To celebrate my first anniversary I sat down with the food blogger and critic, the Poet of Cuisine, for an in-depth interview.
Why am you writing?
I thoroughly love writing and working in a creative field. Reviewing a restaurant or a market is short and quick enough that it isn’t a long-term writing project like a novel or script. It’s easy to do, and I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to eat out on a regular enough basis to make a hobby of it.
Living in London, it’s a source of constant curiosity where to eat that aren’t just branded places. Everyone at this point knows what McDonald’s or Pizza Hut or Five Guys or Wasabi taste like. Happily, there is a lifetime’s amount of interesting, independent and little-known places to eat that are nuanced, niche, or considered quirky. It’s a bit more involved and interesting than the predictable branded restaurants and eat outs. What this is, is a combination of restaurant critic and food blogging. It’s a meal, yes, but it’s also a day out, it’s an atmosphere. In that respect I feel like a tourist on the front line. It’s reporting and learning about the world, slowly, part by part and piece by piece, meal by meal. I’m just a tourist passing through, enjoying the sites, trying to soak up a bit of the culture and broadening my palate.
On a more personal note, I love to make people laugh and always try to get a few jokes in and some humour. It feels good to have a creative project. It’s building my confidence in my ability to professionally write.
So putting these points together, it came out more or less to explore and increase my writing ability, and I chose a hobby to write about.
Who is your target audience?
I guess my target audience is like-minded people as myself. London’s a big place, and full of interesting curios to eat that isn’t just a faceless brand. I do keep in mind to write for the perspective of someone who will never get the opportunity to go visit these places. Not everyone may be able to get to Brick Lane and go to a famous Jewish Bakers or a a vegan food market. Not everyone knows what a Bavarian beer hall is like. I’m more than happy to satisfy my own curiosity as well as yours while writing about it!
It’s also worth noting in the last few years a market has increased that want a night out that isn’t just a typical night out in the pub. Arcades, board game nights, live action role playing, niche geek societies are seeing larger numbers than ever. (And book clubs are always around!) This is part of a trend of a demographic who might have previously considered “alternative” but are quickly becoming accepted.
Those guys are eager for more than just a pie and a pint in a pub for their downtime. I won’t apologise if that sounds snobby, a lot of people have been there and done that. To me, a lot of those alternatives, geeks, whatever you want to call them, are interested in what a bar dedicated to avocados are, or what the national dish of Germany tastes like. I write my reviews like talking to a good friend about a night out I had because that’s what it literally is.
Besides, everyone likes good food and drink. Hopefully, when you click on one of my articles you don’t know what been eaten or drank before you’ve read it. It’s like asking a friend how an film was you’ve been eager to see for a while.
” . . . I’m an accidental tourist, landing in and out of pockets of the world. . . “
How do you write a blog?
Initially, by trial and error. I had previously blogged reviews of theatre shows, and had a whole blog dedicated to Shakespeare. However, it was all a bit amateur and scrappy. I spent a long, long time googling blog presentations, going through other people’s sites and getting and giving feedback. But that is only going to get you so far. It’s that old attitude: you can break any rule you want, as long as you know why you’re breaking it.
For all the ideas out there, I had to work out how to present my posts on my own, and that can be very freeing. It was for me the most laborious process. After a lot of googling I had to slowly create a format, adding and taking away things; does this subtitle work here? Does that link work there? It was a process of fine tuning my voice till stumbling on a format that works.
The technical stuff doesn’t come easy to me. I find this has an interesting parallel with comedians. Some artists in that field struggle with performing but excel at writing material, whereas others perform well but find it difficult to come up with material. Bloggers, I find are the same, some of us are amazing at presentation and making their site look incredible, but struggle to write fluently or fluidly.
Personally, I feel that I can just about get by on the technical side learning while doing the blog. I had no idea what SEO was or the importance of tagging. It’s been a huge learning curve, but through the process of writing and not giving up and working out my own format and voice.
Through trial and error I’ve concluded a rough outline, each post must consist of:
- At least three keywords
- at least one link to a previous post – pingback –
- 3 – 6 pictures with captions and alt captions
- A catchy, niche, attention grabbing headline
- A featured image
- one or two big quote block
- At least 800 words
- At least two sub headings
- A conclusion with an invite to the reader
- Google map GPS to the place I’m reviewing
Where do you start writing a new blog post?
To start, by bringing a notepad with me to the joint (or use notepad on my phone) During the time I’m there, eating, scribbling pretty much any ideas, quotes, things I notice, anything that grabs my attention. Details I need to keep, names of dishes or prices you can’t afford to forget.
