6 Tips for Living the Creative Life

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!
I apologize about the lack of a blog this past Sunday- with the oncoming holiday and big shuffles in the professional and personal worlds, I needed to step back for a bit and address some other stuff.

It’s hard to decide what I dislike more- days when I don’t write, or days when I don’t feel like I write enough/ well.

In the end, no matter what it is or how much, the important thing is doing it- whatever you do.

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Picking Your Battles, and the Art of Not Giving a S***

Good morning, friends and neighbors.
I am only 32 years old, and I feel exhausted.

In the never-ending, headlong rush for security, safety, and making everything “okay,” I have a tendency to take on a lot.
Why not, right? I’m technically young. I have a strong body with no apparent disabilities, I’m intelligent and I’m able to plan.
I even have something of a way with words, apparently.

When it comes to saving the world and making it better, why SHOULDN’T I take on a bit more than others?

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“Vox Populi, Vox Dei”- Yelp and the Future of Food Writing

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

I like going out to eat as much as the next guy. I make my decisions on a bunch of criteria-

  • What am I tasting?
  • Price point
  • Locality
  • Did I discover it and it looks interesting/ did a friend suggest it personally?

You will notice something missing on that list- I don’t really give a crap about internet reviews.

Broken iPhone

from pexels.com

I don’t have a Yelp account, and I really don’t care to get one.
I have multiple friends who are business owners, restaurateurs, chefs, and cooks who do. They pay attention to the reviews they receive for their workplaces/ properties.

Like it or not, Yelp IS a powerful organ in the culinary world, and I’ve seen my friends react with disappointment, wrath, and sardonic wit at negative reviews in roughly equal measure:

“SunshineLadyXOXO, I’m so sorry you had a terrible time at our bar. I’ve spoken to the bartender after you and your equally-drunk friends failed at seducing/threatening him to get you free drinks. Please understand we DID have to charge you for the chair you broke when you attempted to storm out. “

The truth is, however, that most people trust online reviews as much as they trust their friends. You can ignore them or indulge them at your peril.

How did we get to this point, however? How could restaurants suddenly rise and fall on the anonymous words of customers with an ax to grind?

To my way of thinking, there are at least three roots:

  1. The Democratization of Food Writing
  2. The Replacing of Expertise for Opinion
  3. The All-Powerful Platform of the Internet

Food Writing Belongs(?) To Everyone

Audience of people

Photo by John-Mark Smith from Pexels

Food and foodways DO belong to everyone.
Cultures- national, geographical, local even to city limits- decide what foods stick around, and which join the endless graveyard of failed concepts and “sounded good at the times.”

Food WRITING, however, had previously been the purview of a few. Where else could we get the food columnist from?
The food critic in your local newspaper?
Books upon books written by chefs, culinarians, gastronomes, and other professionally-hungry types to feed our cravings for opinion?

These are people who are PAID to be tastemakers- those who use their experience and evaluations to tell us WHAT is good right now. They use connections in the food world and their own practiced palates to say who the up-and-comers are, what the next big thing is- or in the most wonderful cases, simply who’s got the best steak sandwich in town this year.

Food writing isn’t simply criticism either. It’s also using pen and ink to engage our imaginations AND appetites. It can be decrying the latest trend of activated charcoal desserts,

(I had to look that up. It’s real. Don’t weep for me- I do this gladly for you)

or it can be extolling the virtues of a perfect bowl of tagliatelli Cacio e pepe
(which I understand can only be found in Rome, and anything else blasphemy.)

Jonathan Gold, James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, Mark Bittman- anyone who ever set pen to paper to fire the palate is part of this camp. People who know food and love it so much, they HAVE to tell you about it.

With the omnipresence of food entertainment, however, this knowledge has been democratized as never before. If you have a Netflix account, you can watch all the seasons of “Chef’s Table.” Watch “The Great British Bake-Off” enough times, and you’ll KNOW what makes a proper Baked Alaska.

Is it the same as being a chef? Or a cook? Or running your own restaurant?
Absolutely not… but no one asked, of course.

Opinion ≥ Expertise

A young woman listening to two other women talking

Photo by Tim Gouw from Pexels

With near-instant access to all this knowledge, what DOES separate the common man from the expert?

What SHOULD separate them?

