Sofia Perez: What Constitutes Good Food Writing?

Sofia Perez: What Constitutes Good Food Writing?

What constitutes good food writing?  As a food writer for several publications, and as someone with some professional cooking experience, I’ve been thinking about this topic recently. I have invited several food writers such as Sofia Perez, editor-at-large for Saveur, to share their thoughts in this limited-run series of posts.

It seems like everyone is a foodie these days with an opinion. I’m all for free speech, but I’m more interested in good writing (technically and creatively) with a distinct point of view about food. With the ease of online publishing and food-based sites that harvest comments and “reviews,” it’s hard to find and recognize good food writing. Of course, “good” is a qualitative term relative to one’s taste.

Back to the question:  What constitutes good writing? In what forms can people find it – reviews, opinion columns, profiles, and travel pieces? Does food writing matter as a source of information or is it more entertainment? How informed or inquisitive should a food writer be in their capacity as a blogger or paid writer? Being a foodie (a term I dislike) has become a democratized lifestyle and expression of a person’s interest that’s ubiquitous today. Similarly, “food writer” as a title has become slung around as carelessly as “chef.”

To address some of these questions and ideas, I invited Sofia Perez to comment. She is a freelance writer and editor-at-large for Saveur who writes about food, wine, the environment, and books. She’s also currently working on her first book, a historical novel about the Spanish Civil War. In addition to her freelance writing, she has also taught a food-writing class at New York City’s Institute of Culinary Education. You can learn more about her work at www.sofia-perez.com.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

Sofia Perez

Sofia PerezWhen I teach my food-writing class, I always start off by telling my students to broaden their definition of food writing, to include everything from restaurant reviews, trendspotting, and recipe-focused articles to personal essays and historical pieces, and a million things in between. It can be a challenge to make general statements about such a broad area, but here goes:

Early on in my career, I remember going to a panel discussion on food writing, and one of the panelists (I can’t remember who) made the point that there’s no such thing as a food writer. If we’re any good at what we do, we’re writers and journalists first, and we just happen to cover the subject of food. I agree with this. There is a lot (and I mean a lot) of crappy writing about food out there–pieces that betray the writer’s ignorance about the subject and his/her laziness and lack of due diligence when it comes to research. But it’s also true that there’s a lot of sub-par writing about sports, travel, the economy, etc. The pieces that grab me, regardless of the topic, are the ones that are well-written and insightful — particularly when they have a distinct point of view, as you mentioned.

I’m especially drawn to food articles that have a human element. It’s fine to publish a feature on potatoes, but I find it much more interesting to read a piece on the role the potato places in a particular culture’s cuisine. Or the story behind one person’s potato recipe, which is based on the way her grandfather taught her, and can be traced back to a technique he learned in the old country for XYZ reason, etc. Food is a subject that is inextricably linked to our humanity, and the pieces that make that connection between the two are the ones I gravitate toward. A great example is the writing of my dear friend, Maureen Abood, whose excellent blog “Rose Water & Orange Blossoms” is as much about her own life and that of her extended family and friends as it is about Lebanese-American cuisine. http://www.maureenabood.com (For a good example, see this post: http://www.maureenabood.com/2011/07/27/are-you-a-coosa/)

Regarding the question of entertainment, articles about food can be purely voyeuristic and sybaritic, but they can also be service-oriented (restaurant reviews or pieces on how to shop for, store, and cook a particular ingredient), investigative (an examination of our meat supply or what is behind the USDA organic label), educational (Mark Kurlansky’s books on salt and cod), or philosophical (David Foster Wallace’s article in Gourmet on the ethics of cooking and eating lobsters).

Through it all, the “entertainment” factor, if you will, is part of the equation, but it’s merely a matter of how well the articles are written and how compellingly the story is told. I can sit down and read a novel for the pure enjoyment of it, and find it entertaining, but that doesn’t preclude it from also illuminating some issue or historical event or place, and providing me with a new way of seeing the world that I wasn’t expecting when I started to read it.

In terms of how informed a writer should be (and I make no distinction between blogger or writers who work for other outlets — a good writer should be able to write for any medium, period), I would say this: It is the duty of a writer/journalist to know what he or she is writing about. I’m currently writing a novel, but even though it is fiction, I have done a great deal of research to make sure that the historical details are accurate and ring true to those who are familiar with the time and place about which I’m writing. Of course historical fiction demands this more than other genres, but even a writer of escapist crime dramas has to nail the veracity of the cops’ dialogue or the description of the coroner’s tools, for example. If he or she doesn’t bother to do that, readers will pick up on it and be turned off.

