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Pioneering food and drink blogger Steven Shaw dies

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It was reported by eater.com and other sites that Steven Shaw, founder of the groundbreaking food blog eGullet passed away on April 8. Shaw, a James Beard award-winning writer and instructor got his start writing about food online, but his work was later featured in Saveur Magazine, The New York Times and elsewhere.

Shaw also served as director of new media studies at the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute) in Manhattan, teaching new generations of students about responsible online writing and reviewing. As of this posting, no cause of death had been reported, although an April 9 post at eGullet announcing Shaw's passing noted it was sudden. This author conducted an interview with Shaw in June, 2010 for part of an (eventually unpublished) article about breaking into online food writing and reviewing. As a tribute, a portion of that interview is reproduced here.

How did eGullet come about?
I started doing this in 1997, when we didn't even have the vocabulary word "blog" yet. I did it because I couldn't get published. So I put it all online, and people started reading. A few years later, I got together with some early proto-bloggers doing similar things in Seattle and London, and started eGullet as something that would be bigger than any of us.

How have things changed when it comes to online food writing?
In 1997, it was interesting that someone was writing about food online. Now, it's not. There was a little article about me in the NY Times back then. Now, everyone wants to do it. It's much harder to do anything that stands out and gets noticed.

Has the industry itself changed?
Definitely. The Internet used to be a place where anyone could go and do someting. Now, like print, the Internet is dominated by large corporations with budgets. It's still possible for anyone to publish globally for free, but 99% of people who start blogs and get noticed are going to fail. Most don't have the commitment to do it every day, and sustain that level for the years it takes to develop an audience.

How has our perception of food writers changed from say, the days when a single review in the Times or New Yorker could make or break a new restaurant?
I think that the whole world has changed in terms of people's perception of expertise, whether we're talking online or old media. There was a time in the 1980s or before, when people were very persuaded by credentials. They wanted the person on TV telling them about medical stuff to be a doctor. They wanted restaurant reviewers to have some sort of appearance of formal training (like Brian Miller). Now people care a lot less about credentials, but care more about the content they're reading. They can be a medical doctor, but if people think they're full of it, they'll get no credibility. On the other hand, if someone goes out, does the work, and creates a coherent argument; audiences now are much more concerned about what people are saying than about their credentials.

Now of course, anyone can be a critic or reviewer, not only because of blogs, but because of sites like Yelp and Chowhound.
In food, everyone, at every level of expertise has something to bring to the table. Everyone has a lifetime of eating under their belts, so it's easy to jump into that conversation. Julie Powell's ("Julie & Julia") schtick was that she had a great concept (blogging her way through Julia Child's "The Joy of Cooking" recipes every day for a year), she followed through with it and did it in an entertaining way. No one though she had expertise, and that's what she brought to the table. The Amateur Gourmet's entire schtick was he didn't know anything. There were people who wanted to learn, discover and bumble along with him.

The food blog phenomenon comes at a time when culinary content (think The Food Network and countless food and wine magazines) is at an all-time high.
Food has become a hot thing for the past 15 to 20 years. I remember being at the University of Vermont with all these upper-middle class white kids. Not a single person I knew gave a thought of going to culinary school. It was considered a vocational thing. The people who didn't know what they were going to do, we went to law school. These days, it's different. I just gave a tour at FCI to a girl who is going to an Ivy League and she's going to culinary school. Culinary school is the new law school. Chefs are sex symbols. With food blogging, you're really in the right place at the right time, unlike a shrinking market like, say, film criticism.

What do you teach your students about writing and reviewing food online?
Point Number One is that you're a journalist whether you like it or not. So act like one. Most people, when they start blogging, don't think of themselves as journalists. But once you publish on Wordpress to the entire world, you're a journalist whether you like it or not. That means you can be sued for defamation, for violating copyright and trademarks, for violating invation of privacy. We devote a chunk of time to why you have to follow certain journalistic standards. Not because you're working for the NY Times, but because these are real situations. Intellectual property concerns are a big issue. We deal with plagiarism, copyright issues, all that stuff.
One of the things we talk about is bloggers requesting comps (free meals, samples, press trips etc. Something that used to be a big no-no in print journalism). I don't have a position on it, some people need the comps in order to write their pieces. My feeling though is, if you eat a comped meal and you write about it, there should be a disclosure. There are plenty of examples of people who got something for free and didn't disclose it. When it was revealed it hurt their reputation. But when people disclose the comps, no one cares. No one can come after you for something unethical, if you disclose it.
Point Number Two: Create a set of rules you're going to follow for yourself. Publish it, stick to it, and be confident. I always recommend people put a permanent page somewhere on their blogs explaining their guidelines: "This is not advertising. I do the best I can to be objective. Here are the rules I follow."

Apart from journalistic responsibility, what do you teach your students about launching their blogs?
There are millions and millions of blogs out there, the chances are that people are already writing about what you want to write about. Unless you're Gwyneth Paltrow, you cannot succeed just with a blog about what food you're eating. We spend the majority of the second day of class talking about focus. It's not enough to be about farm-to-table, it has to be your specific take on it. There was a woman doing an ice cream blog. We researched and found there are a thousand or more blogs about ice cream. Everyone we looked at was fluffy, cuddly and girly. No one had done a bad-ass ice cream blog with profanity, or talking about sex. She called the blog LickinIt. She would go out on a date, and think about sex with a guy while having ice cream. Unless you can do something like that, that stands out, you're finished.

RIP Steven Shaw

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FTC Disclaimer: The author sometimes receives product samples for review, which carry no cash value and cannot be re-sold, and sometimes attends press events such as lunches or cocktail parties, designed to promote a given product. The author is not paid by any alcohol manufacturer, retailer or distributor, or provided compensation apart from revenue from an assigning publishing company for editorial publication. Opinions are the author's own. By the way, you should be 21 or older to read this page.

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