Special Sauce: Matt Rodbard and Max Falkowitz on Becoming Food Writers

Pouring pasta water into pasta sauce

[Pasta photographs: Vicky Wasik]

In the next two episodes of Special Sauce, we take a deep dive into the challenges and triumphs of building a career in food media. I invited former Serious Eats editor/current contributor Max Falkowitz, and founding TASTE editor Matt Rodbard to share their perspectives. As two people who have co-written cookbooks with chefs, been on staff as editors and writers at food publications, and freelanced extensively, I thought they’d offer unique insights into what it takes to become food writer. And sure enough, they had no shortage of thoughts to share.

Max started us off with a hilarious tale about life at the Falkowitz family table: "So my dream story is to write one of those really tender, loving, emotional pieces about my dad's pasta sauce, which he spends all day making. He has these giant cauldrons that his aunt used to only used to boil gefilte fish in and they're probably 30 gallon cauldrons. He chops up all of his olives and he browns his ground beef and he gets special types of tomatoes and he spends all day making the sauce. He invites his old college buddies to have the sauce. It's a whole thing, and the sauce is terrible...It's so bad. It tastes like canned olive juice...which is effectively what it is. Both of my parents are wonderful cooks, and they were for the most part raising me as independent single parents and did a fantastic job and gave me a life long love of food, but they have their missteps and one of them is the sauce."

Matt's advice for aspiring food writers is quite simple: "Write all the time. It's like a muscle. It's like riding a bike. I mean, it's cliché, but it's true. You have to stay in shape. I think that's why I said the Yelp review was such a good thing to start with, because I was Yelping literally every meal I had and I think often with Twitter and with Social, people assume that's writing, but it's not writing. That isn't writing. That's something else."

Max added this bit of pointed counsel: “Give a fuck. There's so much writing that feels totally dispassionate and procedural. If you're not doing this because you love it, you're not going to get paid doing this."

Anyone who has contemplated pursuing this fulfilling but challenging career path should give these next two episodes a listen.

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Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, serious eats podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and not food folks alike. What's the one indispensable piece of advice you would have for an aspiring food writer, Matt?

Matt Rodbard: Write all the time. That's why I said the Yelp review was such a good thing to start with because I was Yelping literally every meal I had.

EL: What about you, Max?

MF: I think that's an excellent point, and I would add to it, give a fuck.

EL: Today, we are going to talk about the decidedly nonlinear career path to becoming a food writer with two of food writing's finest practitioners. First of all, Matt Rodbard , the editor in chief of the online food magazine Taste, host of the Taste podcast, and the author of Koreatown Cookbook. Welcome to Special Sauce, Matt.

EL: We are waiting for our mutual friend, Max Falkowitz.

MR: Where is Max?

EL: Where is Max? Who knows, but when he gets here, we will welcome him with open arms and with an open mic.

EL: So tell us about life, Matt, at the Rodbard family table.

MR: It was... Rick and Cheryl, my parents. I have to go back to a story about pasta.

EL: Okay.

MR: They washed it.

EL: Wait...

MR: They would rinse it with water, like in the strainer, they would rinse it with water, like the pasta after it was cooked.

EL: That's really weird. Maybe that's a custom that I'm not familiar with.

MR: Okay. So backing up, west Michigan is where I was raised.

EL: Okay.

MR: Very Midwestern upbringing. You know, Paul Newman's sauce is probably what was being put onto that pasta, but they were very adamant about washing that pasta after it came out of it.

EL: Was it like we're talking food safety?

MR: I don't know where it became a legend in our household, but I know it had something to do with getting the starch off of the pasta, which later we found out via Mario Batali—I know we don't want to talk about Mario—but factually my father watched Malta Mario. Then he finally started saying, "Okay, we're going to use some pasta water in the sauce." That was around the mid ‘90s. So until that moment happened, we were washing pasta.

EL: So who was cooking?

MR: My parents were great cooks. I kid, I kid, I kid. They really were, they really are. They're both here. They're definitely listening right now. They are great cooks.

EL: They're scratch cooks?

