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So What Do You Do, Alan Richman, Food Writer?

Up for three (more) James Beard Awards, Richman talks about citizen criticism, being funny in print, and what sets his writing apart from most

By Blake Gernstetter - April 28, 2010
Alan Richman's food writing career was an accident. In 1975, the then-sportswriter began moonlighting as a restaurant critic and eventually got a gig at GQ which led to his meteoric rise as the most decorated food writer in history. The "Meryl Streep" of the James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards, the GQ contributor boasts 14 wins and 29 nominations, including three this year. He's spent the last three decades traveling the globe to bring insightful, often funny and sometimes cranky, food stories to the table. Fearless in the face of Neapolitan pizza lovers yet comically threatened by a 12-year-old boy, Richman firmly believes all good food writing starts with good journalism -- the first lesson he teaches his students at the French Culinary Institute of New York.

Ahead of the 2010 James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards, Richman talks to about crafting his award-winning stories, honing his voice as a food writer, and the "disastrous" rise of citizen criticism.

Name: Alan Richman
Position: Freelance food and wine writer; Dean of Food Journalism at The French Culinary Institute in New York City
Resume: Started as a news editor at The Portland (Indiana) Commercial Review in 1967 before moving to The Philadelphia Bulletin, where he was an NBA beat writer from 1969-1974. Joined The Montreal Star as sports columnist from 1974-1977, was a sportswriter, columnist, and assistant managing editor at The Boston Globe from 1977-1979 and from 1980-1985; he worked as a Metro reporter for The New York Times in between. Was a writer-at-large for People. Has been GQ's food and wine critic since 1989.
Birthday: January 25, 1944
Hometown: Philadelphia, Pa.
Education: BA, University of Pennsylvania
Marital status: Divorced
First section of the Sunday Times: "Who can afford the New York Times anymore?"
Favorite TV show: "None whatsoever, but my last one was Buffy The Vampire Slayer (before she went to college)."
Guilty pleasure: "SyFy channel, for films such as Spring Break Shark Attack, or at least the first 15 minutes of them."
Last book read: Ian Rankin detective novel, The Naming of the Dead
Twitter handle: "What?"

You began your journalism career as a sports writer, so what made you realize you wanted to write about food?
I once had a sports editor who said I was the best sports writer he ever saw that didn't know anything about sports. And I don't think he was exactly correct. I know a lot about sports, but I wasn't immersed in just loving every detail, in the minutiae of sports the way really successful sports writers do. For a long time, for fun I did food stories. I was the sports columnist for the Montreal Star in 1975 and 1976, and at the same time under a pseudonym I was the restaurant critic for the Montreal Star. Whatever anybody asked me to do with food, I always just wrote about it, and eventually I got a break, which didn't come until around '90 or '91. That's how I became a food writer. It was by accident.

How did you hone your voice as a food writer?
I'll give you a quick story. I'd written a really good story for [GQ editor Art Cooper]. We were having a meeting and he said to me, "You know that was my idea." And I said to him, "No Art, that wasn't your idea, that was my idea, but I was your idea." Basically I had an editor who believed in me, who not only believed in me, knew what I could do and knew what he could get out of me, and also very fortuitously, what he wanted from his writers was what I could do best, but neither of us knew that when I took the job. Art Cooper was the editor who wanted voice and he wanted individuality and he wanted writers to really say what they felt like saying. He wanted me to be the voice of food, he didn't want me to interview other people and let them be the voice of food. In fact, every time I'd say something like, "Wolfgang Puck is coming to town, should I interview and ask him what he thinks about the new trends?" Art Cooper would say, "No, I want you to tell me what you think of the new trends." Voice was everything with Art.

"I'm not a foodie, but if there was such a thing as a restaurantie, I would be that."

Being funny in print is not very easy. What's your advice for infusing writing with humor?
If you're not funny you can't make it funny. [...] If you look at my stories, they're not that funny. I mean I go along writing and I just write pretty simple stuff, pretty clear plain sentences and all of a sudden I just zing one in there. You have to know when to do it and you have to know how much of it you can do and, you know, when to stop.

