How to Be an Academic Food Writer

By Anna Nguyen

I am a failed food writer. For many, many years, I have tried to write publishable food narratives, but with no real success. And yet, oddly enough, I read quite obsessively. Though not all of my reading materials revolve around food or food culture, many of my favorite reads are food-focused: essays by George Orwell; Steven Shapin’s recent efforts on wine and food histories; Haruki Murakami’s pieces about his cooking practices and eating preferences. I am keen on reading any memoir by chefs or food personalities. The list goes on. People say reading is an indicator of good writing, but I am proof that this sentiment does not hold true. The only reason I write so uncharitably of my forays in food writing is because I lack the ability to write sensorially; that is, I have not yet trained myself to write sentimentally about food using any other senses than the visual.

How does one write about taste in a way that evokes anything but just visual inventory? How does one successfully translate a fleeting, visceral moment into words shared with others? These were — and still are — questions that I always ask myself as I attempt to write. I am perhaps thinking too much about the words in use. That is, I find it extraordinarily difficult to put into words what I’ve just tasted. I try and try and try, and I still find the end result unsatisfying. There are days that I’ve come to terms with my reductionist perspective. Some days, terse paragraphs are sufficient; other days, many other days, I’m like Thomas at the end of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup. I leave many unfinished and untitled essays on food on Google Drive because I cannot muster any profound words to write what I intend to say.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of my failed career aspirations is that I’ve found focused research interests in the Gastronomy program. As I am planning my thesis, I intend to address the problem of food writing and the limitations of the language of food. In particular, I intend to try to understand the meanings of words in use — what is the inarticulate trying to articulate, and how language and epistemologies are constructed and shared.

IMG_20151217_143056My interests were shaped during my first year as a graduate student. While attending classes, I found myself growing fond of discourse analysis, textual analysis, phenomenology, and social theory — all things that I had at one point during my undergraduate years hated and tried to avoid. But to know theory is to be able to use and criticize what is lacking. Merely suggesting that language and knowledge are social constructs are non-answers that do not address the problems that I’m interested in, problems like the vagueness of food policies and laws, and food literacy. Nor does the concept of “social construction” add anything meaningful to ongoing academic conversations. If I am thankful for anything about my time as a graduate student in the Gastronomy program, it’s for the reason that I am able to intelligibly articulate what I don’t like with more force.

I’m still writing, though my writing has shifted focus. I tend to write with a more academic tone, but it’s probably not as academic as one imagines. Allusions to my literary background and journalistic experience are still present, though I’ve tried to dismiss unnecessary imagery. Great scholars like Arjun Appadurai, Gary Alan Fine, and Steven Shapin have written about food and culture without adhering to a strict academic template, and that’s something I wish to emulate. Perhaps it’s something I’ll attempt in my proposed thesis.

As I prepare the initial stages of thesis writing, I’m reminded that food writing existed long before food studies was birthed. During my first meeting with Walter Hopp, my thesis advisor, he heralded the chowder description in Moby Dick as being great food writing. I’ve been so buried in theory and academic texts that I’ve forgotten about literature. Perhaps on some much-needed breaks from the exhausting writings of Peter Singer and Michael Pollan, I should look back at the food writings of George Orwell and Virginia Woolf. And maybe it’s finally time to read about that damn whale.

Summer Course Spotlight: The Science of Food and Cooking

molecular gastronomy photoFood science meets culinary arts in the MLA in Gastronomy program’s Science of Food and Cooking course. In this Summer I course, basic food science is explored in the context of traditional and modern cooking techniques. Students will discover the science behind cooking everyday foods, explore molecular gastronomy, and learn how to use sensory evaluation techniques to analyze food products.

Students will conduct in-class experiments and have the opportunity to work in BU’s professional kitchen for a comprehensive look at the basic science that makes recipes work and how altering ingredients results in differing sensory properties. Join us for a combination of academic discussion and hands-on exploration of the science of food. This course is designed for food studies and other non-natural science majors and does not require prerequisites.

