Andrew Friedman Dishes about His Career in Food Writing
By Dan Ricigliano
Andrew Friedman is a well known writer from New York City. A graduate of English at Columbia, he is known for covering the legendary Bocuse d'Or cooking competition. The Bocuse d'Or is considered the modern day Culinary Olympics, and is held in Lyon, France, every two years. Friedman's research about the American team became his feature novel, Knives at Dawn.
How did you get into food writing?
Growing up I always wanted to write. I wanted to be a screenwriter as a kid. I got a job after college working for a producer, but it left me with little available free time for writing. After a couple years of that, I changed gears and got a job in PR that specialized in lifestyle accounts (food, spirits and restaurants) and all of a sudden, I had some clients who were the best chefs in NYC. That's how I got into food writing. I never wanted to be around food, to be honest I didn't cook. I didn't know anything about food and after I took it on I kinda got the bug a little bit. One of my clients was Alfred Portale, from the Gotham Bar and Grill, and I helped him out with his first book as part of the responsibilities of my job. Next thing I know I was writing their books. I thought to myself, this is a way to be a writer professionally. I can make a go helping chefs collaborate on their books, and that's mostly what I did for 10 years.
What are you currently working on?
(Laughs) I can't tell you that, but I'm at the early stages on a couple of new projects. My next solo book is something that takes a historical look at the evolution of the modern American restaurant chef. I hope it will be my follow-up to Knives at Dawn.
Is your friendship with Chef Portale what motivated you to write about the Bocuse d'Or?
No. That came about when my agent called me up about two years ago, and asked me if I had been following the event and what was going on, meaning the involvement of Thomas Keller and Daniel Bolude and Jerome Bocuse. I told him that I had seen some blog articles about it, but I've never been really big into it. He said with the amount of people involved, there may be something interesting there. I did some quick research on what was going on with the U.S. effort. I found the competitive aspect of it interesting, it reminded me about sports. I sent Daniel an email and he asked me what I thought. I said I had a really great time and next thing, I was in.
How long did it take you to write Knives at Dawn?
Roughly eight months. In September '08 I began, the team went to Lyon in January of '09, and I delivered my manuscript by June of '09. It went fast. I would have loved to spend more time on it.
What advice would you give to a young culinary student or chef, if they wanted to get into competitive cooking?
I like to ask anybody when they think about doing this, why they really want to do it. Do they want to do it to learn, or because they like the natural high of the competition, what's your goal? I think it's good for people to know first and foremost why they are doing something. The advice I would give is to make sure that when you want do something, you put in a total effort behind it. It's like Thomas Keller says, cooking is something that you reinvent or have to prove every day. With competition, it's all about planning and practice and pulling it off when it counts. If you do it poorly, then it may stay with you for a long time. So if you want it, you have to put the time in to do it properly. Do whatever you have to, to visualize your goal and set yourself up for success.
How would you compare the old Culinary Olympics with the Bocuse d'Or?
What a lot of people affiliated with the Bocuse d'Or will tell you, that the C.O. is really old fashioned, there's a lot of cold food. Whereas the B.D. is like cooking the most elaborate hot dish you've ever made. It's a mix of cold food and hot food competition and that mix changes over the years. There are similar elements but it's a very different entity due to a much larger team size (C.O.) versus the B.D. where it's just two people and one score.
What do you think it will take for the U.S. to win next year in Lyon?
I feel like they are set up really well right now. Everything they need to answer that they have. They have a lot of money for equipment, advisors like Bolude, Keller, and Bocuse, and they have a great coach in Marc Erickson. They have people with European roots, and the team from Eleven Madison. People who really understand food tend to do well at this thing. The only thing they could use now is a French born candidate who converted to US citizenship (laughs).
How did it feel to be there just to witness such a legendary cooking competition?
This may seem strange, but being there was the least interesting to me. It was exciting, but the team didn't have the best day. I've gotten so close to them, I know it was probably hard for them. It was a stressful day. What was really special to me, and what I'll treasure for a long time, was to be able to watch them train, practice, and figure out what they were going to do. I watched them go through the whole five hour routine from beginning to end. It was a privilege just to watch them practice the craft.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming food writers?
I don't know how to respond on the food writer aspect since it was such a strange path for me to achieve. I usually take a pass on that. Gourmet magazine went away, people are writing fewer books, and magazines are cutting their staffs. If you are in it for the love of it, find a niche you can own. Start putting stuff out there in blogs and see what happens. I have a friend in the culinary industry, and people ask him that all the time. He says don't do it unless you love it enough to treat it like one would treat their spouse. You've got to make it your number one priority in order to be the best. You have to subjugate everything else to that devotion to succeed. There are a lot of short cuts these days, like being on Top Chef, where even if you don't win you can get noticed and hope to find investors to start up. It wasn't that long ago that people would travel the world, and now you don't have to. You can just do it here for a couple years a pop learning from different chefs.