Shattering The Illusion: Our Not Perfect Life

The world of food writing, whether blogging or cookbook publishing, has been trending unusually high of late and we have a few opinions on it.

First it was the convoluted ‘he-said-she-said’ story of a food blogger and small west London bakery in a digital battle, then it was Prue Leith condemning ‘food porn’ cookbooks for having little substance.

#BloggerBlackmail

You can catch up on both sides of the #BloggerBlackmail story here and here. Naturally Twitter blew up with conversation and comment once this story had reached the masses. The general consensus seemed to be: there was a miscommunication between company and blogger, but the latter had more than a pointed sense of entitlement about their work and labour. As the story broke and opinions flowed in 140 characters, soon we saw critics, professional food writers and even chefs adding their insight to the conversation and jumping on the blogger bashing. Most suggested that bloggers should pay their way entirely, delivered with a palpable level of distain much like stepping in dog shit on a wet winter day. But… we actually somewhat agreed.

“Food Porn”

Then, Prue Leith – culinary goddess, Michelin star awarded chef, cookery school founder – in an unrelated interview offered her opinion that cookbooks have become more about visual ‘food porn’ than a step-by-step instruction manual. Resigned to live as prized coffee table props rather than gravy-splattered and softened round the edges, she commended Mary Berry and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for their life-long dedication to the cause and quietly dismissed those 2.5 cookbookers who jump on trends and will be forgotten in the long run no matter how pretty or stylish. You know what? Again, we agreed.

These types of conversations about food writing, blogging and who deserves what (at what cost) have been bubbling for a long time. Ketty Elisabeth of French Foodie In Dublin – one of our favourite blogs from back home – published an honest account of her blogging ethos a while back that hit so many nails on the head entitled There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Adam of Travels Of Adam also penned a few practical thoughts about what blogging and freelancing affords him and whether it’s a worthwhile lifestyle to undertake.

We decided that it’s a nice time to remind, or maybe educate, people in how we operate as bloggers. Despite what the internet may make you think and every filter available on Instagram, our lives are not as perfect as you think.

portlandia_internet

Portlandia is one of the most honest TV shows in the world. An irreverent comedy that makes fun of the bullshit in modern life and shines a light on the strange habits we have as humans, this particular scene has always stayed in our minds. Like many bloggers (namely those without trust funds) we struggle month-on-month and it has yet to get easier. We struggle with time, with energy, with money. We struggle with motivation, with technical skills, with networking and selling our brand as much as we should be. But you don’t see that, do you? We crop it out. The dull bits can sully the sexy content, so we crop and publish to look like we lead a life of leisure, but always remember you’re only witnessing the edit. It’s not a good habit, as it distances us from the everyday, but you also don’t want to be mundane or vanilla either. In the blogging world you need to stand out or you’re left behind.

Freebies

With restaurants and the conversation of ‘freebies’, our Press & Info page clearly states our strict policy when it comes to reviews. Some bloggers will visit a venue once, take a few pictures (or even lazier still, have the PR email them the press-ready shots), get a meal free and enjoy staff fawning over them. Low and behold, a glowing review is published a day later. We’re not like that. We will not publish any restaurant/café review unless we’ve visited at least two, if not three times (click the link above to read more about why). There are some rare exceptions where a just-opened café, bar or restaurant without the PR power behind them in our locality gets a bit of our spotlight as a sign of support after our first visit. This happens extremely rarely.

We’ve never approached an eatery prior to visiting to ask for free tasters, to organise a complimentary three courses or expecting the red carpet treatment. But, then again, you’ve never seen a negative review on our site. This is a very conscious decision. Why give publicity to something that doesn’t meet our standards? We’d rather not bother giving bad press and so won’t give any press at all. Critics, employed by major newspapers, websites and magazines, have a different set up altogether as they expense meals and have often a national following that wait with bated breath for a seething review as it’s all a bit pantomime-y.