With the democratization of food knowledge, comes a sudden consciousness of elitism.
What do these rich pricks in their ivory towers know about food that’s better than me? They’re not down here, are they? I don’t need some Michelin or Zagat shmuck to tell me who’s got the best burger- I KNOW, because I EAT THEM. DAILY.”

If we’re going to be totally honest… that’s not wrong either.

Now, it IS a problem when we wade into the waters of public health or climate science, for example. As much as I love food, the stakes aren’t nearly so high as all that. While there is science and objective fact to those things… what’s the metric of how to measure the best burrito truck?

(Still Saint Burrito on SE Ankeny in Portland, by the way.)

What Yelp has going for it that the food columnists, writers- “tasting experts” let’s say- don’t is that the people who read those reviews know that they came from people LIKE THEM. Average Joe’s on the street, as likely as not to come from the same socioeconomic background, work a similar-level job, and have a generally similar life.

Those kinds of things DO affect your opinions of what makes “quality” food. Average Joe doesn’t care so much about Nomad here in PDX, or Le Bernardin in New York City beyond the famous names associated with them- unless they are a diehard foodie, they are NOT likely to get a seat there.

Why should they care how amazing Eric Ripert’s hamachi is… they’re never going to eat it.

But they have VERY strong opinions on the places they do- diners, sandwich shops, and hot dog carts- and they are much more likely to value the words of someone who THEY think actually eats that stuff on a regular basis. Someone like them.

They have opinions. Those opinions weigh us much to them as the critics do.

Handing over the Megaphone

The title of this post is Latin, and it translates as “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” In television journalism, “vox pops” was often used as a stand-in for investigative journalism and was often time-filler that seemed useful- a reporter going out to ask “the man on the street” how he felt about (insert current news story.)

As anyone who has spent ANY time on the internet knows now, people like to get rowdy on Facebook and Twitter.
The pseudo-anonymity, the impunity from immediate physical consequences, and the ability to dissociate let folks give vent to some pretty heinous attitudes, values, and more, and broadcast them to a wider audience than ever before.

Putting all this together:
A little bit of food knowledge
+ valuation of popular opinion over “elitist” experience
+ technology to broadcast one’s opinions
+ immunity from direct consequences and shield of anonymity

​= Yelp.

This is Yelp’s formula. It is also their strength… and it is why it’s never going to go away.
Things like Michelin stars and Zagat ratings are only appealing anymore to foodies, chefs/restauranteurs, people IN the industry, and the people wealthy enough to get a table somewhere that’s gotten such a write-up.
They are NOT a majority… and they are not likely the average cook’s customer base.​

Your customer base relies on Google reviews and Yelp.

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

The Future of Food Writing

None of this means that food writing is going to go away. People who love food will always love to read about it.

Food criticism, on the other hand- the paid-for and published kind- WILL have to change… by becoming more entertaining.

If you’ve had a chance to poke around my blog, you’ll notice that I too do occasional restaurant reviews for local places. I have pretty strict rules in place for how and what I do with them:

  • No entirely negative reviews. EVER.
  • I always pay full cost for food, plus tip. I forbid discounts or comps.
  • It must be someplace I would recommend to friends.

You might also notice, though, that my writing style for those reviews is different. I firmly believe that dining and restaurant-going is an interactive storytelling experience. Therefore, my reviews use the restaurant and the specifics of it as background and color- the main attraction is “Here is the story of my night out at ____.”

Without lending too much ego to it, I truly believe that future foodwriters will need to embrace storytelling structures as much as reporting. Food criticism will have to ENTERTAIN as much as it educates- or else people won’t care.

They’ll continue to go to Yelp to get a feel for a restaurant… but Yelp can’t always provide a STORY.

Picture

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Summing it up…

Yelp is not going away. You may like it or hate it, personally or professionally, but it still holds tremendous power that it came by honestly.
Chefs and owners will have to continue soaking up the rejection of mouthy fools that think they know more than they do. Handling social media is part of the gig- it’s part of the new world we find ourselves in.

The old tastemakers- the food critics and food writers- will have to evolve to be entertainers as much as reporters on current trends.

The Voice of the People may be the Voice of God… but God never told a great story of a dinner out with his wife.

What do you all think? Are you Yelpers? Do you still read newspaper food critics? Who are your favorite food writers? Let me know in the comments!

Stay Classy,

Origins

 Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!

