Q&A: Doc Willoughby on Perfecting Recipes in America's Test Kitchen

Twenty years of perfecting recipes. That’s how long America’s Test Kitchen has cooked, baked and obsessed over the results. Based in Brookline, MA, it’s the test kitchen for a PBS television show of the same name, where the staffs of Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country magazines work out their recipes.

How does the staff create a recipe that works every time? I asked John “Doc” Willoughby, the company’s executive editor for magazines. The Harvard grad began his career at Cook’s Illustrated when Chris Kimball founded the magazine in 1993. In 2001, he left to become executive editor at Gourmet magazine, then returned to America’s Test Kitchen in 2010. Willoughby, who writes cookbooks with co-author Chris Schlesinger, a chef, has written nine, including the award-winning The Thrill of the Grill.

Lori Galvin, executive editor of America’s Test Kitchen and a reader of this blog, sent me the company’s latest cookbook, Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook: 2,000 Recipes of 20 Years of America’s Most Trusted Food Magazine, and suggested I talk with Willoughby about the company’s process of developing and testing recipes:

Q. What do you do as executive editor of America’s Test Kitchen?

A. I’m in charge of the two magazines plus 24 special issues for newsstands. I follow along the process for each magazine, starting with ideas like, “Do readers want another roast beef recipe? If so, which kind?” Then we survey readers before doing an article.

Q. How much do you rely on readers for your content?

A. Once we decide what we want to do, we [Read more…]

Cooking Informs Writing, But Storytelling is King, says Award-Winning Critic Jonathan Kauffman

Critic Jonathan Kauffman's huge brain let him store info about dining without taking any notes. (Photo courtesy smokedsalmon, FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

Ever had dinner with a restaurant reviewer? Usually I’ve been on the other side, so when I got the invitation I jumped at the chance to see a multiple-award winning writer and critic in action.

Jonathan Kauffman, restaurant reviewer for San Francisco Weekly, invited my husband and me to dinner at AQ, a sleek new restaurant serving what Trendologist Kara Neilsen calls “modern cuisine meets foraging.” Jonathan and I had exchanged tweets and emails, but had never met.

I began the evening with a faux pas. Jonathan had made a reservation in a false name, which I forgot and said his name when I introduced him to my spouse. We looked around to see if anyone noticed, but no one seemed to care. He also had a credit card in a false name.

Professional critics have to be careful about being recognized. Jonathan says he manages his online presence to ensure there are no photos of him online. (I checked and he’s right: you can’t find his face in an image search. Strangely, there are lots of photos of [Read more…]

Food Blogger David Lebovitz Dishes on His Success

Has anyone not heard of David Lebovitz? He’s a super successful American food writer blogger living in Paris. He’s also a gorgeous photographer, author of five cookbooks and one memoir, and author and co-author of two apps.

I first met him on email in 2005, when he endorsed my book, Will Write for Food. Recently we spoke about his success and philosophy on food blogging, writing cookbooks, social media, and how he finds the time to get it all done:

Q. Why do so many people adore your blog? What is it about you and your subject matter?

A. It’s a combination of things. Part of it is I started a long time ago so I’ve had a long time to practice, to learn about blogging and build a site. Part of it is I live in Paris and that interests people. Plus I worked as a professional chef, which is part of the mix. People say they feel my blog is very personal; they know the person behind it.

My blog is largely about cultural differences because I’m a foreigner living abroad, and the longer you live somewhere, the more it gives you more credibility. And perhaps people can relate to being an “outsider.” Years ago I was more of a critic of certain aspects of French culture, but now I’m more of an observer and I try to be more neutral. The longer you live somewhere, the more you understand how people are and I’ve become more integrated, too, and understand the culture better.

Q. How has your blog changed since you started your website in 1999? What kinds of posts do you no longer do?

A. Now I microblog on Twitter (105,000+ followers) and Facebook (26,000+ followers). I used to do [Read more…]

Q&A with Veteran Cookbook Collaborator Mary Goodbody

After Mary Goodbody left Cook’s Magazine (now Cook’s Illustrated) in the 1980s, she got her first opportunity to co-write a cake decorating book for a packager. She took the job and never looked back. Since becoming self-employed in 1984, the food writer and editor has collaborated on close to 50 cookbooks.

She lives in Connecticut, inherited a 200-acre sustainable farm in northwestern New Jersey with her seven brothers and sisters, and blogs about her visits there.

We spoke recently about collaborating on cookbooks and her long career. I have collaborated on a cookbook (Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas) and edited recipes for publishers. I wanted to learn more about these jobs as careers for freelance food writers:

Q. How do you define the job of a collaborator?

A. I’m the project manager. I make sure the book gets done. I’m pretty detail oriented and I work and think in a linear fashion, which helps the authors keep their deadlines. The author might do some writing, but I edit it. I keep in touch with the

Blogger Quits Day Job, Creates Successful Online Business

Jenny McGruther quit her job as an office manager last year to devote herself to her online cooking business, Nourished Kitchen. (Photo by Kevin McGruther)

Do you dream of making enough money from food writing online to quit your day job? Do you want more income as a self-employed writer and educator?