It is the duty of a writer/journalist to know what he or she is writing about.

So any writer who is writing for a readership and not just his/her own diary has a responsibility to do the homework and research. As writers, all we do is chronicle a landscape (be it real or fictional, internal or external), and if a writer can’t be bothered to get the details right, why should I as a reader bother to read it? This responsibility becomes even more acute when we are talking about people’s livelihoods (as in a restaurant review or a profile of a chef, farmer, or food business), or a service piece. The latter pieces may not be as sexy as a food essay, but they can be extremely important to the reader. When the person who’s cooking his first Thanksgiving turkey decides to following the instructions offered in a published article, online or otherwise, he is going to expect that the writer got the details right and that none of his guests is about to get food poisoning because he was directed to leave the thawed bird out on the counter overnight.

Democratization can be a wonderful thing. During the age of print domination, we tended to hear from the usual suspects, and many writers had a hard time breaking through, myself included. The great boon of technology means that there is now a place for new voices. But it’s important to realize that that freedom comes with a price. Everyone eats, and so everyone has an opinion about food, but although we’re all entitled to our opinions, simply having a thought or opinion doesn’t automatically make you a writer or journalist. Writing and reporting are skills that are honed over time and with experience. And once someone crosses from the land of opinion into the territory of fact, he/she has a responsibility to be accurate and know what he/she is talking about. Democratization does not let you off the hook. And the reality that folks are increasingly relying on Wikipedia or web sources as their primary material (which, as a former research editor, makes me shudder) means that we all have an even greater responsibility to avoid putting out inaccurate information that will then get repeated endlessly in the online echo chamber.

Home in the Northland Fueling Growth at Gary Crossley Ford

Todd and Ryan Crossley Build on Their Father’s Legacy: Fueling Growth at Gary Crossley Ford
Home in the Northland, February/March 2012
Words: Pete Dulin | Photos: Brad Austin

Home in the Northland CrossleyBrothers Todd, 38, and Ryan, 34, have similar facial features and eyes. Physically, they maintain a muscular build from their days as athletes at Liberty High School. The brothers settled in Liberty, married their sweetheart, and are each raising a young family. As gear heads, Todd and Ryan both enjoy working on cars. The Crossley brothers share another important characteristic. They manage one of the most successful Ford dealerships in the country founded by their father Gary Crossley.

On December 23, 2011, Todd bought Gary Crossley Ford and became the dealership’s president and principal. He sold his software company to AutoTrader.com and generated the capital to buy the dealership as part of the succession plan. With Ryan serving as vice-president, the duo are poised to continue developing business growth for the 21st century and building on a rich heritage.

Plan for Succession
Originally, Gary Crossley and a business partner started the dealership in 1977 and Crossley took over operations two years later. By 1980, the patriarch became sole owner of the business formerly located in Liberty’s triangle at the intersection of Highways 152 and 291.

Moving forward, Gary Crossley Ford celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2007 and is still going strong. Six years ago, the dealership moved to its current location on North Church Road in Liberty. The dealers expanded their property from 38,000 to 70,000 square feet. The relocation and subsequent growth also led to two additions to their sprawling campus.

Gary has been semi-retired for six months, but has acted in the role of consultant to his sons during the transition. “Dad has seen everything that could go right and wrong in the business,” says Todd. “He sees the big picture.”

Growing up in the business has given the brothers a strong foundation for running the dealership. Todd and Ryan have worked in every facet from sales to service.
“I knew what I wanted to do since elementary school,” says Todd of his commitment to working at the dealership. “I worked in the shop when I was young.”

Education has complemented the Crossleys’ firsthand exposure to the business. Ryan graduated from Northwood University in Michigan with a focus on automotive marketing. Todd graduated from Missouri State University in Springfield. They later attended the National Auto Dealer Association Dealer Academy in McClain, Virginia.

“It is a big advantage to study at the Dealer Academy,” says Ryan. The Crossleys valued the practical experience of their teachers. “The instructors are successful millionaires. They had been there and done that.”

Observing how their father conducted business also delivered new insights. “Watching Dad and his circle of friends was beneficial,” says Todd. “We learned there was no ceiling and no floor to how much you can succeed or fail. There’s so much potential, but you can also make mistakes and crash and burn.”

