As food lovers, we try to consume as many food articles and books we can get our hands on. We are big fans of Anne McBride’s writing, and we were very excited for the opportunity to talk with her about her career in the food industry and as a writer. Having grown up with grandparents who were farmers and gourmet home-cooks, Anne has been exposed to the pleasures of cooking and how food brings people together. Being surrounded by food throughout her childhood made Anne comfortable when it came time for her to cook.
We love that Anne is a constant learner and serious about her work. Not only is she working toward a PhD in Food Studies from New York University, but she is also an adjunct professor there. Additionally, Anne is the Director of Experimental Cuisine Collective and is the Culinary Program and Editorial Director for the Strategic Initiatives Group at The Culinary Institute of America. In her spare time, she writes articles and books about food. To say we are impressed would be an understatement! Read on to learn more about Anne’s career, what each job entails, and the skills she believes you need as a food writer.
Carpe Juvenis: How do you define “Seizing Your Youth?”
Anne E. McBride: Making the most of all the open doors you face when you are young and at the beginning your career. Not being afraid to take risks. Not over planning the next 10 to 15 years (regardless of which age you are!).
CJ: What did you major in at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette? How did you determine what to study?
AM: I majored in print journalism, with a minor in history. As soon as I decided to go to college (only a small percentage of the population goes, in Switzerland) I never considered another major. I wanted to write.
CJ: What did your post-college journey look like?
AM: I got a job as an editorial assistant at a book publishing company working on cookbooks and travel books (I had blind-emailed them my resume and they called me a couple of weeks later) and stayed there three and a half years. It was a small company and I worked really hard so I was quickly promoted and by the end was running the editorial side, but still had a huge amount to learn. I did a quick stint in restaurant PR, then in communications at the Institute of Culinary Education for two years full time, followed by another five years as a freelancer for them. About three and a half years ago I started working for the Culinary Institute of America.
CJ: What sparked your passion for food and cooking?
AM: I grew up in a very food-focused environment but was not aware of it until time came to look for a job. My maternal grandfather in Switzerland was a farmer and we spent nearly every weekend on the farm (my very first job was picking grapes in his vineyards); he also loved restaurants and took us along whenever we were there. My paternal grandmother in France is a gourmet home-cook who plied us in foie gras, calf livers, heads-on shrimp, homemade mayonnaise, and the likes whenever we’d visit. My mother is a very adventurous cook, and my father loves great food. All this stressed, in a subconscious manner, the importance that food has in creating bounds among people, in this case my family and whoever shared our table, and how much both pleasure and culture can be communicated through food. And always seeing so much cooking around me made me comfortable cooking myself when time came.
CJ: You are currently working toward your PhD in Food Studies at New York University. What drew you to this program?
AM: I had been looking at a variety of PhD programs, mostly in sociology, for a couple of years, but then I started working more and more around food and meeting people who told me to check out NYU. I sat in on a few classes and there was no question that I had found a home. I wanted to put rigor around my study of (and work around) food, get credentialed for my academic study of it, and commit to food as my career.
CJ: You are also an adjunct professor at New York University, where you teach classes that include Food in the Arts: Experimental Cuisine, Food Issues in Contemporary Society, and Food Studies and Nutrition Communication Workshop. What have you enjoyed most about teaching, and though others are learning from you in your classes, what have you learned from your teaching experiences?
AM: I love being around the students the most and learn so much from them. It’s so rewarding and inspirational to see former students attaining high-level positions in the food world and achieving great things, whether in their careers or in their personal lives. It keeps me motivated and forces me to constantly see the food world from their fresh perspective, and from a scholarly perspective ensures that I am always up to date on the latest material. I like my classes to be a place of exchange—of course it’s not an entirely equal one since I grade them, but nonetheless I think that the experience is richer for everyone if they feel that they can express their opinions and ask any question they’d like.
CJ: You are the Director of Experimental Cuisine Collective, an interdisciplinary group of more than 2,500 scientists, chefs, media, scholars, and food enthusiasts that examines the connections between food and science. This sounds very interesting! What does your role as Director entail?
AM: This is a volunteer-based organization (our meetings have always been free, since we launched in 2007, since we want to make knowledge as accessible as possible) and it’s really just three of us, so it entails doing nearly everything from finding presenters and working with them on the content and format of their presentations to updating the website and communicating to our members to running errands and picking up whatever we need for meetings. We have presentations on a nearly monthly basis, with the goal of using food to better understand science and science to better understand food. Our speakers and our audience are equally diverse and the content is thorough and serious, so I always encourage presenters to speak at a fairly high level but take questions as they go to clarify what’s needed, which makes for very thought-provoking and engaging discussions.
CJ: You are the Culinary Program and Editorial Director for the Strategic Initiatives Group at The Culinary Institute of America where you work on program development for industry leadership conferences. How do you go about organizing and developing these professional forums, which have included Worlds of Flavor and reThink Food.