I pay particular attention to how the staff treat customers, how easy the place is (don’t make me work for my food!) I also want to make a point of anything unique or what that the place does particularity well. A lot of the review is written on instinct and gut feeling – what’s the initial impression? What happens if we think about it a little bit longer?
Why did you choose the name “the Poet of Cuisine”?
Admittedly, it’s a little pretentious when said without any humour. I can’t tell people what my blog is called with a straight face – but that’s half the fun! At the end of the day it’s a food review WordPress site. This isn’t Hamlet or Ulysses. It’s fluff and I’m totally happy with that. By not taking it seriously, by having as much fun as could possibly be had with it.
There’s a history of literary characters named in this way: the Oracle of Delphi, the Duchess of Malfi, the Jew of Malta, the Merchant of Venice, the Thief of Baghdad. . . . the Poet of Cuisine. It’s a moniker and a pseudonym. I hide behind it but it’s also a character and a stage to perform with.
“My criteria for places to review are two things. . . the uniquely indigenous or the uniquely individual.”
How do you decide what to review?
With whatever grabs my attention. Is this place unique? A restaurant dedicated entirely to avocados grabs my attention as it’s such an unique idea. Herman ze German grabs my attention selling a national dish. Any place that is nationalistic, a place that is proudly serving a country’s food and trying to sing their culture’s praises, such as Herman’s or Mestizos grabs my attention. Going to those places it feels a little more journalistic, reporting on the different culture and ambiences. How does a Mexican place feel in comparison to a Japanese place? What am I, as an average Joe suppose to pick up from their culture and food?
My criteria for places to review are two things; either of which I’m willing to bend or brake as a rule: the uniquely indigenous or the uniquely individual. Anything quirky, or anything that sells a part of the world. To me, it’s pure tourism. It’s not food criticism, nor am I an expert at restaurants. I am drawn towards the curious and the interesting. To me, that’s tourism. I’ve accidentally stumbled on a tourism niche. Journalism as well, I’m reporting on something unique and interesting per se. Most of my niche is reporting on something that most people won’t know about or take an interest in without a studied report.
I am not an expert. You’re not going to mistake this for A.A. Gill or Jay Rayner anytime soon. Fundamentally, the poet of cuisine is a customer, and I consider that my main strength. Without that insider expertise you learn to rely on what you’re told and solely what you conclude with your senses. Again, it feels like I’ve stumbled on a format of reviewing cultures as well as food in each post. You get a slice of Mexico, Germany, etc. I’m an accidental tourist, landing in and out of pockets of the world.
” . . .If people knew the history of a dish they’d love and respect it a lot more . . .”
Who are your influences?
So here’s a little secret, I had no idea what to do when I first began. How does one rate the consistency of bread or the sweetness of a beer? It’s hard work but also have the double standard of “I’m just an average Joe” schtick to fall back on; am I supposed to know about these things? I hadn’t even troubled to watch cooking or food related shows. (Except from the odd Man vs Food binge on a rainy day.)
It wasn’t until the 4th post someone mentioned A.A. Gill to me. I spent a good month going through various videos and introducing myself to his wonderful writing. Someone had mentioned Anthony Bourdain to me in passing and after checking out No Reservations I fell in love with his way of covering food and culture: Always very dignified and excited to explore a different world. And he did give us the intoxicating gobbet: how much do you really know about someone unless you’ve ate a meal with them?
Of course, he had spent decades working in kitchens, but Bourdain’s style spelt it out: You don’t need to be an expert, you just need to be there and be passionate. Watching his shows now, it’s adorable those moments when he says “I don’t know what I’m doing here.” I’ve put a few phrases to that effect in some of my posts when I’ve been lost at where to go next. Just admit that you’re not clued in, then slowly reveal it to the audience reading or watching. It’s a good way of presenting journalistic media.
So, initially my influences were A.A. Gill and Anthony Bourdain. Spending some time learning about the history and the story of food helps immensely. If people knew the history of a dish they’d love and respect it a lot more. Listening to The Teaching Courses – Food: A Cultural Culinary History lecture series has helped teach a few things. It’s also helpful in case you’re stuck for an opening to a blog – begin with the history of the food.
But naturally, those are primary sources, you need to find and create your own style. With that I used my own appreciation of comedy and entertainment, that’s where a lot of the jokes come from. The site is your soap box, so really sell it. Use anything at your disposal, make you blog posts short, long, candid, rude and crude, details and information, the kitchen sink, anything to keep people reading!
