DCSIMG

Food bloggers are turning the tables on celebrity chefs and reviewers

FOR anyone who cared to steal a look, my diary for the last week in November would have made mystifying reading. Lunch with Trampy And The Tramp.

Coffee with One Hungry Girl. Meeting My Monkfish in an Edinburgh deli. There were odd phrases scribbled at the edges of the pages, too: My Last Bite; A Slice Of Cherry Pie; You'll Have Had Your Tea.

These are all the online aliases of food bloggers – people whose love of food is such that they feel compelled to share their eating experiences with the world by writing online about meals they have consumed in restaurants or cooked for families and friends at home.

These foodies are for broadband and against gastric bands. They are pioneers of a passionate "scranzine" culture in which obsessives might spend 10,000 words detailing the definitive history of tattie scones, or photograph their meals in Scotland's restaurants and post the pictures on Twitter between courses.

"Food really brings people together, no matter where they are in the world. And the internet means that can happen on a scale we've never dreamt of before," says Julia Parsons, who writes at A Slice Of Cherry Pie and is founder of the UK Food Bloggers Association (UKFBA).

"I liken it to curtain-twitching. It's fascinating to see how ordinary people cook. Not the celebrity chefs, not the restaurateurs, but everyday people. What are they cooking? What are they eating when they go out? What secrets are they discovering?"

The scale of food blogging is difficult to estimate. It began in America and that remains its heartland. There, bloggers sometimes go so far as to shoot video footage in restaurants and use voice recorders to interview waiting staff as they describe the dish just served.

Some of the top US bloggers have tens of thousands of followers, and have become celebrities in their own right, appearing on cooking shows and landing book deals. Julie Powell, whose blog The Julie/Julia Project chronicled her attempts to follow in one year all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, has been the subject of a film starring Meryl Streep.

Blogging is, perhaps, the inevitable result of a culture in which food has become an obsession. Chefs – in particular Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver – are among the most famous people in the country.

We eat at their restaurants, cook their recipes, follow their exploits on television and in the tabloids. It is natural that we should feel a desire to add our voice to theirs, especially as we are now much more knowledgeable about food than a decade ago.

Britain, once mocked for its cuisine and eating habits, is home to many who will blithely discuss everything from food miles to molecular gastronomy. Much of that discussion is taking place online.

There are over 1,700 members of the UKFBA, and while food blogging has tended to be a London-based phenomenon, it has now spread to other British cities and to Scotland.

Which is why, on a sub-zero Monday in Glasgow, I find myself sitting in Assam's on West Regent Street, sharing a meal with two men whose unruly beards and thick-framed spectacles bring to mind a survivalist Two Ronnies.

In fact, Chris Cameron and Graeme Virtue go by the name Trampy And The Tramp. Their blog is an enthusiast's guide to Glasgow's lesser-known curry houses, written by people for whom eating and sharing the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent is one of life's chief pleasures. "Anyone want a fish pakora?" says Cameron, offering a dish. "Fire in."

Virtue works in broadcasting, Cameron does film and TV location work. They are both in their early thirties. The blog began in late 2008, though it remained under the radar until this summer when they were named Curry Lovers of the Year at the Scottish Curry Awards.

The title suits them. They love curry with an intensity bordering on fanaticism. Cameron has been eating it since infancy and is presently engaged in a quixotic quest to discover whether any restaurant serves lamb chops as good as those from the Shish Mahal on Glasgow's Park Road.

Virtue, meanwhile, is a man for whom chilli garlic chicken has become a way of life. "Curry is the ultimate comfort food," he declares. "I can't imagine not eating it all the time. Recently, I had four curries in a week, and I was still like, 'Shall we go to Mother India's for lunch?'"

Their blog is updated every Thursday and receives 2,000 unique visitors each month, which isn't bad when you consider that what those people are reading are accounts of a group of burly men going out in Glasgow for a night on the Kingfisher and kachoris.

The typical Trampy And The Tramp party is around eight in number. Members are referred to on the blog by a variety of avatars including Rumpole Of The Balti. Food bloggers, for some reason, are very keen on puns. You need only click on The Lambshank Redemption for evidence of that.

