They Pay You to Eat?

It’s been just over a year since I started pursuing “food writing” (i.e., food reviews, restaurant critiques, round up articles, etc.). It started with an essay that led to taking a Jan term course on epicurean adventures and has become one of my favorite branches of journalism.

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When people learn that I’m a food writer they often respond with “Must be nice,” “Man, I want your job,” “So people pay you to eat?” or something similar. And while I usually respond with some combination of agreeing, conceding, or explaining that it’s relatively uncommon for me to get free food, the truth is that tasting is only a small part of the job, and if I’m super secretly honest it isn’t even my favorite part.

Food writing can seem fluffy and unimportant, even to a food writer. More times than I’d care to admit, I follow my interest in writing about food with an explanation that I write about other things too–subjects that seem more meaningful and significant (like education and autism). My food articles don’t always seem terribly significant. That’s part of what makes them fun. But I find the experiences that lead to them are tremendously meaningful. It’s the creators and curators that make me love my job–the chefs and bartenders and managers and owners.

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Take Ashley. Ashley is the manager at Forge Pizza in Danville. When I stopped by to review her restaurant for Diablo’s “The Happiest Hour,” she fed me wood-fired Margherita pizza and dry-rubbed ribs with jalapeno honey slaw. She brought me taste after taste of ale, lager and beer. And though all of it was flavorful perfection, the best part of the afternoon was listening to Ashley talk about her passion for the food industry.

“At Forge we try to let people do what they really love,” she said, all smiles and enthusiasm. “We’re really passionate about what we make and what we do.” The longer we talked, the more I learned. Ashley’s been in the food industry for years. She and her fiance moved to the Bay Area back in 2011 and have worked every aspect of the restaurant business between the two of them. I asked her what it was like to come out here and she said that it was amazing, that people finally seem to be giving food crafters the recognition they deserve for the work that they do.

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I told Ashley about my own experience as a server and we swapped stories of connection and chaos. I told her about a good friend I’d had who taught me to look at food differently, to make an investment in a meal the way I might in a pair of tickets to the symphony.

“I’m so glad you said that,” Ashley remarked. “That’s exactly how it is. It’s an orchestration to put it all together.”

Eating out isn’t just a means of procuring food. It’s a decision to be a patron and a participant.

“People go out to experience something new,” Ashley said. “That’s what we get to give them.”

Food workers like Ashely have a full range of knowledge. They know everything there is to know about the products they serve and they love it.

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Beer and pizza–it’s simple. Too simple to be extraordinary? Hardly.

“We like to think we’re redefining beer and pizza,” Ashley said.

“It’s all fresh. Nothing’s frozen. I don’t even have a freezer. But here I’m talking your ear off, you have to try this while it’s hot.” She motioned to the steaming Margherita pizza sitting in front of us. “It changes as it cools. That’s why we never do delivery, because we want you to have the best experience of everything we make.”

“When it’s fresh it doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to be delicious.”

And of course, it was.

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Ashley took me through her drink menu, explaining the hops and body and fermentation of each brew. I learned about pipelines and kegs and the benefits of wine on tap. I learned about pouring and tasting and the difference between a double IPA and a Belgian quad, how to pick a wine that hits your price point and your palate. I added all sorts of words to my foodie vocabulary–toasty, yeasty, luscious, gritty.

None of this will come out in the article when it’s posted to Diablo’s website. It will be short and snappy and probably half the length. But it’s the story behind the story that keeps me writing reviews. It’s the reason I call and email and drop in when it’s slow, the reason I take hours to talk and to taste for a 200-word blurb. It’s the people that make the food who also make the story. They are the magic behind the curtain, the real payoff for my writing.

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