Today is gonna be a little different, and it’s gonna be a long one- because it’s going to be my story.

I tend to drop a lot of little tidbits about my life and experience throughout the blog, especially as the subject matter calls for. It makes a good story- good stories are easier to remember, and that’s why the lessons in them stick.

It’s why I love stories. It’s why I memorize them, and retell them, and share my own- because knowledge is something that, so long as you remember it, can never be taken from you.

Words have power. Stories magnify that power.

Here’s mine:

A Love Of Letters

Picture

 My love of words and stories began very young. Both of my parents were avid readers, as were my sisters, of whom I’m the middle child. My dad once told me about the semester of college where he read the entirety of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit cover-to-cover in the space of a few months… and consequently nearly flunked out. When my little sister was in high school, my mother got a degree in Library Science and became a children’s librarian.

Seriously, read for yourself, and read to your kids. It will do them (and you) no end of good. You always have time.

My first books were Dr. Suess and a series of abridged, slightly sanitized renditions of classic literature called the “Great Illustrated Classics.” A few of my favorites were “Treasure Island,” “Around the World in 80 Days,” “The Count of Monte Cristo”, and other high adventure, swashbuckling stories.
I got picked on a lot in school, of course- I was heavyset, had glasses, braces, and a speech impediment. Stories took me out of that world, and put me in new ones. It wasn’t long before I decided to start trying to create a few of my own.

After all, pens don’t stutter.

By the time I was in high school I was writing short fiction stories, but mostly poetry. In high school, I had a number of English teachers, but the best was a man by the name of Peter Murphy. He pulled no punches when it came to our work, and would give us strict rules to follow:

Tell a secret.”
“Tell a lie.”
“Pretend you have to pay your reader a quarter for every word you write.”
“If a word feels useless, it is. Get rid of it.”

 


I remember one particular class where we were going over the work of an older poet whose name I’ve forgotten. All I remember is that the rest of the class, when asked, praised the work and discussed what they liked about it- and to me it all felt utterly flacid. It was not compelling or enjoyable, it sounded like it was written by a stereotypical pre-teen going through a phase.

When my turn came to speak, I said so. “What the hell are you all reading? This is absolute garbage. If this shit can get published, anyone can.” The class argued, howled, and waved it off until the bell rang. As I packed up to leave, Mr. Murphy called me to his desk. “Great… here it comes.” I thought.

Mr. Murphy looked at me a moment, then got up and opened up his lunchbox. He took out a box of apple juice and handed it to me.

You’re too young for me to buy you a drink, Matt. Good work.”

Words have power. When you write, when you speak, and when you read, you interact with that power. Literacy is a way of watching that power work. You can pick words that seem to mean the same thing, but conjure up different imagery. Reading a news article, you can get past “the story” and find the story that the writer is trying to tell- or convince you of.

Words reveal intention.
Words reveal agenda.
Words build your reality, based on who is telling the story.

They inspire, they hurt, they rally, and they poison.

Fun facts: The famous “magic” word “Abracadabra” is supposedly derived from a Hebrew phrase meaning “I create what I speak,” and numerous faiths have beliefs or superstitions involving the power of one’s name, varying from the ability to curse a person, control them, or render them immortal.

Really makes you think a bit when someone gets your name wrong at the coffee shop, doesn’t it?

A Love Of Food

 I was always a pretty fat kid.

Besides being bookish, my family were always gourmands. Regular family dinner was a thing, and entertaining at the house was always an occasion. My mother did her best to get us to eat healthier- she was always conscious of that sort of thing, and my father loved grilling and stick-to-your-ribs, meat-and-potatoes classics.
They were members of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, as my grandfather had been, and enjoyed going out to eat as much as they cooked. Holidays and special occasions centered on it, particularly around my grandmother’s giant dining room table.

Food for me was therefore always a source of comfort. It meant home, family, and warm fuzzies. A bookish, bullied kid that didn’t get out much and needed a lot of comfort? That’s a classic recipe for an overweight kid.

Similarly, surrounded as I was by such a love of food, I was bound to pick cooking up myself. Whether it was learning how to make a perfectly fluffy microwave egg from my dad (the trick was melting the butter in the bowl first. Cracking the cold eggs directly in hardened the butter, careful whisking meant the bowl would stay non-stick), or my very first time baking, making hamantaschen with my mother at 6 years old, the kitchen just always felt like the most comfortable place to be. Years later, I’d be talking with my friend Karen in the casino bakeshop after a frustrating morning.