Unlike most food blogs, Trampy And The Tramp's Glasgow of Curry (to give it its full title) is very funny. The style is vivid and imagistic, over the top in a way you wouldn't get in even the most outr newspaper review. An idea of the tone can be gleaned from the fact that one particular side-dish, an alarming shade of orange, was immediately dubbed "Tommy Sherid-naan".

Food blogs are, often, hosted by Wordpress or Blogger, but they are driven – always – by passion. The vast majority of people doing this are making no money out of it and have no intention of doing so in future. But they love food and they love being able to express themselves about it in public.

Take Hilary Sturzaker, a 41-year-old "frustrated number cruncher" working for a bank. For her, blogging is "an escape". Her alter-ego is MyMonkfish, the name of the blog in which she writes about dining in Edinburgh restaurants and her own cooking. The great schism in food blogging is between those who write about eating out and those who focus on eating in; MyMonkfish unites the two factions.

She goes out for dinner at least twice a week, but also bakes a mean muffin. Her blog, full of photographs of delicious-looking dishes, can provoke salivation in anyone who chances upon the site. So is she – as these bloggers are sometimes described – a food pornographer? "Maybe a wee bit, yeah."

What about the logistics of food blogging? Doesn't it feel a bit weird taking out a camera in a restaurant and snapping away? "You could look a bit of a prat, without a doubt, if you went in with a massive Canon," says Sturzaker. "So I take quite a lot on my iPhone. I've got a link to my blog, so I can actually post straight from the phone. It's instant. You take a photo and send it. Done."

Food blogging is a pursuit that has been enabled by technology, in particular the arrival of iPhones and Twitter, which allow for real-time comment and feedback. Restaurants are already beginning to react to this. Recently, Sturzaker and her husband visited a Chinese place in Leith. She had booked, but still had a long wait for a table. So she took out her phone and tweeted her displeasure. Instantly, one of the restaurant's managers tweeted back that they were sorry and to offer drinks on the house.

This may seem a remarkable glimpse of a possible future, but it is positively primitive compared with the advanced state of food blogging in the US. There, the practice is so prevalent that one forward-thinking chef has installed a light-box in a corner of his Los Angeles restaurant so that the photographs taken by bloggers will show his food in, quite literally, the best possible light.

Not everywhere is as welcoming of food bloggers. Some US chefs have banned photography in their restaurants. Grant Achatz, chef at Alinea, a celebrated restaurant in Chicago, has not gone that far. Indeed, he himself blogs and tweets. But he has concerns about the effect of food blogging on the overall dining experience.

"I wonder why people so passionate about food would sacrifice the integrity of the courses, instead prioritising the documentation," he wrote in an online article. "Courses get cold, or melt while the images are taken, and in extreme cases the intended effect of the dish is completely lost."

In the UK, too, there is some tension between restaurants and bloggers. Mai Kangas, a 34-year-old Finn, has lived in Edinburgh for six years and worked as a chef at some excellent restaurants. She also writes a food blog as One Hungry Girl.

"I gave my old head chef the blog address and he had a look at it," she recalls. "I saw him the next day and he said, 'Do you not have better f***ing things to do?' He said he would hate if someone came to his restaurant and took photos and wrote about it. I think most chefs are quite aggressive towards food bloggers."

This simmering hostility came to the boil in late October when husband-and-wife bloggers The Critical Couple wrote a negative review of the service they had received at Marcus Wareing's restaurant at The Berkeley hotel in Knightsbridge. A few days later they posted on Egullet, an online forum for foodies, alleging that Wareing had phoned them and – in response to their review – "ranted ... for close to 30 minutes". The chef subsequently declared himself "saddened" that their private conversation had been made public.

What this spat demonstrates is that food blogging, while an emergent form of discourse, is still a grey area; it doesn't have the professional standards of journalism but does have the potential to exceed the influence and reach of newspapers and magazines.

For Jo Stougaard, that day is already here. Stougaard, 41, is a half-Scottish resident of Los Angeles, a key food blogger in a city which is, arguably, the global epicentre of the scene.

