I first met Don Chow sometime around 1999. Back then, he was working on multiple degrees and tutoring fellow students. He spoke with a kind of stutter that was a sign that his brain was working faster than his mouth and in all that time, his brain has never stopped moving at that speed, as he worked to become an accomplished civil servant in his professional life and food blogger in his personal life. It is tempting to call a blog a “hobby”, but in Don’s case, it is something more — it is a way of life. For Don, cooking and enjoying good food is the spice of life, and documenting it on his widely-read blog, foodiePrints, and through social media is an instinct he cannot ignore. It must be done, and in the process, maybe the discourse and quality surrounding food in Ottawa food will rise to a level it never has before.
I met up with Don while exploring the civil service myself, and he was gracious enough as an old friend and a humble man promoting the book he and his wife, Jennifer Lim, published over the course of the summer — Ottawa Food: A Hungry Capital — to answer a few questions for me. The interview was relaxed and conversational, with a few interesting tangents into subjects like the state of the media. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
The blog initially started out as an experiment. How did you go from there to here, one of the most recognized bloggers in Ottawa?
Aaah, completely by accident and fully unintentional. The blog was created because before the Year 2000 came around, I was employed in IT. I worked on networks. It so happened that my shop had a Christmas party, I baked a batch of cookies, everyone wanted the recipe. Being careful about bandwidth back then because bandwidth was REALLY expensive, I put a website up.
So instead of sharing emails, which everyone wanted, I pointed them to a URL. That’s just less words, less content, less bandwidth, and that’s how the blog started 8 years ago.
How did you come to be as popular as you are? How are you THE Don Chow now?
Umm, I’m not. foodiePrints is a recognized name and I have no idea why. It’s an unfortunate branding, because the word is very difficult to pronounce, and we refuse to make business cards and do the proper branding, and we’re not rebranding now because it’s come too far too long.
It just so happened that the restaurant industry and the food industry has accepted my wife and I, my wife being the editor of foodiePrints. She’s been the editor for 6 years. It just so happened that for some bizarre reason the industry here saw two people that were writing honestly and critically, and they thought that we did our job well, so they started to trust us and this trust has translated into our being able to report on the industry from their point of view.
You sort of talked about it already, but what was your original intention with the food blog and how has it changed and evolved as you’ve mastered the art and craft of blogging?
I have not mastered the art and craft of blogging. I really don’t care about statistics. I really don’t care about looking at readership numbers every day. I am very grateful that we are read, and what we do do is we judge the readership and our interactions are engaged with through social media.
The blog is just a repository of stories. Food in Ottawa, food around the world is all about people and we just want to report their stories. Why is someone doing food this way? Why is someone, against all odds, with so much risk financially to themselves, to their family, opening up a restaurant? Why is a farmer deciding to continue on three generations down the road to produce Heritage Beef? These are stories that are important to me, and we share them. We have established no direction. There are no plans. It just so happens that we write what we think is important and we try to match that to what our readers want.
So, when it comes to blogging, when it comes to social media, there’s no strategy that we came up with. We just fly by the seat of our pants.
How has your writing evolved?
I think it’s more legible now than before. [Laughs] In all honesty, I’m not a writer and that’s actually the first line of the book that we recently published. We’re not writers. We were given an opportunity to participate in a series of books that are published by The History Press, but North American. The History Press was traditionally a UK publisher. When they came to the United States, they wanted to publish a citizen’s history, microhistory of small communities, and so they saw Ottawa, they found Ottawa, they read every piece which is very scary. So, they emailed us and said, ‘You have enough stories that there’s probably a book here.’
So they told us, ‘Here’s an idea – pitch it to us.’ And so now, Ottawa Food: A Hungry Capital is one of – two dozen books about small community history on subjects like food and stories that are recorded across North America. And when we got the opportunity, we could not turn it down.
