes read it, Joe [Warwick], Jay Rayner was also an avid member.” A few more commissions followed but it wasn’t enough to live on (not much has changed since) but a voluntary redundancy at the right time pushed Lynes into full time food writing. “A couple of paid commissions are no guarantees of success but with a mortgage and two kids”, he paused “it was utterly stupid and reckless. But I did it anyway.” 18 months later, with the redundancy pay out depleting fast, the writing career became self-sustaining.
Adrian Oliver, Chef/Patron at Margot’s in Padstow (not an axe murderer) felt detached from London where the food scene was close, eGullet brought him closer. Later, to quell some isolation Oliver travelled to London to meet other members at another event. “Going to London, to Chez Bruce, at that time of the internet’s evolution was seen as ‘so odd’.” At lunch Oliver’s good nature won people over. “I never went along to promote Margot’s. I went along to meet people. But eGullet certainly promoted Margot’s and Padstow. It got people who went out of their way to come from London and eat at Margot’s.”
The camaraderie and revelry amongst the eGullet family were about to change. Lynes was given orders to ensure the board members stayed on topics, didn’t stray from talking about food and above all prevent it becoming a virtual chat room for arranging real life meetings. Lynes said that it was “an attempt to control the way people acted in real life through the boards. It really pissed people off.”
This was the beginning of eGullet’s demise. eGullet originally attracted people dissatisfied from other food sites, who didn’t want their contributions hampered by arbitrary censorship rules or membership agreements or controls. Majumdar was irritated remembering the rules “people moved to eGullet because the Chowhound rules became too prohibitive.” Majumdar conceded that growth needs a level of control but the eGullet rules and interference from the moderators was annoying.
Majumdar said that the “breaking point came when a policy about real time events was brought in an attempt to restrict people getting together in real life.” The motive behind the decision made some sense. Lynes contended that “Steve [Shaw] wanted to prevent the site creating cliques and alienating other users; it should have promoted inclusiveness.” That didn’t work out well as Lynes explained “A meet-up would have to be pre-approved by a moderator, then you could post about the event. Any report back would have to be about the food.”
Lynes became unpopular overnight and it still haunts him, “I lost a lot of contacts though that fallout.” It’s telling of the turmoil that Lynes, as moderator, founding affiliate and chief standards enforcer was asked to leave eGullet in 2006 for continued minor infractions of eGullet’s policies. Lynes said that “the moderators took themselves way too seriously. eGullet saddled itself with member agreements and guidelines and avatars — if don’t adhere you’re out.”
At the Internet’s delirious days of 2000, Tim Hayward was working in new media and taking Concorde flights to job interviews in Silicon Valley. It was working in San Francisco witnessing the world wide web’s birth the that he knew old media’s days were numbered. Unlike Lynes and Majumdar, Hayward was determined to use the internet to launch a food writing career. Hayward explains how: “I saw an opportunity and took it. It was wide open territory, and I’m enough of an ad man to know I don’t have a strategy but never miss an opportunity when it arrives.” Hayward’s opportunity arrived when Lynes bowed out of eGullet and Hayward volunteered to take over as moderator.
Hayward strategy was simple “I knew that the editors were going onto the boards to see what people were talking about. As moderator, I would have a helicopter view of when.” With this knowledge Hayward was able to post articles that he had written onto eGullet at the times when the editors would log in to poke about. The ‘spontaneous’ post method worked — the Guardian commissioned him to write his first Word of Mouth piece. A bold move then resulted in a fully-fledged food career as author and restaurateur — Hayward now only must conquer television for the journey to be complete.
Majumdar and Hayward recognise that Jay Rayner helped their careers and attribute a lot of their success to him. Rayner was part of the eGullet community too “In the early days I felt part of it, as one of the guys.” He said. Rayner played down any sense of patronage credited to him but affirmed his commitment to promoting good writing. “If something is worth reading, you want to tell people about it. There just isn’t too much of it at the moment.” That is surprising given the volume and presence of food media aspirants on this generation’s eGullet, Twitter.
Social media now showcases up and coming food writers but Lynes sees two key differences between eGullet and social media. The early days of eGullet were “filled with a real sense of exploration and discovery because eGullet was participant and not PR led. What’s going on now, people getting excited about ramen, burgers, pizza, doughnuts etc — I look at the early days on eGullet and it was all there, but with more depth and substance.” eGullet was famous for argument and debate about food. “There was no ‘me too’ mentality, the opinions were tested” said Lynes.
Majumdar sees a distinction in motives between the eGullet writers and the social media herd today “In 01–02 no one had any desires to launch careers from it. The notion that it was a fulltime career was a million miles from my mind. I just wanted a few people to read it [my blog].” But he is optimistic for aspiring writers, “People fascinated with anything will find an outlet to talk about it and in 01–02 there was no blog to book outlet. Now they [the writers] have outlets like social media, but they still have to be good.”
Hayward, a paradox who leveraged the early days of new media to forge out a career which has been predominately old media based, predicts a bleak future for anyone else now trying to do the same. “For the current crop, there will be no more Jamie Olivers. It’s like starting a band tomorrow and being the Rolling Stones, BEING the Rolling Stones.” If the wannabe food writers with blogs and Twitter accounts are anything to go by, they’re ignoring Hayward’s prediction.
Lynes is conclusive about eGullet in England. “The eGullet forum is hardly used. It’s mostly US traffic now.” Today, you can almost feel the cool breeze blowing virtual tumbleweeds past eGullet. A vibrant and lively place is now like a once-hip restaurant where the smart money has moved on. The crowd now gathers on Twitter and in a few more years, we’ll know if history repeats.