On occasions we’ve been in conversation online, for example, and they may throw us a free drink and have a chat when they realise we are in, but it is out of gratitude and friendliness more than bribery. They never expect us to do anything as a result of our visit because they don’t have that power. We’ve come in as members of the public and there’s zero PR influence. We love doing things this way, and will continue to, despite the fact it may not make for a constant stream of content on the website and in spite of the fact it bankrupts us.

You wouldn’t believe what we’ve paid for that might seem like it’s been given for free. Seriously. That’s the first crack in our window of perfection set.

But how do you afford it, you wonder? Well the answer to that is the minimal disposable income we have from our daily jobs. Patrick works as a PR copywriter in central London 9-5, Monday to Friday, while Russell works in breakfast television – beginning every morning at 4am – and also juggles a second media job, which he generally works every other weekend just to keep things ticking along. We do get tiny remittance from magazine contributions and rare freelance opportunities but after rent, food and travel, we have pennies to rub together.

So why do you do it? Surely it’s not worth it? We didn’t get into blogging to become famous or get things for free. We keep it up because we love it. It brings us together as we love each other and love food. It brings us into interaction with interesting, like-minded people who share our passion. We sacrifice a lot for this, most notably our free time, as 9-5 becomes 7-11, 365 days a year. We’re always ‘on’ and we love it as much as we hate it, but we wouldn’t be who we are without it.

Living The “Life”

Of late, we’ve gotten comments that we must ‘have the life’ with all the travelling we’ve been doing. We’d love to keep up the veneer that we go on sponsored press trips all the time but, wait for this next crack in the mirror, we pay for all our transport – planes, trains, automobiles. Yes, we’re flying economy with fit-to-burst hand luggage, we’re squeezed into train seats with budget tickets and we’re taking the bus before the thought of a taxi even crosses our minds. In 2015 – and it’s only August so far – we’ve estimated a spend of over £1,500 on travel alone (trains, planes, buses, cars). We can’t turn to someone with the receipts and get that money back.

Lately, however, hotels are becoming an exception. We have gotten one-night stays in various locations for free through a mixture of our blog stats, valuable networking and PR approaches. These have come recently off the bat of our early published hotel reviews, which we paid for ourselves and which we’re sure the hotels were all pretty pleased with themselves that they got free press from fully paying guests! (Remember any of these: Grassmarket Hotel, Victoria Warehouse, Pantone Hotel. All 100% paid) Any slight discount or press rate that we save a little chunk of change on is then subsequently spent on restaurants, cafes and bars that may or may not end up in reviews on our blog, so it all works in a cycle and is all pumped back into the brand. For those who think we profit from any of this, you are seriously mistaken.

Take A Picture… Will It Last Longer?

Getting back to Prue Leith’s comments, we agree! There are some incredibly talented cooks on the internet, bloggers or otherwise. In fact, some are so multi-talented as cooks, stylists, writers, editors and photographers that they’ve easily managed 100k+ followers on Instagram. Yes, they post GORGEOUS photographs, but hang them in a frame and that’s often all they are. Photographs.

We didn’t learn to cook through photographs and we shouldn’t expect this generation to have idealised, aspirational ideals for food. Cookbooks should empower, not deflate a prospective cook’s confidence. We learned to cook from picking up what our parents were doing, from flicking through our mothers’ Home Economic notebooks from the 1970s, and from watching life-like, accessible cooks like Nigella Lawson tearing apart a roast chicken with her bare hands, because she too can’t carve to save her life, and Nigel Slater who seems to magically transform almost anything or almost nothing into an effortless and delectable dish.

We are what we are. We have a very simple kitchen with the most basic of equipment. We don’t prepare our meals to look like we’re about to shoot them for a Donna Hay cover. If we get 100 likes, hey, that’s great in our book! People get too obsessed with the concept of ‘eating with your eyes’, when it really should be feeding and nourishing your soul. Some things just look like shit, but they taste amazing. Some things that look amazing aren’t the greatest tasting.

HIEEEEEE INSTAGRAM!

A post shared by Patrick + Russell (@gastrogays) on

 

In the world of the Internet, it’s hard not to be bamboozled by modelesque blogger-Instagrammers who pose at colourful walls and glistening aquamarine pools doing a peace sign and licking an ice-pop (while the photograph is taken on a DSLR and edited on a nearby computer before being published after being emailed to a phone). Blink and it’s already got a thousands likes. Now it’s got four thousand. Steadily approaching 10k within a few hours.

