December 16, 2007

Eating for a living

An interview with…

food writer
New Times Broward Palm Beach

In 1985, when she graduated from the University of Florida with a master’s degree in English – and a specialization in poetry – Gail Shepherd had one goal.

“I just wanted a job writing,” she says. Unfortunately, she got her wish.

Shepherd freelanced, starved, and was homeless for a brief time. Then she became editor of three underground magazines in Palm Beach County: Red Herring in the ’90s, Free Press at the turn of the millennium, and Closer up until a few years ago. The first two perished, Shepherd quit the third, and she starved yet again.

But Shepherd starves no longer – because in 2005, she landed a job that pays her to write and eat. A quarter-century after she graduated from UF, Shepherd was hired as the full-time food writer at the alternative weekly New Times Broward Palm Beach.

With her sister Susan, Shepherd is also co-writer of a National Public Radio serial, 11 Central Ave. It’s a five-minute “radio comic strip” that airs weekly on public radio stations around the country, including Chicago, Boston, and Miami (on WLRN 91.3-FM at 9:30 a.m. Saturdays).

“I floundered around a bit in my early years; people said I was a dilettante,” Shepherd recalls. “I probably could have cultivated more focus and ambition, but then I probably wouldn’t have stored the weird assortment of cultural information I have. That ragbag of images and memes and references has stood me well. Maybe every writer should have a little hobo in her.”

Reviewing restaurants is easy, right?

Yeah, this is the best job on the planet. You get to eat and read all day and claim to be “working.”

You do more than just review dining establishments. What are your other job responsibilities?

They sort of cobbled together a job for me at New Times. I fill in as a copyeditor when our real copyeditor and proofreader are on vacation, and I’m responsible for keeping our dining listings up to date. That means more eating, essentially, and writing brief capsules, and sort of directing a couple of people who also write Dish pieces or are otherwise engaged in fact-checking our listings.

What are some of the things you do that other journalists may not realize?

Well, I spent my first couple of years deeply engaged in research: the history and culture of cooking, manners, agriculture, biology, etc. And time reading up on ecological issues and economic markets.

I felt that I was really far behind my peers. I’d never gone to French culinary school or toured the fish stalls of Tokyo. I wasn’t even much of a home cook at the time. Since I took on this job, I’ve turned myself into a fairly decent cook with at least a preliminary understanding of food science, and when I travel, I travel to eat.

Downside to the job?

I’ve had to develop an iron stomach, because food poisoning is one of the perks of this business. So I guess unlike other journalists, I spend a lot of nights with my head over a toilet bowl. Although come to think of it, that might be pretty common among journalists...

Do you consider yourself a journalist? Do other journalists?

This is more like academic research coupled with creative writing. It’s journalism when I’m doing profiles or longer pieces, but even then, I feel like I have a lot more leeway, stylistically, than somebody covering the city beat for a daily. In that sense, I feel lucky, because I’m not particularly aggressive about getting in people’s faces. I have a lot of respect for reporters.

How exactly do you conduct restaurant reviews? So many others aren’t exactly ethical...

I try to visit a place at least twice if I have the budget. I never, ever, under any circumstances tell them that I’m coming or who I am when I’m there. That kind of behavior is not only unethical, it’s in terrible taste.

I try to keep a very low profile if possible while I’m eating — not too many questions, no fuss, no sending food back, nothing that would help them remember what I look like. I don’t take notes at the table or pictures with my cell phone. I use a fake name and borrowed credit card to pay, and I swear my dinner companions to secrecy. That means I have to pay attention, have a good memory, and call the owner or chef later to fact-check details. (Was that a corn or a flour tortilla?)

It’s unfortunate that in many of the smaller mags and shoppers, the “wall” between restaurant reviewing (editorial) and advertising doesn’t exist. I want my readers to trust that my opinion can’t be bought. This doesn’t always sit well with our advertising department, but my editors have always backed me totally.

Besides yourself, who's a good restaurant reviewer in South Florida?

I generally admire the reviews in The Miami Herald – they’re both informative and fair. I think Victoria Pesce Elliott can turn a nice phrase.

Who's the worst?

David K, who reviews for Closer. His last column, where he imagines he’s having a threesome in an Italian restaurant with his new wife and his stepdaughter, complete with creepy food/sex-mixed metaphors, was one of the most hideous pieces of food writing ever published. I read it and swore I’d lost my appetite forever. Which is an achievement in itself.

Career highlight?

Warded “Best Newspaper Restaurant Criticism” by the National Association of Food Journalists last year, although I don’t believe it’s true for a minute.

Amusing professional gaffe?

When I applied for the job at New Times, Chuck Strouse, then-editor, was waiting in his office for me with a letter I’d written to the paper about five years before. My oh-so-snarky missive took Broward New Times to task for their all-male senior staff, calling them atrocious sexist pigs or something. During my interview, I had to answer for it. Chuck wasn’t particularly amused.

Weird dues-paying story?

Being homeless for a while. Living on coffee and cigarettes. The usual stuff.

One piece of advice you wish you could surgically implant into college students and young professionals?

Listen hard to your editor and try to get everything you can from him or her. Yeah, it’s your name on the piece, but if you step back and let your editor guide you, rewrite sentences, or make you redo the whole story – no matter how much of a pain in the ass he might be – you’ll realize years later that the advice was invaluable.

The editors who drove me crazy when I was younger are the ones I ended up learning the most from. Too many young writers resist editing, fighting for every one of their oh-so-precious words – to their great detriment. Be humble. Cultivate distance from your own writing – your story is not about you.

Another piece of advice: No job is forever. Have a back-up plan.