Lessons from an expert foodie

Let’s play a game: name that foodie. Here’s how it will go down: I’ll give you a list of clues, better regarded as “fun facts” in this case, about our subject and you’ll have to guess who he is. And there we go, your first clue: our subject is a “he,” and…

  • He grew up in kosher household in St. Cloud, Minnesota
  • He graduated from University of Wisconsin in 1990 with a degree in broadcast journalism…a degree he immediately put to use, working at small TV stations until coming to Chicago in 1992.
  • He is the winner of six (yes, six!) James Beard Awards (for those of you who don’t know what a James Beard Award is, well, shame on you! Simply, it’s the Oscar of the food world. But better yet, do some reading.)
  • He is the father of two, husband of one (still trying to come up with some ill-fitting polygamy joke here but, alas, nothing) and lives in Wicker Park
  • And today, he’s arguably better known as—drum roll, please—the “Hungry Hound” than his actual name

So, readers, who is he?

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If you guessed Steve Dolinsky, then A+ for you; a grade I’ll cajole my professor (hello Elizabeth!) into virtually awarding in the comments below!

But you might be wondering, why did she blatantly fail to include points about his career in our above game? Well, that’s because Steve Dolinsky’s career is one that’s not easily summarized by a convenient title like “editor” or “CEO.” Dolinsky’s business card, which I am officially—and proudly—in possession of, reads: “food reporter, travel writer, co-host/producer of ‘The Feed Podcast,’ media trainer, culinary experience creator, food and beverage consulting.”

And with such a broad spectrum of expertise—and nearly two decades of experience—it’s not a shock that:

  1. Elizabeth (my professor, not me) invited Dolinsky to come speak to my “Food Reporting” course on Monday
  2. That he was as informative and inspiring.

Here’s a taste of what Dolinsky served up during his presentation:

There’s a difference between a food reporter and food critic

Dolinsky isn’t a food critic. He doesn’t go to restaurants, eat there inconspicuously and review them. You might be thinking, but wait, he does make review-like comments on his show and his print pieces! While Dolinsky does sprinkle these notes in his content, he is, yet again, not a food critic. A food critic dines at an establishment with the goal of showing readers what a typical experience there is like. Dolinsky on the other hand frequents establishments for a larger story, be it on a trend, an ingredient or a popular chef. He seeks out certain chefs, restaurants, etc. to tell the story. For example, Dolinsky offered the situation of “how can I tell a story about South Indian food through a dish?” With that story in mind, Dolinsky would go on a hunt (somewhat like a hound, as his name implies) to find the ideal dosa. And in doing so, he might endorse a certain chef or restaurant. But unlike the food critic, he only highlights a specific item on a menu.

So how does Dolinsky know what the ideal dosa should look, feel and overall taste like? That brings us to his second nugget of wisdom…

The key to good food writing is to travel a lot…and eat a lot, especially while traveling.

In Dolinsky’s words, “you have no base of understanding unless you’ve tasted the real thing.” So, the Hungry Hound suggests, moreover insists, that if you want to get into food reporting, you have “take your vacation days”to explore foreign countries. And that exploration must include fearless and eager tastings of the country’s authentic cuisine(s). Because of this constant need to travel and taste, Dolinsky said his “education never ends.” In fact, he plans to take some time during his upcoming family trip to Italy to learn from Italian butchers, so that he can better expand his understanding of this niche.

But what about ephemeral food niches or, better yet, trends? How does Dolinsky know when cupcakes are out and donuts are in? (Side note: I am a firm believer that cupcakes are and never will be out. Magnolia Bakery is my religion.)

One to times is a coincidence. Three times is a trend.

According to Dolinsky, even if a restaurant is trying something new, it is not necessarily a “trend” until it’s been done three different times. Despite all the hype around new foods like poke—and telling these stories—Dolinsky said that he tries not to be “trend driven.”

And on a similar note…

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Balance is important.

For something to be “good,” Dolinsky said, “everything should be balanced.” Whether its ban mi or a burger, “it doesn’t matter,” there still needs to be a balance between ingredients such as “starch, filler and protein.” This emphasis on balance can be applied to being a food reporter as well. Dolinsky said that a big challenge he faces while developing and covering stories is the task of “being balanced.” He recommended covering stories both in the city and in the suburb, about high-end and low-end establishments, and on American and ethnic cuisine. On the subject of the latter, Dolinsky also emphasized the importance of getting insight on ethnic food from a native; to bring them with you to the, for example, new Cambodian restaurant and ask their advice and reasoning for why something is “good.”

So, once you understand what’s “good,” how do you describe it to the reader or the viewer? Dolinsky answered:

To be a better descriptive writer, read the best descriptive writing.

Before even attempting to write about food, Dolinsky suggested that you read the ultimate food descriptions from the best, such as the writing in Lucky Peach, Saveur and Bon Appétit. Once you’ve prepped and you’re ready for creation, avoid the words “fantastic,” “wonderful” and “great.” Instead, ask yourself, “what are the best ways to describe this food to a person who can’t see it? To a person who can’t smell it?” According to Dolinsky, smells are “evocative” and a great way to write about food. It’s also important to think about taking the reader to where the food is:“bring them into the kitchen, the dining room,” Dolinsky said. Descriptively writing about food isn’t solely noting the delicacy’s tastes and ingredients but it also about illustrating the smells, texture and environment.

And while this list of Dolinsky-approved advice can go on, I must excuse myself for the sake of, well, coffee. I’m running on a caffeine low and my 2011 Keurig (yes, it has made it through four years of college—that is four years of moving back and forth to Central PA—and one of graduate school—a move to Chicago and perhaps one back to NJ) is calling my name. It might not be the esteemed Kenyan drip of Intelligentsia, but as Dolinsky said, to properly food report, you must be balanced in your coverage.

So here’s to you, Starbucks Keurig pods! And more importantly, to you, Steve Dolinsky! Thank you for taking the time to speak with us!

 

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