This website is what failure looks like.
Which is to say, after 12 years of someone paying me to review restaurants, as of January 2018, no one is doing that anymore.
I always said I didn’t know what I’d do when being a paid reviewer ended. Some part of me always thought that was a joke, and some part always knew that day would come.
In this climate, I’d be a terrible journalist to believe that any of this lasts forever. Five years ago, the Sun-Times closed down their food section and a few hours later my editor at CS Modern Luxury called me and said they were taking reviews in house as a cost-cutting move.
So, when my editor called in late December to tell me that all tronc™ food reviews would now be done at Chicago Tribune proper and no longer at Redeye, some part of me was relieved that I wouldn’t be getting a second call later that afternoon. At first, it all kind of rolled off. I’d still contribute features like this recent one at Redeye. It was all good.
But, then the self-doubt, as it does, crept in on little cat feet. Actually, I have no idea what that means, I am allergic to cats, and because I’m pretty sure they are all smarter than me, I’m scared of them.
What I really mean is self-doubt became my ride or die. I woke in the middle of the night asking myself questions with no answers. Honestly, I’d been asking these questions for twelve years, ever since I quit a good job to write full time.
In that time, I’d worked on a James Beard-award-winning cookbook for one of the greatest restaurants of all time, Alinea. I’d written for Food & Wine and Saveur. I became the Chicago Sun-Times food critic. I worked as a full-time freelancer for five years. I hung out with Ming Tsai while he filmed his TV show. I met Alton Brown. I have a signed 8″ x 10″ glossy of Rachael Ray in my office. I started my own website and did podcast interviews with amazing chefs like Michael Symon and Paul Kahan and Madhur Jaffrey before anyone even knew what a podcast was, or before Symon was an Iron Chef. They’re all archived here in case you want to laugh at me learning to produce audio. Yes, I’m humble bragging, except the part about producing audio – some of the first podcast intros sounded like me broadcasting from a foxhole. Penny Pollack and I are about to launch a new dueling critics podcast in a couple weeks that I’m very excited about.
Despite that success, no one ever hired me full time. I often told myself that it was the climate and the era. But then I also told myself that if I was really any good, I’d be doing this and I’d be making a good living at it.
Ethics are very important to me and when I didn’t have the budget to explore stuff and I was being asked to consider taking freebies or do media visits, I figured it was better to make my own money and continue to pay my way.
I now have a good (non-writing) job that I enjoy and that I’m very good at. Because of that job, I’m lucky that I don’t have to rely on my journalism income to make a living. And, despite the new ennui creeping in, that made acceptance of my current lot easier. How many times can you get let go? How many publications can you work for? It’s time to be lazy.
But, you know, when you’re lazy, you do stuff like watch the Olympics. I watched Shaun White rip his forehead open on the icy edge of a half pipe. And then he decided, even though he is wealthier than many third world nations, and the G.O.A.T at snowboarding, he’s coming back. He won the gold medal.
There are so many models of inspiration right now. Compared with the folks struggling in the #metoo and Black Lives Matter movements, or the people who have to work with Donald Trump, I am at best an entitled asshole.
So, I tried to get back in the game a little, and I restarted a project I began in 2013 when the Sun-Times and CS gigs ended: collect everything I’ve ever written in one place. At that time, Linda Adams, Mae Lopez and Molly Durham helped me capture hundreds of pieces and clips of mine that I’d fallen behind on gathering. I am grateful to them for that help.
This time I finished the job alone. And when I was done I’d found, to my surprise, that I’d written over a thousand pieces and millions of words. Most of them are here now on this site. Sadly, consuming many of the reviews is a historical exercise, as hundreds of the restaurants I reviewed, some very good, no longer exist (the restaurant game is way crueler than journalism).
I didn’t really think I’d do anything with the collection except refer to it when pitching writing opportunities. So many journalists have been let go and have threatened to do their own thing. But they often don’t, because it’s a lot of work or it can come off as a vanity project.
If I were really good, I’d review for an existing publication!
Launching my own website again (anyone remember Hungry magazine?) felt desperate. It is an act of desperation in some ways. I need writing like most humans need water. Honestly, it’s a bit of an illness. If I don’t do it for a while, I feel sad. I don’t like myself. When I do write, I get high, like I’ve sucked down a lot of Sichuan peppercorns or gone on a coke-bender. Ok, I’ve never actually done cocaine, but I think that’s right.
