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Writing Food

Food writers Liz Crain ’00 and JJ Goode ’03 love food—and writing. But it took a dash of chance and a pinch of luck for each to find their way to success as cookbook co-authors alongside distinguished chefs and restaurateurs.

JJ Goode ’03

“I just like food. I liked Kraft macaroni and cheese, I liked Celeste pizzas, and I liked the fried chicken patties at ACDC. It didn’t have to be good. It didn’t have to be high-minded. I didn’t really know there was a way to make it a career,” says Goode, whose most recent cookbook of Thai food, Pok Pok, made the New York Times bestsellers list.

Crain, who calls Portland, Oregon, home, began her food journey at a young age, cooking at home with her family and working in food service throughout her high school and Vassar years. “Food and writing just naturally came together,” she says, when she moved to the West Coast after graduation. Once there, an opening in the food writing business presented itself and Crain says she hasn’t looked back since.

That first opportunity came while Crain was employed as a nanny. Her boss—a writer—was contacted by America Online about writing profiles on area chefs and their restaurants. Too busy to take the job herself, she asked Crain if she was interested in the work. (Of course, she was!)

Her stint at America Online was followed by lots of freelance work for regional and national publications. Then, in 2010, she decided to put together her own book—Food Lover’s Guide to Portland—which reveals the best local restaurants, coffee roasters, farmers, distillers, brewers, and more.

“I thought I could take all of my knowledge and dig deeper—research more—all of the producers and purveyors of food in Portland,” Crain says.

Liz Crain ’00

The story of how she got to work on her latest cookbook, Toro Bravo, involves an ex-boyfriend, tattoos, eating, and taking a leap of faith. In short, Crain, a fan of the Portland restaurant Toro Bravo, met its owner—John Gorham—through her ex, who often did tattoos for the restaurateur. One day, she took a chance and approached Gorham about the possibility of a cookbook.

“It was the perfect timing for both of us,” she says of her collaboration with Gorham, whose restaurant specializes in Spanish cuisine.

For Goode, writing was something he enjoyed, but there was always the fear that the world was full of far more talented writers. Though he tried his luck at getting hired in the food service industry in his native New York City, a job wasn’t in the cards. Then, a fellow Vassar alum mentioned his father’s involvement with the food website eGullet. It was there that Goode got his first taste of writing for a crowd as a site monitor.

Then came an internship at Saveur, which Goode says was his first introduction to the idea that there were people who make careers of thinking and writing about food.

“After the internship, I was really hoping that I would get a job offer—that they would think I was the best intern in the world and take me to lunch and thank me for the internship and offer me a job. That didn’t happen,” Goode jokes.

To keep his food writing dream alive, he saved money from other jobs to allow him time to do some freelance writing and he landed a gig at Epicurious.com. It wasn’t long after that he became aware of a publisher in a time-pinch to get a cookbook out on schedule.

“I got super lucky. The publisher was sort of desperate to find a writer because the other writer had either dropped out or had been fired and the due date was fast approaching. The cookbook was [Masaharu] Morimoto’s first cookbook [Morimoto],” Goode says, noting that he had about three weeks to research, interview, and write his additions to the cookbook. “It was an inauspicious beginning to cookbook co-writing.”

Usually, writing a cookbook with a chef can take years. The process includes spending countless hours with the chef, testing recipes, researching, and, in some cases, traveling with the chef to the sources of his inspiration.

Goode, for example, later went to Thailand with Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker, with whom he collaborated on the cookbook of the same name, and to Mexico with chef Roberto Santibañez of Fonda in New York City, with whom he wrote Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales. (He even stayed with Santibañez’s family.)

“It’s this incredibly immersive experience,” Goode says. “You taste something and you don’t know what to think of it because you’ve never had anything like it. It’s fun to write with that enthusiasm. You hope that you’ll convince people to give something new a chance.”

—Photos provided by subjects

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, March 31, 2014