AM: The process starts by identifying the theme or areas of focus for each program for that year, brainstorming what this means in terms of potential conference sessions, how it relates to the current concerns and interests of the food industry (all the programs I work on are for industry only), and who would be great presenters for it. Then over several months all of that gets developed further. I reach out to potential presenters, work on the specifics of their contents once they are confirmed, craft the overall program and tweak it as needed. I look for fresh perspectives, whether it’s getting experienced presenters to talk about their expertise in new contexts or finding new angles to cover a well-known subject. I spend a lot of time attending other conferences to add to my understanding of issues and cuisines and to meet new potential talent, and also a lot of time at my desk emailing people. And do a lot of research by reading books and articles on the topics of the programs I work on. It’s a combination of macro, more intellectual elements and micro details and logistics. It’s a very demanding job and because my whole life informs what I do in that role, I don’t get to clock out very often, but I wouldn’t trade any of it and a huge reward is that I get to work with amazing people from all over the world.
CJ: You regularly write on topics related to professional and experimental cooking, and have contributed to Food Arts, Gastronomica, the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, and Food Cultures of the World. You write for your blog, Pots and Plumes, and you were the editor and writer of the Institute of Culinary Education’s tri-annual publication, The Main Course, for seven years, and the director of the school’s Center for Food Media between 2008 and 2011. Additionally, you have co-authored many books including Payard Cookies, Chocolate Epiphany: Exceptional Cookies, Cakes and Confections for Everyone, Bite Size: Elegant Recipes for Entertaining, Les Petits Macarons: Colorful French Confections to Make at Home, and Culinary Careers: How to Get Your Dream Job in Food. What is your writing process when it comes to articles and co-authoring cookbooks and books?
AM: For articles in particular, it’s all about wanting to share a great story. I don’t have much time to pitch so don’t write articles nearly as regularly as I’d like to, but the good thing is that I get to only focus on the stories I really want to tell. So it often starts with something in a conversation that strikes me or something I observe when traveling for example. Then I do tons of interviews and research, ending up with way too many notes, and I struggle through it all until an article I’m happy with emerges, which is often the second version of a piece rather than the very first one I write.
For books, it starts by developing a concept with the chef I’m working with or thinking of working with, shopping a proposal, and then once the book is under contract work with them on translating “chef knowledge” into home-cook knowledge. My job is to ask all of the questions that someone at home with no experience would have when looking at their raw recipes and write them up in a way that makes complete sense when you are alone in front of an open cookbook. For that I spend time in the kitchen with chefs but mostly a lot of time alone at my computer. Michael Ruhlman, the food writer, once said that your body has to be capable of being a writer, so being able to sit for countless hours, and that has always stuck with me. I can definitely sit at a computer for 18 to 20 hours a day, which is a very useful skill to have while on deadline for a book!
CJ: What top three skills do you need as a food writer?
AM: Curiosity is huge, it what keeps you asking the right questions—both the fun and the serious type of questions. It’s the base of good researching and reporting, and what ensures hopefully that you keep digging into a story and into a subject. Curiosity also is the opposite of jadedness, which is important to me. Connected to curiosity is food knowledge, or perhaps better stated as a proper understanding of the world you cover. I don’t mean that you necessarily have to have cooked in a professional kitchen, but you need to understand the world that you cover, including its business structure, whether you are covering chefs, artisans, farmers, or corporations. You need to know ingredients, cooking techniques, flavors, etc. You don’t need to be a policy or labor expert but you need to understand the current issues of the food system and know where to go look for answers.
It’s a question of respecting your subjects and also of treating food like a proper beat. And last, you need good writing skills. It sounds idiotic to even mention, but the downside of food being such a familiar, and a popular, topic is that many people feel very comfortable writing about it, and perhaps not everyone should.
CJ: Your book, Culinary Careers, is an incredibly useful read. In it you provide exclusive interviews with people in the food world. What advice would you personally give to a young person hoping to set themselves up for success in the culinary world?
AM: Always remember that it’s a small world, so work hard, don’t burn bridges, and you’ll create a solid network for yourself. You could do lots of things that will make you richer than working in the culinary world. But not many will make you happier or will let you work with better people.
CJ: With everything you have going on, how do you stay organized and manage your time?
AM: My life is run by Google Calendar and my notepad, which has a good old-fashioned to-do list I can cross off as I go. I’m also, for better or for worse, a workaholic, so I just work all the time, which is probably not the healthiest time management or organizational principle but it works for me!
CJ: What is an area, either personal or professional, that you are working to improve in and how?
AM: I’m trying to carve a little more time for relaxation and time away from my desk. There’s always another email to write (and no matter how hard I try I can’t keep up with the insane volume of my inbox), or more recipes to edit, or more work to do on my dissertation. So going kayaking for a few hours on a Saturday is actually good for my mental health and my productivity, not lost work hours.
CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
AM: Don’t stress about things out of your control. Take all the risks you can while you can.
Images by Carpe Juvenis