Earlier in his career, Todd worked in sales at a dealership in Omaha, Nebraska for a year to gain experience outside of the family business. He returned to Liberty and worked as a sales manager at Gary Crossley Ford. At one point, Todd’s father made him an offer to run the service department as part of a long-range vision for his eldest son to lead the entire operation.

“I knew the business, but I was scared about the long-term decision to run the company,” says Todd, who drives a black Ford Expedition.

Knowing how to sell cars and trucks was only part of the business. Today, successful dealerships focus on a balance of customer service, servicing vehicles, and sales. Ultimately, Todd made a commitment. He says, “I slept on the decision, woke up, and never looked back.”

Todd worked for a year as service manager and two years as service director before assuming the role of general manager at the dealership. In their current executive roles the brothers shoulder major responsibilities, but are prepared to shift into the next gear.

Ready, Set, Grow
The dealership has retained a strong customer base during the recession. “We have a lot of repeat and referral business. We have Dad to thank for that,” says Todd.

However, the brothers have not waited for new business to come in the door. They have reduced advertising and marketing costs by targeted online and direct mail campaigns, attracted a wide range of customers, an improved their profitability by operating more efficiently in sales, service, financing, and administration.

The improvements have been measurable both to the bottom line and in terms of recognition. Gary Crossley Ford was ranked as a Top 1000 Ford dealer nationally at its former location. After the move to their current address, the dealership has ranked in the Top 100. In 2012, the brothers anticipate that the dealership to be ranked in the Top 50 based on car sales.

“We have been the number one dealer for new car sales among Ford stores for five years running,” touts Ryan.

Gary Crossley Ford won the prestigious Triple Crown Award from Ford Motor Company in 2010, accelerating them into the upper echelon of dealerships. Only 60 dealerships have won the award – based on units sold, customer satisfaction index, and service – over a hundred year period.

“In 2011, only 18 Ford dealers out of 3,400 won a Triple Crown Award,” says Todd, who successfully vowed to win the award at Gary Crossley Ford before his father retired. “Doing so also put us on Ford’s radar.”

Full Service
Refining their service has been a boon for growth. “We want to be a one-stop shop and take care of people,” says Todd.

Ryan concurs that there’s more to the business than selling automobiles. “We’re in the people business,” he says. “You have to treat people right.”

They put this service philosophy into practice with Quick Lane, a service department where general maintenance and repairs take three hours or less. The object is to maximize the customer experience, extend the relationship after the auto sale, and reduce operating costs.

A single representative greets the customer in a covered auto bay, registers the check-in, handles the repair, coordinates parts procurement, updates the customer, processes payment, and facilitates departure. This A-Z approach to service saves time and money for the customer and dealer and increases customer satisfaction. Quick Lane has proven so popular that the dealership has added multiple shifts to meet demand.

For more extensive repairs, the union-based service department has numerous Master Certified Technicians on staff. This level of certification is the degree equivalent of a PhD. “Eighty percent of our techs are Master Certified,” says Todd.

The dealership is also one of six Ford Reacquired Vehicle (RAV) dealers out of 3,384 Ford dealerships in the country. When Ford Motor Company reacquires a vehicle from any dealer trade, and the vehicle needs extensive work, Gary Crossley Ford is the only RAV dealer in a sixteen-state territory for those repairs.

“We can fix problems that others can’t,” says Todd. “It’s a huge pat on the back for our service guys. We’ve been a RAV dealer for three years and see up to fifteen cars per month. We have a 98% repair rate.”

That distinctive level of expertise service makes the Crossley team proud. Ford Motor Company has taken notice and used GCF as a training center. “My fix-up guys are rock stars,” says Todd.

“The service we offer to customers all goes back to the facility, training, and operations,” says Ryan, who drives a black Ford F-150 with a custom lift kit and tires.

The dealership’s body work shop houses two full-bake paint booths that can reproduce a factory-quality paint job. Servicing commercial trucks from companies such as Dean has also fueled Gary Crossley Ford’s growth and expanded their customer base. An in-store custom department caters to gear heads that want to trick out their car or truck. Whether customers want parts for their drag car, a lift kit, or a little something extra under the hood to improve speed and performance, the custom guys speak the language.

“We want to make doing business with us convenient,” says Ryan of the dealership’s well-rounded offerings. Even the little touches are important. He adds, “Buy a car from us and you get free car washes for life.”

