Interview With A Food Writer: How to Turn a Passion for Flavor Into a Full-Time Job

by gigigriffis

This is part of my new interview series, designed to demonstrate the wildly varied ways we can live, work, and chase our dreams. Please keep in mind that, since these are interviews, the opinions, methods, and websites contained within do not necessarily reflect my own views or experiences. (Which is, in my opinion, part of what makes them wonderful.)


Today, I’m excited to introduce you to Tracey Ceurvels of The Busy Hedonist—a fabulous food writer and international traveler, here to tell you about how she got into food writing, what her advice is for those who want to do the same, and what some of her best food and travel experiences have been along the way:

First, tell us about you.

I am from Boston and now live in NYC. I used to live in Chinatown for many years, which was very inspiring to me, and I moved two years ago to Park Slope in Brooklyn.

While in Chinatown, I wrote an essay about my experience living there that was published in The New York Times City Section and later I wrote an insider’s guide to eating in Chinatown for The Boston Globe. Park Slope isn’t as exciting food-wise, though I think Talde, owned by Chef Dale Talde of Top Chef, is wonderful if you like Asian cuisine. Some of my favorite dishes there are: oyster bacon Pad Thai, pretzel-pork-chive dumpling, and lobster Thom Ka.

I write about food and travel, including feature articles, restaurant reviews, recipe-driven articles, and more for a variety of publications. I created an app—NYC iFoodShop—that features information on all the wonderful food shops in New York. And I recently completed a cookbook proposal and landed an agent who called me one hour after I sent it to her. For that, I am so grateful.

I also started a line of kitchen products that I sell on Amazon and I am currently creating a line of tea. On top of that, I am a mom to a lovely six-year-old daughter who loves homemade pizza, which we make on Friday nights, and chicken satay with jasmine rice.

How did you get into food writing? What made you fall in love with it? How did your career unfold over time?

I’ve always loved and been interested in food for a variety of reasons and, ever since I was four, I wanted to write. My first job was at a four-star French restaurant in Boston and I loved everything about it, from the prep to the service to the food (of course). I distinctly remember the chef’s shrimp raviolo (a single large ravioli) with basil tomato cream sauce. It was sublime. I also remember the oysters, Champagne, rack of lamb, and Grand Marnier soufflé. It was all very decadent and I enjoyed how it could transport you from everyday life. I also have very fond memories of eating in my best friend’s kitchen.

I started writing restaurant reviews for my college newspaper (I was a journalism major) and then, when I moved to New York City, I started pitching newspapers and magazines. It’s been an interesting journey and it hasn’t always gone exactly where I wanted it to, but I’ve had a lot of fun and eaten a lot of great meals along the way.

Sweets

Any tips for people who want to become food writers (or writers in general)?

For food writing, I’d say get out there and eat and stay home and cook. Taste lots of food. Visit restaurants and food shops. Cook a lot. Decide what it is you like to eat and use that as a springboard to write articles.

Then I’d suggest taking a class to give yourself some structure. I once worked privately with Dianne Jacob, author of Will Write for Food. While working with her, I ended up selling several of my stories to major publications. She helped me hone my ideas and also gave me a deadline each week, which was super helpful.

As for writing in general, just write. Honestly. Just sit down and open up a document on your computer and brainstorm or write. And give yourself some parameters. I wrote a first draft of a novel by writing 1,000 words a day for an entire summer. Now I have an agent for The Patisserie of Dreams, a food-related novel that takes place in a bakery.

What are some of the biggest challenges of being a food writer or breaking into food writing?

Food writing has become very popular and many people have blogs and such, so the market can be saturated. But if you have a distinct voice or a certain passion when it comes to food, you can do very well.

What are some of the greatest joys?

For me, it’s the fact that I can sit at home writing stories, using my kitchen, my imagination, and all the unique food shops I visit—including Titan Foods, Sahadi’s, Eataly, Kalustyans, The Meadow, and Florence Meat Market—as inspiration. It’s very exciting for me.

I have a six-year-old daughter and some of the foods I make with her have turned into stories. I have an upcoming story in Relish Magazine about food on sticks based on the fact that my daughter loves chicken satay.

