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Don't Bite the Hand that Feeds You: Ten Tips For Food Writers (Writers Weekly, March 2007)

Head on over to Writers Weekly to read my tips for food writers on how to avoid weight gain, appease your homebound spouse, and make nice with the chef. (Sorry - no tips whatsoever on how to refuse dessert, marry Anthony Bourdain, or calculate correct cash for the valet.) You can also read "Don't Bite the Hand that Feeds You" below.

March 28, 2007

Don't Bite The Hand That Feeds You: Ten Tips For Food Writers By Melissa Bradley Diskin

Food writing. The glamour! The posh eats! The twenty extra pounds! (Wait. Who said that?)

I write about restaurants and hotels, among other subjects. Yes, meeting chefs is fun. Yes, the food is (usually) great. What isn't so hot? Eating alone at a really nice restaurant. Gaining weight. Telling my husband that he needs to feed, bathe and put the baby to sleep by himself after his own hard day at work. But whether you write for larger mags or smaller regionals, food writing can be made easier if you follow a few rules to ensure that you hook up with the right people and pay attention to details.

1. Knock on the right door. I can't tell you how many times I've called a restaurant only to be pointed to the chef's public relations representative (often listed on a restaurant's web site). Save yourself a game of phone tag -- let the rep triangulate an interview or meal. And whether the chef or a rep is your contact, have a calendar with possible dates and times in front of you when you call.

2. Know your place. Queries that have been accepted by larger mags weigh more than pitches that have not yet received a go-ahead or articles for smaller publications, and you may have to stand in line behind other writers. Be nice about this - don't have a New York Times attitude if your publication is the Podunk Picayune. And always wear appropriate clothing for the restaurant.

3. Never assume a meal is free. Larger magazines or papers may provide an expense account when they assign a story, while smaller publications may expect you to perform "research" on your own dime. Don't get in a snit if your publication can't fund your dinner. Don't huff if a chef isn't willing to comp a $200 meal for your personal foodie blog. And never ask for a free meal from a restaurant you're reviewing. A free meal while you interview the chef about organic farming? Probably okay - but always, always check with your editor first.

4. Turn one interview into multiple stories. Ask the chef about his interests beyond cooking -- brewing his own beer? Making her own cheese? Local farmstands? Ask about suppliers, little-known tricks of the trade, or off-the-menu requests. An interview with one chef eventually yielded the bones of two longer stories and a couple of shorts, with a few ideas for future pitches tucked away in my file. The point is to offset the price of a meal and the time spent interviewing with more than one incoming check - a good practice no matter what your writing niche.

5. Hook up with publicists and writers. I'm lucky that a friend and neighbor is also a food writer. We can eat together and pitch to separate magazines. We avoid the Miss Lonelyhearts scenario, and the restaurant's PR sets up one meal for twice the press coverage. But for the love of all that's holy - do NOT show up with a friend, lover, or (God forbid) a crowd, without clearing this first. Another fantastic resource is the PR rep's newswire or email. If her firm reps more than one restaurant, send her some clips, introduce yourself, and ask if you can be included in invitations to media dinners, where you can also network with other writers (and eat for free).

6. Plan ahead. For me, this means feeding the baby, picking up the house a bit, and generally not rushing out to dinner after leaving my husband the slimmest of pickings in a near-empty fridge after he comes home from work. Planning ahead also means notifying editors of changes to a restaurant roundup so you can insert someone new or reschedule a story. For example, a bad round of stomach flu hit my family, and two weeks passed before I could look at anything other than bananas and toast. I called my editor and was able to push my story back by a couple of weeks. But had he balked, I still would have had enough time to push hard on the story and get it in on deadline.

7. Don't assume you'll be out at 7 p.m. and home by 10. Guess what? Those hours are a chef's busiest time of the night. If you set up an interview, you'll find yourself talking to her around 10 a.m. as she accepts incoming food orders, or at 3 p.m., after the lunch rush.

8. Eat wisely and well. Avoid a constant battle with your weight. Don't forget - you can always come back another time to try that other tempting dessert. Remember to eat your vegetables, drink a brothy soup for a first course, and remember to taste and experience your food fully rather than go into full-throttle, clean-your-plate mode. A good reference for eating without deprivation is The Skinny: How to Fit into Your Little Black Dress Forever, by Melissa Clark (a food writer) and Robin Aronson (a health writer), both of whom manage to eat very well and remain at single-digit sizes.

9. Sweat the details: Double-check the spelling of names, restaurants, dishes, events, and cross-streets. Verify when the restaurant is open or closed. Get the rep's email and ask for photos if your publication isn't setting up its own photo shoot. Often a restaurant will have a media kit with hi-res photos of the chef and interior shots available for publication.

10. Remember to give thanks. Please offer a heartfelt "thank you" to the chef, his restaurant manager, his public relations assistant, and anyone else who helped you with your story. An email usually will suffice.

So - these are my top 10 ways to keep my editors, food and hospitality contacts, and family happy. Food writing is always more than a pitch and a word count. After all, it's important not to bite the hand that feeds you.

Melissa Bradley Diskin is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. To read some of her food writing, visit her portfolio at http://melissadiskin.com

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