Relating to Customers
Developing customer relations goes beyond the sale and ongoing service. Communication with customers is a central tenet of the Crossley strategy. The dealership features a dedicated custom relations center where representatives track and respond to all emails and phone calls. “Traditionally, the number one complaint about car dealerships is that no one listened to want the customer wants,” says Ryan.

For example, a potential customer wants a model in blue. The sales agent show them a car in black because it is available. The Crossleys were determined to change that approach by listening and finding solutions to meet the customer’s need.

All customer interactions are monitored to maintain quality and find room for improvement. Ryan says, “We measure our responses and follow up with customers.”

Community Partners
The Crossley family believes strongly in supporting the community in Liberty. Over the years, they have sponsored numerous football, wrestling, and soccer teams at the high school. Ryan and Todd go beyond athletics to support lesser known scholastic endeavors such as the Liberty High School robotics team. With the dealership’s financial support, the team competed successfully and advanced to national competition.

They have hosted charity events such as Jerry’s Kids and donated money to Children’s Mercy Hospital and The Dream Factory. The dealership donated $10,000 in 2011 to the latter organization.

“We like to spread out our money among different charitable organizations and causes,” says Ryan, “but the local high school and The Dream Factory is our core.”

“Dad helped out a lot of charities over the years,” says Todd. “Doing so takes time and money. You want it to benefit people. We »» donate to The Dream Factory because 100 percent of the money goes to the kids. It’s an all-volunteer organization.”

Managing one of the top dealerships in the nation is no small feat. Todd and Ryan have taken steps to best serve customers through improved service, sales, and customer relations. Building on their father’s legacy, they have shifted Gary Crossley Ford from a top sales organization to a truly full-service operation. Together, the Crossley brothers have proven to be skilled businessmen and dedicated community leaders determined to drive forward for years to come.

Source: www.homeinthenorthland.com

The Global Orphan Project

Cover Story: Mike & Beth Fox
Uplifting Spirits: The Global Orphan Project

Home in the Northland Magazine, December 2011/January 2012
Words: Pete Dulin | Photos: Contributed by The Global Orphan Project

Global Orphan ProjectSometimes, the basic needs of people separated by time, geography, and resources converge in a remarkable fashion. The story of the Global Orphan Project, based in Parkville, exemplifies how people located here and there are drawn together by a powerful connection.

In 2003, 17 orphan children from the Karen tribe reside in a refugee camp. They are a few of thousands fleeing military conflict in Burma, now Myanmar, and seeking safety over the border in Thailand. The story of how these children inspire love and benevolence begins much earlier.

It’s 1992. Mike Fox is a salesman in the propane gas industry. He starts and loses his business. His marriage fails. His life is due for a change.

In 1993, Mike meets Beth. He becomes a successful leader and minority owner in Inergy, an anchor company in the propane gas business. Beth forges a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry.

It’s 1994. Life is mercurial. Beth has a brain hemorrhage with minimal chance of survival. As she is wheeled away for brain surgery at a hospital, Mike kisses her goodbye. Time passes; the outcome uncertain. When Mike and Beth realize that the surgery has saved her life, their future will never be the same. They focus beyond the scope of their marriage and life together. An internal axis shifts, geography shrinks, the needs of 17 children will one day cross a threshold into their lives.

The Global Orphan ProjectPost-surgery, three key shifts happened in the lives of Mike and Beth. “First, our attitudes changed. All of us are terminal. We just don’t think or act like at,” says Beth Fox. “We stopped taking the precious gift of life for granted so much. We gained more urgency and fullness. Second, our financial situation significantly changed from Mike’s business life. Third, Mike’s spirit changed from the inside out. Mike surrendered his life to Christ. That process changed our hearts and changed our eyes to see. We started loving others a whole lot better.”

The Foxes understood that their transformation didn’t come from urgency or money, but from Jesus Christ. Their hearts were stirred by new purpose. They sought a chance to help others.

Back to 2003. A Filippino missionary told Mike and Beth about the opportunity to help a pastor caring for 17 Karen orphans in a Thai/Myanmar refugee camp. The couple acted and wrote a $750 check for a small shanty. A seed began to grow in Mike’s gut.

In August 2003, Mike took a leave from work, packed his bags, and traveled to South Asia with Beth’s blessing to visit those orphans. “I went to deal with something growing inside of me. I thought that we’d send some money and that would be that. Like paying a utility bill. But there was something more,” Mike says.