Jennifer McGruther started down a path to lucrative self-employment in 2006, when she switched to a traditional foods diet. She defines this style of eating as “the foods that your ancestors ate prior to the industrial revolution in the 19th Century and the green revolution in the mid-20th Century.” The focus is on raw dairy, cultured and fermented foods, broth, offal, and grains and beans that have been soaked, fermented or sprouted. Protein sources must be grass fed, pastured or wild-caught.

She had trouble finding enough information about traditional foods (Sally Fallon’s Weston A. Price Foundation and her book, Nourishing Traditions, are pioneers). So in 2007, McGruther started a blog as a way to track the recipes she developed.

Based on the amount of interest in her blog and her newsletter (begun in 2009), she launched an online business of teaching people to cook traditional foods. She charges by the month and by the class for her online cooking classes and healthy meal plans. Hundreds of people sign up. Last year, she quit her day job as a Colorado office manager to work full time at her business, Nourished Kitchen.

Today, her newsletter has more than 21,000 subscribers. (Her Facebook fan page has more than 22,000 Likes.) Now she has a full website that sells two kinds of products: meal plans and recipes ($10 per month/ $85 per year) and video cooking classes ($149 for 13 installments), all aimed at an audience interested in pursuing the traditional foods diet.

We spoke recently about how her online business evolved and how it works:

Q. What’s interesting is that your readers are willing to pay for recipes, even though the web — and your blog — offer so many recipes for free.

A. When you develop a relationship with your readers, they are wiling to pay something more. I have solid, well-tested recipes that can be reproduced easily, and people value that.

When I decided to branch into premium content, I had about 2000 newsletter subscribers, and about 80 ended up making purchases. Their feedback was excellent and it gave me the confidence to continue providing premium content in addition to the free content offered on the site.

Q. That’s a good number, as a start. What came next?

A. In February, 2010 I launched free daily emails based on giving up processed food for a month. I increased my newsletter subscriptions by 1500 subscribers and was featured on CNN. That taught me people were interested in getting more involved. They kept emailing me with questions. I realized they didn’t know how to cook unprocessed food.

The daily emails were my pilot program for unveiling cooking classes. I worked with several other bloggers to [Read more…]

Like to Write Trend Stories? Pitch AP's Hirsch

Associated Press Food Editor JM (Jason) Hirsch.

Many publications and media companies subscribe to the Associated Press (AP), which sends them food stories.

AP produces stories that appear in thousands of newspapers and the websites of television stations, new media companies, and radio stations. J.M. (Jason) Hirsch is the company’s food editor. And the good news is that he assigns food stories regularly to freelance writers.

Hirsch is no slouch himself when it comes to writing about food, having authored High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking and writing the occasional feature for AP. He’s also the author of two blogs: Lunchbox Blues, documenting the meal he makes each day for his 7-year old son; and Off the Beaten Aisle, a blog for the Food Network that he writes as part of his job at AP.

I interviewed Hirsch about his job and opportunities for freelance writers at AP:

Q. How did you become AP’s Food Editor?

A. I was a reporter specializing in crime and juvenile issues. I loved to cook and began taking an interest in food writing. I started doing a column on vegetarian food. Then AP decided food was a big issue around 2000, and it became time for a dedicated food writer. I was given a lot of freedom to pursue great stories, and food became a bigger beat.

When my predecessor retired seven years ago, I was asked to take over as the food editor. Now I have writers across the country who cover food.

Q. What are you in charge of producing each week?

A. We produce a weekly package of stories that covers all facets of food, plus [Read more…]

Melissa Clark Works Her Tail Off, and Says You Should Too

Prolific food writer Melissa Clark writes cookbooks, freelance articles and columns, and a blog.

If you looked up the opposite of “slacker,” you’d see Melissa Clark‘s name highlighted in bold.

The prolific freelancer writes weekly recipes for the New York Times and Gilt Taste, among other freelance gigs. She has also written 32 cookbooks. Many are collaborations with chefs including Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, and White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses. Her latest cookbook, out in October, is Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can’t Wait to Make.

Oh, and in her copious spare time, she takes care of her young daughter and writes a blog.

In an interview, she spoke about her career as a food writer, including advice for those who want to be as successful:

Q. You’d been working as a cook and a caterer in New York. What made you want to become a food writer?

A. I always wanted to be a food writer. I started a catering business when I was in grad school. Food was in everything I wrote. It was my metaphor. This was the 1990s. People knew of restaurant critics and cookbooks writers, but food writing wasn’t a viable career. I felt like I was on an uncharted path.

Q. Is a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in writing a good way to learn about freelance writing and cookbook collaboration? Would you recommend it?

A. No. It’s a good way to find your voice as a writer. People don’t think about that. It’s just as important.

Q. As a freelancer, don’t you have to write the voice of the publication?

A. If you don’t even know who you are and what your voice is, it’s really hard to figure out how to make your voice fit into other molds. Voice has to have a point of view, the perspective that the piece is coming from.

It’s really good to know how to write in different perspectives (first person, second person, third person). You learn all different perspectives when you get an MFA.

I recommend that people take writing classes. It helps stretch you as a writer. It’s really good to challenge yourself.

Q. What was your first big break as a freelance writer?

A. I wrote for websites about food, including once a month for Hearst magazines. I wrote tons of content for Cuisinenet. They paid me real money. I could support myself if I catered on the side.

I also developed recipes for IMP, which put out recipe cards that went out in the mail, where they asked people to [Read more…]