His reaction was that I should not name the well-known chef who is, in many ways, integral to the story. “Anyone could pretty easily figure out who it is,” I said. “I know why you don’t want me to name him. You don’t like to stir up trouble,” I said.
“No,” he said, “I don’t. But more importantly, I don’t like people who talk shit about other people, and you’re talking some shit here.”
After more deliberation, and to be honest only a minimal amount of reflection, I have decided to take his advice. —Jill E. Duffy
Image from SanFranciscoDays.com. The office where I worked was located above The Warfield concert hall, and seeing as we worked nights, we could often hear the thump of a bass line, smell the weed, and see wisps of smoke coming up through the floors when the fog machines were on full blast.
In 2003-2004, a very well-known, self-taught chef was one of my writers at The San Francisco Examiner, a free tabloid newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was the “Eats!” section editor.
This is the story about how I pissed him off, royally.
First, let me explain how I got the job of “Eats!” editor; it’s relevant to how other events unfolded.
Before I held the position, the food section editor job belonged to a young woman named J.K., whose true professional career was, and to this day still is, as a multimedia producer.
How J.K. got the food gig, I’ll never know, but I’m pretty sure she resented having to do it. Her 40 hours per week were severely divided. She put the food section together in an hour or two on Tuesday night before it rolled out Wednesday morning, all while trying to accomplish her primary job as a designer and editor of a weekly sister publication. Like most of us on the small newspaper production team, J.K. held multiple titles and roles, and being “Eats!” editor was clearly not her favorite one.
Sometime before J.K. announced her resignation, I began telling my co-workers and boss about my desire to work on the "Entertainment" section pages. I loved the trashy photos, pun-packed headlines, quippy deks, not to mention the editor, who was like Janeane Garofalo, only with more sass. (Note: I have always found Janeane Garofalo hot. If this doesn’t jive with you, just pretend I said she reminded me of Tina Fey. Everyone loves Tina Fey. No one but me loves poor Janeane Garofalo.)
At every opportunity, I’d offer to help edit the Entertainment pages. “Does the celebrity news page need a second set of eyes?” I’d ask. “I have some free time while I’m waiting for ads to come in. Can I take a stab at editing that movie review?”
Image from BurritoWings Blog: Tacqueria Cancun, on Market Street at 6th in San Francisco, became my go-to take-out spot while I worked at The Ex, which was located across the street (the offices have since moved).
What I didn’t have to tell my co-workers explicitly was that I love food. That, they picked up on their own. Unlike stereotypical newspaper folks who act as if they are chained to their desks, I took my one-hour break religiously, and within a few weeks of working in The Examiner building, I had mapped out all the possible places to get coffee, devour a pastry, watch a burrito be assembled, and buy milk to bring home later, all within a half-mile radius. I knew (and cared deeply) which Starbucks made a better latte. I learned which co-worker was the keeper of take-out menus—every office has one. She and I became friends easily.
So when J.K. gave her two weeks’ notice, the managing editor harkened me into his office.
“You. You’re doing okay,” he said between chew-and-spit of his tobacco dip. “I hear you like food. Do you want to be the 'Eats!' editor?”
It wasn’t entirely a snap-decision for him to offer me the job. I did have some background in the food industry, though it was pretty minor compared to what the big-name editors of the food world have done in their careers. One of the ways I broke into the publishing field in the first place was by working my way up at a bakery-sweet shop, and then expressing to the owners my interest in working with text. They let me take charge of an in-house editing project. I rewrote, re-design, and reorganized the menus, wholesale book, training manuals, and in-house recipe book. It was that experience, coupled with a BA in English literature, two years of experience at my university’s newspaper as a writer and editor, plus two years of professional experience as a writer and editor (for science and technology content).
Nevertheless, my boss was offering me a dream job, and I jumped at it.
But when he made the offer, what he didn’t say was, “You’re being promoted.” He didn’t say, “We’ll give you more money,” either. The offer was this: If you think you can do the job and we don’t have to hire someone else, and you can still get your regular tasks done in 40 or so hours a week, then it’s yours, a labor of love.
No Money, No Mentor
In the nine months I worked for The Examiner, the paper thrashed like a wild beast. We launched four new editions of the paper in small towns along the peninsula: Daly City, Colma, San Mateo, and Millbrae/Burlingame. This meant we, a production team of about a 15 people had to push out five individual editions of the paper.
We created the skeleton of the city edition first, and then swapped out several inside stories based on where each paper would be delivered. For example, the top story on page 3 of the city edition might have a story about the SFPD, whereas the San Mateo edition might have a piece on charter schools instead. But the bottom story on page 3 would be the same on both editions, but that repeating story could have a different photo and caption with it, based on the interests of the different readerships. Moreover, if the bottom story was going to be the same across two or three or four editions, then the top slot was a fixed amount of space and whatever was assigned to that position would have to be cut to fit—or the bottom story of the San Mateo edition would be trimmed to make a few more inches available to the top story, seeing as it was more important, but only on that local edition.