Truly though? The real original bits aren’t the first influences but more the bits and pieces you pick up here and there from the unexpected places. Every food writer has enjoyed Bourdain and Gill, but in my writing DNA for this blog there’s bits and pieces of Eddie Izzard stand up and Lindsay Ellis and Christopher Hitchens as well that keeps things a little more original and uniquely spirited.
One thing I’ve discovered from writing is that writing isn’t about the act of putting words on paper (or screen), but it’s more about voice. Writing is about writing how you would talk. The end result should feel as good as singing. You’re convincing someone that you’re correct. You feel that it’s good. And as long as you’ve got that good gut feeling it can be as basic a review as you want.
What have been your biggest hindrances?
Slow internet. Good grief, have I developed a passionate hate for slow internet.
There have been times when there simply hasn’t been the time nor the money to get out there and properly apply myself to a blog post. A blog post should never be hindered by my own personal constraints. When I go to a place to eat; nothing else is booked for the entire day, this is so I can commit to writing a post without hindrance. But that also means clearing my diary out and making sure that I can afford to go out. Expensive habit to form while a student at university!
It’s been frustrating but it certainly hasn’t been something I alone have had to deal with. Everyone with a hobby knows the sting of duty before passion. January through to early April 2019 everything started to hit off, every blog post doubled the viewing stats of the previous post. Everything seemed to be going well, then exam season hit and had to postpone so many plans. I didn’t write a post for two months. It was a source of huge frustration, chipping away at essay mountain, with a head full of facts on Napoleon and world war one when I had a heart set on talking about fried chicken and couscous.
The other frustration to bare in mind (bloggers at home, take note!) is sometimes the gods just don’t align in your favour. Soon after my first year of uni broke up I resolved to review as much as one could. I set out one day and tried not one, not two but three different places which were either unexpectedly shut or moved! Hugely frustrating, yet you need to persevere. I’m willing to bet 99.9% blogs fail because the failure gets to you.
I can’t remember where but read somewhere while setting up and doing my research one article said the grim truth is that you’ll spend an good 60% of your time scouring social media promoting your blog. Not SEO, not editing, not formatting, simply spending your time posting and tweeting and Instagraming and tagging and getting people to notice your site. That’s something to bear in mind.
” . . . I feel like things are only just getting started , we’re nowhere near the main course!”
What have been the real “wow” moments?
The few times people have responded – social media is an amazing thing – to my posts. Plant Based Events Company were very kind, Mooshies had a chance to respond to my criticism about bookings. Good or bad, getting feedback, has been an honour – “I’ve been noticed!” It created a lot of validation that my words were landing, having an effect. Of course the site really blew up in September after some retweets practically went as viral as a food review could be, and of course of all things it was for Taco Bell! As confidence grows my perception on what constitutes a skill has changed – getting compliments on my writing, which makes me view it more as a talent, rather than just something I happen to enjoy. The real shock is that I can be actually quite good at this!
And the biggest learning curve?
I went to two different markets and resolved to try everything. Try eating 8 different meals in the space of 2 – 3 hours! My waistline!
Seriously though? I’ve learnt to be extremely grateful. What a pleasure and an honour it is to eat and experience other culture’s and share a plate and meal and to learn a bit of the world, and then share that knowledge and wisdom.
On a more humane note, I wrote about food because we know it’s huge market. Everyone eats. What I’ve learnt is something quite profound – there are some things that universally unite us. Food is one of them. You can sit and eat with anyone and find some common ground. Food is truly something that brings humans together and that’s what I’ve discovered and loved doing this blog.
As a writer, it’s safe to say I’ve perfected the art of rarely ever being laconic!
Write, write, write. From my first blog post to now I feel like things are only just getting started, we’re nowhere near the main course! So for the next year I really hope that my posts get more cohesive and my ability to critique becomes more refined. Because I’m an amateur my blog posts have been very generous, so it’ll be interesting to see if I go further the other way and get more demanding.
There’s a whole universe of food out there, and I’m focusing on London for now. London, with it’s army of waiters, chefs and cooks and managers and pop ups and eateries and restaurants and everyone more than willing to show you how amazing their food is. And I’m out there with them as well hoping to make connections and write. Two things for my audience; 1) I hope I entertain above all things. the poet of cuisine is your friend, here to illuminate you on what original and unique food is out there. 2) I hope someone out there wants to check something out on the strength of my review.
So more nationalities, more quirks. Just more, more, more!
The Poet of Cuisine was talking to the Poet of Cuisine.