Why This Food Writer Wears Many Hats

by diannejacob on July 23, 2013

Virginia Willis does a lot of jobs simultaneously to pay the bills, and because she prefers it that way. (Photo by Angie Mosier)

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 EatocracySouthern 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 Appétit Y’all!

Virginia Willis

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(Disclosure: This post contains an Amazon affiliate link.) 


Jennifer Brizzi July 24, 2013 at 5:33 am

Thank you, Virginia! That was very inspiring!

Sarah P. July 24, 2013 at 5:49 am

Great to know that you are a multi-tasker, too! 🙂

Maria July 24, 2013 at 6:18 am

It is great how you can juggle everything so well, I admire you. One of the things you said stroke a cord with me. How stimulating is to do new and different things. You learn so much and that is what I feel since I started my blog. The amount of information I gathered, all the things I have learned so far have encouraged me to continue and do more.

virginia willis July 25, 2013 at 7:23 pm

well, I thank you. I am not certain ” I juggle everything well” — some days and weeks are better than others. You are correct, however, it is very stimulating. Thanks so much for reading. Yes! Raise your hand! Best VA

Bunkycooks July 24, 2013 at 6:21 am

Very nice post, Virginia, and so true. You never know what opportunities may come your way if you are open to them. 🙂

virginia willis July 24, 2013 at 7:55 am

Exactly! It’s got to be a balance — the Ty Pennington, piece, for example. I am blogging once a month without payment — but the results of social media influence has been tangible and I am exposed to a whole new audience. It’s got to make sense, of course. I am also repurposing content, reframing it, reusing it. The total commitment for each post is only an hour or so. It’s a win-win. Thanks for reading.

Peggy Gilbey McMackin July 24, 2013 at 6:44 am

Thank you for sharing Virginia. I admire the food related segways you evolved to over the years. Difficulty in making a living solely as a food writer has always been a difficult proposition and the reason I had to move into other career options over the years, even despite having a couple of standing food writing opportunities. Sometimes now I wish I had been aware of other related opportunities and saved myself the pain of being in jobs that were appreciated, but really just not for me. Best Wishes for continued success and prosperity.

virginia willis July 24, 2013 at 7:50 am

Peggy. I appreciate your kind words. I am thrilled to do what I do. Sometimes the lack of a corporate structure is challenging, but I love the freedom. Thanks so much for reading. Best VA

LoAnn July 24, 2013 at 6:48 am

Thanks Virginia, for confirming my own path of choice. I’m a career switcher. After 30 years in services marketing I decided to move into the food world. It’s a life of cobbled together jobs with the same rewards and challenges you mention. One of my first and most rewarding jobs has been running the Nordic Ware Cooking Class program. I had never done anything like that before but when I met the owner at a networking meeting and she mentioned she’d like to start hosting cooking classes but wasn’t sure how to get it started, I raised my hand. It’s led to great opportunities for me both at Nordic Ware and other corporations, greatly expanded my network of chefs and instructors and given me the “food cred” I really needed to build a new career. All because I raised my hand.

Virginia Willis July 24, 2013 at 7:52 am

I love that advice. My perspective really truly is “raise your hand” – that and you can do *anything* for two days. 😉 Thanks for reading!

Susan Williams July 24, 2013 at 7:22 am


Antonia Allegra July 24, 2013 at 7:56 am

Virginia, Your report hits the nail on the head. No question, over years of coaching food and wine writers, I’ve observed that the number one issue is, “But, how can I make a living?” Your notes detail real possibilities. Thank you.

virginia willis July 24, 2013 at 9:11 am

Thanks SO much Toni – I find that it’s necessary to move and evolve. The cookbook business has changed an incredible amount just since 2008 when Bon Appetit, Y’all came out. I find that each “channel” supports the other and that’s what is necessary to create a satisfying, financially rewarding career and life. Much gratitude for reading. As you know, I think the world of you and your wisdom! Best VA

Sally - My Custard Pie July 24, 2013 at 8:45 am

I identify with this advice so much (although have never done TV presenting or written a cookbook!) Have raised my hand for so many exciting, diverse and out of comfort zone food related opportunities has broadened my horizons, built skills and confidence and yes, brought me paid jobs. The time to say no is if you feel that you are being used. Inspired to keep pushing and raising my hand.

virginia Willis July 26, 2013 at 6:45 am

I believe in “raising your hand” — and I also believe that sometimes you have to say no to good to say yes to great. It’s all about making it work. Thanks so much for reading. Best VA

Linda Anusasananan July 24, 2013 at 10:23 am

Virginia, You are an amazing role model and offer such good advice. Hard work and diversification pays off.