MR: I would say my father more than my mother. My father had staples. Chicken soup on Sundays. Really, really loved doing mirepoix, loved dicing, loved the pageantry of it. My mom was a little more improvisational growing up. She would have all sorts of Mexican food in the early ‘80s, I remember as a young child eating Mexican food, which is really cool.

EL: Yeah, that's awesome. So did they both work?

MR: Absolutely. So they were working. My dad owned businesses. He was a salesman. So he'd come home after a long day at the office, have his couple fingers of Jim Beam White Label, and sit back and tell us about business. He talked a lot about work at the table, which is really...

EL: Unusual.

MR: It's a little unusual, but I think it really informed me as a thinker and definitely got me thinking about my career in the future talking about all these stresses. I learned at an early age that I did not want to be a salesman.

EL: Yeah. Speaking of someone who doesn't want to be a salesman, here's

MF: You know, Max Falkowitz is coming into the house.

MR: What's up, buddy?

Matt Falkowitz: I haven't heard that intro in a few years.

MR: What's up, man?

MF: Hi, Matt.

MR: Good to see you.

EL: So we've just been joined by Max Falkowitz, former Senior Features Editor at Serious Eats. I think the digital editor of some more and the coauthor of the Dumping Galaxy cookbook. These two guys know each other really well, so we're just going to get right into it, and we're not going to chastise Max for being late.

MF: Thank you.

EL: We just heard about Matt's family's predilection for rinsing the pasta after it was cooked. It's a little weird. Even though he said in the next breath that his parents were both good cooks. So he started with the evidence that confounded that notion, and then backed into it. So what about you? Tell us about the Falkowitz family table.

MF: So my dream story is to write one of those really tender, loving, emotional pieces about my dad's pasta sauce, which he spends all day making. He has these giant cauldrons that his aunt used to only used to boil gefilte fish in and they're probably 30 gallon cauldrons. He chops up all of his olives and he browns his ground beef and he gets special types of tomatoes and he spends all day making the sauce. He invites his old college buddies to have the sauce. It's a whole thing, and the sauce is terrible.

EL: Wait a minute. I was totally drawn in. I was buying the whole thing, and then you tell me the sauce is terrible.

MF: It's so bad. It tastes like canned olive juice, and you're just down for five hours, which is effectively what it is. Both of my parents are wonderful cooks, and they were for the most part raising me as independent single parents and did a fantastic job and gave me a life long love of food, but they have their missteps and one of them is the sauce.

EL: So we know if we want to guarantee a truly terrible deal, we start with the Rodbard pasta, and then we put the Falkowitz sauce on it.

MF: That's exactly. I need to ask him now if he rinses his pasta because he probably... because I think that was what you were supposed to do.

MR: Really, this is like, this is 1988. I don't know. I mean, Midwest this is what they were doing back then.

EL: So it sounds like both of you, and I'll start with you, Matt, you were pretty obsessed with food even at an early age.

MR: Oh, for sure. I was a chunky little kid. I loved food.

EL: I shopped in the husky section, okay?

MR: Indeed, me as well. I had husky jeans, but I absolutely loved food as a kid. It was because my parents did take me out to restaurants. My dad's from Chicago. So I would go to the city and I would go to Jewish delis. I would go to Greek town in downtown Chicago. They just really raised me to eat and eat often.

EL: And appreciate the food.

MR: Absolutely.

EL: Yeah. What about you, Max?

MF: It's exactly the same story. It was really through going out to restaurants that my parents taught me what appreciating good things meant and that there's a dollar value to this and good food costs money and you should feel grateful for it. You should appreciate what you have to give up for it, or in this case, what my parents are giving up for it. Growing up in Queens, going out to eat just kind of made more sense than cooking. Why cook at home when you have the world outside your kitchen?

EL: Yeah, that's interesting. Matt, you didn't have the world outside your kitchen.

MR: No. Not in Kalamazoo, Michigan. We had a Schlotzky's, and we had a couple pizzerias.

EL: Schlotzky's does not count, okay? Can we just say that? Schlotzky's, it's just a made up name for a deli.