Keeping track of all these swapped-out stories and delivering the five sets of finished pages to the printer at deadlines that were only a half hour apart was chaotic to say the least. Throw in one senior staff member who was fond of screaming, cursing, slamming phones, talking about people behind their backs, and berating her writers to their faces, and you might begin to understand that I didn’t feel entirely comfortable in that office. I was friendly with everyone, but I wasn’t especially close to any of my co-workers. I didn’t fit in. But I got my job done, and parts of it I did better than anyone else.
The atmosphere never felt supportive. I often got the impression that asking for help would be seen as weak or not pulling one’s weight, no matter how many times my superiors would say otherwise.
There was very little transition from J.K. to me in terms of handing over the food section and mentoring me on what the hell to do with it. My instructions were:
1. Put Patty Unterman’s restaurant review as the lead story (she is a deft writer who requires almost no editing), and run whatever picture comes with it. Much later, I learned that I had the power to assign the photographer to shoot something else if I wanted, too, though my request would compete for his time, as he wore just as many hats as the rest of us.
2. Clean up the Famous Chef’s column and put it at the top of the second page.
3. Pull stories from the wire to fill.
4. Take the never-ending and painfully hokey restaurant recommendation list (I can’t believe these weren’t paid ads; they looked like classifieds, but read like Applebee’s commercials), fill the rest of the space, and cut to fit.
There was no mentoring. There was no discussion of how those pages would be filled, save for the above instructions and the staff meeting, when I announced what restaurant Patty had reviewed (if anyone was even listening or if anyone had ever heard of the restaurant, which they never had), which occurred at 3 p.m. Tuesday, 7 hours before the pages were due at 11 p.m.
Pull the stories. Fill the pages. Cut to fit. Send by deadline.
My dream in life at that time was to make the food section into something. And with zero oversight, I thought to myself, “Hey. I can do whatever the hell I want. Who’s going to stop me?”
No one in the office ever even looked at these pages unless I passed them around and begged another editor to act as a second set of eyes. I had the feeling no one on staff read the food section the next day once it was circulated either. So I thought not only “Who’s going to stop me?” but also “Who’s going to care?”
I started writing my own pieces. I dug through the bookshelves of press copies and blew the dust off The Girl and the Fig Cookbook. Then I reviewed it. I also dusted off an early release of Steve Almond’s Candy Freak, read it, called the author, interviewed him (he swore like a sailor on the phone and reverted to a gentle Dr. Jekyll in person at his book signing a few weeks later). Based on a press release, I put together a little sidebar recipe for artichokes with walnuts. I invited the PR rep from Nescafe to the office to give me a demo of the company’s compact, at-home espresso machine, recently launched in the U.S. for the first time; I borrowed the machine for two months and let everyone in the office make their own cappuccinos and Americanos. When I learned that there was a woman who hosted a tour of the San Francisco Ferry Building, which included a wine tasting and lunch at the then-recently-opened new location for the Slanted Door, I weaseled my way into a complimentary invitation and reviewed the whole experience, though I perhaps neglected to mention in the article that I was the only person on the tour younger than 63.
Which brings me to my age.
The Delicate Job of an Editor
While I held this job, I was pretty young. That’s not to say I was inexperienced. I’m not afraid to toot my own horn and say that I am a damn good editor. But at the point in my life when I worked at The Ex, I had only had a few years of professional editing under my belt, and thus, had only dealt with two or three or four sticky situations that required the delicate people skills that sometimes come into play as an editor.
In most cases, the writer needs to be happy, but what makes an author happy varies wildly from person to person. Some people value suggestions, while other value the editor who rolls up her sleeves does the rewriting herself. Some authors hate criticism, while others rely on it to make their pieces work.
When working with a new writer, especially one who has a steady gig at the publication and needs to be kept happy, a new editor should enter the relationship with a light touch. Humility, deference, and occasionally even an attitude of servitude, should come into play.
These are things I know now well, but at the time, I wasn’t experienced at carrying them out.
Famous Chef lived somewhere in the world. It was never quite clear to me where. He emailed his column from Mexico, Italy, Spain, but never from the United States, much less California, where he cultivated his claim to fame in the culinary world.
I never met the man. I never talked to him on the phone. I had only the faintest idea of his personality through reading his terse emails and the columns attached to them.
Journalist and food writer Kim Severson once described Famous Chef in his heyday this way: "He possessed an impeccable palate, an appetite for alcohol, a famous temper and a rich cache of stories from his travels around the world."
He typically sent his column anywhere about 24 hours before it was supposed to go to press, which gave me little time to turn it around while juggling all my other responsibilities. The first few columns he sent, I tidied up, slapped on the page, made the headline fit, and sent it out the door.
