Picture a perfectly grilled cheeseburger, medium-well, with cheese melting on top of the warm meat, piled beneath lettuce, tomato, pickle and ketchup, grease dripping down the sides. Think of it as not necessarily cooked by the best chef in town, perhaps prepared at the oldest restaurant, and the $9 bill being picked up gladly by the company card. All your editor wants is an article about the experience afterward.
Food writer Kevin Pang of the Chicago Tribune visited the University of Utah on February 11 as a guest lecturer for a select group of communication students. As the students began to clamor in early that Saturday morning, Pang was shocked at the early-risers in attendance. He joked that as an undergrad he would never have showed up at such an early hour for a weekend class.
Despite his proposed laziness during his time at the University of Southern California, where he received his undergraduate degree in 2003, he has since paid his dues in the journalism world and has grown into an award-winning writer. Most recently, Pang received the James Beard Foundation Award in 2010 for a project called “The Cheeseburger Show.” Pang has also been featured in the 2010 and 2011 versions of the “Best Food Writing” anthology.
Pang believes “food is the most local of things you can cover” as a journalist. Compared to beat topics such as music and bands, Pang finds writing about food to be the best way to connect with a local community. For him, it’s about having a shared experience between himself and his readers. When he writes about food in a certain area, his readers can immediately go out and share the experience, he said.
When questioned about the future of food writing, Pang said he never runs out of restaurants to review and emphasized sharing a local experience with his readers. The food industry is very competitive and review sites like Yelp or personal blogs are only encouraging food journalists to work harder. “Newspaper food writers are working much harder than [food] writers 10 years ago,” said Pang. He also mentioned he works on up to ten different stories at any given time.
The food industry is delicate, according to Pang, and one bad review could put an entire restaurant out of business. Through a different perspective, a three or four star rating could mean thousands of dollars of profit for a local restaurant. As the Chicago Tribune’s “Cheap Eater,” Pang reviews hot spots that serve good, cheap food. When he has a poor dining experience in a restaurant that is not trying for five stars, he simply neglects to write about it. To him, it’s not worth the time when it could mean ruining an entire business.
Pang’s most highly emphasized point throughout the lecture was that food reviewing, eating and tasting is actually very little of what his job entails. “Food is the most personal of experiences,” he said. Unlike other art forms, food is the only one that involves all the senses. For Pang, the meaning of the experience is much more memorable. His goals are to think of the chef’s philosophy, consider the ambience of the restaurant, think about whom he is with and connect each experience to his past and the pasts of his readers. “The goal of a food writer is as much of a guide about where to find good food as connecting with the reader,” he said.
Pang’s articles and videos from “The Cheeseburger Show” are posted on his website www.kevinpang.com.