I came to the culinary arts by a long and circuitous route. The notion of considering a career as a food writer evolved by an even stranger set of circumstances. My life’s travels have included learning some five languages, visiting 11 countries, earning two higher degrees and subsisting on “federal food” for parts of five decades.
As a former career leader in the Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, I suffered through many a gastronomic catastrophe on ships, at airports, in emergency shelters, in stale underground bunkers, and at countless proverbial “rubber-chicken banquets.” I have also been exposed to some of the best culinary experiences, within and outside public service, that any person could imagine.
Late in my military service, I began an ambitious writing career, focusing on maritime history and tragic sea rescues. In retirement, I developed a need to cook great meals for those I love. Writing about food just seemed natural, since I had consumed so much of it in so many places and in unusual circumstances.
The term “food writer” is less than three decades old, but is complex, and it’s generally acknowledged that there are as many ways to write about and critique food as there are different food types and writers.
People experience food more than any other pleasure in their lives. Thus, food writers, or “critics,” generally capitalize on their own backgrounds and experiences when writing and evaluating food and culinary establishments. A good food writer understands that they and their opinions represent an introduction to a new restaurant, its staff, and the menu items — and can be like Rotten Tomatoes is for moviegoers.
Often, with scarce resources, restaurant-goers seek the opinions of others through Yelp, Facebook, or Reddit before committing time and energy to a new establishment. Food writers provide a transient glimpse and assessment of a culinary item or eatery, enabling individual judgments to be made.
Is this the right place for a birthday party, wedding reception, a quiet romantic Valentine’s dinner, or a once-a-year, pull-out-all-the-stops celebration of an engagement? The food writer shapes their reader’s initial opinions, good or bad, about new foods and establishments based on their own experiences and observations.
I entered the culinary arena at age 62, after retiring early to take care of a sick spouse. Few things made sense to her as her cognitive illness progressed and robbed her of memory, yet she still could appreciate a good meal on a primal level. Vowing to learn a new skill that would enable me to make great meals for the people I love, I chose the SMCC Culinary Arts program.
Chef Leavitt’s skills course opened new doors for me and satisfied my vision quest of cooking a great meal for my sick spouse, but still left me hungry for new experiences that capitalized on my past skill sets.
Food writer and blogger Amanda Hesser provides an important perspective: “Get dirty … while you do mostly low paying food jobs.” Hesser advocates a bottom-up approach for the aspiring food writer to learn the industry in a blue-collar way, implying that restaurants are made up of a system of systems — all important — from dishwashers, bartenders and wait staff to ownership.
Food writing is as diverse as the types of food and establishments that are available to the curious diner. A good food writer capitalizes on their own life experiences and capabilities while expanding their skills regarding food.
The experiences that enabled me to survive federal food for more than four decades in underground bunkers and on storm-tossed seas — plus having developed key observation and human-behavior-recognition techniques at America’s airports — should enable me to evaluate the totality of the dining-room experience, from the wait staff to the menu items and their presentation.
By Captain W. Russell Webster,
U.S. Coast Guard (Retired)