A guest post by Maggie Zhu
I started Omnivore’s Cookbook in 2013 as a hobby. It turned it into a full-time job in 2016. After that, I started to feel burned out on food blogging. It took longer and longer to recover. Being alone in the kitchen made me lonely. The need to produce uniform, predictable content to please my readers made me unhappy.
Now the blog is about modern Chinese cooking and Asian-inspired fusion recipes. But it didn’t start that way. My first blog post was for Tuna Pasta with Arrabiata Sauce. My early recipes included random dishes ranging from poorly-conceived fusion to Taco Bell copycats.
Burned out on Food Blogging
One year into blogging, a reader told me he was only interested in my Chinese recipes. He said he’d go to Food Network if he wanted to learn how to make pasta. Soon I focused on Chinese recipes. My blog finally started to grow when I narrowed my scope to that niche. But the problem was (and is) that I love food from many cultures. And the fact that I’m constrained to just Chinese cooking made me burned out on food blogging.
Adding to that were the common problems related to blogging: the need to keep up with social media, having to pump out content at an insane rate, spending more time than I’d like cleaning up and washing dishes alone in my kitchen… You know the drill. It started to take longer and longer to recover from burnout.
When the Tipping Point Came
It arrived at the end of 2017, when I was invited on an influencer trip to Indonesia. I thought I’d be traveling with a bunch of food bloggers, shooting food every day. Instead, the crowd included lifestyle bloggers, fashion bloggers, travel bloggers, YouTubers, and photographers from different countries.
On this trip, I learned so much. I saw how others shot and talked about the same topics from totally different angles. I interacted with bloggers whom I’d never met but who shared my interest in creativity. It felt like a high to work together, exploring new things and exchanging ideas — definitely more fun than dealing with dirty dishes alone in my kitchen. It blew my mind that it’s possible to promote a restaurant by sitting there looking cool without showing the food at all!
Fashion bloggers gave me lots of advice as I shot outfits for them. At that time, the only clothes I’d bought since moving to the U.S. two years prior were some black t-shirts from H&M and sports bras from Costco. While everybody else brought two large suitcases so they could look different every day, I brought a single carry-on bag for a 10-day trip.
Naturally, I shared my pictures on Instagram — not just my outfits, but also the beautiful lifestyle and architecture photos I’d learned how to take on the trip. To my dismay, the feedback from my readers was negative. Nobody cared. Just like nobody cares when you ramble on about your car hitting a garbage can on the way to the drugstore in your recipe blog post.
The biggest takeaway was when I realized that that I looked better when I didn’t smile in front of the camera. I had never been a selfie person. I hated to have my photo taken growing up and I always felt more comfortable behind the camera. But somehow my opinion shifted after that trip. I felt more open-minded and confident, especially after putting on different clothes that fit my personal style.
When I got home, I bought brands of clothes recommended by my new friends. Then I decided that maybe I should get my photo taken, now that I looked more attractive.
Finally, I decided to start another Instagram account to share fashion and lifestyle photos. I just wanted to do something different and have fun like I did in Indonesia, without losing my food audience, which was a full-time business by then.
Fashion Improved My Food Blog
The first problem I encountered was that I had no time to do both of these projects.
My fashion Instagram was not as easy as I’d expected. It’s not just about putting on some clothes and taking a picture. It takes time to follow the trends, build relationships with brands and PR agencies, source clothing, learn about styling, scout out shooting locations, put together mood boards, and more. Just like how food bloggers always seem to spend more time cleaning than actually cooking.
Having two projects forced me to get organized and to stop doing things that did not grow my food blog. I started batch cooking to speed up the process. I spent less time on photography, wrote shorter posts, and wasted less time on social media. My goal was to get the food blogging part done quickly so I could have fun shooting fashion photos.
Shooting fashion improved my food photography. It uses different rules from those of food photography, but it trained my eye for color, style, texture, branding, and lighting. Soon I applied some of the same principles to improve my food blog photos. The funny thing was that my blog grew faster in 2018, after I started my fashion side gig.
Teamwork Made My Blog Better
I also made more friends, and we ended up working together. The biggest difference between fashion and food blogging is teamwork. When creating fashion content, you always have to work with someone who will take photos of you. So I reached out to people through Instagram to find shooting partners. Then we set up coffee dates and shot together.
Creating fashion content forced me to work with photographers, stylists, models, agencies, and brands. It trained me to get more comfortable with a team. I learned that working as a team doesn’t mean only working with virtual assistants, outsourcing basic blog work, and paying as little as possible. I could create a better product and have more ideas when working with peers who are smart and care about their craft.
The connections energized me. I finally started to blend into American culture, after living in the U.S. for almost three years. It felt good to get out of the house. In a way, having new friends improved my food blog, because I got to know people with different lifestyles who cooked and ate differently from me.
More importantly, I felt less burned out on food blogging. On the contrary, it felt nice to work in the kitchen again. Of course, doing my fashion side gig helped. Now I could work on something different and let my creative energy flow through another channel.
No Longer Burned out on Food Blogging
Meanwhile, my schedule became busier as my food blog and fashion account grew. I finally reached a point where I needed more help. So I posted an ad on Craigslist to hire a pastry chef who could help me develop baking recipes to diversify my content, and maybe also help me cook.
The result was surprisingly good. In less than three days, I received resumes from many talented chefs. In less than two weeks, I’d found my perfect candidate: Lilja, who cooks professionally at Momofuku Kawi.
Working as a team in the kitchen has been even better than I expected. Now I have one more pair of hands to help me prep and clean up. Lilja doubles as my hand model when I shoot photos. She also does research, so we can develop recipes faster. We chat while cooking, which makes the process more fun. We bounce ideas back and forth, share feedback, and test the recipes more times before publishing.
I feel less overwhelmed after a day of cooking. Now I can spend more energy on writing and other things that grow my business. I haven’t felt burned out on food blogging even once since we started working as a team.
More importantly, I now have a new responsibility: to grow my blog so I can take care of employees, the people I care about. I want to make more money, not to buy another pair of shoes, but to pay my team better because they are talented hardworking people who deserve a raise.
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Born and raised in Beijing and now living in New York, Maggie is the blogger behind Omnivore’s Cookbook, where she shares Chinese cooking, Asian-inspired recipes, and her adventures in the US. Her blog won the 2019 Saveur Award for Most Inspired Weeknight Dinners and was a finalist for Best Photography.