The Joy Of Food Writing

Ten years ago, I made a decision that changed my career, although it’s taken me this long to embrace it.

I had recently purchased a new condo, and I had a budget for kitchen updates. Then came the email from Patricia Wells.

Months before, I had gotten on the waiting list for to take one of her famous cooking classes in Paris.

They tended to sell out years in advance, and indeed, there seemed no chance I would get in for the foreseeable future. But I sent in my email address, and promptly forgot.

Until that moment. A spot had opened up in a class in October, 2006. I had two weeks to accept. Oh, and I had to send the payment of $4,500 in full with my acceptance. That happened to be my entire kitchen budget.

I agonized. I asked my mother, who, being practical and a child of the Depression, told me to stay focused on my renovations. I asked friends, who shouted, “Of course, you have to go!”

I decided to go with my instincts, gave up on stainless steel, and sent in the money. (In retrospect, I got a bargain because the price has since gone up.)

Patricia’s class was a turning point. The group of us around her dining table formed a bond for that week. I found myself teaching fellow students some techniques that who knows where I had learned — probably from my mom. At the end of the class, Patricia told me, “You can cook” the compliment that every culinary student wants to hear from their mentor.

When I got back to the States, I began pitching stories to my editors at The New York Times, where I was the Detroit bureau chief. They became a respite in a life that focused on the struggling industry. I began with a profile of Ina Garten that looked at her business acumen (and she cooked us lunch).

My pride and joy was discovering the growing Whoopie Pie trend, which resulted in a cover story in the Dining section, sparked a discussion on The View, and later resulted in an interview on The Sporkful.

Ever since, I’ve been writing and more recently, talking about food. I’ve just published an eBook with Forbes, called Hometown Holdouts: Business Lessons From Food Stars Loyal To Their Hometowns. I’ve started doing interviews about the book, like this one with Texas Standard, and of course a logical question comes up.

You’re known as an expert on the automobile industry. Why are you shifting over to food?

I’ll always been interested in what happens with the automobile industry, and the travel world in general, and I’m having a wonderful time in my day job as senior editor at Here & Now, the NPR news show based at WBUR in Boston.

Yet, food writing is a joy, an exploration, a way to satisfy my curiosity — and use the expertise I’ve honed from the other topics I’ve covered.

My food writing is flavored with a deep understanding of business. When I dine in a new restaurant, I’m noticing more than how a dish tastes. I’m looking at the size of portions, the quality of the ingredients, and what the margins might be on the dish, relative to its menu price.

How many servers are in the restaurant, and how many tables do they each have? Does the host or hostess walk through the floor on a regular basis? Is the owner there? What kind of food trends are apparent? For instance, I’ve noticed that people in Boston seem to like chicken on their pizza, but not ham and pineapple as back in the Midwest.

For me, the satisfaction in food writing is like figuring out the ending to a mystery. The ingredients are just as interesting as the result. To me, it’s dollars and cents as well as ramps and grass-fed beef.

My friend Dorie Greenspan, who writes the introduction to Hometown Holdouts, says there are very few people with an interest in the money side of restaurants. But, there should be many more.

Restaurants can help create a community’s identity, like Zingerman’s has for Ann Arbor, or Highlands Bar & Grill has for Birmingham, Alabama. Restaurants can create networks for local farmers, as Alice Waters did in Berkeley, California.

They can introduce new tastes and understanding to a place that didn’t know them, the way Alon Shaya is doing with his Israeli food in New Orleans. And, they can fail, the way two out of three restaurants do within three years of opening. Food is a tough, tough business.

Those are the stories that fascinate me. Yes, to many people, I’ll always be known as the “Car Lady” thanks to my years of appearances on The NewsHour on PBS. But, I also hope I can help people understand how the food business works, and how it affects them.

If people come to look at food places as more than just somewhere to eat, they’ll truly be well-fed.

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Micheline Maynard is senior editor at NPR’s Here & Now and writes the Hometown Holdouts series at Forbes.com. Follow her on Twitter @mickimaynard and the project @hholdouts.