I'm Jess, a grad student and food photographer obsessed with chocolate. I love things made of sugar, lasers strapped to helicopters, and silly hats.
Come visit on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, for stories about food, bakeries in Seattle, and my most definitely being up to no good.
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Monthly Archives: September 2012
So there’s this awesome contest going on where Keren Brown has challenged us to ask what Foodportunity has meant or could mean to us. (If you haven’t been, go in October – it’s a blast.) As I love Foodportunity along with all the food bloggers in Seattle, it’s a great chance to gush about something in this space that I normally just gush about just on twitter, like how I normally gush about galettes and tacos here.
As I’ve got about two weeks to write, I’m going to take this theme and run with it. I mean, why should I limit it to one blog post when she has given me such a great topic for general inspiration?
(And she didn’t post any real limits. I could talk about my hatred of the SalmoFan all week, but I think you’d all want to kill me after that.)
Foodportunity starts with food, so I’ll mainly stay within that theme, from food science to food travel. I’ve had experiences with food so disastrous they still affect my eating habits, and foods that changed how I looked at myself. I’m usually as enamored with the kale chips I bake as I am with the best salted caramels, just in different ways, and I’m game for the chance to rethink all that over.
As for Foodportunity itself, I do kind of take for granted that I’m now just established enough that I can hide in my little social circle at events. I’ve learned different things and talked to different people at each event I’ve attended, and it’s a great chance to learn and grow. It’s too easy to stay in your comfort zone when there are so many food artisans in Seattle with great stories. Maybe this time I’ll take my own advice, but I’ll probably hunt down Carrie or Denise and talk about ice cream.
On Monday, I’ll start with what I feel about how Foodportunity has changed my life in the Seattle food scene, or at least attempt to write about it in a coherent manner. And every day until the contest submission deadline, I’m going to write about what I wish existed as food opportunities, or opportunities and experiences I’ve had related to food that I think are just really awesome.
Because this week for me is all about finding inspiration in the food around us and the food we wish we could have.
So this is a topic that has been a point of contention recently for some of the more well-known food writers in Seattle: whether or not to be anonymous. And it is a frustrating issue.
For Crave Local, I go to restaurant reviews, where I have the option to be anonymous, and things like restaurant openings/special events, where I basically don’t. (I also go to trade events/conferences, and those deserve their own discussion. In short: they’re hilarious and claustrophobic all in one.) I mean, I went to an event recently where the host announced that there were “a few food writers in the room” and encouraged diners to seek them out. Yes, I basically out myself the second I start talking about desserts. I’m not bothered for events like that, but the line between media and the ‘general public’ blurs more than a wee bit in these cases. I’m known, present; I’m still pretty good at blending in to the background, but not great.
In a restaurant, things get more interesting. Being anonymous for a meal means it’s the most honest feedback on service and delays between courses. I do carry a giant camera and snap a ton of pictures, but thanks to modern technology, I usually get lumped in with food tourists. (I get double-takes when I ask to take photographs, because so many people just snap away.) Being semi- or not at all anonymous serves a different purpose: trying what the chefs think is their best, or getting more information on a meal. I can also use that time to get feedback from chefs, especially if I challenged them to try something not on the menu for a separate article, or we’re really into technique. The chef’s energy can be infectious; I love it.
Also, for most of my reviews, I’ll return with a date, and see how things go. I once mentally turned a review around that was bad when I was alone on a slow night by returning with my significant other. That time, the service was stellar. I’m still not sure what happened the first time, but it was like night and day.
There is a giant exception: going to Tom Douglas restaurants. I don’t review them at this point, not for lack of love, but because I’m recognized at most of them. I do tweet them like crazy, though, so I hope it balances out.
Still, I want my reviews to be as transparent as possible. I do my best to announce if a restaurant knows I’m coming, and how much I think that impacts my meal. Because it definitely can – like going to Shiro’s, where the sushi chefs at the bar point you to the best fish, you’re getting directed more in your meal than usual. Some people appreciate that, and others want to be left alone to eat.
In my continuing quest to photograph every day, I decided to use things that grossed me out. Not actually disgusting in photographic form, mind you, just things that had recently expired or were totally chemical bombs. (My patience for gross is pretty high – ask me about my salmon surveys some time when you’re not eating.) I found some caramel blocks from a project I planned but never attempted and some Girl Scout Cookies that weren’t worth saving, and decided they would work as my models.
First, the caramel. The cubes were too tough to cut, so I melted a small handful in the microwave. Did any of you eat caramel apple dip growing up? That’s what my microwave smelled like after I was done. It was so cloyingly sweet that I’m amazed I used to love caramel dip. But that wasn’t the horrifying part – the melted caramel was the stuff of an orthodontist’s nightmare. I could practically feel my fillings ache as I tried to scrape the glob of muck off the spoons onto my cookies.
Once I made the cookie-caramel sandwich, I went upstairs to shoot, and then the began to Samoa melt from the caramel. It just reeked of fake chemical smells of my childhood, all melted artificial chocolate and high fructose corn syrup, so I took a few shots and gave up. I think I’m off processed sugar for a while.
So, on to other dumb sugar ideas.
I had this grand idea of making a ‘nice’ version of that monstrosity, with homemade caramel and shortbread and big coconut flakes. But I was out of heavy cream and craving chocolate, so I made vegan cupcakes and non-vegan frosting.