MR: That's true. The only time I would really have adventurous food in Kalamazoo I think was when I would go to the Big Joe's, the sandwich shop and there would be a few cured Italian meats there. I would have a few of these cool city sandwiches.

EL: Even though it was Queens a long time ago, Max, or relatively long time ago, he's a young dude, you were conscious that there was an entire culinary universe a subway stop away.

MF: There was a dark period where I was only eating Kraft mac 'n' cheese I think for every meal. My parents would have to bring it to restaurants in little Tupperware portions for me to then eat covertly under the table. Something happened, and it began with the Jackson Diner in Jackson Heights. At one point was better than it is now.

EL: Yeah. It was ground zero for sort of serious Indian food in the Indian neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens.

MF: And it really... it was kind of a door opener, and it wasn't really the sense of, "Oh, this is what the wonders of the world can taste like." It's like that this is what food is. This is going out. It was so... living in such proximity to so many great ethnic communities meant that the mundaneness made it extra special because it didn't have to feel like this special occasion. It was just, "Of course we're going to go out and eat."

EL: Yeah, you know, what's funny is when I wrote New York Eats in 1992, people thought I was the Leif Erikson of food explorers because, "He went to Queens. He went to Brooklyn." All I knew was... I knew and I was just getting to the tip of the iceberg. It was this incredible thing, even for me. Every weekend, I would go and explore a different neighborhood. When I discovered Jackson Heights, it was like, "Okay, this is pretty amazing and there are chop shops, and right next to the chop shop is a Uruguayan steak house, and right next to the Uruguayan steak house is a Paraguayan bakery." People who have never explored Queens, and I know Max just wrote a piece for the Times about this, that it is really like going around the world on a subway token. Actually, the world has gotten bigger and better, I think. The bar has been raised probably since you were in high school, Max, in terms of you have to bring your A game. It's not enough to be an Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights. No, no. You actually have to be a good Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights.

MF: There are parts of... Jackson Heights, it's an interesting situation, but there are parts of Flushing where the commercial rents are higher than comparable rents in Manhattan. So it's so competitive, yeah, there's no opportunity to just be a mediocre noodle shop anymore.

MR: Do you gentlemen feel that Sunset Park has maybe taken over the Jackson Heights of the 90's as the new place?

EL: Well, you know what's weird about sunset park is there are many Chinatowns as you guys know in New York. Sunset Park is one of them, and it is a place that you can get all kinds of Chinese food that you can't get in other places. Although, there's probably an equivalent in Flushing, you know, because Flushing is the largest Chinatown now I believe in the country. Maybe Monterey Park in the San Gabriel Valley.

MR: Yeah, SGV probably.

EL: Sunset park is also weird because it's...

MR: Your office is there, yeah.

EL: We're in sunset park at industry city, but we're pretty far removed from either the Mexican...

MR: Yeah, I was going to say Tacos El Bronco place is legit.

MF: But there are some interesting new places in Sunset Park that I need to do some more scouting that feel like they are very representative of what wealthy mainland Chinese people are eating and the way that they're eating in major Chinese cities. There's versions of that in Flushing, but there's a somewhat different market in ways that I don't totally understand yet.

EL: So you guys go off to college. Max, you went to University of Chicago.

MF: That's right.

EL: Matt went to the University of Wisconsin. I've done my homework.

MR: You have.

EL: You guys are in serious trouble. Okay, I'm just telling you that. When you graduated, what did you think you were going to do?

MR: Well, I'll tell you this. Before I graduated, it would be the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I was an intern at a small television station called the Fox News Channel in New York City.

EL: Heard of it.

MR: You've heard of it? This is like Roger Ailes was in our meetings. This is 1999. I mean, this is a different Fox News. So I thought I was going to be a television producer. I really wanted to ...

EL: Oh, right, and you ended up working at Core TV.

MR: Yeah, I did.

EL: See, I did my homework.

MR: You have. I worked in television early in my career. That was the beginning of my career. So I thought I was going to do television, yeah.

EL: Yeah, and what about you, Max?

MF: I was dead set to work in the genre publishing industry editing science fiction and fantasy titles.