Our book isn’t written particularly well. It was done hastily because we had a total of four or five months to get it done. I am proud of the work that was produced. I would have preferred another couple of months of editing, but that’s just me. [Laughs]
OK, but it can’t be denied that your writing is actually quite good.
No, it’s improved, it’s legible now.
I don’t know. I’ve read some of your pieces. You go into essay and thought pieces, you express certain ideas – why people don’t home cook and why they should – things like that. Where do those come from?
Frustration mostly. My writing’s very indulgent. We’ve had guest bloggers and guest writers before on foodiePrints, and we will continue to invite anyone who wants to write about food, although we will edit and we will ask about the ideas and what the flow of thought will be.
But, the blog’s very indulgent. We don’t set limits. Some pieces are 500 words, some pieces are 2000 words, as long as you get the point across, and it just so happens that I care about food thought and food criticism. I care about having a healthy, symbiotic food culture, which we don’t have in this city and, to some extent, we don’t have any more. It has something to do with how social media and how citizen criticism is perverting and making incredibly confrontational the dining out experience, and that’s what’s most important to me right now. It shouldn’t be that way.
Food is to be enjoyed. In all honesty, the New York Times piece about these kids, 2nd graders, eating, dining out at this incredible restaurant in New York City, the amount of joy that they have, we don’t see any more in the dining room at high-end restaurants, and that’s a problem. Everyone is incredibly critical, everyone has an agenda. It has to stop.
Speaking of being critical [Don laughs], and this is more about media than about food, you told me once of being sniped at by old media, like the Ottawa Citizen. Has any of that changed since your embrace on morning TV and cooking competitions?
The cooking and the cooking competitions are more to establish our legitimacy. I don’t believe you can effectively write about food without having an understanding of food itself. That means if you write about food, you have to cook. You HAVE to cook. If you want to write about farming, you have to grow something. Otherwise, you have no insight, no parallel that you can understand and share. If you’re going to write about food, you have to cook. You have to be involved.
So, it just so happens that some of my cooking has gotten myself onto cooking competitions – one national and some smaller things where we’ve won awards, but the fact is that I believe that if you’re going to write about something, then you need to understand it, so that’s why we do that.
What was the other part of your question? [Laughs]
Being sniped at by old media. Has old media begun to embrace you now that you’ve hopped onto their television shows?
Umm, no. When you look at old and new media, there’s still a legitimacy problem and the problem when it comes to photojournalism is very complex. That is, the companies that produce the news and share information – old school – they’re debasing and devaluing the value of things like good writing, good photography. They’re not hiring the photojournalists, the professionals to do the work…
Why are they doing that?
It’s cheaper to grab stuff off of Twitter. It’s cheaper to make a freelancer do something. It’s cheaper to have your reporters multi-task, and that’s a problem, and that’s causing a great deal of hatred between old and new media because new media – those of us who blog and Tweet and play with cameras and photography for fun. We’re seen as taking jobs and opportunities away from those who do it for a living.
Based on what you’re saying, I’d almost want to say that they sort of created this gap themselves and you just happened to fill it, but you’re filling it for free…
And for fun…
Yeah, out of love. So why do they feel threatened? Why don’t they just give you a full-time job?
Bottom-line is, there’s not enough to produce good journalistic value these days.
I’m sorry, I’m playing devil’s advocate here. That’s the rationalization used, but when you look at, say, the media companies like Bell, and Rogers, and Bell owns CTV and I know Rogers owns a lot, including the NHL now, basically. I mean the broadcast of the NHL. There seems to be no shortage of money. So is it really about there is no money, or do they just want to keep the money going to the highest levels of said organizations who are conglomerating all these media resources to begin with?
The conglomeration of media and information has something to do with profit. If you take a look at the coverage of the unfortunate happenings of last Wednesday, with the shooting of the Honour Guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier… If you look at the quality and the intention of the coverage of CBC, which is a publicly funded entity that covers news, and you look at what CNN does and did, the intentions are different.