I like the kitchen because, unlike other places, everything in the kitchen makes sense. Everything has a use, there’s rules to follow, and a list of tasks every day. You do your job, you do it right, and follow the rules, you ‘win.’”

Over my life, my relationship with food changed as I did- especially in terms of my age, my tastes, and my health. In the quest to lose weight, I found that I no longer craved the saccharine-sweet things I used to enjoy without thinking. I wanted things fresh and green more, rather than slipped into a sandwich somewhere beneath a pile of meat and cheese.
One friend of mine even commented that, prior to me losing weight, he hated my baking because it was too sweet to even be enjoyable. Now that my tastes had changed, everything I made was so much better and much more natural.

the author holding a plate of passover cookies

Apparently this was a picture that got my future wife’s attention. Behold the power of a trim, healthy man with cookies.

I became more selective about the food I ate as well- if I was going to have to exercise later, I wasn’t going to waste that effort on mediocre crap. I was going to eat the food I LOVED, and that tasted REALLY FREAKING GOOD. As the old Yiddish saying says, “If you’re going to eat pork, eat the really expensive kind and get it all over your beard.” Unfortunately, “food guilt” and “food regret” also tended to run in my family. It took a full-on lifestyle shift to break it, but it happened.

My attending culinary school happened as a natural extension of all this too- feeding the people on my rescue squad, the support of others, and the right words at the right time. Sometimes that’s all you need to make a big decision seem simple.

Food is just food, and it’s also never just food.
It is sustenance, and it is history.
If the saying is “you are what you eat,” then the inverse is true too- “You eat what you are.”

When we cook, a part of us always slips into what we are making- even if it’s not our recipe.

Food is communication, and cooking is one more way we tell our story.

A Love of Service

There’s no glossing over this one, and no real way to make it sound less cheesy or sappy. I’ve tried. So here’s the truth of it-

I love helping other people.

I insist that it is possible to enjoy being of service without be servile or abasing oneself. When I was growing up, I was in the Boy Scouts. They have caught quite a bit of flack in recent years- and some of it rightly so in my opinion- but the basis of the program as communicated in the Scout Oath and Law is something that I think should be available to everyone.

 “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my Country, to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, and to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” – The Scout Oath

“A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.” -The Scout Law

​I do believe that serving and helping others IS humbling, but perhaps not in the way most people think. It is humbling in that, by recognizing others, you recognize your own smallness in the world- and if you do it right, your own greatness. By keeping your eyes and ears open, you can see just how much impact a simple act of kindness and service can have.

All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.

If you want to govern the people,
you must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn how to follow them.

The Master is above the people,
and no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
and no one feels manipulated.
The whole world is grateful to her.
Because she competes with no one,
no one can compete with her.”
Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching, Ch. 66” trans. Stephen Mitchell

Eventually, even if you accomplish every single goal you set for yourself and achieve all your hopes and desires- you will always need something greater to aspire to, or to be apart of. If working in kitchens, feeding others, and helping out others has taught me anything, it is that achieving my goals and helping others is not mutually exclusive.
By recognizing yourself as part of the world, you join with it, aid it, and become attached to something even greater. “No man is an island,” as the poem says- imagine being able to see yourself as part of all the islands scattered in the sea. No less unique or important, but part of something greater.

So, Why Did I Write All This?

Picture

​A number of reasons really. It could have just been storytime in my head, or I might have just wanted to get this all straight for myself.

Really though, I think I wanted to set out my thesis and mission for why I write this blog.

In a lot of ways, this blog is a combination of three things I love- Cooking, Writing, and Service. Cooking and Writing are rather obvious- I DO write primarily about food, cooking, and the culinary life.

That last one, however- Service- is what really gives this blog meaning, and why I keep writing it.
Since I started writing and trying to document my thoughts and ideas about living the life of a professional cook, I knew I was wandering through very well-explored territory. There is no shortage of books that discuss the life I live or why from a number of different points of view. All the same, however, I felt that I could offer something a little different and hopefully useful.

