A guest post by Virginia Willis
A few years ago there was a great outcry when Food52’s Amanda Hesser wrote that she wouldn’t advise any one to become a food writer. At the time I disagreed, but now I find that she has a point.
To be successful as a food writer, I wear many hats. Sometimes, I do work outside food writing because I enjoy it. Sometimes that work is more lucrative. Regardless, all these hats create massive scheduling and financial challenges, but also diversity and stimulation. My small business can be feast or famine, but the jobs are tightly intertwined and I cannot imagine it any other way.
The deal is, it’s just not enough to be a food writer, even a successful one. We may not be starving artists, but very few writers are financially successful.
Here’s what I do as a food writer. It’s a lot but it’s not enough:
1. Cookbook author. My two cookbooks have received much acclaim and even some awards. Using the language of Publishers Lunch, my advances have been “nice deals” and “very nice deals.” I’ve got two more book ideas in the pipeline and am shopping a third. Writing a cookbook, however, is a brand extension, not a retirement plan.
2. Freelance writer. I am a contributing editor for Southern Living and a regular contributor for Taste of the South. I also write for Fine Cooking, Family Fun, Eating Well, Country Living, and the Washington Post. Often I pitch stories to publications, and nearly equally often the publication contacts me for a story or a series of recipes.
3. Blogger. My blog receives decent traffic. At this time I do not accept advertising, although I am leaning in that direction. I also guest blog for compensation (CNN’s Eatocracy, Southern Foodways Alliance) and sometimes for marketing and branding purposes (Ty Pennington).
Here is what I also do, not simply to make a decent living, but because I enjoy it:
4. Media trainer, production person, and scriptwriter. My background is food television, and I have cooked for, shopped for, scripted, or produced over 1000 episodes for Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree. As I am increasingly in front of the camera I have experience on both sides for both individuals and corporations. My clients include the Ritz Carlton, Time Inc, and Charbroil.
5. Food stylist. I love editorial food styling and have styled both of my cookbooks. Yet, food styling can be grueling. It’s especially challenging when working on a corporate gig. Much of that work comes from well-paying restaurant chains and it’s far removed from what I consider real food.
The worst part about these jobs are the myriad people on set, each with a distinct opinion of exactly where I carefully place the microscopic grind of pepper with tweezers and how many water droplets are best for that exceptionally perfect slice of tomato. It can become a bit absurd, but in the end, I do these jobs only when it’s with people I like and respect.
6. Cooking class teacher. This is some of my absolute favorite work, but the least profitable. Fewer avocational schools offer classes and it’s difficult for schools to sustain fees for traveling instructors. Often it’s not economically viable for me teach without an agreed upon fee, travel, and transportation.
I volunteer at least once a quarter for Cooking Matters, Chefs Move to School, and the Atlanta Community Food Bank. There’s nothing like seeing someone’s eyes light up because they understand a technique or a concept. And, with Cooking Matters, I am literally helping change someone’s life by helping them learn how to roast a chicken. That’s the work that’s really important.
7. Spokesperson. This is my most lucrative work. If the fit is right, I appear on behalf of a company such as Coca Cola or Roland American Foods, often at a food festival or on a satellite media tour. I stress that the fit has to be right. I stick like Super Glue to my standards when my name and reputation are on the dotted line. It can be tempting to take a job when the money is big, but it’s dishonest to endorse a company or a product I don’t believe in. I do not endorse, blog, or write about a product in exchange for products. The bank doesn’t accept spatulas as payment.
8. Recipe developer. I offer professional recipe development for companies, commodity boards, and the PR firms that represent them. This work is tied to my reputation and social media numbers. I’m in a fairly good place with over 22,000 combined social media and blog connections.
9. Television personality. Last fall I appeared on Food Network’s Chopped! Many folks were astonished that I agreed to be on the show. The bottom line is that TV is part of the bottom line. Over 15 million potential book buyers watched me that night and continue to watch me with every re-run. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I did it to push myself beyond my comfort zone. I came in second and found the experience very rewarding.
How I create more opportunities, and how you can too:
When up-and-coming cooks and writers ask me for career advice, my response is “Raise your hand.” Chef asks who wants to clean out the walk-in? Raise your hand. Food bank committee needs volunteers to cook a benefit dinner? Raise your hand. Farmer needs recipes for his website? Raise your hand.
It’s not always about money. “Raising your hand” creates opportunities that I may have never imagined. Doing so many different things stimulates me and keeps me learning, doing, and growing. Sure, some things don’t work out, but I guarantee that if I didn’t raise my hand, try something new, or strive for something outside of my comfort zone, I’d be miserable, and much less successful. The greatest failure is to have never tried.
If you give these other opportunities a try, they just might help pay the bills. Even more rewarding, they might be something you love and enjoy.
Bon App’e9tit Y’all!
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You might also enjoy:
- Secrets of Writing Recipes for Big Food Magazines
- Spokesperson Work and How to Get It
- Q&A: Recipe Girl’s Lori Lange on Working with Brands
- All the Other Jobs We Do
(Disclosure: This post contains an Amazon affiliate link.)