EL: That's awesome, and you ended up, if I remember correctly, for a summer, you ended up working for Johnny Temple at the Akashic Press editing Ryan Adams’ poetry.

MF: Yeah, I was a big fan of small and independent publishing back when that seemed like something that could theoretically exist and save the book industry. We were so young. I graduated school right after the big economic collapse and the publishing industry was just in shambles, and I had three job interviews at one company where I interned and where I was I believe pretty well liked. I was turned down for each one. I thought at that point as I was leaving the third interview, "The universe is telling me this isn't working." So I put that aside and wound up tutoring and doing some PR consulting and freelancing for this little site called Serious Eats.

EL: Oh, wait. But first, you were working at the Carnegie Foundation.

MF: That's right. The Carnegie Corporation, which is separate from Andrew Carnegie's 20 odd...

EL: I remember talking to you and you're like, you know, it's kind of weird here. I know you're sick of this, but I did bring your pitch letter to me, which is so awesome. I have to read it just a little bit.

MF: Excuse me while I go put my head in the oven, Ed.

EL: "Dear Mr. Levine."

MR: Aww, that's endearing.

EL: First of all, that's so sweet.

MR: So respectful.

EL: "I'm a senior at the University of Chicago, and I've been posting as M.Falk on your boards for a while. I'm graduating in June, and as a devout reader of Serious Eats who's fascinated by publishing new media and food, I'd like to inquire about any job opportunities that may be available come summer. I've attached a resume, but here's my background in brief. I've worked across publishing in books, literary journals, and online reviewing from mainstream giants to genre fiction to niche independents." You go on to say, "I'm fascinated by and familiar with publishing in several forms and I want my career to be in worthwhile creative forms of media like Serious Eats." Man, this was so awesome. "I believe my experience would be a great asset to your team in a range of positions. I'm also crazy about food." This is my favorite. "I'm also crazy about food. I'm usually making it, eating it, thinking about it, or reading about it." So right there, he had me, and I always... I even mentioned this in Serious Eater, which I'm sure Max is still embarrassed about, but it is still the greatest pitch letter I've ever received.

MR: Yeah, you did talk about that in the book.

MF: So earlier today, I was having breakfast with a former Serious Eats intern, Jen, who sends her best.

EL: Oh, right. Yeah.

MF: We were...

EL: An editor at Clarkson Potter?

MF: That's right. We were reminiscing about the sense of wonder first hit from walking into the Serious Eats office and thinking, "Wait, I get to work here? I get to write about styles of pizza for a job or an internship, and people will read this all across the country?" It still... among the alums, there's been a lot of reminiscing happening in group text messages.

EL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You wrote actually a beautiful series of tweets as reminiscence, which I've been meaning to tell you, I don't know if I did send you an email, but I was...

MF: No, you did.

EL: I was really moved by it because it was really great. So you both eventually, I guess we can leave the pitch letter behind.

MF: Thank God.

EL: You started TV.

MR: Mm-hmm.

EL: So how did you make your way from TV to food writing? Because Core TV has nothing to do with food.

MR: It doesn't. I actually took a little detour. I worked in music. I worked at Spin Magazine. I was an intern there and that was kind of my career path. I worked at a couple magazines, consumer electronics magazine. I did a lot of culture and music reporting. But how did I get into food writing? Honestly, this is the truth. I've said this to a lot of young writers. I started a Yelp account.

EL: Wow.

MR: Started writing restaurant reviews for Yelp.

EL: That doesn't even count as writing.

MR: I mean, for some, true. But for me, I wanted some ... I just wanted to get my thoughts out there, my opinions out there, and it really helped kind of refine or define a style that I then took to Time Out. So I've been writing about lots of things before then like music reviews and restaurant coverage. Somebody at Time Out gave me a nice assignment, yeah.

EL: So Max, you were freelancing for us, and it was an exciting time. That was Serious Eats in full bloom. It was just one of those moments that shows faith, one of our editors calls it the punk rock days of Serious Eats. As I say in the book, I say sure, but here's the thing, Sid Vicious story didn't end well and the Sex Pistols really didn't end well, but there was this amazing manic energy that people felt. That's the energy that you and Jen were talking about.

