Image Courtesy of Alejandro-Escamilla via Unsplash.com
As of last week, I began combing job boards for open editorial and food writing positions. I have my Master’s degree. I have sufficient experience. I should be a shoo-in’. This, in turn, made me ask myself “what about those applicants who are not ‘shoo-ins’; what about the want-to-be editors and food writers who Google Search “Editorial Jobs in Alabama (or California or New York, you choose),” bypass completely the section under “Job Details,” and go straight for “Qualifications” because they know they probably won’t measure up. The quickest way to deflate ambition is to realize that you are not and may not —for quite a while actually —be the “desired candidate.”
For me, the worst line in a job posting reads something like, “Must have 3 to 5 years professional experience,” or worse, “Will only consider applicants with 10 years or more—insert specialty here— experience.” How is the prospective applicant, a recent college graduate, whose resume includes call center positions, an internship, and academic references supposed to live up to those qualifications? Didn’t she just get a degree to mold her into the experienced professional companies need? The answer is no. Not when the market is still saturated with experienced professionals recovering from America’s most recent recession. And, if graduates can’t land the job for which they were trained, what does that mean for the passionate amateur, who is eager and innovative but lacks academic direction? It means that the future is bleak.
Or does it?
When I realized four years ago that as an aspiring food writer the odds were stacked against me, I began studying those personally unmet qualifications:
- Culinary training and/or significant professional cooking experience.
- 5+ years of journalism and top-editing experience at a magazine, newspaper or website.
- Superb recipe-editing and packaging skills.
- Excellent communication skills.
- Experience working with a test kitchen.
- Experience tasting and evaluating dishes.*
Only after viewing and understanding what prospective employers wanted from me, their future hire, could I begin properly preparing for the job hunt. Five plus years of journalism experience would be hard for anyone to access without obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism, but it is still achievable. I have seen a few Assignment Editor Internships and Editorial Assistant positions open to entry level candidates who carry only a High School Diploma. Everything else on that list can be achieved with figurative elbow-grease and a myriad of Google searches.
Let’s tackle that list, and explore what could transform both academic and amateur** applicants into the most desirable candidates (though, keep in mind, having at least a Bachelor’s shows ultimate dedication to your craft). In meeting the two top objectives, we can successfully meet all of the metrics. So, we will frame this discussion with objectives 1 and 2.
Culinary training and/or significant professional cooking experience.
This is an absolute must if you plan to become a food writer or food photographer. You need to understand kitchen vernacular; to be able to fluidly and competently use industry jargon, as well as explain that jargon, should need arise. You should familiarize yourself with the sales techniques of servers. They understand how to market a dish, sight unseen, to a customer in a way that moves that person to purchase. They are food wordsmiths, and from them you will learn to trigger salivary glands as well as the palatal imagination.
By working in a restaurant, a commercial kitchen, or any for-profit, food-based environment, you will begin to instinctively question “what’s in it for the customer?” Then, as you write or take food photographs, you will position your work based on the answer to that question. You will find ways to craft your narrative or to design your image so that it informs your audience of the intrinsic or monetary value of your products.
You can do this by staging in a kitchen as a line cook or dishwasher. This will throw you into the thick of things and accelerate your learning.
Or, you can take the less arduous, paid route of becoming a hostess, server, or bartender in a restaurant. If you take this road, make sure during the interview process that your managers seem open to both employing you and educating you about the restaurant business.
Also, in working as a server or staging as a line cook, you will have the pleasure of tasting and evaluating new dishes when menus change occur. This is one of my favorite occupational perks. Plus, it helps you meet objective number 6 from above.
Two pedagogic books for you are: The Professional Chef, from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for The Camera, by Delores Custer. They are thick. They are dense. They have pretty color pictures. Buy them, and read as much as you can, especially if you are not learning culinary practices and trends in a classroom.
I have not purchased the second book yet, but I recently read a wonderful review of it and cannot wait to read it.
5+ years of journalism and top-editing experience at a magazine, newspaper or website.
As I said above, you can probably find an editorial internship that teaches food writing, photography, or food styling; and, that does not require you to be a college student. You can Google Search these kind of internships. They are usually unpaid or pay minimum wage. This may seem like exploitation, but they have to devote effort and hours of a paid professional towards patiently molding you or watching your work. It’s a give and take situation for the intern and the employer. During the interview process, ask targeted questions that reveal how inclined your prospective employer is towards teaching you and providing applicable, concrete on-the-job experience. Ask upfront if you will be able to use the work you create with the company in your future portfolio; is there anything in writing that you must sign which prohibits public display of branded work, as it is or could be considered intellectual property of that said company? As long as everything is copacetic and you successfully complete the internship, you will have viable experience—maybe even a byline or two—for your resume.
Another way to accomplish gathering “top editing experience for a magazine or website,” is to start your own. Look at Sweet Paul Magazine or Food52. The founders of those venues did exactly that and were successful.
In an article titled”Advice for Future Writers Advice for Future Writers,” Amanda Hesser, co-founder of Food52, underscored the importance of a blog, stating “The best blogs would grow into their own self-sustaining brands, and the rest would be left to struggle and starve, or subsist as an unpaid hobby.”
Google “How-To” articles on food styling and food photography, as these skills are imperative to your professional success. Read trade magazines like Lucky Peach, Cherry Bombe, Gastronomica, and Cook’s Illustrated. Devour not just their content, but the presentation of that content. Learn Drupal and WordPress and general content management. Watch tutorials on Adobe Creative Suite products, such as Photoshop and Dreamweaver. If you are a student, you can get these programs at cheaper rates. Amateurs can also go to their local community college and take graphic design courses to learn these skills. Search “how to professionally edit recipes” on Google and then practice what they preach. Voraciously read everything.
In starting a blog, you can create your own test kitchen and build your photography portfolio. You can, and should – please trust me on this—expertly learn HTML.
Running your own blog will help you meet criteria 3, 4, and 5, as well.
These are only 6 of the objectives applicable to a desired food editor. There are a multitude more specifically applicable to food stylists and photographers. Go to Indeed.com or Monster.com or whatever online job board that you prefer, and then search your career category. Print or write down the criteria. Pin it up on your fridge or post over your desk. Look at it everyday and ask yourself if you have made progress on meeting those goals. Keep a portfolio, electronic or hard copy, of work that you have completed professionally in case you get an impromptu job offer.
Seeking employment as a writer in a niche field comes with a mountain of obstacles. If you condition yourself well before beginning the climb, you will have a greater chance of reaching the top.
*Indicates that this list was copied directly from the Time, Inc. job requisite, posted recently for a “Senior Food and Wine Editor.”
** “Amateur” here represents the creative who is unwavering in dedication to their craft, but who is unpaid; they are not a professional.”