Instructor Valerie Ryan is a food scientist and food studies scholar. She holds a Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy and is certified in Culinary Arts; her Bachelor of Science is in Food and Nutrition, with a concentration in Food Chemistry. As a food scientist, she has worked for both government and industry in the areas of research and development; ingredient applications; chemical, nutritional, and sensory analysis; and product innovation. Ryan has focused her food studies research on the impact of taste preference on human evolution.

Limited seats are still available in this class, which will meet on Monday and Wednesday evenings, beginning May 18 and runs through June 25. Please register online at by May 10 or contact for more information

After Graduation: Starting a Wine Business

by Kim Simone

Alumna Kim Simone (May ’14) shares her post-degree career path and founding her company, Vinitas Wineworks.

kim1One of the questions I heard frequently from people while I was attending the Gastronomy program was “What are you going to do with your degree?” It’s not exactly a traditional program with built-in job training (with the exception of the culinary program.) We do it because it’s a part of who we are and what we love. I bet that most of us use the degree to forge our own way in the world of food, creating a place for ourselves in one of the many industries that pertain to our chosen field of study, be it cooking, writing, education, hospitality, and so on. I chose wine.

At the same time that I started the Gastronomy program I also jumped into the wine world, working first in a large retail store and then for a medium-sized Massachusetts wine distributor. And although I was climbing up the industry ladder, I got an idea pretty early on that a job in sales wasn’t the place for me. My real love has always been educating the public and “geeking out” over the finer points of whatever is in my wineglass. Which is why, after years of thought and planning, I founded an independent wine education and consulting company after finishing my degree last May.

Wine-is-fun-single-1080x675I specialize in wine education classes and hosting wine events for the general public. These can be either private events (e.g. tastings in people’s homes, private parties, etc.) or something bigger like a fundraiser for a nonprofit. I also provide training for those in the hospitality trades that either need some guidance within their own store or restaurant, or who need someone to train their staff to be better servers or wine consultants. My education through the Gastronomy program and the Elizabeth Bishop Wine School has really prepared me for this new role. Both the hands-on tasting classes led by Sandy Block and Bill Nesto, as well as the History of Wine class, really opened up this fabulous world to me. The most important thing I feel that I can pass on to my clients is that wine doesn’t have to be scary. It is complex, yes, but there truly is something out there for every palate. Once you learn what you like the possibilities are endless. Through my events and blog I provide the place to ask those questions that you might think are a little bit dumb and get that knowledge flowing.

Kim Simone can be reached at or

The Inside Scoop on BU’s Culinary Lab

by Claudia Catalano

Student Claudia Catalano presents her daily experiences in the BU Gastronomy culinary lab on her new blog.

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Since I began pursuing my MLA in Gastronomy in 2012, I’ve always dreamed of taking the Culinary Lab. I’m a good home cook, but I’ve never been formally trained in proper French technique, food safety, how to perfect timing, or how to cook for big crowds. Yet for the past two and a half years, I would make excuses about how impractical it would be to enroll. It’s a big commitment, but I finally decided in December that I would be full of regret if I didn’t include the lab as part of my Gastronomy degree. So I took a leave of absence from my job (yikes!) and now spend 4 days a week, from 10:30 AM to 6:oo PM, at 808 Commonwealth Avenue, the home of the BU Gastronomy program.

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What a fulfilling way to be spending my time. Not only am I being introduced to professional cooking techniques, but I also have the privilege of learning from 21 well-respected chefs who will be teaching the program this semester. Michael Leviton of Lumiere, Mary Ann Esposito of PBS, Barry Maiden of Hungry Mother, and Jeremy Sewall of Island Creek Oyster Bar are just a few of the talented instructors with whom I will work during the 14-week class. And, of course, there is the much-anticipated 2-day segment taught by the program’s co-founder, Jacques Pépin. What a thrill!

As part of the course assignments, I am required to keep a daily journal of my class experiences. I have decided to treat mine as a blog, which you can view here: If you’re thinking about enrolling in the Culinary Lab, this is an inside view. Take a look and you may decide to make your dream a reality, too.

The Culinary Lab is offered each semester and meets Monday through Thursday from 10:30 AM to 6:00 PM.  Besides counting as elective credits in the Gastronomy MLA program, students who successfully complete the lab receive a Certificate in Culinary Arts from Boston University.