See, most of the writers who discuss their lives in the kitchen that I’ve read give it an air of “noble toil” and “a labor of love.” Some, including a few of my heroes, point to a life of failed relationships, substance abuse, or other unhealthy habits as “sacrifice” and “the price of doing what you love.”

I say, “BULLSHIT.”

I think it is possible to have a happy and successful life in the kitchen without giving way to poor health and bad behavior. I think it’s possible to treasure your relationship with food without letting it dominate every part of your world.
I’m determined to be proof-positive, to document that proof here, and to find other like-minded culinarians who feel the same.

The ones who want the macho, scar-comparing, bro culture to die.
The ones who treasure themselves and other cooks as artists and athletes in service to the greater world.
The ones who know that pushing our field forward involves keeping our eyes on the present, and learning from the past.

For those culinarians and professionals out there, I want them to know that they aren’t alone, and it’s not impossible.

For just the casual readers and food-lovers out there, I want to share a new world with them. The kind they might not get elsewhere, especially not from television shows and movies that present the professional kitchen as a hellscape. I want them to hear the stories of the people who serve them. I want to change and improve their relationship with food, with dining, and with themselves.
I want them to see that there is something to this work that can improve their own lives.

That’s what this blog is for- to tell that story.

It’s a good thing I’m a storyteller.

I’ve got some crazy shit to tell you.

Stay Classy,


Making Yourself A Priority

Good evening, friends and neighbors! I apologize for the silence on here as of late, and for the lightness of this evening’s post.

Over the last two weeks or so, I’ve been reorganizing and tidying up this blog, and it’s kinda gotten in the way of researching and writing. Between that and working on the upcoming book, most of my creative energies have been pulled away.

The good news, however, is that not only will this blog be a bit easier and more enjoyable to read, it will also be better to write. Here’s why:

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To Be Of Service

 Good morning, friends and neighbors!

The night before last, I had discovered Overdrive and Libby– apps for Kindle/iPad/etc that let you borrow ebooks and audiobooks from any library you have a library card for, and download them straight to your device.
So after running through the catalog like a kid in a candy store, I decided to go ahead and borrow a recipe book by a famous pastry chef I’d never heard of. If that sounds odd in your head, don’t worry- there’s a lot of famous people you’ve never heard of.

I honestly do like a good, well-written, lovingly photographed or illustrated cookbook. One thing that does sometimes happen, though- and this is no one’s fault but my own- is that really beautiful work and food can make me utterly depressed.

Picture of a road in a forest. Text reads,

From TheNakedMystic.com

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F***ing Up With Style

Good morning, friends and neighbors!

In sounds cheesy and ridiculous, but up on the wall behind my desk at home- the one I’m sitting at right now, in the shade of Miss Cleo’s cat tree- is a sectioned pegboard.

I don’t use it to organize my day- I have apps and reminders for that. Nor is it a “visionboard”- something where you tack up all the things you dream of one day making a reality. A neat idea, to be sure- but it feels a little hollow.

Instead, I have it sectioned in four. The first is called “Good Vibes.” It’s got memories of things that- duh- make me feel good. Mostly it’s reminders of cool moments in my life- the menu from my first Chaine dinner, a thank-you note from one of my patients back when I was a nurse, letters from distant friends.

The second is “VICTORY!” This is my “trophy” wall, so to speak. It’s got the menu where I was first called “Chef Matt Strenger” over the desserts I served. It’s got my tags from runs I’ve done, and the program from my graduation from culinary school.

The third is “Inspiration.” Mostly it’s poems I like- especially “Invictus” by William E. Henley, and “Air and light and time and space” by Charles Bukowski (as much of an admonishment to me as anything- I think ALL creative-types should have that up in their workspace somewhere.) There’s a couple things about Tony on there too, of course.

The last is called “Failures.” Don’t be surprised- Stephen King used to collect all of this rejection letters from publishers. Michael Faraday used to do same thing with failed experiments, a reminder of the lesson he learned and to stay humble. It could probably have more on it- the sad thing is that most of my rejections came in the form of “form” letters… so less-than-rife with feedback.

In fact, there’s only one thing up on that board right now. I make sure it’s completely visible at all times. It’s a black-and-silver debit card- thoroughly magnetized and wiped, for a closed account, and with the thumbtack pounded right through the strip to be sure.
It reads “Black Hat Baker, LLC.”

Here’s a story about how to dream, fall short, f*** up, and work with what’s left.

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