One of the things I tell people is write your first draft of the story as though you're writing a letter to a friend, with all kinds of casualness and all kinds of wise guy remarks. Then you have to be able to look back at it in the rewriting and say, 'Do any of these work, are any of these successful, are these jokes funny?' And then you have to learn where to put them in the joke. I mean, every joke I write in my first draft doesn't go into my story, thank God.

You've traveled the globe; I know you've been a million places with a fork in one hand and a pen in the other. Which of those is your most memorable experience?
I still love restaurants more than anything. I think I love restaurants more than I love food. Because restaurants have everything in them: They have the people, they have the food, they have the wine, they have the experience, they have the possibility of enjoying yourself with the person across the table from you. I'm not a foodie, but if there was such a thing as a restaurantie, I would be that.

Every great restaurant experience to me is my favorite thing I've ever done, if that makes any sense. And it never stops. If it happens today, I'm just as happy as I was 30 or 40 years ago.

"The one way in which my restaurant reviews differ from others is I try to do storytelling more than most people."

How do you begin crafting a story around a dining experience?
I have two things in mind when I do a review. Number one, I want to say something really interesting about the restaurant. I want to make the experience I had there, at least I'm trying to do this, something that the reader can enjoy reading, because restaurant reviewing is really about taking the person into the restaurant with you and having them either enjoy or hate the experience as you have enjoyed or hated the experience.

The second thing I try to do is somewhere in that story give some sort of indication in my opinion what this restaurant is all about. Give some sort of feeling that this is the essence of this restaurant, this is what this restaurant is trying to do and whether they're doing it successfully or not. I think the one way in which my restaurant reviews differ from others is I try to do storytelling more than most people.

One of your nominated stories is the profile of David Fishman who's the 12-year-old NYC restaurant critic. He had such a blitz of media attention, and he was on the Today show. What about your approach to the story with David made it unique?
We were alerted to that by a little item in the Times. And in fact it wasn't my idea, it was Jim Nelson, who's now the editor-in-chief of GQ. I of course immediately jumped on it; I thought it was a brilliant idea because it was fun. I enjoyed every moment of it. I mean, I didn't know exactly what he was going to be like. Who knows what a 12-year-old kid's going to be like? But if you read the lead of the story, I met him, we had a meal together and he said something so brilliant about one of the dishes we were eating, and it just hit me right away what this story was going to be. It was going to be me against him, mano-a-mano, and that's what it was, seeing who's the better critic, me or him? Let me tell you something about this kid, I don't know if he's a great critic, but he's probably the greatest natural journalist I've ever run across. I never saw a kid who knew everything to do right about journalism in my life. I mean he was right, he was dead on.

Now you're the dean of food journalism at the French Culinary Institute.
I love teaching. I mean I'm always amazed there are still people who have enough faith in journalism that they think they can make a living at it that will come to this class. It gives me hope.

What kind of advice are you going to give them when they ask about finding a job in food writing?
I just can't give them advice on something like that. I basically say to them, get experience, take any job you can get, write, just make sure you write, make sure you work hard and hope that you have a spouse who's making a lot of money to keep you going until you get your break, because there is no secrets of how to get work. No, there's plenty of work. There's no secrets on how to get paying work in journalism any more. It's really not easy. Everybody can write, there's more writing opportunities than there ever has been. There's just not a lot of paying writing opportunities.

Social media is very popular now and it seems like everybody can be a "critic." Do you think that citizen criticism has the potential to make full-time critics obsolete?
I think it's of course disastrous. It's like asking your neighbor whether or not you need penicillin for a cold.

You've been called the Indiana Jones of food writing.
The greatest compliment of my life.

Well Indiana had his fedora -- what's your signature?
My signature is I carry a purse, of course. You know I was the original metrosexual. I was carrying a handbag in the early '70s because I could put notebooks in it. The reason you always carry the bag when you became a restaurant critic was to steal menus. But I've only been caught twice stealing a menu in my life, so that's pretty good, isn't it?

Blake Gernstetter is's associate editor.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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