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A Conversation with James Beard Award Winner Kathy Gunst

Kathy Gunst

Chicago is preparing to host the James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards this evening, but the awards for Books, Broadcast & Journalism were handled out on April 24th. Kathy Gunst took home the Journalism award in the Home Cooking category for her article titled “Cabbage Craft” which appeared on Eating Well. Gunst is a seasoned food writer who went from living in New York City and working at Food & Wine Magazine to living in Maine as a freelance writer, a cookbook author, and the Resident Chef on NPR’s Here and Now. She graciously took time out of her day to chat with me about writing, food, Maine, and of course, her recent win at the James Beard Awards.

I would like to start at the beginning and I am curious to know how you carved out a career as a writer. I know that you were originally with a magazine and then you made a transition into freelance and I would love to hear that story. 

I was working at Food & Wine Magazine and I had a dream job. There is no other way to put it. I was the culinary editor I worked with these amazing chefs that would come to New York. I was the liaison between the test kitchen and editorial and I got to do some writing and traveling and it was dreamy. One of the assignments I was given was to a do a piece about the best restaurants along the New England coast. This was 1982, and I came up here and I traveled from Downeast Maine down through New Hampshire and Connecticut. I went to all these amazing places.

When I went to the Blue Strawbery, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire it was extremely innovative. This restaurant could be in Brooklyn today and be considered a trendsetter. It was that ahead of its time. The chef was a man named James Haller and I interviewed him, and we became friends. We connected. We were living in New York City, and he invited us to visit over Labor Day. It was very hot in New York and we were excited to get out of town. We met all these people from the restaurant and a bunch of his friends, and as a New Yorker I was completely blown away by how very interesting everybody was, and how passionate they were about what they did. We got really excited about it.

We decided that we would move up here for a year. We would sublet our apartment. I had just gotten my contract to write my first cookbook and I was debating whether I was going to write it while working full-time at Food & Wine, or whether I would quit, or take a year off. And John [her husband] was working for National Public Radio at the time and we both had things that we could do and live here. We sublet our apartment and we moved up here, and honestly the rest is history. We bought an old house in South Berwick and I have raised two kids here. It was a one-year experiment that turned into a huge life shift.

After the cookbook, I am assuming that one thing lead to another and you kept getting freelance work and built a career that way?

Yes. There were no blogs back then; there was no internet back then. I wrote for a lot of travel magazines and food magazines. I became the restaurant reviewer for the Maine Times, which was a statewide alternative newspaper. It all started to fit together and the longer we lived here the more it started to feel like home. The more it felt like the right place. It was a terrific, wonderful, fabulous move.  It has been an incredible ride being here and I landed in a community that is just hugely supportive. Over the years, this town has become filled with artists of all kinds. It is a great community.

I think that is something common throughout the state of Maine, there so many artists, and the arts are so supported. There is such enthusiasm around the arts.

Totally. I wrote a book in 2011 called Notes from a Maine Kitchen and it takes you through the calendar year from January to December. It has essays and recipes chronicling the year in the life of a Mainer. I call the book my love letter to the state.

When I first moved here the food scene was extremely limited. There were a few terrific restaurants and some terrific chefs doing things in odd places. But there wasn’t this vibrant food scene that you find in Portland and Kittery and all over the state now. When you look at the number of James Beard Award nominations for Maine chefs on the long list, it’s astounding!

There were 10 on the long list.

I don’t know how many other states got that.

I do have more questions about Maine and food scene but I do want to hear about how the online space changed journalism. What advice would you give someone starting a career in the field now?

When I was starting, you would have clips. You would write for a magazine and you would ask for four or five copies of the magazine with your article and you would rip them out with a razor blade and you would put them in a book. That was the only way that you could show someone your work. You either went to an editor’s office and showed them, or you made copies of your clips and you sent them out. The only way you could get work was to build up a collection of work. It was a real catch twenty-two of how do you sell your first piece if you haven’t written your first piece.

Well now, anybody can write a blog. Anyone who can form a sentence and fry and egg can write a blog. A lot of them are just that, and a lot of them are remarkable. There is incredible journalism happening on some blogs. But because it is so accessible and because there are no requirements anybody can write anything. Of course you are going to have the range from poorly researched poorly written to award-winning journalism.

I think that the internet now provides so much access that you can create your own resume. You don’t have to publish somewhere right away. You can write years worth of blogs and take it very seriously. I know many people who have leapt from that platform right to cookbook contracts for big money just because their blogs were so beautiful and successful. That never existed for me, and it’s just fabulous. It gets rid of the middle man. If you take it seriously, and if you write well, and if you have a graphic eye, you can do remarkable things with a blog.

I have no idea how my career would be different if I had access to that. It was just a different platform. I was lucky because I started working in magazines before I even graduated from college. So I did have clips and I didn’t have that catch twenty-two. But over the course of my career so many young writers have called me asking how to sell their first piece. I would say write for your local paper. Write for free. Anything you can get published. That is what you want. But now it’s not the same deal because you have control over writing on your own.

I read the philosophy you have on your site, and I found it to be so interesting and so beautiful the way that you love an emphasis on ingredients and no frills. It just seemed so genuinely Maine to me and so engrained in the culture of Maine. Do you think that living there has influenced your philosophy and the way that you think about food?