He kept thinking about the orphans. “I needed to go and meet those kids. To see if it was real,” he says. “I found that they were real, beautiful, and vulnerable children without parents. And there were too many others to even count in that single refugee camp. I’m not sure what surprised me more. The heartache in seeing all of those children or the joy the children in that home gave to me.”

Eventually, Beth and Mike funded a few children’s homes through money he earned in his propane gas business. In 2004, they started the family ministry C3 Missions International named after C3H8, the chemical name for propane gas. Word spread, friends began to help, churches and businesses began to sponsor entire villages, and the ministry grew.

In 2010, C3 Missions International became the Global Orphan Project. The founders wanted to shift attention away from them. “The story is this growing family of incredible people making these children their own personal priorities, and having their own lives transformed in the process,” says Mike. “People and organizations use our ministry as an outlet to do their own global orphan projects.”

Beginning with one hut in a Thai refugee camp, the ministry has impacted more than 3,500 orphans through full-time residential care, more than 6,000 children through schools, in 15 countries. “That hasn’t happened because of the Fox family,” says Beth. “It’s happened by a movement of God through caring people willing to take big risks for little kids.”

Today, the GO Project connects the philanthropic interests of people in the United States with the needs of orphans worldwide. The Fox family and other donors cover the overhead of running the nonprofit, thereby addressing concerns about public donations underwriting an organization’s administrative costs. “Instead, givers can leverage 100 percent of their generosity for the work in the field,” explains Mike. “Ordinary people can combine to make an extraordinary impact.”

For example, a family in Riss Lake used a family birthday as an opportunity to bless children via a donation. The Moyes Eye Center supported an entire village in Thailand and 100 children around the world. Liberty Christian Fellowship and numerous other churches have launched global orphan projects using a similar model.

These combined efforts help true orphans like Renise. Beth recounts her story. “Renise’s parents died. At age 14, she was working as a slave girl for a family in Port au Prince, Haiti. While fetching water one day, she was assaulted at gunpoint and impregnated. Her owners had no use for a pregnant worker. Before the 2010 earthquake, Renise’s owners turned her to the streets. Today, Renise and her healthy baby live safely and securely with one of our local church partners in Haiti. Her child started kindergarten in 2010 and remains in school today. Renise is learning how to sew. Most importantly, this child has learned the love of God for her. She has learned that she greatly matters to God, more than she ever fathomed.”

The GO Project does more than raise funds; it works by facilitating local church-based care. Local church partners are enlisted to care for children like Renise. “From infrastructure, like basic children’s homes, to planning the cost and expectations of basic care, we work with our local church partners to expand their capacity to care for kids,” says Mike.” When planning and budgeting is complete, we bring the needs to our headquarters in Parkville and present, via our network, opportunities to help.”

Funding from donors is matched to specific needs overseas. Aligning efforts with local churches that provide community services is a key factor. “We want the children to blend into their communities, and to understand that their care comes from their own people, not from a foreign organization,” says Beth. “Many of the children in care don’t even know who The Global Orphan Project is. And we like that.”

Underlying this person-to-person network is a Christ-centered orientation. “Our faith in Jesus Christ is central to our DNA,” says Mike. “Apart from Christ this never would have been started.”

Children gain access to food, shelter, clothing, and education through the assistance of the GO Project. An introduction to the redeeming hope in Christ is an even more powerful resource. “If you met Renise, knowing what she’s been through, her uplifting spirit may stun and shake you to your core – in a good way,” says Beth. “She wasn’t that way in the beginning. She gained that spirit from the relentless love of Christ, the only love big enough to overcome the unfathomable wreckage in her life.”

Thinking of the many orphans impacted by the GO Project family, Mike adds, “We no longer think that we’re here to ‘rescue’ them with our money and intellect. Children like Renise are here to rescue many of us from the shallows.”

Despite their far-reaching impact, the GO Project faces daunting challenges given their mission. “Our greatest challenge is that end-of-the-line orphan care is brutally hard,” says Mike. “Many in our world take advantage of orphans to raise money. These precious children become marketing fodder to titillate emotions for dollars. And when the money starts flowing, the kids at the end of the line, like Renise, often do not receive even the basics of care that they need. These are the hard realities of global orphan care. These are the realities we must constantly address in the process of what we do.”

