I’ve been reflecting on my time at the International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle this past weekend. Flying home on the redeye on Sunday evening, my mind was buzzing and full of ideas gleaned from both the sessions I attended as well as from simply chatting with other bloggers. But where to begin?
Why with a coffee, of course! From Dr. Nathan Myhrvold’s presentation on “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking”
Those of you following the #IFBC hashtag on Twitter might have had the impression that it was one giant eating and drinking fest. There was most certainly a party atmosphere…
I can’t think of a better place to hold a food blogging conference than at Theo Chocolate
Food bloggers get possessive over their beers!
What’s a party without cake?
Salty Seattle was dressed to kill for the party!
So yes, a very good time was had by all but it wasn’t all food and drink… But how to encapsulate it all?
Already across the blogosphere, I see posts popping up. Beautifully written pieces like this one from Merry Jennifer, a bloggger I was thrilled to connect with in real life after becoming friends online. This one from Jen who I applaud for her honesty. And this one by Dianne Jacob, a writer I have long admired, who I also had the thrill of meeting, eloquently and succinctly outlining a much-discussed topic at the conference, that of giving one’s work away for free. And countless others. And I wonder what can I possibly add to the discussion?
Yes it was a weekend of partying but we worked hard too!
During the weekend, I tweeted a lot of the gems of knowledge being shared by professionals like Dianne, Kathleen Flinn, Penny de Los Santos and Molly Wizenberg but when I look back over my notes there are a couple of things that really stand out that were reiterated across many different sessions.
1. Do what you love to do.
2. Practice and work hard at your craft – whether it’s writing or photography or both.
3. Be yourself.
Number 3 resonated particularly with me with regards to my writing. I remember when I first started my blog, I tried so hard to be un-opinionated and not offend anyone that my dad (former journalist and best editor ever) emailed me to say he thought I was doing a good job but where was Mardi, the sometimes-prone-to-massive-exaggeration and highly opinionated daughter he raised? Slowly, over the past 15 months, I have started to find my voice. We’re definitely not there yet, but on the right track. So when Kathleen Flinn asked us to describe a lemon with all five senses in her session, I panicked. Flowery, descriptive prose is simply not my style (in case you hadn’t noticed).
Kathleen Flinn and the infamous lemon
Bloggers are a competitive bunch (to say the least) and hearing people try to out-write each other made me wonder whether this was right for me. All the fancy, poetic prose flowing freely from their pens was just not me, nor the way I write. And I had to step back and remind myself that Flinn was simply asking us to consider different ways of looking at food and ingredients so that we’re not always using the same words and adjectives. A useful exercise to go back to every now and then to keep your mind fresh. But above all, be yourself. Find your writing voice, practice. In her session, Molly Wizenberg advised us to write a little every day, even when we didn’t feel like it. Because the more you write, the more second nature it will become and your true voice will emerge. Flowery and poetic … or not!
Awe-inspiring photography in Dr. Nathan Myhrvold’s book:”Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking”
The session on photography with Penny de Los Santos was one I had been especially looking forward to and it did not disappoint. Unless you have ever been in a room full of 250 food bloggers equipped with access to Twitter when they are in a session where they can poke fun at each other, like the writing one, or a session that is more an infomercial than a learning experience (uh, hello SEO “sell” session), you might find it hard to understand the power Penny wields.
During her session, there were no snarky tweets (no, not even Seattle Food Geek or Chef Reinvented could come up with anything) and the room was so silent you could literally hear a pin drop. The only sound other than Penny’s voice was quiet typing, bloggers tweeting her pearls of wisdom to those of you not able to attend. It was truly magical. Her photos are stunning, breathtaking, mesmerizing. But Penny is no high and mighty “I’m so much better than you” photographer. She is so natural and approachable. So real. Like her pictures. She’s not into food styling involving a ton of shellacking and fake stuff.
Her tips included:
1. Make pictures, don’t take them. I loved this. In French, on fait une photo. So I got that. There’s a difference between making and taking.
2. Be inspired.
3. Know what makes a good photo: Consider light, tell a story with your food, compose your shot well.
4. Learn how to use your manual settings on your camera.
5. Give your food some space. Move away from the plate, shoot the full frame to give context.
6. Remember, not all food looks good from the same angle. Vary your angles.
7. Practice, practice, practice. Take photographs every day. Self-assign projects.
8. It’s ok to edit restaurant food. Take elements off a large plate and re-plate them on smaller ones.
9. Go prop shopping (love this one!)
10. Take the photographs for yourself, not the project. Shoot what you love.
See – it’s not easy. Taking good photos is hard work. That involves practice. But also, being true to yourself.
Another outstanding session was James Oseland (he of Saveur and Top Chef Masters fame) giving Saturday night’s keynote speech.
He spoke about the impact food bloggers are having on the traditional print media. Oseland claims to “love” food bloggers and apparently reads a ton of food blogs (not mine. yet.). When he travels, he turns to food blogs for inspiration and help finding the best places to eat in a new city. Oseland seems to “get it” re: blogging changing the face and future of food writing. Saveur, indeed, does embrace bloggers (e.g. with its “Sites we Love” section). Oseland showed his “travel photos” which reminded me strangely of mine (only much better!) – food. He travels, he eats, he photographs it. I wonder if he needs an assistant for his next trip. I could, you know, carry his suitcase…
All jokes aside, I think the single most important statement that Oseland uttered on Saturday night was this:
“Food blogging should not be a popularity contest”
I think 250 bloggers simultaneously tweeted that statement!
Because you know what? Food blogging does sometimes feel like a popularity contest (actually it feels sometimes a little like high school, but that’s another post). How many readers, how many comments, how many followers, what are my stats, did my picture make Tastespotting or FoodGawker (though those are questionable measures of popularity) – what does my blog look like to the outside world?
At the end of the day, Oseland says, it doesn’t matter. Write about what you love, be passionate and inspired. The rest will come. If it’s meant to be.
And that for me, was huge. Those of you who know me personally know that I am competitive. Which can be a good and a bad thing. I have drive and ambition and I like to do well. In the blogging world, depending on your definition of “doing well”, it can take years to get there. And a lot of hard work and patience (I can do hard work, patience, not so much. But working on it!). So it was incredibly reassuring to hear people I look up to tell me it’s ok to take things slowly. Baby steps… Do what you love, work hard at it and be yourself. Not just a food blogger’s mantra – one that many of us would do well to adopt for our “real lives” also.
(and in case you are wondering, yes, I did go up and speak to Mr Oseland. With, oh, you know, approximately 249 others. I told him I loved his speech, was an avid Saveur reader and would one day love to write travel and food-related stories for them. I gave him my card. And then I went away and died from the embarrassment of it all).
Thanks to California Walnuts, The National Watermelon Promotion Board, The Ontario Tender Fruit Producers, The Ontario Apple Growers, The USA Rice Federation and Rosewood Winery for making it possible for me to attend IFBC this year through their generous sponsorship.