Working at Momofuku Milk Bar

by Kendall Vanderslice

Student Kendall Vanderslice recounts her experience shadowing Pastry Chef Christina Tosi at Momofuku Milk Bar’s Williamsburg kitchen.

credit: Kendall Vanderslice

When I was in elementary school, every trip to my grandmother’s house included preparing a boxed cake mix. At home, my family maintained a diet free of sugar, dairy, meat, and anything flavorful, but at Gramma’s we indulged on all of the treats typically withheld. We ate Pop-Tarts for breakfast, ice cream after dinner, and we learned to bake with boxed mixes by Betty Crocker. Pastry Chef Christina Tosi, the creative force behind Momofuku Milk Bar, shares in this nostalgic love for cereals, candies, and cakes, using their flavors as inspiration for all of her bakery’s treats. Over winter break, I visited Milk Bar’s Brooklyn kitchen to spend two days working with the pastry team, gaining a behind-the-scenes look at the operation.

I was first introduced to the desserts of Christina Tosi last Christmas when my chef gave me a copy of her cookbook, Milk. That evening, I devoured the book like a novel, entranced by Tosi’s humor and her whimsical approach to pastry. A few months later, I visited Milk Bar’s Midtown Manhattan store, excited to find that her treats lived up to my expectations. This past October, Ms. Tosi spoke at one of Harvard University’s Science and Cooking seminars. After the lecture, I introduced myself and asked if I might be able to spend a few days in January shadowing her pastry team, to which she eagerly obliged.

My first day began at 8:30 am. When I arrived, the team of sous chefs had already prepared a list of tasks for me to accomplish. I began by assisting the head baker in preparing sheet trays to bake off cookies.

“Today is a light day,” she told me. “Only 22 sheets.”

credit: Kendall Vanderslice

After showing me the pan spray, parchment, and stacks of sheet trays, she left to fetch the cookies while I prepped the trays. I neatly sprayed, papered, and stacked 22 trays just in time for her return.

“22 sheets, right?” I asked for confirmation.

Giggling, she turned her rack of pre-portioned cookie dough for me to see. “22 sheets of portioned dough,” she responded. “That’s 220 sheet trays; about 3,000 cookies.”

Amused at my novice mistake, I returned to spraying sheet trays for another hour. When all of the trays were prepped, I assisted in laying the cookies onto the sheets and organizing the racks to go into the oven.

Once that task was complete, I moved on to some side projects. I processed peanut brittle into a powder, sorted birthday cake crumbs into containers of fine crumbs, medium-sized crumbs, and too-big-for-a-single-bite crumbs. I molded piecrusts, portioned cake batter, cooked family meal, and blowtorched marshmallows. As a guest in the kitchen, I was not allowed to operate the mixers or ovens; nonetheless there was no shortage of ways for my hands to stay busy in the kitchen.

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credit: Kendall Vanderslice

The volume of production at Milk Bar was magnificently greater than any kitchen I have worked in before. Milk Bar products are sold at seven different storefronts, as well as on the dessert menus at Momofuku’s fine dining restaurants, and all are made in the kitchen in Williamsburg. Originally a warehouse, the kitchen space houses five floor-to-ceiling ovens, three 140-quart mixers, two 80-quart mixers, and one or two work tables for each of the ten pastry cooks. In addition to bakers, the pastry department consists of an extensive management team. Most cooks who stay with Milk Bar beyond one year have the opportunity to work their way into a management position, receiving training not only on the production side of the operation but on the logistical side as well.

 The days at Milk Bar were long and tiring, but the team bonded as a family and aimed to keep the work fun. Music blasted all day long, warming the atmosphere of the warehouse space. Every cook commented on his love for his job or her respect for management. By the end of two days, I felt as if they’d already adopted me as a member of the team. Exhausted, I traveled home to Boston, already awaiting my next trip to Milk Bar to sample whatever creative treats a popular cereal or candy might yet inspire.

Make sure to check out Kendall’s other endeavors and musings on the intersections of  food, faith, and culture by checking out her blog: