Will Work for Food

Food writer Andrea Strong offers a glimpse into an unexpected but rewarding career shift.
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Enjoying a meal at a fantastic restaurant is one of life's great pleasures. It's how we celebrate birthdays, catch up with old friends and congratulate ourselves for landing a big promotion.

One way to live the good life is to get paid to do what we love. As a result, one of the all-time coveted jobs is that of food writer, those select few who get paid to eat at the finest restaurants and then offer their opinion.

But food writer Andrea Strong didn't expect to do this for a living; she started as a corporate attorney with hunger pangs. Today, her byline can be found in popular publications such as the

New York Times

,

Real Simple

and

Metropolitan Home

. She also authors the popular blog

The Strong Buzz and is the founder of

Dining for Darfur.

TheStreet.com

caught up with Strong to find out how she made the change and if those hunger pangs have subsided.

Allison Fishman

:

How did you break into food writing?

Andrea Strong

: I was a lawyer, but I didn't feel the law was giving me what I

expected. I was working for firms, doing corporate work, and it wasn't fulfilling. I started volunteering for

Share Our Strength in addition to being a lawyer; I met a lot of people in the restaurant business and got totally turned on by it.

I turned 30, quit the law job, and started working as a hostess at Tribeca Grill. Soon, I realized that I loved the restaurant business, but I didn't love working in restaurants. I think you need a hospitality gene or you start to hate people -- at least I did.

But I didn't want to go back to law. I saw an ad in the

New York Times

about a writing contest sponsored by the

Culinary Institute; I sent in an essay and won second place. One of the judges was an editor at

Restaurant Business Magazine

and she needed an associate food editor.

They had me write a couple of short things, and a month later I was writing about food. Before that, I had never written anything other than legal memoranda.

It was sort of "jump in and do it" -- writing about food isn't brain surgery. I had a lot of knowledge from working in the business and was open to learning.

Did you choose your career, or did your career choose you?

Fate intervened and the job picked me ... It was never in the plan to become a food writer.

A lot of people who contact me through my Web site write to me about their own

career struggles. I tell them to keep going in the direction you think you're supposed to go, and you'll get there.

What are people asking you?

I get a lot of email from lawyers who ask, "How did you change your career? I'm miserable, can you help me? I read your story and feel the same way."

I email back every single person who writes to me, and I've spoken on the phone with people who are in need of a little guidance ... I don't have a magic wand. I tell people the only thing to do is to do it, take a class, join a networking group or some sort of industry group. Do something different than you did today.

I think that my story is a universal one; there are a lot of people out there in careers that are not satisfying, so it's not surprising that they write to me and want to know how to do it, too.

Where does your blog fit in?

The Strong Buzz is what I'm known for. It's ... very flattering that people care about what I think and write. It is not a revenue-producing blog. I do it because I like it and I like to be able to share my experiences. The

ultimate goal is to ... have advertising on the site and make some money, since it does take an enormous amount of time.

You mentioned that this was financially challenging. How so?

It's extremely difficult to make a living as a freelance writer. A lot of the writers I know are married; they have two-income families, health insurance -- it's not just about paying your rent. Writing for newspapers pays maybe 50 cents per word, glossies are $2 per word, and your first few articles are 300 to 500 words. You have to generate a lot of ideas and get a lot of work in order to make what you need to live on.

I am not in this for the money. I do something that I love every day, and ... that's priceless. If I was in it for the money, I'd still be pushing paper and practicing law.

You have to be honest with yourself and think about giving up the Hamptons time-share and things you like in your life to pursue a career that may not be as lucrative.

Has your life changed socially?

I have the same friends I've had since before I was an attorney. I'm doing the same sorts of things, but now I have an expense account for dinners, and I shop at H&M and

Target

(TGT) - Get Report

... I don't need to wear suits, so that's changed. I haven't been able to travel and take vacations; that has definitely changed ... It's either go on vacation or pay the rent.

When you left law, were there any dissenters?

Yes -- my father, but he seems to have gotten over it. He thought I was crazy ... and the partners in the law firm were horrified. But for the most part, my brother, mom and friends were supportive. I think that my father's concern was more ... about me being able to survive. He would say, "Why can't you practice law for the restaurant business?"

Now he likes the fact that he can get into any restaurant in New York City and be treated well. He calls and says, "I got a free dessert, and I just want to tell you how proud I am of you."

How is writing for the blog different from writing for hire?

The main difference is when you write for a paper or magazine, you are writing in their voice, for their readers. When you write for yourself, you don't get edited.

I don't know if I get as much out of the blog in terms of growth -- it's important to get constructive feedback. I'd like to continue growing and learning as a writer; I'm not trained as a journalist.

One of the first people I wrote for was Sam Sifton, of the

New York Times

. I learned a lot from him, and he gave me a chance to write for what I consider the greatest newspaper on the planet. To have his feedback ... was terrific.

It sounds like a mentor is incredibly important.

Yes, I think especially if you're a career changer. To have someone who believes in you, will nurture you and give you a chance. When I met Sam, I only had clips from

Restaurant Business Magazine

and

Time Out

. I was a nobody. At least now I'm a nobody with more clips. He gave me a shot, and I will always be grateful for that.

Is that why you respond to all your emails?

I do. That's why I like teaching classes, too. A lot of people in my classes are looking for guidance. I've helped ... people get jobs in the industry. It's a good feeling ... to think that you might be able to help someone start a new career

and a new life.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

A New York-based cooking teacher and wellness coach, Allison Fishman is the founder of

The Wooden Spoon.