“Christ’s character was to leave the ninety-nine sheep who are safe to go after the hard-to-get-at one that’s lost,” concludes Beth. “In the enormous realm of global poverty relief, we adopt that specific spirit. We want to go after the Ones. And we have found so many here in the U.S. willing to undertake this journey with us.”

To learn more about the Global Orphan Project, visit theglobalorphanproject.org or by phone at (816) 536-8333.

Bonjwing Lee, co-author of bluestem, the cookbook

Bonjwing Lee

Photo by Bonjwing Lee.

Food writer (Ulterior Epicure) and photographer Bonjwing Lee co-authored bluestem, the cookbook, with bluestem restaurant co-owners and chefs Colby and Megan Garrelts. The cookbook, published by Andrews McMeel, will be released in November 2011. Below, Lee answers questions about the development of the cookbook and his role. After the interview, look for information on upcoming events tied to the cookbook’s release.

Pete Dulin: Can you share some background on how you teamed with Colby and Megan Garrelts on the cookbook?

Bonjwing Lee: Midwest chefs (and their stories) are under-represented on America’s cookbook shelves, and so, for a few years, I had been encouraging Colby to write a bluestem cookbook.  After three years, I dropped the issue – it’s easy to underestimate just how busy chefs are (especially chefs who also own their restaurants).

Serendipitously, three months later, Colby called me. Andrews McMeel had approached him, asking him if he’d be interested in writing a cookbook. He asked me if I would write the book with him and Megan, and photograph it as well. At first, I was hesitant, unconvinced that my skills as a writer and photographer could do justice to what are essentially Colby and Megan’s life stories. But the Garreltses gave me the boost of confidence I needed. And Andrews McMeel was adventurous enough to approve me as writer and photographer.  It was one of those perfect storms that landed in my lap and from which I couldn’t simply walk away.  Of course, I said yes.

Photo by Bonjwing Lee.

Photo by Bonjwing Lee.


Pete: Was co-writing a cookbook something you wanted to do?

Bonjwing: Despite what people may think, I’ve always been a champion of Kansas City, its chefs, and its restaurant scene. I was born and raised in Kansas City, and, after a decade away for school and work, I’ve returned. I want nothing more than to see this city become a great eating town, to become a national destination for food and drink. Happily, in the past few years, I’ve seen it really burgeon and blossom. So, to have the opportunity to help tell the story of two chefs who have really changed the landscape of Kansas City’s culinary landscape was a tremendous honor. Yes, I was thrilled to work on this cookbook with Colby and Megan.


Pete: Do you have future food writing aspirations to build on your blog, past food reviews for KC Magazine, and the bluestem cookbook?

Bonjwing: My blog (Ulterior Epicure) has always been for the love of the game; nothing more. I love to eat. I love to write. And I love to photograph.  Recently, I changed careers. I left my office job as an attorney for the unscripted life of the unknown. At this time, I’m a free agent, open to what comes next. I’d love to write more. And I’ll always photograph.

This year, I’ve had some incredible opportunities in both fields. Shortly after I quit my job, I spent a month in Europe, during which I had the opportunity of photographing at the Bocuse d’Or, a prestigious culinary competition in Lyon, France. In May, photographed the James Beard Awards for All-Clad. In June, I spent a week in the Italian Alps, photographing for a friend’s company, and for Jetsetter, and more recently in Tuscany, and Honduras. In between, I took many trips, to explore the world with my camera. I’m a little sad to see 2011 end soon, as I’m sure I’ll never have another year like it. But, I’m anxious to discover the next chapter of my life, which may include more cookbooks. I’ve recently been contacted by a few chefs from around the country. Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you about one or more of them soon.


Pete: What were some of the most challenging shots to complete?

Bonjwing: Photography is a learning curve that never levels out.  The bluestem cookbook demanded a large range of photography. As you’ll see, the cookbook not only tells the story of bluestem through photos of food, but also of the restaurant, the people who work there, and the farmers and food producers who supply the restaurant with ingredients. Between farm and table, I had to stitch together a story with images, some taken in bright daylight, some taken in the sterile fluorescence of a meat locker and the restaurant’s kitchen, and others, in the darkness of night, when the restaurant is most alive. As far as food photography is concerned, the most challenging part was lighting. We decided to shoot all of the photographs with natural light.  So, on cloudy days, I had to really reach deep down for extra inspiration and ways to creatively make light “happen.”


Pete: Was there an exasperating part of the book development, editing and publishing process?

