October 6, 2015

The Other Culinary Arts: Writing About Food


Finding My Way to Food: Knowing Yourself

When I tell people about my career path, it sounds very well thought out. I worked in restaurants, studied journalism in college, cooked in restaurants, went to culinary school, worked as a consulting chef, took jobs in food marketing and communications, got freelance food writing gigs, got hired as a food editor, worked, worked harder, worked more. In retrospect, it’s exactly what I would suggest others interested in food writing and editing do. But like most people, I didn’t know where life would take me when I started at the CIA in 1997.

When my classmates and I talked about jobs, we focused on those that involved cooking or running a restaurant or other foodservice operations. I thought I might pursue catering or see if I could do some recipe testing for cookbooks on the side.

But one of the great things about working in the food world is there are any number of things you can do with the right education and experience. You can try several different opportunities before figuring out what is right, or wrong, for you. Working for a caterer while I was in school showed me that I had no desire to ever again calm an overwrought mother of the bride facing last-minute menu requests. It was a freelance opportunity testing recipes that reminded me I was much more of a free-form, throw-in-the-extra-garlic kind of cook, not one who would actually ever measure out a quarter teaspoon of salt for a sauce.

But I knew kitchen work ethics; especially those that dictated that cooks who came in early and stayed late to learn new things got ahead, and that the people who weren’t afraid to try new things earned respect from others. So that’s what I did.

It turns out it was a combination of fearless networking and dumb luck that sent me along a path that turned out to be right for me. Writing about food has a lot in common with working the line in a restaurant. The job is ideal for perfectionists who are rarely pleased, and relish the opportunity to regularly start fresh with a blank canvas, with another order in, or in my case, another piece to write. What we do has to balance art and technique—whether it’s plating and food science for a cook, or prose and grammar for a writer. Managing a kitchen and editing a magazine have similarities. Each requires an eye for both the big picture and the smallest detail, the patience to lead other people, and an appreciation for managing the business behind the craft you are trying to create.

I think finding the right career path starts with understanding who you are, what inspires you, and how you work. I feel very lucky about where I am today and that I was able to carve out a place in the food world that is right for me. There are undoubtedly a few twists ahead—the world is changing too fast—and life’s too short to pass up opportunities. But like most of us in the food world, I know it’s all worth it.

Chandra Ram is editor of Plate magazine.

Article originally published in the CIA Alumni Magazine, Mise en Place.