Her blog, MyLastBite, receives an average of 500 page views each day, but it is her Twitter, @MyLastBite, which really packs a punch. She spends two hours each morning tweeting and has almost 23,500 followers, so her views on a restaurant can genuinely affect how many people choose to eat there.

"I just tweet one thing about food I had at some bar and – boom – they get reservations," she says with some pride. "A couple of restaurants have told me that as a result of my posts they get booked out for the next week. That's kind of scarily powerful. Blogs can cancel reservations, too. One bad review gets tweeted and that's it."

Stougaard loves to eat. It would be wrong to say she has an indiscriminate palate, but her taste is wide-ranging. She makes regular trips to Scotland to visit her father, and is as happy eating deep-fried Mars Bars as she is enjoying Michelin-star food at The Kitchin in Leith.

During her childhood, following her parents' divorce, she spent a decade living in a children's home, a period she considers "the dark years of food".

Everything she ate during that time was processed or canned, and so now good food is incredibly personally important to her. She eats out two or three nights each week, dined at The Bazaar – the Beverly Hills restaurant of Jos Andrs – 20 times in the first two months it was open, and brings to mind the sort of extravagant gourmand AJ Liebling used to enjoy writing about during the 1950s.

She has, for the last while, been eating her way through the menu at a favourite Thai restaurant. "I started in February," she says, "and I'm up to 140 dishes."

This is unashamed gluttony; the key word being "unashamed". Most food bloggers are female, and it's a positive side-effect of the phenomenon that it represents a mass rejection of the prevalent notion that women should feel guilty about what they eat, or at least regard it as a functional chore. Food blogging is all about taking pleasure in a promiscuous range of international cuisines; or, to put it in a way that pun-loving bloggers might appreciate – experiencing the joy of TexMex.

As Mai Kangas says: "I've been a chef for 16 years, but if I had to choose between cooking and eating, I definitely would choose eating." We have lived through the age of the celebrity chef and now, it seems, we are entering a new era of the celebrity diner.

For some food bloggers, of course, the point of the blog is to share their home cooking with the world at large. Marie McQuade, 40, blogs at the splendidly named You'll Have Had Your Tea. A former producer with MTV, who once toured Asia with Bon Jovi, she is now living the good life in the countryside south of Edinburgh and running the Green Apple Cafe in the village of Lamancha.

Her blog is full of recipes for the likes of split pea soup, almond citrus cake and – recently – macaroon bars. The writing is sprinkled with family anecdotes which implicitly emphasise the role of food as a social bond.

The taste and smell of food is inextricably linked with memories of those who cooked for and nurtured us, and for whom we did the same. The exemplar here is Marcel Proust, whose novel In Search Of Lost Time contains the scene in which the madeleine cakes provoke childhood memories. Food bloggers, on the whole, are very Proustian as this sort of sensory nostalgia and emphasis on childhood are commonplace.

"I grew up in a family of people that always cooked at home," says McQuade, "so one reason I blog is to document the history of family recipes. There will be a record of the chutney that we have in the summer and the Scotch broth we have in the winter.

"I've got scraps of paper from my granny's cookbook, and my kids will get those recipes in an electronic form which is what they're more used to," she says.

Of course, blogs are accessible by a far wider audience than one's immediate family. Those who write about their own cooking quickly grow used to getting e-mails from the likes of Crete and Cologne congratulating them on their recipe for, say, clootie dumpling.

This makes sense. Food and the internet are a good fit. The act of eating together has always been the means by which we stayed in touch, conversed and cemented relationships. It is an intimate daily ritual. In many ways, however, social media have replaced the dinner table as the centre of our personal lives.

There seems little doubt that food blogging is here to stay. It is not a fad. Is it not, in fact, a profound shift in the way we consume information about the things we consume? "Oh, yeah," nods Kangas. "I can't see me stopping writing about food."

Not unless she loses her appetite, perhaps?

"No," she laughs. "That'll never happen."

www.asliceofcherrypie.co.uk

www.mylastbite.wordpress.com

www.mymonkfish.wordpress.com

www.onehungrygirl.blogspot.com

www.trampyandthetramp.blogspot.com

www.youllhavehadyourtea.blogspot.com

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 12 December, 2010

 
 
 

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