Since the first time she was able to hold a fork, Rachel Wharton ’94 has been interested in food. Plus, she grew up in a home where “talking about what we’re going to cook and eat” was a part of life, she says. Today, she’s a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based food writer for Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan; and in May, she won a 2010 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award—the Oscars of the food world—for her “Back of the House” columns, which she describes as “love letters to restaurants.” She spoke with NC State magazine about her career. Look for a short profile on her in our Autumn 2010 issue, which will hit mailboxes soon. Until then, here’s an extended interview with her.
Why food writing? How did you break into the field?
I’ve always been interested in food as long as I can remember being able to hold a fork in my hand, or a chicken bone. My parents are from Louisiana where there’s really not much to do but eat and drink, and so … talking about what we’re going to cook and eat has just been a part of life. I’ve always been a writer. I went to NC State and got a degree in English, writing and editing. [At one point] I was reading this excellent book called Food Politics by Marion Nestle. I looked her up online, and I realized that there was a master’s program in food studies at New York University. It had never occurred to me that I could be a food writer, but within three months I had applied to that program, and was accepted. Then, the first and only food internship at the New York Daily News opened a month after I started the program, and I got it. I was there for over four years. So that’s my convoluted story of how I became a food writer.
Have your own eating habits changed since becoming a food writer? In what ways, and why?
I think there are two major shifts. I used to cook dinner for myself almost every single night, and now that rarely happens. Now, I’m out a lot more than I’m eating in. The bigger shift that applies to the way I eat at home, or the way I try to eat in restaurants, and the way I cook for myself. I have almost no processed foods. I eat really simply. I’m also very seasonal and local, and if you buy foods as fresh as you possibly can and as well made as you possibly can, you don’t have to spend much time preparing them or much money adding to them because the things taste so good themselves. It’s knowing that you choose your ingredients. You can really simplify your life in the kitchen that way.
You’ve described your columns as a “love letter to restaurants.” What does that mean?
When we pick a restaurant to be included in our back-of-the-house column, we’re saying that this restaurant is a restaurant that you must visit. That it belongs in the cannon of amazing restaurants in either Manhattan or Brooklyn. That if you live here for any length of time, you should eat here, you should take your parents here if they come to visit, or if you come back to visit you should go there. So they aren’t reviews: they’re profiles. When you read those stories, you should know before you go what it’s like to be there. They’re basically describing the personality of the place, so I call them love letters because … the first thing you want to do is go eat there because you’re just so swept up by the beauty of the place and the food and the chef and the people who work and eat there.
What are the biggest challenges that your job presents?
First of all, you have to be around incredibly good food all the time, and you have to know how to not eat all of it all the time. It sound really silly, but … you have to basically learn how to pace yourself and how to say no occasionally. The other thing is that there are a million food writers and food bloggers, and there’s a thousand places to write about food. And like any journalism job, having to write everyday can be stressful and hard if you’re just not feeling it.
What do you find to be the most rewarding about food writing?
I get to spend every day doing the two things I love most, which is writing and obsessing about food. It’s my job to track down a new ice cream flavor. It’s my job to know that there’s a new taco stand on the edge of the park in Queens. That’s pretty cool.
What makes for a good experience at a restaurant?
It depends on the restaurant, and it depends on your frame of mind. What you expect from a four-star restaurant is so different from what you expect when you roll up to a taco truck. I’ve always liked the restaurant experience. There’s the food, which should be good, there’s the people making it, and then there’s just the place itself, the place you want to spend all your time. Those three factors are what you want in the restaurant experience.
— Jill Watral