Bonjwing: I won’t speak for Colby or Megan, but for me, the process of telling the story of bluestem was a joy. Colby, Megan, and I all have very easy-going personalities, so our process was shockingly relaxed, perhaps a little too relaxed at times – it was more of a two-year play date with friends than work. That said, the process had its moments.

The hardest part, by far, was coordinating our schedules. During the year-and-half that we were writing the cookbook, I was working as a full-time attorney. Colby and Megan were working chefs, business owners, and parent to a young child (with one on the way towards the end of the writing process). We crammed the majority of our work onto the weekends and Monday nights, when the restaurant is closed. I would edit photos and recipe at night on the days in between.

Towards the end of the process, I did become slightly exasperated, but by no one’s fault but my own. My travel schedule having increased significantly after I left my job in January of this year, I found myself scurrying towards the finish line from far-flung corners of the world, sending the final parts of the manuscript, piecemeal to Colby, Megan, and our publisher when I could find Internet access. That was a little frustrating for all, and I can’t thank the Garreltses and Andrews-McMeel enough for their patience during those last, stressful weeks. Other than that, I can only say that the Garreltses; our agent, Jane Dystel; and our editor, Jean Lucas at Andrews McMeel, made the writing and editing process a sheer pleasure, truly.


Pete: Favorite recipe in the cookbook?

Bonjwing: “Sophie’s Choice” has always haunted me, and so does this question. From Colby’s half of the cookbook, the butternut squash risotto with nutmeg is one of my favorites. After we made it, Colby and I nearly ate the entire batch, spooning it directly from the pot. There were many such ugly scenes from our recipe testing session. From Megan’s half of the cookbook, I absolutely love the white coffee panna cotta with passionfruit foam. But ask me on another day, and the answers would probably change.


Pete: What inspires you to write about and photograph food?

Bonjwing: Travel. I’ve been incredibly blessed with the ability to eat the world, and I want nothing more than to share my experiences with others. It’s not so much an inspiration as it is a way of life, an outlook, really. I grew up at my grandmother’s table, which was always brimming with the flavors of China – such a dichotomy from the middle-American surroundings in which I was brought out; chopsticks and rice at home, bologna sandwiches at school. The ability to show and tell others about the wonderful foods and ways of eating of this world that I’ve experienced – that is a blessing for which I am thankful every day.


Pete: Do you cook much? Preferred type of cuisine or dish?

Bonjwing: I used to cook a lot, and I enjoy it very much when I still do. But, in the past few years, between recipe testing with Colby and Megan, and my increased travel, most of which are embarrasingly gluttonous eating trips, I barely cook at home because I’m barely at home. But when I am, I usually crave fruits and vegetables. In fact, with the exception of cheese, I’m pretty much a vegan at home. I’ll make huge salads.  I love popcorn – air-popped with no salt or butter. In the summer, I’ll often have half a watermelon for dinner; nothing else.  In the winter, it’s apples. I love apples.

Favorite cuisine?  Chinese, the kitchen of my youth and heritage, always comforts. But I love the reliability of classic French cooking – there’s a reason why, after centuries, it remains relevant. The cleanliness of the Scandinavian and Japanese flavors impress; I never tire of them.


Pete: What food writers inspire or influence you, if any?  And food photographers?

Bonjwing: I love the dry wit of Jeffrey Steingarten, the long-time food writer for Vogue Magazine. Gael Greene, the doyenne of irreverent food writing, is always a thrill to read. Ruth Riechl was born with a pen in her hand – her words flow like water. I think I devoured all three of her recent memoirs in the course of a weekend. And I love the quirky thoughts of Joseph Wechsberg, an Czech essayist and food writer from the early part of the 20th century.

As far as photography is concerned – there are too many to list. For modern photography, Vincent LaForet is a genius of a photojournalist (and also a fellow alumnus of mine). Maria Robledo did a magnificent job capturing the food of David Waltuck in the Chanterelle Cookbook. I love the saturated colors of Ditte Isager’s photographs, which capture texture and mood so well in cookbooks like John Besh’s My New Orleans cookbook, and Rene Redzepi’s noma cookbook. But I also draw a lot of inspiration from artists in other fields as well.