Virginia Willis July 25, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Linda – I thank you, very much. AND, the great part is you get to hang out with cool people in very cool places! Best to you both. VA

Susan Cooper July 24, 2013 at 11:15 am

All that you say is true. You need to be capable of juggling many things. It takes a strong desire to constantly learn, grow and stretch your self, doesn’t it? All of this can lead to a very successful career in food writing or anything for that matter. I take my hat off to you for doing it all so well. 🙂

virginia Willis July 26, 2013 at 9:27 am

Thank you for your kind and inspiring words. I do admit sometimes I really can get down, but writing this guest blog post — and the great responses – has been very affirming. Thanks! Best VA

annelies July 24, 2013 at 3:45 pm

“Raise your hand” is such a great philosophy. Thanks for raising your hand to this guest post on Dianne’s blog. Also, I’m glad to hear you also teach Cooking Matters classes. That program is important and one near my heart.

Virginia Willis July 25, 2013 at 7:28 pm

I love the concept of “Raise your Hand” — and I am so humbled to teach for Cooking Matters. Those women amaze me. Thanks so much for reading. Best VA

Christina @ The Hungry Australian July 24, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Fantastic guest post, Dianne – thanks for introducing me to Virginia. I love wearing many hats myself so this post really resonated with me. Thanks for being so honest about your work, Virginia, and the need to do a number of different things to ‘make it’ as a food writer.

virginia Willis July 25, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Christina – Thanks SO much for reading. Can you imagine, guest blogging on the DEAN of INTERNET FOOD WRITING’s blog?! I was thrilled she asked — and, I am always ready and willing to share my past successes and failures. We’re all in this together and a rising tide floats all boats. Many thanks for reading. Best VA

Betty Ann @Mango_Queen July 24, 2013 at 9:00 pm

What a fantastic post for food writers, whether veterans or aspiring ones. These are such helpful tips. Virginia is right. You never know what opportunity awaits if you don’t open the door. I’m bookmarking this piece. It falls under the “lessons to remember” file.

virginia July 25, 2013 at 8:03 am

Thanks so much for reading, Betty Ann. I am glad I could be a little inspiration.
Best VA

Jamie July 26, 2013 at 4:55 am

“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.”

I couldn’t agree more! The first thing (as a freelance writer) that I was going to write here is “but, Virginia, you being a professional chef is a huge advantage many of us do not have and it opens so many doors that will never open for the likes of me!” But as I kept reading, I realized that we all have our own area of expertise, our own niche and our own voice and must simply look for those opportunities and where whatever we have will work. I often think I “raise my hand” too often, take on too many things, but I have met so many people and it has all created so many other opportunities that I am so happy to be juggling so many commitments.

I do think that if we have a passion and follow that passion and set out to have a great time then in one way or another it will lead to earning money, but if that (earning money) becomes the priority, then a lot of the love risks falling to the wayside. You are an inspiration, Virginia! Thanks so much for this honest, thorough and, yes, inspiring post!

Virginia Willis July 26, 2013 at 6:49 am

Thanks Jamie for your kind words. It’s true, we all have our own area of expertise. It’s true being a professional chef does open some doors — but occasionally closes others. The juggling can be maddening, but it’s a good problem to have. I really appreciate your long and thoughtful comment. I love the dialogue this is creating.

I also want to share another thought — when I get a little jealous about someone else, I try to remember The Pork Chop Theory. Check it out.. http://virginiawillis.wordpress.com/2010/08/11/healthy-chicken-yankee-peaches-and-the-pork-chop-theory/
thanks for reading! BestVA

Jason Sandeman July 26, 2013 at 11:48 am

Raise your hand!
I’m so stealing that for a post title!
As a culinary student, or an apprentice, I can’t stress this enough. Your opportunity to learn may not come with pay, but with your time spent. I understand bow it’s also like this with making a living freelancing.

virginia Willis July 26, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Thanks Jason – I am happy you enjoyed the post. No “stealing” needed – I give it freely.
Pay it forward! Best VA

KarenPatricia July 27, 2013 at 6:40 pm

And although the bills need to be paid, the most rewarding part of the work we do is how we learn and grow along the way – and being able to pass that on to other people. I enjoyed reading about how you’re not afraid to participate in new and varied adventures, and I’m sure you feel well-rewarded…in ways that working only for money could never achieve.

Carol Fenster July 28, 2013 at 5:38 pm

Virginia: Well said! Thanks for sharing your insights.

La Torontoise August 22, 2013 at 4:26 am

Virginia, Thank you so much for the ‘Raise your hand’ lesson!
It brings a completely new perspective to the field.
So inspirational!! In fact, you can think of using it in many other areas of life.
Thank you again!
All the best!

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