Confessions of an accidental food writer

Photo: libre de droit (iStock)

The first time I formed sentences into what I’d consider food writing happened 15 years ago, back when I was a cub reporter at the Los Angeles Times. I had stumbled upon a bakery specializing in wedding cakes that was configured most curiously—its showroom and bakery were one storefront apart, separated by a different business in between. What was in the middle? Improbably, a competing wedding cake business, and the story detailed the (humorously) acrimonious relationship between the two companies. It was my first and only front-page story for the Times.

That year, 2004, was a different time in food journalism. Gourmet magazine was the ne plus ultra of the food writing world. Restaurant critics still fiercely hid their identities. And much of those food scribes who put pen to paper professionally were, to be blunt, not far off from the NPR “Delicious Dish” sketch on Saturday Night Live caricature. Point to a random person in a room of 100 food writers back then, and chances are you’re staring at someone who was white and old.

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Then something changed. Food writing went from staid to cool. It wasn’t one thing, but the sum of many things, including Jonathan Gold and Anthony Bourdain and Lucky Peach. I was knocked back the first time I saw a food writer use the word “fuck”—in what context, I can’t tell you now, but it felt like a righteous act of rebellion against the genre’s stuffiness.

Still, I never intended to be a food writer. My goal was to be posted as a foreign correspondent in some cush bureau, maybe a Tokyo or London. One day when I was 24 and working at the Chicago Tribune, an editor pulled me aside and asked if I was interested in joining the features section. Maybe it was that part of the newsroom was white and old, and they saw my Chinese last name and thought that kid would say yes to a whopping $43,000 salary. But I said, sure. Soon, I was in kitchens interviewing chefs and tasting dry-aged steaks in the interest of journalism. It was fun times, sure. It wasn’t half as fun as starting conversations with women about what I did for a living and turning those into dates. (The last time I did this, I ended up marrying that person).

Truth be told, food writing always felt more like a job than a passion. Others were better, and others were more deserving. By virtue of putting in my 10,000 hours, I developed a skill for it—but it wasn’t something I’d volunteer myself to in my free time. I found narrative non-fiction writing and filmmaking far more compelling, and I was lucky to indulge in those interests while my 9-to-5 job eating cheeseburgers paid the bills.

So I was skeptical when The A.V. Club asked me to launch a food vertical in 2016. Tired of the food writing game, I had voluntarily left my newspaper job—an industry with the growth potential of blacksmithing and typewriter repair. But I was also a new father and my insurance coverage was running out. So I took the job. And thus began the best three years of my professional life.

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The A.V. Club’s food vertical would be spun-off into The Takeout in November 2017. By then, food media was ubiquitous, some would say oversaturated. Why would anyone want another food website? That preceding sentence was what I wrote in all-caps on page one of a spiral-bound notebook, six weeks before The Takeout was launched. The bullet points that would follow read less like a business plan and more a list of grievances.

I was tired of seeing headlines like “We ate this fast food chain’s latest sandwich so you don’t have to, which felt elitist. I was disappointed that 80% of food writing was coming out of five publications in Lower Manhattan. I was turned off by food media’s obsession with chasing after accolades and awards. (Yes, I was once that person.)

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And so The Takeout was conceived to not enter food writing competitions, to not be judgmental of other’s food choices, and to celebrate high and low with equal reverence. Our site would be based not in New York City but in Chicago, and we’d hire staffers and freelancers who lived in cities like Missoula, Kansas City, Cincinnati, even Manila.

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I can’t say we always followed the rules we established, but we really tried hard to follow what has become The Takeout’s unofficial motto: Don’t yuck on somebody else’s yum. You may find a takedown of Guy Fieri’s restaurant in Times Square a romp of a read, but snark feels like the default mode of the internet, and the internet is shitty as is. And so one important consideration was that we—as writers/bloggers/digital journalists/whatever you want to call us—have a moral imperative to be good citizens of the web. Can’t we just share ideas with one another and not contribute to the dickishness and cruelty that pervades online behavior?

If there’s one thing we’re most proud of about The Takeout, it’s our relationship with readers. Our comments section (and believe me, this is a rarity in digital media) is, for the most part, a safe and friendly space to talk about food and drink. I like that everyone self-polices each other. I appreciate that our commenters are as willing to call us out on bullshit as much as they dole out praise. You people are fair, insufferable, and an absolute pleasure.

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As much as I never discovered that deep passion for food writing, I realized this Takeout community wasn’t really about food. It’s about food as a conduit that makes our lives slightly more enjoyable. The world can seem like a cyclonic shitstorm, and recommending our favorite beers or roast chicken hacks is a good respite. (For the record, no direct supervisor has ever demanded a page view goal or that the site must hit certain metrics. The directive for The Takeout has always been: Make the most interesting site, full stop.)

All of this is a long-winded way to say I’m winding down my time as editor of The Takeout. I’m leaving media for a different career entirely, though I will continue to contribute stories here from time to time. The Takeout will continue to grow and get better because of the team of Avengers superheroes on staff: Kate Bernot, Aimee Levitt, and Allison Robicelli (plus the new editor-in-chief; more on this soon).

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As I’m staring down this computer screen with the end of the post in sight, I’m realizing it’s likely the last time I’ll string words together employed as a full-time professional food writer. I am not sentimental about this. There’s some measure of relief in not having to drive three locations and 23 miles to find a Popeyes fried chicken sandwich. And maybe I can finally come off my Lipitor prescription.

So, some final thoughts, accrued over 15 years, before we tie a neat ribbon on top:

  • Rest your cooked steaks and chops for longer than you’d think.
  • Add a big spoonful of cream cheese to finish your risotto.
  • A garlic press is useless. Sprinkle coarse salt and mash it with the side of a chef’s knife instead.
  • Your oven’s temperature isn’t calibrated properly. Buy an oven thermometer for something like $12.
  • If you ask me this question next week, I’ll likely have a different answer. But for now, if I had to gift one book for a new cook, it’d be Ruhlman’s Twenty by Michael Ruhlman.
  • You’ll never cook a recipe right on your first try. Maybe by attempt number three would you be getting close. Exercise patience. Don’t give up on it.
  • The best recipe I’ve ever published on The Takeout is this. This would be a close number two.
  • This is my favorite soup recipe from YouTube.
  • If you eat one thing before you leave this beautiful world, make it the fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans.
  • Always tip at least 22%.
  • It was I, Kevin Pang, who was The Salty Waitress all along! (Except when I wasn’t.)
  • You bet your ass a hot dog is a sandwich.
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About the author

Kevin Pang

Kevin Pang was the founder and editor-in-chief of The Takeout, and director of the documentary For Grace on Netflix.