Fancy food

Where around the world has food writing taken you—and do you have a favorite destination?

I’ve been to France, Italy, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan, Peru, Costa Rica, and many other places. I absolutely love Spoleto, Italy. They’re known for their truffles and have entire stores devoted to them.

I also love Avignon in the South of France, Paris, of course, and Rome. A few years ago I wrote about food on the Amazon River in Peru and I tasted different types of fruit I’d never had. I recently had Art Tea at The Merrion Hotel in Dublin, which was the best afternoon tea experience I’ve ever had. But even though I travel a lot, NYC is truly my favorite food destination. There is always an old favorite or a new place to check out. It’s continuously evolving.

How has your international experience reflected different philosophies of food?

I enjoy seeing what chefs create from local produce. I was recently in Ireland and I loved how Chef Stefan Matz of George V used all local ingredients, from salmon from the Corrib to lamb from County Mayo to the edible flowers from the nearby forest. Chef Matz is from Germany and he wasn’t making traditional Irish food, but his own cuisine with all Irish ingredients. I suppose I love local food that’s made in a unique way, according to the philosophies and cooking styles of the chef.

coffee

What are some of the favorite/most interesting experiences in your career?

My all time favorite meal had to be at Le Bernardin. Chef Eric Ripert is truly a master, from the food to the service, which is impeccable.

What are some of the most important things to know before breaking into a food writing career?

It’s competitive, but if you’re passionate about what you do you can find some success. And I remember a writing teacher once told me: always have five story ideas out with editors. So, if you’re serious about wanting to write about food, you should be pitching editors every single day.

What are you working on now and what’s next for you?

I am working on a cookbook, The NYC Kitchen: Recipes inspired by the specialty food shops, spice stores, and markets of NYC.

At the moment, I am making edits to the proposal and then my agent will shop it around.

I am writing entries for an encyclopedia of food in New York City: Savoring Gotham (Oxford University Press). I am working on a pitch about Noma, a restaurant in Copenhagen that’s touted as the best restaurant in the world. And I have Macau, China on my radar for an upcoming story. Their food is a mix of Chinese and Portuguese, from street carts to high end restaurants—and I can’t wait to taste it all.

carrots

What is a simple dinner you can make to nourish your body and soul?

A quick and easy meal that I make is roasted salmon with a miso-crust. I mix miso with mustard, which I coat onto the fish, and then I sprinkle the fish with Panko crumbs. I serve it with jasmine rice and spinach sautéed with garlic with a dash of a wonderful blend of seven Japanese spices that I bought at Spices and Tease in the Chelsea Market in NYC.

What’s a quick dinner you can throw together to celebrate the good day?

There are so many quick dinners I could make, but I’d lean toward something like a seafood stew with saffron, chorizo, and orange- or tea-roasted chicken with Chinese five-spice and horseradish mashed potatoes and gingered carrots.

What do you want to know about food writing and travel? Leave a comment and I’ll see if I can get Tracey to stop by with a few more answers.

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3 comments

Sue Ann Gleason August 7, 2014 - 7:19 pm

This post makes me hungry. Thank you for sharing both the practical and the whimsical side of food writing. For me, there are eaters who write and writers who eat. I love reading a beautiful food-based memoir or novel when it’s written by a writer who really knows food. I wait in anticipation for The Patisserie of Dreams. Thank you for an inspiring interview.

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gigigriffis August 8, 2014 - 8:15 am

I totally agree. My favorite so far: Cooking for Mr. Latte. Wonderful food memoir.

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Steve wallis August 8, 2014 - 11:01 am

Hey tracy,
Its me your cousin Steve in Jacksonville, florida!
Last time i saw you Sharon and I were in NYC and we met for a short time.
I remember having to cancel out the next day due to me being sick.
Turns out i had to have my gall bladder removed!
I just saw a post on Valerie’s FB page about you and wanted to connect and say HI!
Hope all is well with you.
Would love to keep in touch friend me on FB if you want.
My art company is doing quite well, projects in Maui and Cabo San Lucas on my schedule.
Life has been very good for us.
Love your site!
Steve

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