I need this.
While writing about food professionally, reviewing restaurants in particular, became a reality, it is also still my dream. It’s the thing that balances me out.
It’s 2018. Independent voices are no longer flailing in the wind. Mike Gebert is running a lean show at Fooditor and he’s putting out some of the best food writing, if not the best, in Chicago. Titus over at Smokin’, Chokin’ and Chowing is uncovering as much new stuff as one of my favorite writers, the Chicago Reader’s Mike Sula. The former DNAinfo refugees are about to kill it with their Phoenix act, Block Club. I hope to add to these wonderful voices.
Being an independent reviewer has its advantages. Reviewing for legacy publications comes with restrictions. Publications are businesses and for better or worse, people have very specific ideas about what makes money and what doesn’t make money. And when you think you really know what works, you may try to enforce things which often end up hurting the publication’s ability to make money.
I don’t mean to burn down corporate journalism. I am so psyched by the work the Tribune has done in the last year. The recent guide to Chinatown was magnificent. Although I kept my expenses within reason at Redeye, maybe reviews don’t have a great return on value. I appreciate that fact.
At the big publications, I’ve been very lucky to have wonderful editors. I apologize to all of them. Miriam Di Nunzio at the Sun-Times probably hated me because I’d always fight for everything. Lisa Arnett, Morgan Olsen and Lauren Chval have all been great to work with at Redeye, but I know I’ve also been a pain in the ass to them at times while defending my writing choices.
No matter how great your relationships are with your editors, legacy publications, like your cubicle farm, all have their own version of TPS reports.
I’ve always tried to call things like they are. In doing so, I’ve rankled some. More than once, I have had conversations with bosses that Billy Dec did not like what I wrote. I’d like to remind Billy that I really liked Sunda and Bottlefork, even if I don’t like everything he does. Billy, you can just call me direct now.
A few times I was asked not to mention my wife or my kids in reviews, because I wrote for a publication geared toward Millennials (because, as you know, marriage is for sucker untrustworthy old people), so I referred to my wife as my “friend’ or my “date” in pieces. I ran in to a guy I hadn’t talked to in a few years and he said, “Hey, if this is too personal, I’m sorry, but did you get divorced?”
“Your reviews have talked about dating.”
“Oh, ha ha. Yeah, about that…”
Even though I’ve had good editorial relationships, in the last few years, out of respect for those relationships, creation started with parsing my editors’ and my publications’ expectations first. This has often worked out fine. But, it also introduced self-doubt and constriction.
Can I do this?
If I do this, will I lose this gig?
Some of my bosses, and readers, have also criticized me in other consistent ways:
Get to the food sooner!
No one cares what you’re thinking!
No one wants to know the history of Stax records, or that you wrote a food review where all the headlines were Velvet Underground song titles!
And so I played it safer. My early work never had this level of doubt and that’s something I want to get back to. What I’m really doing is trying to tell a fun story, and avoid the blow-by-blow reviewing formula. Now I can. If you think I’m navel-gazing, cool. I appreciate that. I have a suggested list of reviewers I know you’ll love and I’m happy to share.
I have no delusions of fame and fortune. I would still like to review for publications out there who understand and believe in my voice. Chicago Tribune, if you’re listening, I want Phil Vettel’s spot when he decides he’s had enough (I suspect Phil has another twenty years in him – and good for him – so it’ll be a while).
It would be nice to be able to write full time someday, but, right now, at least with this site, financial considerations are last. I have put advertising on some secondary pages and maybe they’ll subsidize the annual hosting fees. I haven’t put advertising on the front page or created any click-bait popups, etc. because this site is about me just writing for the love of the game. I still have many paying outlets where I can continue to write features and do fun things.
If you’re in PR, I likely will still only reach out to you when I need a comment or a file photo. It’s nothing personal. I appreciate how hard your job is. I’m old school when it comes to avoiding influence. That being said, if you have a great idea, feel free to hit me up. You never know.
Also, you should know, there’s a good chance I won’t always write about food here. I might talk about boy bands or the Blackhawks. But that’s a thing you can do when you have your own venue. I hope you’ll enjoy it.