If you haven’t made vegan cupcakes before, give them a shot. I don’t make them because I’m vegan, I just like how fluffy they come out, like box cake mix without the suck. Or without having to add all sorts of fiddly bits to make it taste good. It’s a fluffy cake, you can eat the batter without fear of food poisoning, and it goes from layer cakes to cupcakes in a snap. Best thing ever.
The non-vegan frosting is pretty much a roux whiff on buttercream, because I could. I can’t frost a cupcake to save my life, so I didn’t really try all that hard.
It still smelled so much better than my childhood dreams.
I love food, food policy, food science, and all the nerdy fiddly bits for tech and photography, but I did expect there to be some annoyances. And there are – I can’t eat it all, I end up with too many samples of things, and there are now usually a few bottles of alcohol laying around destined for other people, which confuses visitors to no end. (“No, that unlabeled whisky is going to a barbecue joint.”) But none of this seems to frustrate me as much as the question “Where do you want to eat tonight?”
Growing up, especially in high school, my mother and father were rarely up for cooking, and I wasn’t trusted in the kitchen. (I’m fine with all of this except that end part.) Eating out happened a lot, and it was a strict process. First, someone would announce they didn’t want to cook at home. After it was decided that picking up something from Whole Foods or Uwajimaya was out, I would get stuck reciting the names of every restaurant I could think of within a five mile radius of the house until my family reached a consensus. All too often one person would sigh and exclaim “But I don’t want X,” and I’d wonder if we could ever actually get to dinner. We would – it just took a while. And I ate a lot of sushi.
So I’m used to answering this question, and even finding solutions for it. The problem is now that it’s a loaded question.
They mean: “I trust your judgement and I’m not feeling finicky.”
I hear: “I trust your judgement and I’m not feeling finicky. And I am totally going to mentally judge whether or not you’re worthy to be a food writer.”
I know in my heart of hearts that they’re just asking the person who eats out often for an opinion, but I still hear that. The other frustration is that, in most cases, people really do have preferences, even as simple as budget, and it’s hard to pry that information out. And my ‘to eat at’ list is usually 50+ restaurants long, ranging from food trucks to fine dining, so “just pick something off the top of your head” is also flirting with disaster.
I also have a fairly unusual set of food intolerances, like how I can’t stand the taste of a plain tomato. And I’m okay with that, but what if the person is really craving Italian? I just dislike making people unhappy with their food options. And then I’m nervously thinking out a giant list of restaurants with the asker of the question wondering why I’m thinking so hard.
When I flew in to New York City for all of two hours of free time, I hung out with some friends, the only people close enough to pick me up. We went out for dinner, and the guy of that couple is also known for knowing good spots to eat. Our conversation went as follows:
Guy: “Where do you want to eat?”
Me: “Somewhere near-ish here or my hotel, and I’m feeling up for Korean, Japanese, or French. Something on the light side?”
Guy: “We’re not in the mood for Korean, but let me see what has tables.”
If you’re really stumped on what you want to eat, that happens, and I’m absolutely fine with that. But be prepared, because the next time someone asks me that question, we’re just going on a food truck crawl.
Now that I’ve been doing this for long enough that I’m a known entity to a minor, minor extent, I’ve been noticing some really interesting trends.
The cool stuff:
There is a lot of awesome food. Really, really awesome food. And I get to photograph and/or write about it. Like that shot above? I styled it after Chef Lopez of Root dipped the quenelle in liquid nitrogen so I could safely get it to the shoot location.
The people involved in food culture are awesome. I spend a lot of time hanging out with awesome people, reading about people I wish I was as awesome as, and learning from snippets of advice from Pinterest, and Twitter. These people all deserve hugs.
Food conferences rock. They are probably the thing I look forward to the most. While you totally have to be in business mode, it’s my equivalent of being a kid in a candy store. Don’t want to eat that creme brulee? Go try some steak! And have some soup while you’re talking about shipping hassles. I would seriously love to make a contest where the winner joins me at a foodservice show and a dinner review, because it would be a blast.
The odd stuff:
Being a photographer in public is awkward. I shoot with a 100 mm macro lens, so doing a restaurant shoot is so ridiculously obvious I might as well bring Chris’s Noogler hat and write ‘FOOD WRITER’ across the beanie. (Though wrecking the Noogler hat would suck.) I try to eat dinner super early or do work midweek so I’m less annoying to other patrons, but it’s awkward.
You can’t unsee this stuff. I have learned more than I wanted to know about the shortcuts in fine dining, chicken health, and where ugly wind chimes come from. And I can’t forget it.
Acting as moderator for scientific food issues is a challenge. Yes, that’s stating the obvious, but with my background I do read journal articles on food health. It’s hard to talk about a synthesis paper on chickens and eating chicken in the same breath. It’s harder to condense it into a format that someone with a non-scientific background will appreciate.
I can’t eat it all. This is probably the worst part. Coupled with my stomach’s black hole capacity that wants to be fed at odd hours, I sometimes have to eat 1-2 hours before a review just so I’m not in pain. I’ll usually box up things and give them to homeless people if it won’t last long, or take them home as leftovers. Still, there’s this constant reminder that I shouldn’t finish that tasty cake because two are on their way.
People have no clue what I do during my day. This includes my significant other, which has led to some fun discussions about chore distribution. Just because I’m home does not mean I have more free time to wash plates.
This was not meant to just vent, more that I’m intrigued that, as time passes, it’s not what you expect in terms of work. ‘Food blogging’ is such a vague term for a wide range of activities, and I think that gets ignored in favor of people knowing what the end results will look like. It’s definitely not something everyone will enjoy, and I’m just fine with that.