A Day In the LIfe of a Food Writer

If I told you I had to eat at 10 restaurants in 24 hours once researching a guidebook, or that I had to judge a dessert contest and partake in 40 varieties of sweets, you’d play your tiny violin, wouldn’t you?

Apr 2, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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There are foodies, people who hoard cookbooks, map out their travels around a meal at the tiny, secret dive joint with the ultimate artisan third-generation hand-crafted mustard, and source the most obscure gourmet ingredients in the world for their dinner parties (Himalayan sea salt collected in the dark of the moon on Leap Year day for you?).

I know foodies. I am you.

I have sat at a table with you and others of our kind to sample the upcoming menu of a restaurant before it launches (oh the privilege! and the poor public who must wait until the menu is actually available!) and eaten while we talked about the food we’re eating, food we’ve had, food we will have, food we’ve thought about having -- all the while sharing smart phone photos and videos of foods we’ve seen and eaten around the world.

Then there are professional eaters.

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We’re like you -- we came into our profession because of our mania for food after all. But unlike you civilians, it doesn’t always get to just be about unbridled pleasure. No! you protest. Too much of a good thing is a better thing!

If I told you I had to eat at 10 restaurants in 24 hours once researching a guidebook, you’d envy me, wouldn’t you? If I sighed about the time I had to judge a dessert contest and partake in 40 varieties of sweets or groaned about the pizza contest I judged you’d play your tiny violin, wouldn’t you?

You’d trade places with me in an instant. But if you knew all about it, about the underbelly, maybe you wouldn’t be so hasty. Maybe you’d return to your Purple Cherokee tomatoes and locally made fresh burrata and grown-in-your-back yard basil and wood-fired oven French baguette to make a panino with nary another peep.

It’s not all fun and games, you see. There’s the work that begins when the feasts are over, the analyzing of half-drunk notes scribbled by candlelight, the stories hastily typed, hungover on an airplane so as to make deadline, the hours of lifting heavy weights to build a torcher of a metabolism so I can consume tens of thousands of calories and not require a Little Rascal to wheel around in.

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There’s my non-”work day” Paleo diet that is sadly lacking in starches because it doesn’t matter how much I work out, I can’t eat like that all the time. There’s skipping my afternoon almond butter treat and dinner because I have to judge a recipe contest with, I kid you not, bologna as one of the items, and I can’t blow my calories on good food at home and the 18 dishes I have to taste!

There’s dragging family along who think they’re there to have fun but are forced to submit to my demands about what they order. There’s drawing stares and comments as I click obtusely away with my DSLR camera while other folks are just trying to enjoy their quiet dinner.

And though I mostly write stories and am not a critic, when I fill in for that role there are the restaurant owners and chefs who hate me because of a less-than stellar (though honest!) review and that local food blogger who badmouths me in screeching headlines after he wasn’t the one chosen to fill in.

Wah, right? But worst of all? I have two words for you: Meat sweats.

I didn’t know what this was until recently, though I had actually long experienced it. Until one night, at a Hog and Barrel dinner (a collaboration among celebrated chefs to prepare a feast making use of every part of the heritage, pastured pig, each course accompanied by a bourbon tasting) talk among the table of foodies and professional eaters turned to war stories, vying to outdo one another with tales of vast feasts, of buying new clothes partway through a research trip (but I bought new clothes a size bigger before I went to Camp Confit! I exclaimed and ha, I won).

Then, as the small batch bourbon flowed, we came to the not-so-pretty side of professional eating. I shared how on my last trip to Paris -- on vacation but also researching a story for my newspaper’s travel section on a food-lover’s guide to Paris and Morocco -- I’d tossed and turned every night. Why?

Days began with baguettes and butter, creamy yogurt, strong coffee and blood orange juice; moved to morning macarons; and on to steak tartare, more bread and red wine for lunch; more macarons and a cafe creme in the afternoon; a modest pre-dinner snack of slabs of foie gras accompanied by more bread and strong Gascon floc; then lavish dinners of multiple wine-paired courses ending with chef’s tastings of desserts; and more likely than not, just a few lovely chocolates from the laboratory of Jacques Genin back at the apartment before bed.

As I lay in bed under an attic rooftop in the Marais, my stomach would churn as sweat seeped out of every pore, leaving me glued to the sheets, no respite as the radiator fired away against a Parisian November night. When fitful sleep at last claimed me for a few minutes at a time I’d dream of my gym back home -- the doors were locked as everyone else worked out.

“God, you can get fat fast,” my workout friend exclaimed in dreamworld, and I’d wake with my heart racing, swearing to take it easy the next day.

But come the morrow I’d face creamy risotto with fresh black truffles shaved over it, oozing smelly camembert, dense chocolate torts festooned with gold leaf, salted caramel ice cream, hot, crisp onion beignets, creamy, lush sauces over everything, freshly poured crepes slathered in crème de marron, and it was my duty to my readers, my obligation, my very mission to make the most of my time in Paris to consume it all.

The result, I learned, was meat sweats. The cost of being a food writer.

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Photo by Wales Hunter, courtesy of Kentucky Monthly. 

On we went to Morocco, where I thought, free of French temptations I might sleep easier. For a couple of nights I did, when we limited ourselves to modest tagines on an expedition into the Sahara. Then we checked into the the Sofitel Fès Palais Jamaï where I joined the French-trained chef in his kitchen to learn to make pigeon pastilla, my favorite Moroccan dish.

A profusion of colorful spices showers the dish with flavor, but the allure for me is the combination of sweet and savory, a hallmark of Moroccan food. Spiced cooked eggs join diced, cooked pigeon meat and sweetened almonds in a flaky pastry that is fried and dusted with sugar and cinnamon in a little package of bliss.

Chef let my husband and me each make one, using precooked eggs, and after we cleaned up and presented ourselves for dinner in the dining room, formerly the residence of the Grand Vizier of Morocco, we received our somewhat lumpy and misshapen pastilla creations to enjoy. And tasty they were!

What would we like now, now that we’re already full? Oh, the chef wants to decide? Why of course! I’m a professional, I can take on anything. Brochettes of spiced, grilled meat, heaps of couscous, tender, aromatic vegetables -- I’ve got this. Time to buck up and just keep shoveling it in. I wore a loose, flowing dress because this isn’t my first time around the block. Dessert?

I reclined, the food baby swelling in my gorged stomache. Then the chef’s assistant appeared. The chef would like us to see how the eggs are prepared. We made our ponderous way back to the kitchen and sure enough, though one more morsel of food would be the final straw that would send me in search of a vomitorium, it became clear we were meant to try the green (herb-flecked) scrambled eggs cooked in pigeon broth.

“You first,” I said to my husband, smiling, our code for “you take a huge bite so there’s not too much left for me.”

We made it to the room, everything internally still where it should be.

“You know the story about the kid caught smoking by his dad who got locked in a closet with a carton of cigarettes and couldn’t come out till he smoked them all?” I said to my husband. “That’s me. I’m going on a detox when we get back. Chicken breast and carrots.”

I flipped open my netbook, checked my messages. And there, for the following week, an invitation to the Hog & Barrel dinner. Six courses. Among the tidbits: some tongue salami, a little pickled foot loaf, suckling pig head tortellini, fresh hock confit, pork funnel cake (pork funnel cake?). My gorge rose.

“I’d be glad to attend,” I replied. The meat sweats, it seemed, were far from over.

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