I love the portraits of John Singer Sargent, the magnificent line-drawings and paintings of Hans Holbein, court painter to Henry VIII of England, and the incomparable style of Diego Velázquez, court painter to Phillip IV of Spain. Most of modern art eludes me, but I do love the works of Jasper Johns, the pop art commentary of Roy Lichtenstein, the slowly vibrating vibrance of Mark Roethke’s canvases, and the unsettling vignettes in Cindy Sherman’s photographs. I was a film major in college (with a focus on screenwriting), and so I draw a lot of inspiration from the cinema as well. And books – they have taken me around the world, and to faraway places that only exist in one’s imagination.


Pete: Describe an ultimate food experience over a weekend.

Bonjwing: Recently, I took a one-month eating trip through Europe. One long weekend, I found myself alone in Monte-Carlo, with the Cote d’Azure stretching with an embarrassment of riches to both horizons. Unattached and unhitched, I zipped along that breathtaking coastline to Mirazur, a restaurant perched on a cliff just meters shy of French-Italian border. There, I had two amazing meals, with a view of the Mediterranean from my table.

Mauro Colagreco, the chef, is half Argentinian. His food focuses on the natural flavors of the sea and land around him. I had carpaccio of fish straight out of the waters outside of the restaurant’s window, a stunning cut of suckling pig with a crackling crust and polenta, and a generous slab of foie gras wearing a perfectly pressed checkered suit of grill marks.

In Nice, I had a hearty, home-style Nicard dinner, with stuffed vegetables and thick tripe stew. I sat out on the terrace at Chateau Eza on the Moyenne Corniche – a rocky rise that juts out into the sea on which is the perfectly preserved medieval town of Eze – with a breathtaking view of the French Riviera coastline below, and had a beautiful pistou soup over which was spooned an avalanche of freshly grated Parmesan.

In Monte-Carlo, I dined twice at Joel Robuchon’s two Michelin-starred restaurant in the posh Metropole Hotel. There, I had an amazing cocotte of purple artichoke hearts, lightly stewed with squid, and a rich plate of calves kidneys and sweetbreads with chanterelle, and the most incredible meat jus, sticky with collagen.

And, for one afternoon, I was the king of France, dining on that fabled marble terrace at the Hotel du Paris, Alain Ducasse’s temple of gastronomy, the Michelin three-starred Louis XV. With a view of the famous Monte-Carlo casino, the birthplace of James Bond, and the mountains and the sea beyond, I supped for five hours on sea bass with baby vegetables, tomato riso with Parmesan, pigeon with foie gras, among many other courses, all brought to my table on china gilt in gold. At the end, there was an amazing display of cheese – 60-month aged Gruyere and Comté – and a generous turn of mascarpone ice cream topped with a forest’s worth of fraises du bois. Of course, there was also Ducasse’s famous baba au rhum, with your choice of rums from a carousel of a dozen bottles. It was excess at its finest.  That was a good weekend.


Pete: Any other thoughts to share about the cookbook or working with the Garreltses?

Bonjwing: As you will read in the preface I wrote, this cookbook is not about Colby, Megan, or the food they serve, although it tells the story of both of them and tells you how to cook the food they serve. It’s about the restaurant, which exists in a specific time and place, creates a specific mood, and offers a specific experience. The cookbook is organized by season, each one spotlighting the best of what it has to offer. So the cookbook also is about a way of life, and a way of eating – eating with the seasons, while emphasizing local ingredients and supporting the community around us. Most importantly, we wanted to avoid making this cookbook too sleek or too pretty, insisting instead that it convey the approachability and ease of the Midwest, and the table that Colby and Megan have prepared there. It was very important to all of us that the reader feels comfortable picking up the book, treating it like a tool instead of an ornament, and, ultimately, cooking out of it.  We hope that we’ve accomplished that goal.

Bluestem cookbook
About bluestem: The Cookbook

A repeated nominee for the James Beard Award for “Best Chef Midwest,” chef Colby Garrelts and highly respected pastry chef Megan Garrelts offer their culinary techniques inside bluestem: The Cookbook. From Warm Eggplant Salad and Potato-Crusted Halibut with Herb Cream to delectable desserts such as Honey Custard and Peanut Butter Beignets with Concord Grape Sauce, the Garreltses showcase local, Midwestern ingredients and artisanal producers through 100 seasonally driven recipes.

Including a full-meal lineup of recipes, from amuse-bouche to dessert, bluestem offers helpful tips from a professional kitchen alongside seasonal wine notes and 100 full-color photographs that capture the simple beauty of bluestem’s composed dishes. Guided by their childhood memories and inspired by the world around them, the Garreltses offer a Midwestern sensibility inside bluestem: The Cookbook.