The journey of a successful food writer
From tracing the origins of Chinese pancakes to visiting the kitchens of Estonian chefs, Justin Bergman has scoured the planet for some of the best places to eat and drink. He is the deputy politics and society Editor at The Conversation, reported across China and South East Asia as the Shanghai correspondent for Monocle magazine contributed to The New York Times travel pages, published in Roads & Kingdom, The Guardian and other publications. Justin shares the secrets of successful food writing with Le Cordon Bleu consulting editor Sona Bahadur.
How did you get started in food writing and can you remember the first article you wrote?
I started off in travel writing and then it kind of segued into food writing from there. The two have a lot in common, really. So much about travel is the food, and so much about food is related to travel. I began doing freelance travel stories for the New York Times when I was living in New York and then began pitching restaurant stories to the travel section — new openings, places that travellers would want to know about.
I can’t remember the first-ever story I wrote, but one of the first was a piece about Ultraviolet, a new restaurant in Shanghai (where I lived for 10 years) that offered a multi-sensorial eating experience. There were only 10 diners at a time, seated around a large table surrounded by video screens. And then each course was accompanied by audio and video components — all for the very low, low price of $600 per diner! I ended up writing a story about it for the New York Times and then doing a podcast for Monocle magazine.
You’ve written for a variety of publications. Which food writing genre appeals to you most and why?
That’s tough to say because I started off in more travel-related food writing and I still feel most comfortable writing those kinds of stories. But in recent years, I have tried to expand into more long-form, historical food pieces, for instance, tracing the origins of different types of Chinese street foods and telling the stories of the people who make them. I’ve written a couple of these pieces in recent years and really enjoyed the more in-depth research that goes into them.
What’s the most challenging food story you’ve written and what did it teach you?
This would have to be the long-form Chinese street food pieces! I actually put together a book proposal based on this idea, which unfortunately didn’t sell. I think what it taught me was to really know the potential market for your ideas — you might think you have the most original and exciting idea in the world, but the reality might be a very limited audience. With those stories, too, I also had to translate many interviews from Chinese to English, which was incredibly difficult and time-consuming. In the end, I think the pieces I wrote were good, but the time invested was quite considerable!
How do you handle an unsuccessful pitch?
I repackage it and try another publication — it’s one of the tricks of the trade and something every freelance writer knows how to do. Or, I just walk away from the idea and try something else.
What makes a great food story headline?
Oh wow, headlines are tough. I’m now an editor for a digital news site in Australia and I have to write headlines every day. And I’m still not entirely certain what makes for a ‘great’ headline. I tell my students to imagine you are writing a subject line for an email in which you are pitching your story to an editor — what are the most important elements of your story, and how do you communicate that in 10 words or less? This is the start for a good headline, too. It also has to excite the reader — I’ve written so many bland headlines in my time as an editor, and I know now what types of words and phrases are bound to clicks online.
What differentiates a good food story apart from a great one?
Originality, great storytelling and being able to draw out those one-of-a-kind, colourful details from inside a kitchen, a tour of a winery, or visiting a farm. It’s not enough to just phone in a food story these days (i.e. do a phone interview with a chef). You really need to invest time visiting a place, getting to know the people involved and what makes them tick. It’s all about the amount of time you invest in a piece — you can tell when a writer has invested considerable time in a story, it shows in the details.
Any memorable or funny food writing moments you could share?
There are so many! I think reporting the Chinese street food stories were the most memorable for me. For one, I travelled to a city called Xi’an in central China to write about the traditional Muslim street food that is under threat from gentrification and mass tourism — this food was an intrinsic part of the people’s culture, so they felt a real responsibility for keeping it alive. I also travelled to northern China to trace the origins of another street food called jianbing, a type of savoury Chinese pancake. The street food vendors had become so rich selling jianbing around China, they began building mansions in tiny villages in the countryside. It was a story too juicy to ignore. So, I found one of the most successful vendors, introduced myself and then spent a weekend with their family in their village in northern China — all for the love of a good story.
Have you ever eaten anything that might be considered weird? And what would be your best experience?
This is a hard question to answer because what is weird to my sensibilities is completely normal in another culture. I’ve had a lot of interesting meals in my time — some of the best food, for instance, was in Estonia when I was researching a story about the burgeoning food scene in the country. The chefs there had a real Nordic sensibility, but were experimenting in really interesting ways. It’s a really under-appreciated part of Europe, in my opinion.
What would be one piece of advice you would share with aspiring food writers?
Spend time reading lots and lots of food stories. This not only helps you really understand the market and what types of ideas sell, it also gives you a sense how to write a successful story. I learned by reading, reading and reading.
How do you see the future of food writing?
It is booming at the moment mainly due to online publications. However, there’s also insecurity in the market as many online publications don’t pay their writers well, hence they are not necessarily attracting the best writers they can and many really good writers are giving up the craft to do something else to earn better money. We need more publications with deeper pockets that can really afford to invest in good journalism and quality restaurant reviews again. Whether this is possible in the online universe, however, remains to be seen.