MF: I think that the internet still was a niche entity rather than something that has circumscribed our lives. I think we felt, as young people, or at least as a young person, that the world of professional media was so closed off to the common person and so inaccessible to young people trying to get into it. CF me failing to get a publishing job and a dozen different publishing houses that the opportunity to create something new with new media was just thrilling in a way that... and just to meet other like... it was still a time when meeting like minded people from the internet felt new and exciting to I think a specific generation. I think we're getting into another phase of that now as a group of folks are realizing that a lot of the older media positions they've been fighting for equality in aren't necessarily places they need to be in when they can build an alternative.

EL: That's true, and of course, for me, it was a weird thing because I was the old school old guy journalist. You know, a 52 year old first time entrepreneur because I just didn't know any better. Anyone who's read Serious Eater will know that I really had no clue. All I had was a lot of passion and I sensed that things were changing. Lastly, I just wanted to get rid of all the gatekeepers in my life. Those were the... what's the plural of impetus?

MF: I think impetus. Like apparatus is the plural of itself.

EL: Yeah, for Serious Eats. So you guys both start writing and you're doing well and you end up at Metro Mix and then Food Republic and you were at Serious Eats and then Saveur. What's the one indispensable piece of advice you would have for an aspiring food writer?

MR: My advice is always write all the time. It's like a muscle. It's like riding a bike. I mean, it's cliché, but it's true. You have to stay in shape. I think that's why I said the Yelp review was such a good thing to start with because I was Yelping literally every meal I had and I think often with Twitter and with Social, people assume that's writing, but it's not writing. That isn't writing. That's something else.

EL: You're right, and it could be great, but it's not writing.

MR: It's not writing. You really got to stay in shape, I think, as a writer.

EL: Yeah, I think so, too. What about you, Max?

MF: I think that's an excellent point. I would add to it, give a fuck. There's so much writing that feels totally dispassionate and procedural. If you're not doing this because you love it, you're not going to get paid doing this.

EL: It's true. It's interesting because I agree with both of you obviously because what I used to tell people is the reason to start a blog is not to get famous or rich. The reason to start a blog is so you can exercise your writing muscle as often as possible. Even if nobody reads it... you know I always tell the story of Robyn Lee who started as a Serious Eats intern as a 20 year old or 19 year old. She was still at NYU getting her bachelors in food studies. She'd been blogging since she was 15. So by the time she ran into me, and I read her stuff, her voice was fully formed. She couldn't report because she was a blogger, but a brilliant blogger with a totally original point of view. The only way she could do that was by writing for herself. I think that's such an important thing that people tend to ignore, especially these days because I'll just start an Instagram account. No, there's really nothing like writing. And it's not writing about this is what I had for dinner. It just needs to go at least one step beyond that.

What are the most important skills to have these days as an aspiring food writer?

MF: Oh, God, a really good therapist. I don't know, is that a skill? I think there's... it's a gift to work... I mean, any act of reporting or writing is an intimate relationship between you and your editor or at least it should be. There's an intimacy between you and your sources, especially if you're covering difficult subject matter and it's emotionally draining to put a part of your heart on the page and actually mean it. There are days that I have to just take off and recover because writing can be an intense kind of... you need your... you have leg day, and you have—

EL: So give us an example of that.

MF: So I as a working freelancer, I guess, I try to have days where I will write for most of the day, and then a few days where I force myself out of the apartment and don't look at a computer screen and really force myself to get out of my head. I think it's so easy as a writer to get stuck in your own thoughts and just lost in this recursive element. Just the act of talking to people and being out in the world, having friends who aren't journalists or writers.

EL: For food writers, it's really important. So when you get out of your head and you go outside, are you in search of food, or not necessarily?

MF: It'll be as simple as running errands, but the thing that you taught me, it's literally follow your nose. If something looks good or if something seems interesting. The most interesting food writers I know to read who write about restaurants and communities are people who just follow their nose and walk into stuff.

