You 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?