All this while our dish, slow cooked for 5 hours, tasting delicious and looking like a decent, if a little sloppy, home-cooked meal doesn’t stand a chance. We’re getting to the point of not caring now. We’ve stopped obsessing over numbers, we’ve actually tried to put up more of our baking failures and kitchen disasters. We’re getting tired of trying to impress people. Stats are one thing, but we cherish engagement, as it’s gold to us, and we’re blessed we get it by the truckload, from real people like ourselves.

That’s who we’re making content for.

 

 

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  • Well said. I decided way back when I just started blogging that I wasn’t going to monetise in the sense of taking freebies, writing reviews that were appearing on 5 blogs at the same time, or doing sponsored posts. My posts became ever more deep, and the deeper they became, lesser people read them. And that is a sad fact, right now my instagram has more traffic than my blog, but the upkeep of the blog costs me way more money than the instagram does. Still I continue to write about food history, farming and the ethics of food. When I blogged happy-happy joy-joy stuf I got 50 comments, when I post ‘How free range is your bacon’ I might get a handful. And although that is sad, I still prefer it, because I am blessed to be able to write what I want and create valuable content. That the audience prefers lighter reading, is unfortunately the reason why people buy cookery books with more pictures than words.

    • GastroGays

      you inspire us to keep doing it too. In a world of stats and one up-manship it’s easy to get deflated by people clicking on to something you’re not really satisfied with and then posts you adore and pour your heart and soul into are barely even glanced at. Believe us, we’re in the same boat as you, please keep doing what you’re doing and stick to your guns 🙂

    • I could mirror everything you are saying here Regula!

  • Thanks for this well timed post… I guess I am an unusual blogger, but my posts are always step by step cookery and in some way trying to recreate those 70’s cookbooks that Prue Leith mentions (despite not being favourable about Fanny Crdaock!)… I love my blog and love buying things to cook on it, to style it, to make it fun for me… It’s a bonus if anyone reads it! I guess not all bloggers are the same. I do get invited to a few events these days, but I’m always clear I won’t blog about it… I do from time to time blog about things out with paths Fanny world, but only if there is a connection, and only if it’s fun for me, I’ve never been paid for anything, that wouldn’t be fun at all… You can always tell the blogs that are honest, decent and have integrity – like yours – and those that churn out the PR… I know which I’d prefer to read, so please keep going! Mwah…

  • This is a great piece! I also thought Ketty’s post a few weeks ago was brilliantly honest. Writing a food blog is so time and money consuming.
    My blog is small and I write it for myself as a hobby. I love when I get nice feedback but try not to obsess about numbers. I do see blogs that promote products/services that have clearly been gifted to them have huge reader numbers, but I prefer to keep doing posts that I’m happy to stand by. I did one sponsored post but I really wasn’t happy with it, I felt it wasn’t true to me.
    Please keep going with this blog as it is. I love reading about the successes and the not so successful kitchen adventures!

    But that image at the top of the Prue Leith article…..I worry about not being able to sleep tonight 🙂

  • Great thoughts many of which we share. We’re not able to sample two or three times, but always reserve the right not to post something. We’ve been invited to review and have found the food not up to scratch, so we feed back to the PR people/owners and simply don’t post.

    We do get some “interesting” requests such as to go and sit in a coffee bar for hours until we feel uncomfortable (!) – Recompense? a cup of coffee and piece of cake.

    As to Prue Leith’s comments, in the article I read she included Ottonlenghi’s books as the “coffee table” category. How wrong can she be!

    Keep on with what you’re doing. I am not sure we’ll ever get rich on it, but what a way to meet some of the most fabulous people ever!

    • GastroGays

      bravo, bravo, bravo. We agree on all counts! The discussion about this is all wonderful, let’s get people talking and lift the lid a little!

    • Robyn

      Interesting – what was the results of sitting in a coffee shop until you were uncomfortable??