MF: One of my neighbors in my neighborhood is Anya Von Bremzen who wrote that amazing—

EL: Long time travel and leisure writer or food and wine. I can't remember. She had a column, I think it was travel and leisure, for years.

MF: She's kind of my role model of a hard party who just refuses to do anything she doesn't want to do.

MR: Anya is dope.

MF: She wound up... she lives in the neighborhood about a third of the year. Then she goes to Istanbul and all of her other travels. She wound up taking me to this wonderful Chinese-run bakery in Jackson Heights that happens to have the best Columbian Empanadas I've ever tasted.

MR: That's awesome.

MF: Because she just saw these two things together and thought, "Huh, that's weird. These types of businesses don't go together." She was probably just running errands and it just brought her in. That kind of natural curiosity I think is so important.

EL: Yeah.

MR: So for a skill, I come from a little different angle because I'm a full time editor. So I'm working on like 30-50 stories at a time and different levels of process. I think for me, the writer should really have the package. It's not just the words on the page. It's thinking about aesthetics, thinking about how this story is going to be shot. It's thinking about the recipe in the headnote. Really, I look for people, individuals who think the story through from the pitch all the way through the manuscript page to the publish. Those are the folks that I keep going back to who have that strong... they have that suggestion of where to shoot or that recipe, how to tweak the headnote in the right way. Those are the people I need to work with.

EL: But those people tend to be more experienced, right? Because the beginning writers are concerned with the word or the pictures in some cases now, but don't you think that people that you're talking about who can put the whole package together and see the story the way you...

MR: Possibly. I think what you brought up a point of folks who have blogs who have already published a lot of material. So maybe not professional experience, but more of a casual experience. They definitely, a lot of those individuals have thought through a visual element to a story.

MR: Yeah, I think you're right.

EL: You've both co-written cookbooks. You wrote a Korean cookbook, a great Korean cookbook. You wrote a terrific book with Helen, who has been on the show thanks to you, who is...

MF: She's my favorite.

EL: Yeah. Helen Yu, who owns Dumpling Galaxy in Flushing. How important, and I say this as someone who has very basic skills as a cook. I mean, I'm a good home cook, but I'm not special for sure. I'm unspecial. How important are cooking chops to becoming a food writer?

MF: It really varies. I think it depends on what food writer you want to be and there's ways to write about food that don't require a knowledge of cooking at all, and there's types of stories that you can tell are totally valid that way. There's also types of stories where if you don't have an understanding of critical theory or postmodernism, you're also not going to be able to write those food stories. So I think it can only help, and for writing a cookbook, you have to both know how to cook well, but also know how to think like someone who does not necessarily cook with particular skills. Helen would get very frustrated by our recipe tester who would ask these questions about like, what do you do at this stage to fold a dumpling? I'd have to say, "No, Helen. That's the point. She's doing her job well. That's exactly the type of questions we answer."

MR: Right. I wrote Koreatown with Deuki Hong chef, my good friend, my role there was to be the journalist, to ask all the questions. I had very minimal experience cooking East Asian cuisine when I started the project. I certainly knew a lot about Korean food because I had written a book before about Korean restaurants. So I had an understanding of the fundamentals, but in terms of getting ginger, garlic, scallions into the wok, I really didn't have a lot of experience. What I did learn through the process was that as you repeat and repeat and repeat and you test, you learn and it's like osmosis. It gets into your body. I think with all home cooking and really at Taste, we think about this with our stories, it's really about habits. It's getting those habits. You slice a scallion three times a week, cooking anything in your kitchen three times a week, it just gets easier over time. So I felt that that was really what I unlocked when I started that book project.

MF: And we're a generation that learned how to cook through primarily visual means, that even if we weren't doing the cooking ourselves, we were watching Good Eats, we were watching all those food network shows. Even if you don't know how to properly slice a scallion on the bias, you can know why it's important.

EL: Well, we're going to have to leave it here for this episode of Special Sauce. For the next episode, we're going to delve deeply, and I mean really deeply, into your present lives. For now, thank you Matt Rodbard and Max Falkowitz for sharing your past with us. So long, Serious Eaters. We'll see you next time.