Know Your Audience

know your audience
I had the good fortune of meeting an anonymous reader the other day. And not just any anonymous reader. A former anonymous reader.

It was late. I had put in a full shift behind the bar on a busy Friday night. It was nearly midnight when a woman in a wrinkled shirt and skull cap purposefully flopped onto a stool at my bar. Her posturing—the way she knowingly observed the closing servers as they criss-crossed the dining room and finished up odd bits of busywork—indicated that she was waiting for someone on staff.

That someone it turns out, was her girlfriend, my co-worker. The two of us were introduced as we counted money and processed the end of the night paperwork. The woman (I’ll call her “G”) made friendly banter until, just a few minutes into getting to know each other, she stunned me with a statement I wasn’t expecting.

“I used to read your blog,” she said. Her girlfriend shot G a look that almost looked like a wince.

“But then I stopped. It pissed me off too much.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Upon seeing the stunned look on my face G added, conciliatorily, “It wasn’t just you. Your blog was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

I was taken aback and simultaneously delighted. How often do moments like this—a midnight meeting between an isolated writer and an anonymous, angry reader—occur? In this writer’s life, never. I pushed for more information. What had I written that really pushed G over the edge?

“With foodies, they think that just because they know one thing, they know everything,” G said. “Just because you’ve tasted one cabrales doesn’t mean you’re an expert on blue cheese.”

I couldn’t agree more. It must be maddening to be a chef living in a world where–thanks to pop culture, food TV, online food forums, blogs, and (dying) food magazines—almost every diner believes that they are some kind of expert on food. Just because you were brought up on thick pan pizza and pasta sauce out of a jar does not mean you are an expert on Italian food. There really is only so much a professional chef can take.

plating

For the simple fact I had a food blog, referred to myself as a foodie, and wrote frequently about the things I learned, G saw me as the enemy. “Supposed ‘foodies’ that act like experts and tell people what to think or cook,” G continued, “it’s just ridiculous. How is it that someone that’s never worked in a kitchen professionally could assume to be an expert in the world of food?”

I nodded my head in agreement. It’s true. A person can’t be an expert at something they have never, in fact, done. A mathematician must be nimble with numbers. A dancer must have rhythm and hard-earned technique to dance. A baseball player must have years of practice to be professional. G argued that in the world of food, the spectators (the diners) are not experts. The chefs are. I listened with interest as G riffed on her frustrations. Surely a true food expert must be able to cook or grow the food in order to truly know it. What irked G more than anything were the so-called foodies that could barely muster a boiled egg in their own home kitchen yet feel still feel confident enough to describe themselves as aficionados on food.

“I stuck up for you,” her girlfriend said. “I told her you weren’t claiming to be an expert. I knew you were trying to tell a story about what it’s like to be in restaurants.”

Michigan Trip

Ah… Now I understood. G had placed me and my blog into one big annoying group of those people.. I was one of those annoying foodies. In one fell swoop, G had me in the same pool of people that ask for certain vegetables—even when they’re out of season—because the just read about it in a food magazine; that say they know wine yet only drink one varietal from one particular region because it is the only grape ‘worth drinking’; and the very same group that find pleasure in trashing a restaurant online (Yelp, especially) just because they deem themselves experts on that certain kind of food.

Not to say I don’t have my faults. I do. But my entire blog, I argued, was built around the idea that I was a student of the food arts. Not an expert. I explained to G–quite passionately, I must admit–that Food Woolf was never meant to be a soap box platform for a big idea or specific culinary point of view.

Food Woolf was begun as a way to celebrate the inspiring things I learned while working in restaurants. It was started as a creative outlet to a shadow side of myself that secretly enjoyed giving great service and turning hungry diners onto something truly delicious. In the past I may have pretended that my restaurant work was solely something that paid the bills, but once I started my blog I was able to be more open about my appreciation for the culinary craft. I started my blog to begin a conversation about food.

And here, at last, I had a conversation with a stranger. One that I never expected.

Thank you G, for giving me the opportunity to find out why you stopped reading. Hearing your point of view was enlightening. Energizing. Exciting. I agree with everything you had to say. Chefs do deserve tons of respect. Though I may write about food, I am but an eager student of the craft. And more than anything, G, I am a true admirer of food professionals like you that dedicate their lives to the craft of creating a great meal.

Though I may have lost you as a reader, G, I do appreciate all that you have to say. Thank you for the reminder of what this food blog is. And maybe, some day when you’re not sick of the word “foodie” you’ll come back and read a little.

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Brooke Burton nominated for best food writing

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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.

4 Comments

  1. October 11
    Reply

    “But my entire blog, I argued, was built around the idea that I was a student of the food arts…”

    (I love what you wrote and I love your blog!)

    Cheers!

  2. October 11
    Reply

    this is something I have thought quite a bit about. the mathematician must know numbers and his critiques do as well, but he is not in the math for an audience, his work is not service oriented. The dancer, artist and chef are. Their products are for an audience. And writer also for that matter. And, for these people to really succeed they have to accept the non-trained as part of their audience and they must also accept these will be at times a critical audience. A chef once said to me he likes a foodie as a client b/c they will pay for better food. nice post

  3. October 11
    Reply

    There’s no reason to acquiesce to G’s kvetching. The argument that a diner ought to conceal her opinion and yield to some expert chef who may not be questioned is preposterous. As the Duke said: if it sounds good, it is good. The proposition’s logical corollary rings equally true.

  4. October 11
    Reply

    Well, I hope G returns after seeing this post. It was very enlightening, spot-on, and well-written.

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