Dr Roger Haden: How To Food Write 101

Kelly Wong’s blog Eating My Way Through Life shows that Kelly loves to eat a lot. And write about it.

In the culinary world, there isn’t anything much more prestigious than being associated with the world’s largest hospitality education institution, Le Cordon Bleu. Since it was first founded in Paris in 1895, the institution has earned its reputation as the ultimate in cuisine, patisserie, hospitality and gastronomy training. It’s no coincidence either, that many of the world’s top chefs and cusiniers are now Australian, with Le Cordon Blue academies in Sydney and Adelaide. And at the teaching forefront of Le Cordon Bleu Adelaide is gastronomy academic Dr Roger Haden

Starting with a BA in English literature, a postgraduate diploma in Journalism and Cultural Studies and a PhD in Cultural Studies, Dr Roger would go on to then teach in the Graduate Program in Gastronomy and take on the directorship of the Faculty of Humanities’ Research Centre for the History of Food and Drink from 2004 to 2009. He has certainly more qualifications under his belt than the average food writer. He has also published the book Food Culture in the Pacific Islands whilst regularly contributing to The Adelaide Review on food and cooking. Currently, Dr Roger is Manager of Educational Leadership with Le Cordon Bleu. He continues to publish essays in academic journals, working domestically and internationally in designing courses while helping with education in the culinary arts. Food writing is very much an expertise of Dr Roger. And given we are in the cultural phenomenon where everyone aspires to be a food blogger, writer and critic, as part of Good Food Month, we sit down with Dr Roger to discuss food, the history of food writing, his thoughts on food writing in the modern day and more food.

Starting with an English literature and journalism background, how did your interest in food come about and how did you find yourself writing and studying about food writing and teaching gastronomy?
I’m living proof of John Lennon’s adage that life is what happens when you’re making other plans. When I finished my English literature degree, I fell into a job at a bakery and liked it, which led me onto becoming a chef. After only a few years, I realised I wasn’t cut out for a kitchen profession and enrolled to study communications, majoring in journalism. I didn’t want to write in particular about food, but I found myself gravitating to all sorts of related topics – from eating kangaroo to the history of breakfast cereal. Eventually, I embarked on a PhD – again not aiming to write about food or eating – but convinced by my supervisor to write a thesis on sensory taste, as a cultural history.

With such a strong academic literature background, what do you think are the most valuable things you’ve taken away that you have been able to apply to food writing?
It wasn’t only my literature background but my time as a chef that gave me knowledge and insight into the value of food in our lives – from the sensual enjoyment of it to the health implications, to the cultural and social customs that are so important for our general wellbeing. A sense of how food, food production, cooking and eating can determine in many instances the course of history, and even the simple and taken-for-granted notion of hospitality that goes to the very core of what it means to be a caring community. It’s the realisation that food and eating are fundamental to our culture’s life and wellbeing – not simply because we need to eat, but because it defines an ethical approach to the past, present and future; to living itself. This understanding of food history is crucial for anyone serious about food writing. It doesn’t have to be serious, but it does need to be well-informed.

What are your thoughts on the new phenomenon of blogging and what is your advice to aspiring food critics?
The principles of successful modern food writing were set down over 200 years ago and have changed little since. Sure the competition of late has increased – blogs are evidence of that – but competition is part and parcel of the writer’s necessary ambition to succeed because writing is often about convincing, educating, informing, charming, and attracting. The literary skills and experience to be able to do this cannot be learnt over night – not that a little talent can’t go a long way. Don’t take food writing to be something frivolous because it’s ‘only about food and eating.’ Explore the wide range of options that the study of food can provide for making fascinating reading. 

How do you think the recent rise of food bloggers have impacted the way the media approaches food writing and do you think they are interchangeable mediums?
The personalised blog has the advantage over mainstream media in being a work in progress and the result of the effort of a single person who is unconstrained by deadlines and word limits. I don’t think the formats are necessarily interchangeable because there is an element of trust that readers must feel when they read food writing that is aiming to advise, as so much of it does whether directly or inadvertently. In order to be trusted, food writers need to prove that over time. Trusted names therefore would be preferred to some bloggers who need to build that readership trust. 

What do you think makes a really great, interesting and informative food blog?
Good writing, which is engaging, entertaining, informative and well-informed. Specifically, I like to see a well-defined theme or interest being developed because this indicates a degree of authenticity on the part of the blogger. As with all good writers, passion for what they do needs to be represented in words; one that drives the interest and ability to make insightful comments and inspired sentences.

Why do you think food writing is so important to the general public?
Food writing provides many opportunities to inform the public about better ways to eat. Good food writing at its best can engage its audience in a potentially huge range of topics, from the supposedly trivial, like the delightful crunch of a tempura prawn, to historical investigations of the culinary arts, dining, farming, fishing, agriculture, methods of production; why some cultures prefer particular foods that others detest. We all eat. We all eat out – more often than ever before. Food is about entertainment, pleasure, and social interaction, but it is also about health, wellbeing, appreciation of aesthetic (multi-sensory) experience, thinking about where our food comes from (sustainability), where a lot of it goes (into the rubbish bin), and the ways in which we can support a healthy food culture.

Good Food Month continues in Brisbane until Sunday August 9 with the full program available here.

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