It's decision borne out of a harsh reality and a comforting compromise; I can't continue to write stories from Asia in the manner of my choosing, because that sort of work is drying up. As the space alloted for words gets smaller, and food writing is democratized by the internet, I've seen rates slip. Good freelancers are paying the price, and often not getting paid at all. It's fine to write for free if you're not a professional writer. It's just plain stupid to do so if you are (see: Learned, hard way). And I can't stick around and wait for the market to correct itself. I gots to move forward.
But there's more to it than that. I think I can more clearly articulate my ideas about food by selling it - which should also mean books or blogs on the topic - than I can by simply writing about it. We'll see. And there is something so dangerously appealing about pouring myself into a restaurant.
Another disappointment as a writer today, besides the not getting paid part, are those times when you spend a great deal of time tinkering with words and ideas, shuffling them like puzzle pieces, into something that you are truly proud of. Something unique and pleasing. And then it gets swallowed up and forgotten in that great chasm of the internet, like a slippery oyster. I know, it's silly. Maybe even vain. But stories do seem less important than they did a few years ago, as we blog and tweet our way into the future.
This is the last thing I'll say on this subject. It's time to get busy. It's time for profit and loss sheets and dish washing. For chopping herbs and signing business licenses. It time to create something that, when I turn the lights off and head home, will hopefully be there the next morning, ready for a mad rush or an eerily silent night. Who knows? I certainly don't. But I know it's going to be interesting. And I'm glad to have good people to share it with. Thanks guys.
(Below I've posted the entire Atlantic piece, in case you missed it. Much more to come, on sustainable agriculture, rum drinks and spreadsheets. Stay tuned.)
For most of my adult life, I thought I had the best job in the world. While many of my friends were busy making Wall Street money or earning graduate degrees or selling modern art, I got to travel across Asia and write about it. That career began in Chengdu, China, in 2002. For five years I stalled in Shanghai, where I helped start a magazine and established a reputation as a food writer. In Shanghai I learned a lot about food, about cooks and kitchens, and especially about the weight of the written word.
And then I left, to wander through Southeast Asia and India, to write about the things that interested me, and to live in Bangkok. You may have read about some of those adventures here at the Food Channel.
But late last year, on a flight from Seoul back to Thailand, I had a rude and necessary revelation. That "best job in the world" of mine wasn't a real job anymore. Food magazines were floundering. Editors backpedaling. I had more outstanding payments from publications than I had money in my bank account. When freelance writers and photographers get together, we tend to talk about what we put up with to live this bright and tetherless life. And on that plane ride I decided to tether myself to something: selling food.
I've always loved to cook, but cooking has usually been my means of escape. In college, I cooked Chinese or Korean food rather than writing term papers about Asia. After my parents divorced, I spent days in the kitchen cooking elaborate holiday meals for the men in my family, stirring and plating as if nothing had changed. This year, I again found myself turning negative energy into dinners, and I realized that for most of my life I've wanted a restaurant, bad.
Food writers tend to have strange relationships with cooks. We spend our days trying to capture the essence of their kitchens. Then they read our stuff, and rightfully dissect it. For all that, we treat each other with mutual respect—confidants, friends, but not colleagues. I've often expressed a deep interest in opening a restaurant with professional chefs whom I'm closest to, but their responses are usually no different than the advice I once gave a chef who wanted to write. "Why the hell would you ever want to do that?" I growled.
Well, I want to do this because I'm in love with honest food. This post is the first installment in a series in which I think there will be much to tell, good and bad. In the next six months, I hope to open a bar and restaurant in Bangkok. It will serve Thai food—mostly the sort you'd eat on the street—but it's more complicated than that. I want to work with farms in a way that benefits the growers and my customers. I'd like to faithfully recreate delicious things I've eaten on roadsides across Asia. I want to recruit a small army of bad-ass street cooks. And a few times each month I'd like to share my experiences with you, as this strange creation evolves.
Like most things in business, this column is a calculated risk. The restaurant might fail before it has the chance to sputter to life. The food might stink, or the people may not come. But I don't think those things will happen, or I wouldn't be writing this.
Along the way, I will tell stories of Thailand—of farmers and cooks, and of this wacky backdrop of Bangkok. There will also be very cold beer, good cocktails, and a free jukebox. The world needs more jukeboxes.
In some ways, great eating and drinking isn't much different from a well-crafted story. It demands your attention. It introduces you to things you might not have known. And most importantly, it's good from beginning to end. But right now, that eating experience seems infinitely more difficult to create—something I'm about to learn the hard way. I'll save you a seat.