  • Great post guys and thanks again for the mention. Like you, I only write about places I love and I know that’s why some people think I get everything for free because I’m constantly raving about places!!! I don’t see the point bitching about a business but thank god Dublin’s food scene has improved so much that it’s very rare to get disappointed now. I don’t really mind what people think anyway, I know that my readers trust me. Some people just love bashing bloggers, especially if they see they’re getting a bit of attention or lots of followers. It takes so much time to blog and it’s an expensive hobby. I really like your voice and the way you interact with people on social media, keep up the good work.
    Let me know next time you’re in Dublin and maybe we could meet up for coffee x

    Ketty (FFID)

  • Great post guys . I’m a rather erratic blogger but I prefer to talk about cooking rather than negative food experiences. I love your comments on Instagram pics – I like to take photos of my food before serving – real life food!

    Keep up the good work

  • I really relate to this. My blog was created to document mine and my husband’s culinary food journey. It literally is an online scrap book of our meals. All my pictures are unedited and taken on an iPhone and hubby has saved hard and paid for the meal. I do get an occasional invite to an event or genuinely win a competition but I will only invest my time in writing a blog post if it was a good experience. I feel that the only posts worth trusting are the ones that the blogger has paid for themselves. Most blogs I come across have a disclaimer saying they were invited as a guest. This puts me right off. I like to read genuine heart felt reviews. If the blogger has paid and is promoting the restaurant just because of their incredible experience then I am more inclined to visit. I think before even reading a ‘review’ look for a disclaimer first. A complimentary meal is 100% biased, it will always taste better without leaving a hole in your pocket.
    If you do anything it should be for the passion, not for the perks. I wholeheartedly believe in your blog ethics

  • A well written, honest post, that I believe needed to be ‘put out there’. I started my food blog as I have a passion for cooking that is equalled by a passion for sharing. If I mention a product or retailer it’s because I have paid for items that I think are great. Yes I’ve done one product review, after already purchasing quite a few items from the retailer. Actually it was a great partnership as I created all new recipes to test the products I was reviewing. I try to show, through lots of photos the cooking process and when I get s comment saying that someone has successfully made a recipe I’ve posted, I’m really chuffed. I share my epic fails and post about keeping it real. Ultimately if all you present is an Instagram glossy image of yourself, you will eventually slip up, someone else will be glossier and you will be forgotten. I don’t care about my name being remembered, but if I can inspire one person to try something new, or make a bit extra to share with a new mum/elderly neighbours, then I’ll be happy. Sammie http://www.feastingisfun.com

  • Robyn

    I really like this post! There are some great bloggers out there (you two included!) but at times you’re overshadowed by the bloggers that shout loudest – fishing for free stuff, inviting themselves to events and reviews, posting perfect pictures on Instagram. And their content is drivel! You guys are real and I and many others really appreciate that.

  • This is SUCH an important post. I wasn’t aware at all of the bakery blackmail, but I did share the food porn piece earlier today. It’s so fascinating how this whole world of food blogging is evolving along the way….I’m all about the beautiful image, but more about food and farming in general, and when I do ever decide it’s prudent to do a book giveaway that’s when I get the most traffic which feels a bit disheartening in a way. Still, I’ve simply given up worrying about it all. Like Maria Popova says, to paraphrase, you have to write for you and NOT your “audience” once you start doing anything for “your audience”, you’re finished. I could carry on for days on all of this, but will cut short and just say thanks for putting this out there. I am going to share with a special group of American food bloggers too. Take care, Imen x

    • GastroGays

      What gorgeous words from one of our blogging inspirations! Glad we’re on the same page, honesty is so refreshing xx

  • Kheya Ganguly Kiefner

    Love this- these thoughts are what inspired me to start to put together notfoodporn. I want the joy and messiness of cooking at home and want to share that! Thanks for expressing my thoughts.

  • Absolutely lovely post and one of the best I’ve read about sort of “behind the scenes” of blogging. I agree with you on pretty much everything you’ve written!

    • GastroGays

      Thanks so much Laura, we’ve had a fantastic response to this post and every message means a lot 🙂