An Incomprehensible Piece
Then one day, under the wire as usual, Famous Chef sent a piece that was, from an English perspective, nonsensical. It changed tenses suddenly. It took the reader from one scene to the next without any transition. The descriptions were ebullient, but disconnected from one another.
It opened with him and a friend on a veranda drinking Prosecco in Italy and ended with him in the kitchen creating a recipe on the fly from flowers steeped in cream, if I recall. (The Examiner doesn’t have all its archives online, otherwise I’d look up the specifics.)
I think I showed it to the Entertainment section editor and asked her what she’d do. “Don’t run it,” she said.
I can’t just not run it. It’s his weekly column, I thought to myself. “I think I can make it work,” I said. I rolled up my sleeves, and I edited.
Reading it through again and again, I figured out there was a story arc to what he was trying to say. It was like finding a long piece of string hidden in the sand. If I could find the two ends of the thread, I’d have a much better chance at pulling out the middle section, and mending wherever the thread broke.
Make it Work!
I poured all my time that afternoon and evening into working on his column. My hour break came and went. I stayed at my desk. After three hours, it had begun to make sense. I punched up the lead paragraph to make it more active. I cut out one episode that I just didn’t understand and wove together the two mini stories on either side. What I believed myself to be doing was making this guy look good.
The next day, I plopped into my chair, launched my email application, and found a threatening note from Famous Chef. He was furious. He said his words had been twisted. What was printed was not what he wrote. He threatened to sue.
If anyone deserves credit in this story, it’s the managing editor, who came to my side and unequivocally defended me, before he even read the “before” and “after” versions of the articles. Though I don’t have any of the materials now (it’s been years since I worked there), at the time, I saved everything. Before responding to Famous Chef, I forwarded the email to my boss, as well as both copies of the article.
“What is he accusing you of doing?” he asked me.
I took a deep breath. I was afraid. It was bad enough that this author, who obviously thought very highly of himself and very little of me, had a problem with my work, but now I had to talk about it with my boss.
“I edited the piece very heavily. It came in unreadable, and I edited it to make it work,” I said.
“We retain the right to edit! He can’t threaten us for that. I’ll take care of this. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
If anyone has ever gone to bat for me, it was this managing editor, and I am truly grateful for that.
On the other hand, and in Famous Chef's defense, I didn’t handle the column as well as I could have or should have. I shouldn’t have edited the piece so heavily without at least consulting the author. Or, if I felt a severe edit would have resulted in an outstanding piece of copy, I should have taken a shot at it and then sent it to him for review, explaining that the way it came in, it was not ready for print, but perhaps something along these lines would work, and that I would like to work collaboratively on these changes.
These are all editing tactics I use now frequently in my line of work, but at the time, it just didn’t occur to me to hold the column. If I were going to ask him to “work collaboratively” with me on an edit, there’s no way he would have gotten back to me that same day. Thus, there's no way the column would have made it into Wednesday’s paper, meaning on such short notice, he would have had no article that week. Who knows if him waking up to find that nothing of his had been published—that his column had been pulled without his consent—would have been worse.
To the best of my knowledge, that was the last column he ever published in The San Francisco Examiner. I don’t know the details of his agreement with the paper, if there was one at all, and whether it was broken. Perhaps there was no agreement, or there had been one in the distant past that had never been renewed. Perhaps either the newspaper or Famous Chef decided that now was a good time to end their relationship. Who knows?
Learning and Moving On
A short time after this incident, Patricia Unterman sent me a restaurant review that was too long. I needed to cut two or three paragraphs, and simply tightening the text and doing line edits (which I tried) didn’t work. It was a review of an Italian restaurant. She had included a section about the anti-carbohydrate craze that was going on in the United States in the early 2000s, and discussed the different kinds of grain used in making true Italian pasta, stating that American pasta was essentially worse for one’s health because of the type flours used in making it and the bloated portion sizes on American plates.
And that’s the part I cut.
Frankly, it wasn’t relevant to the restaurant review, and it wouldn’t have appealed to our readership.
The next day when Unterman read her article, she emailed me and said, “What happened to the section about the pasta?” I cut it for space, I told her. I can’t remember if she emailed me back or picked up the phone, but she told me: “The next time you have to cut for space, please send me the article so I can make the cuts. I am available to help you, even when you’re on deadline. I’d rather be involved. I don’t mind.”
The way the spoke to me allowed her to make her point without belittling me. At the same time, she framed her response in a way that supported my role in the process.
She responded in a way that made it clear she was invested in what she wrote and cared deeply about how it came out in print. Some writers don’t care how their piece looks in print. Once it’s out the door, they don’t want to be bothered. But she cared.
And so did I. We were working toward the same goal. We should act like a team, not adversaries.