Q&A with Steven Shaw on His Food Blogging Class at ICC

"Let me also assure you that very little of the money goes to me.... Hour for hour, I could probably make more money working at Chuck E. Cheese."

Earlier this month, we mentioned that eGullet's Steven Shaw would be teaching a food-blogging class at the International Culinary Center for $795. SENY readers had some questions, so we talked to Shaw to find out more about the course.

Alan Richman is mentioned on the class website as one of the guest speakers. He's a great "get." Do you have a line-up yet for other guest speakers?

Alan Richman is the Dean of Food Journalism at the International Culinary Center (the entity that comprises the French Culinary Institute and Italian Culinary Academy). I try to address him as "Dean Richman," in the hopes that with enough repetition it will grow to annoy him. The food-blogging class I'll be teaching was his brainchild, his fault, please address all complaints to him.

When Dean Richman first suggested it to me, I had the same reaction that I imagine many people are having: "You can't be serious. You want to charge people money for that?" What I told Dean Richman was that I'd consider teaching such a course but only if we could design it in such a way that I could tell people with a straight face that I think we're offering them something that's worthwhile.

The way the idea developed was this: For the past couple of years I've appeared as a guest speaker in Dean Richman's classes, and his students have always had a high level of interest in digital media. The class ends at 9 p.m. but they're usually still there at 10 p.m. asking me questions. Dean Richman, being a bit of an old timer, is not really equipped to teach about the online space. But it did seem there was enough demand to warrant more instruction devoted to online matters.

So Dean Richman and I created an outline and when we got it to the point where I was saying, you know, this would be a good class, we took it to the higher-ups at the International Culinary Center. After many months of meetings and revisions, the course was added to the Advanced Studies offerings.

What I'm hoping is that at least some students will choose to take both classes, for example they'll take my class in order to learn the nuts and bolts of blogging and then they'll take Dean Richman's class to help hone their writing. Or vice-versa.

So after all that work creating the course, I thought it was only fair for Dean Richman to come in as a guest speaker. The best part of all this is that after I appear in Dean Richman's classes he takes me to dinner at L'Ecole (the French Culinary Institute's restaurant) on the company's dime, and now when he appears in my class I'll be able to take him there. So we have really doubled down on the free meals at L'Ecole. (An even nicer fringe benefit is free bread from the FCI's baking classes.)

In terms of our other guest speakers, I have one of my favorite food photographers lined up but I'm waiting for hard confirmation before we post the name. And in another session we will have a panel of successful big-name food bloggers—I am about 2/3 of the way through with filling that panel. Now all I need is someone from Serious Eats.

What's the total number of spaces in the class?

There are 36 spaces. We can't go up beyond that because there are too many one-on-one and small-group activities for a larger group. It needs to stay at a size where, for example, I can read every student's blog every day. So if more than 36 people try to register (I should be so lucky) then the additional people will be offered the first available spaces in the fall.

SENY readers have been dinging the class on the price. You mentioned that the program offers quite a bit more than most people might think. Can you elaborate?

I think it's easy to say "$795 for a food-blogging class? That's crazy!" And were it just a question of sitting around with me for a few hours and talking about food blogging, it would be crazy. But we are not doing this casually.

The International Culinary Center is first-rate educational institution. We've designed a fully fleshed-out curriculum that covers quite a lot of material over a long haul, and offers a robust support system. In addition to the eight weeks of classroom sessions, each 2+ hours, there are support clinic hours, private meetings with every student, ongoing evaluations of daily assignments, administrative support staff at each classroom session, an online learning management system (similar to Blackboard, for those who've been in school recently), a private blog that I write for the class (I have been writing it for months), a small class size and excellent guest lecturers. In other words, this is not one of those two-hour recreational classes you can take at various places. This is an academically rigorous eight-week course that will challenge students to the full extent of their abilities and that represents hundreds of person hours of planning and support.

Let me also assure you that very little of the money goes to me. The ICC has significant overhead and there are a lot of expenses associated with offering the course. Hour for hour, I could probably make more money working at Chuck E. Cheese.

eGullet is an amazing resource and has a wealth of information on it, but, as some SENY readers point out, it's not a blog. What would you tell them?

Primarily I'd thank them for not calling eGullet a blog! I can't believe how many times a week people call eGullet a blog when it's not. It's a multifaceted website that includes an online community, a literary journal, an online culinary institute, audio programming and an array of what I would call blog-like content.

In terms of my own background, I was blogging before the word blog even entered the popular lexicon. In 1998 I started the Fat-Guy.com website (actually the name evolved, but it was Fat-Guy.com in its longest iteration), which ran for about 5 years and was one of the first-ever restaurant review blogs. I was able to parlay that into a freelance writing career and, at this point, I think I've achieved many of the things that people starting out in blogging are trying to achieve: I've published two books with HarperCollins, I've written for major publications ranging from Food & Wine and Saveur to the New York Times. I've been on Good Morning America, NPR, PBS, weird TV shows in New Zealand, you name it.

I run the eGullet Society, which is the nonprofit that operates all the eGullet.org services as well as our eG Scholarships program. Occasionally, companies pay to fly me out to their marketing conferences to talk to their employees about how to relate to the new world of digital media. I'll be on a panel about blogging at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Denver this year. I'm shooting a television pilot next week that may never see the light of day but that represents a great opportunity. And I hope I can help students achieve more than I have because, even though I've accomplished a lot, I still struggle mightily to make ends meet.

Within the eGullet.org online community, the blog-like content is quite extensive: scores of subject-specific blogs and blog-like features, including some that have received some pretty high honors. For example, when I was blogging about "Fat Guy's world tour" a few years ago one of those entries, titled "Hungary on the Redneck Riviera," was nominated for a James Beard Award. I didn't win that one, but I did win a James Beard Award earlier when I blogged about my week in the Gramercy Tavern kitchen. I actually think that may have been the first-ever Beard Award in the online category, though I can't fact-check that because I'm not smart enough to get the JamesBeard.org search engine to work.

Finally, while blogs are important and certainly the focus of the course, I'll also be teaching more comprehensively about the online space and how a successful blogger needs to interface with online communities, webzines, content-filtering websites and other blogs. I have inhabited that space for more than a decade and I hope I have
some good experience to impart.

A camera is required for enrollment. Are you going to have a session that teaches people how to take pretty pictures? (The last thing we need is you unleashing X-many bad food photographers onto the web. ;)

To clarify, students who do not already have cameras are asked NOT to buy cameras before enrolling. There will be class time devoted to selecting a good digital camera, and one of our guest speakers will be a food photographer. We will conduct some photography exercises, for example we will have the French Culinary Institute kitchens provide us with plated food and everybody will photograph it so we'll be able to see all the different ways those photos can come out, we'll identify common mistakes and try to point folks in the right direction.

But it's not a photography class, nor do I think one needs to shoot Saveur-quality photos for a blog. With some exceptions, like a few blogs that really do offer magazine-level photos, blog photography is not about art. It's about information. A photo can contain a ton of information even if it's not particularly artful.

I don't wish to unleash legions of bad photographers on the world, but I do think a digital camera is a very useful tool for a food blogger. Presumably, everybody who takes this class would have gone ahead and started a food blog anyway. So we probably won't increase the net number of bloggers in the universe. We can hope, however, to help those who choose to blog do the best possible job.

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