Alan Richman, the "Most Decorated Food Writer in America"

Mar 252010
 

richman_240You might have read in my last post on James Beard nominees that Alan Richman, a contributing writer for GQ magazine since 1986, received three nomations.

That’s nothing. His bio on GQ calls him “the most decorated food writer in America.” He has already won 14 James Beard awards, with 29 nominations overall. A congratulatory post from the GQ editors compared him to Meryl Streep, who has won twice, with  16 nominations.

Richman, who started his writing career as a sports reporter in Philadelphia, eats in restaurants as his main job. In one year he might dine in Bangkok; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Paris; Beijing; Los Angeles; and New Haven, Connecticut.

He’s a master of the long form, but it must be relative. In an interview with Chow, Richman bemoans its demise.”We’re starting to lose something by stories getting so short,” he said. “I fully understand you can no longer write 10,000 words. Those days are over, and they probably should be.

“But as magazines more and more are turning to the 2,000-word story at the maximum, you lose the sense of adventure and expansiveness. A great story can sweep you away. A great short story can amuse you, but it can’t sweep you away.”

If you’d like to be swept away, read his three stories nominated this year, and see what you can learn from them:

American Pie,” GQ, June 2009.  “Richman traveled more than 20,000 miles across the U.S.A.—the country that makes it best—in a search for the 25 best pizzas.” (How many of us can do that for freelancer pay? The ambitious complexity and length of the assignment floors me.)

“Hillbilly Truffle,” GQ, September 2009. “…What happens when—sacrée merde!—an obsessed Yankee learns to grow black truffles in the scrub woods of Davy Crockett’s Tennessee?” (Ferocious research and analysis of black truffles’ history and appeal.)

“Le Petit Gourmet,”GQ, March 2009. “Between math class, student council, and swim-team practice, 12-year-old David Fishman pursues his true passion: writing reviews of some of New York’s most important restaurants.” (You’ll laugh your head off at his long lead, written in classic Jewish shtick.)

You’ll notice how much work he pours into each story, his whip-smarts, and how his personality comes through. How would he describe his voice? Here’s what he said when I interviewed him for Will Write for Food: “I’m a diffident, cranky, New York guy who walks into a restaurant and waits to see how he’s going to be abused. I’m a passive-agressive guy who gets the last word. I am someone to whom things happen. Writers should take a a passive role so readers feel represented.”

He didn’t say anything about being hilarious, intensely passionate about  whatever the topic happens to be, and opinionated. “Buffalo mozzarella” he sniffs in American Pie, “is pizza’s second-worst topping, exceeded only by whole anchovies—no hot, smelly fish on my pies, thank you.”

If you’re lucky enough to live in New York (and you’re loaded), you could take his class at the French Culinary Institute ($1,050), where he is the Dean of Food Journalism. When asked what he teaches, he explained to Chow:

“There are three stages to food writing. There is the planning, which takes an enormous amount of time to do well—so many phone calls, so many people to talk to, so many reservations. There is the writing, which is hard. You have to create your own story; there’s no automatic story, no natural outline. The third part is the traveling and the eating. And that’s really easy. There’s a lot that’s hard about preparing, about writing, but covering food and travel is about as good a job as you can have.”

Now that you know a little more about Richman, do you think it’s possible to get writing gigs like this today? Is he part of an increasingly rarefied group of writers that will not be replaced, or can we hope to hear more from a new generation?

  12 Responses to “Alan Richman, the "Most Decorated Food Writer in America"”

  1. I think there are very few places that will allow “long form” anymore. I remember talking to Robyn from EatingAsia about how the editors at the publication she was submitting to told her to pare 200 more words off her already shortened story. As Richman says, at some point, you do lose the atmosphere, the expansive feel of that adventure. 2000-2500 words may be that point. If publications keep shortening articles, we the readers will be poorer for it.

    Blogs are a good place for writers to hone their craft and at the same time present the full story as they intend it. It’s just that blogs don’t pay like publications do. And it’s hard to find the really good writers amidst the millions of blogs.

    • Lots of things contribute to shorter articles, but it’s mostly about fewer pages to fill and the perception that readers have a shorter attention span. Also there’s the idea that readers are more visually oriented now and want to see graphically-designed pieces rather than pages filled with grey type.

      There are lots of really good writers on blogs. And it’s hard to really get into a story at any length, as Richman does, on a blog. It’s a different form.

  2. I don’t really have an answer to your question (a lot of thoughts, but no answer), but I do want to thank you for your, in such a few paragraphs, multi-faceted presentation on Alan Richman. His forthrightness is refreshing, especially for such a ‘decorated’ writer.

  3. Boy, can I relate to this guy! Things always happening to him, getting the worst seat in the house, lousy service. I only wish I could write as well and as funny as he does. FUNNY!

  4. Thanks, Dianne for such an interesting and insightful post. The part that really stood out to me is where you mentioned , “He didn’t say anything about being hilarious, intensely passionate about whatever the topic happens to be, and opinionated.” I think it goes without saying. He doesn’t have tell us, it’s evident in his work.

    • I’m so glad you liked it, Candace. For me it’s a lesson about what works as a writer, and whether I could apply it to my own work. Wouldn’t it be great to be hilarious all the way through a piece?

  5. ”We’re starting to lose something by stories getting so short.”

    So true. Twitter, etc is killing our attention spans…

    I’ve also noticed that detailed, long-form food writing is falling out of vogue, but I believe that it will return at some point when people get frustrated with snippets of narrative that leave them dissatisfied. There’s no replacement for a good, in-depth story. I mean, movies are still getting longer, aren’t they? :-)

  6. Dianne, thanks for your posts about and analysis of this year’s James Beard journalism awards finalists. Each year I try to read the finalists’ pieces and you really made it easy by collecting the links. Here’s one more—John T Edge’s barbecue-and-integration essay published in the Oxford American magazine http://bit.ly/aB3S5C. It’s up for the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing award.

    I agree with your assessment that the judges for both James Beard and the IACP journalism awards respond favorably to longer pieces and it isn’t hard to understand why. Depth. Serious research. Emotional commitment to the topic. And…time. As Alan Richman describes, it takes a lot of time to do the legwork—as well as analysis/synthesis/cogitation—to write the kind of piece that he does (and that wins decoration). Writing skill and a compelling voice are a given.

    I don’t see many venues seeking this kind of writing these days—much less funding it—and those that do tend to stick with writers they know (like Richman and Edge). While it’s theoretically possible to do this kind of work on a blog, I can’t really think of any examples. Can you?

    I’m trying to figure out (not there yet) what I think about the idea that the awards judges are holding writing entries to a standard that the current market doesn’t support or sustain.

    I sure hope Stephanie is right that the pendulum will swing back and there will once again be a demand for longer, in-depth writing. Perhaps the New World Order of publishing promised by the IPad platform is a step toward providing such a market.

    • Thank you so much, Mary Margaret. I couldn’t find Edge’s piece, so I appreciate it.

      I wonder if the fact that most of the authors are men influences the subject matter, ex. barbeque and pizza.

      Re writing pieces this long on a blog, I can’t think of any examples. I don’t think it’s the right place. Hank’s blog is pretty meaty, though (pun intended).

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