There is absolutely no doubt about it. When I lived in New York as a young writer I was working for these magazines and I used to go to fancy lunches, fancy dinners, and parties. Everything was about excess, about butter and cream and fancy sauces. Everything was about out-doing each other. In moving here I think I understand the art of simplicity and how the very best meal really relies on ingredients. And the best ingredients you can find are the ones closest to home. It would have taken me a lot longer to discover that in New York. Though, of course, those words are so trendy now. Everybody spouts that philosophy because that’s what’s in: local and seasonal, but Maine is so much a place about that. It’s about the seafood. It’s about the vegetables fresh from the farm. It’s about the animals that are grazing in the fields. That’s the beauty of living here, you have access to this.

Are there food trends that you love or hate? Is there a trend that you want to see happen?

I love the local and seasonal food trend, but I wouldn’t want to call it a trend. I love that people are aware of how much better food tastes when it hasn’t been on a truck or a plane. Food trends I hate… most of them. [Laughs] I do think that the restaurant experience is getting a little out of control, a little precious.

I think that the very nature of food trends is that they come and they go. I think the idea of healthy eating and fresh food is more important.

We were talking earlier about the Maine restaurant scene, and it is booming. It’s a huge year for Maine at the James Beard Awards and even just the nominations. Do you have any favorite restaurants and do you have any hopes for Maine’s culinary future?

I hope that Maine doesn’t latch onto trendiness. I hope that Maine stays true to itself. I haven’t been to Central Provisions yet, which is just terrible, because I have heard rave rave reviews! I am a huge fan of all of them! When I go to Portland, the biggest problem is: where do I eat? I want to go back to Fore Street every time, I want to go to Eventide and eat oysters every time. There are all these new restaurants to try now. What a great problem. All of these people who are going to inundate the state over the summer are just in for such a treat.

It’s mind-blowing. It’s as good as anywhere. Or better!

And you know what? It’s cheaper.

It is cheaper, for sure. Absolutely. It’s creeping up there, but if the quality is good, and people are coming it’s all going to work.

You could hold Standard Bakery up to any bakery in the country. You can get bagels in Portland at One Fifty Ate and Scratch Bakery that are better than any bagel that you could find in New York City. And as a New Yorker, that is blasphemous for me to say, but it’s true.

People are really cooking exceptional food here.

You had been nominated for James Beard Awards in the past. You were nominated for your NPR show twice. I want to know, how does winning feel after being nominated a few times?

I don’t know if I can describe it. To say that I was thrilled is an understatement. To say that I feel so honored and validated is an understatement. This is something that I always tell writers when they are starting out: you have to do the work because you love the work. A lot of young kids say, “I want my own TV show. I want to be Guy Fierri, I want to be on Chopped”. And I say, that’s not why you become a chef. That’s not why you become a food writer. You have to do it because you love it so much.

Every time I have been nominated I have been thrilled. It just feels incredible to be pulled out of the crowd and to be given that honor. I was at the awards and I was sitting next to a friend of mine, and I was pretty sure that I knew who was going to win, and I was pretty sure that it wasn’t me. I was so sure that I never wrote a speech. Every single person who was called up there had a piece of paper or a speech planned. They called my name, and I think I stopped breathing, and then my friend said, “Go! Get up there!” I didn’t even get up right away, I just couldn’t believe it. As I walked from my seat to the stage, I told myself, “You get three minutes in front of all these colleagues and all these people who you admire and respect. Why don’t you actually try to say something”. I got up there and spoke from my heart.

The article that I wrote is about cabbage and the health benefits of cabbage. The story that I told at the awards was that I got the assignment from Eating Well and I wrote a nice piece. The recipes are just wonderful; I adore them. I defy people who hate cabbage to try these recipes and still hate it. Two weeks later, my editor called and said that he liked the piece and that the health stuff was great, but that I wrote about how cabbage is the number one cancer fighting food, and I don’t tell my story. The year before I had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I told him that I didn’t want to tell that story. It’s private. He said that he respected that, but he asked me to think about it. For two weeks I talked to my husband and we went back and forth. And after two weeks I woke up and decided to give it a try. I threw my article out and rewrote it briefly telling my story.

The takeaway is that you have to tell your own story. You have to have a unique spin on something, because everything has been written about at this point. If you voice is not unique, no one is going to listen. So for me, winning this award, for that article, given that history, it meant a lot.

Currently, Gunst is working on a cookbook about soups and entertaining, inspired by a soup swap. The soup swap began when Gunst’s neighbor would make big batches of soup, but tire of eating all the leftovers. She started to give the soup to friends, and now six families get together and trade soup. This is an idea I absolutely love because it shows how food can bring people together, but it is also a wonderfully practical idea. You spend time making one soup, go to a party, and leave with 5 different soups that you can try throughout the week, or freeze and save for later.

The book, which doesn’t have an official title yet, will be published next fall with Chronicle Books.

For more on Kathy Gunst, visit her website, and watch her inspiring and entertaining TedTalk about her work growing and cooking vegetables with elementary school children as part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. Watching it is 16 minutes well spent.

Mary Beth

Tuesday 5th of May 2015

love this article on this woman and I can't wait to try her cabbage recipes!

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