One is to make money. The other one is to report the facts and actually to take the time to investigate what is coming out, or what is being heard, or just rumours going around, and the fact that Peter Mansbridge was able to talk for a total of three hours straight and every time he started, it was, ‘These are the facts we know now…’
That difference, that attention – it’s because CBC is publicly funded, whereas CTV has to worry about the bottom line, has to worry about shareholders, has to worry about being solvent, and continuing to provide value to the investors and unfortunately, that isn’t always conducive towards good journalism, and that’s the way it’s always going to be.
The customer needs to demand better. If we don’t, we get what CNN’s doing.
Well, if we’re on the unintentional CBC tangent anyways, it looks like the CBC is on its way to being dismantled and/or bankrupted.
As someone who is doing quality journalism basically out of love, how do you feel about that?
I am not a journalist. I have the utmost respect for the journalists who work at CBC who are underfunded and they have to work incredible hours, incredibly hard to deliver the quality that they do. I am saddened and I am one of the proponents of finding ways of funding CBC again.
So, I have a great deal of respect for CBC Radio. It’s interesting, in this day and age where everything is push-pull, everything is on-demand, I believe heavily in CBC Radio because of the quality that it delivers and the discourse that it decides to delve into, specifically because it doesn’t have to worry about shareholders.
It has to worry about taxpayers, but the taxpayers put money into this public broadcaster because they continue to want the quality that is being produced. At least, I hope it is, and I hope the taxpayers continue to demand more.
Would you say the spin and attacks that happen on the CBC in for-profit media like the National Post try to make the taxpayers out as shareholders?
Yes. Yes. It’s a question of return on value. It’s a question of return on investment. If you look at return on investment entirely from a monetary point of view, and you worry about the bottom line as a bell shape, CBC is not profitable. It is not meant to be profitable. It’s a non-profit entity that’s meant to provide information and facts for the public good, whereas for-profit news is a little different.
OK. So let’s head back to our actual interview…[Don laughs] When you started out, did you think, ‘I want to be a book author!’ Has writing and publishing your book fulfilled a lifelong dream?
No. Writing that book is incredibly frightening and it’s incredibly frightening that that book is out because my name is on it, my wife’s name is on it, and I worry about people reading the book.
When we wrote that book, the intention was to provide a snapshot in time of what changed, not why. There is no introspection when it comes to the change in the food culture that occurred over the past 30 years.
Our publisher asked for three decades, they asked for a contemporary history, they asked for a snapshot. We could not dig into a good deal of the changes as we wanted to because in the end, this was a book for print, and they asked for 40 000 words which was the best we could do. This is ALL that we could put in.
So, I’m hoping that the people who read this book will ask the questions, ‘Why?’ They will ask the questions, ‘Why do we have the food scene that we have now? Why are the restos behaving they way they are now? What is the value in having a collaborative food scene of independent chefs and chef-owned and chef-driven restaurants? Why is everyone so bent, and hell-bent, on supporting the 80% rural agrarian landbase here?’
We have a lot of farmers, and that contributes to our identity for food, which is still developing. I want the people who read this book to ask why and to look at what they want because, in the end, it’s the people of Ottawa that will drive how the food scene will develop and mature, and that’s the realization that came out of writing this book and that’s the realization that I hope to share.
One more question. What’s next for Don, Jenn, and foodiePrints? More books? TV? Social media? Movies?
Survive promoting the book. We have to survive promoting the book because publishing has suffered the exact same losses and faces the same difficulties, the same challenges as for-profit print and visual media.
Our publisher has very limited funds for us to promote the book, so we are promoting the book heavily and aggressively with a lot of events and a lot of effort.
So, if we can survive this, we don’t know what’s coming up next because we roll with the punches and it so happens that, the cooking has led to cooking competitions, the writing has led to a book, and we’re happy to not plan something intentional.
Alright. Thank you for indulging me, Don.
Ottawa Food: A Hungry Capital, by Don Chow and Jennifer Lim, can be purchased online at Amazon.ca and at most bookstores in the National Capital Region.