Friday, January 8, 2016

A Walkthrough My Day As a Food Blogger...


I've been asked many times over, "It must take a lot of time to do a blog-- that's a lot of work, how do you do it?", "How do you know what to write about?", "With three kids how do you find the time?", "What camera do you use and how do you get your photos to look like that?" and my favourite of all... "Don't you want to spend all that time doing other things?" Well, I won't just tell you, let me do what I do best and show you :) One thing for sure, and I won't sugar coat it... each post takes a good amount of effort to put together even though most times the creative is on a whim, it still takes some fore-thinking and planning to craft a great post. Susan's Savour-It! is two months shy of it's two year anniversary and I can tell you, as much time and effort it is, along with work opportunities coming down the pipes, I don't see myself stopping any time soon... I think that is truly the spirit of sharing what you are passionate about-- you just make time for it no matter what... no excuses-- you just do it. This will not be my typical recipe post, but a detailed article, so if you have time to spare... grab yourself a coffee or a glass of wine. Whether you just want to get a glimpse into the life of a food blogger or want to start out posting your recipes and photos, I hope you will find this informative and resourceful, but mostly fun and cheerful! 

My dining room makeshift office-- desk in the day and late evening, family table at night.

First off, I have to share with you, how this blog came to be. I have been a stay-at-home mom for several years, and my youngest was starting school that fall of 2014. Itching to get back in the real world and kick-start my dormant food career, I knew starting a food blog was in my best interest-- to chronologize my recipes and home cooking photos to add to what would be my virtual food portfolio. Something I can build on months before my son started school and then with everyone out of the house, see where the opportunities would lead. But procrastination and doubts (I mean, who's going to read my blog with tons that are out there already?) got the best of me. And then it came... I was consulting on-and-off for a Chinese condiment company, and they were interested in me guest-blogging. With no experience and nothing to show for, I had to quickly create one... Well, it didn't work out with them, but guess what?... it was the catalyst kick-in-the-ass that birthed my very own blog-- and now it's running full speed ahead with no point of return. In life, when things don't work out, we get disappointed, but sometimes they are actually blessings in disguise. And this was definitely a blessing that brought me so much joy, friendships and opportunities-- and I will forever thank them for it! 

Oh and why Susan's Savour-It!? At the very beginning of my food career, as a Food Editor for an independent national Toronto women's magazine Bloom Magazine for two years.... the title Susan's Savour-It was born as my monthly restaurant review column in the Taste of Life section. I like that Savour-It rhymes with favourite-- and it seems to roll off the tongue :)

Down to the heart of it, my blog was created for me and my family-- as a personal recipe library, a food diary... something that chronicles my daily rituals around food with my kids, so that I can pass it along to them when they get older to cook out of it with their families- like a culinary legacy of grandma's recipes digital-style. It is also my resume and professional portfolio-- it is one thing to say you've worked on something and another thing to show it-- my personal gallery of culinary achievements! Preserving the lost art of cooking-from-scratch and sharing our family favourites (mainly dinner ideas to solve the dinner dilemma) form the foundation of my blog. Uber-passionate about food education, cooking with kids, trying new foods, eating together as a family and multiculturalism these elements are often interweaved through-out my posts. My first entry ever dated March 6th, 2014 was a mission statement to set the tone for its vision, and it went like this:

Blogging this day forward...

I want to express what's on my mind and not hold back in my words;
I want to show and tell the things that matter to me and not idle in procrastination;
I want to share my real life stories and not worry about imperfections;
I want to dare to dream big and not waddle in my insecurities;
I want to expand and form connections and not just write in isolation.


It's only the beginning. Life is good.... And I want to savour it!

Proudly I can say, what I've set out to do and achieved since the early days, has been leaps and bounds! 

Okay, now here's the meat and potatoes-- what is really involved as a food blogger of home-cooked recipes and not a food blogger critiquing restaurants. In a nutshell, a walkthrough my day looks like this... I plan my food idea(s) along with doing some research typically the day before, get the groceries (planning ahead allows me to pick up everything I need for a few posts during the week); recipe develop/cook while taking mental & written notes, and photography in real time aligned with dinner preparations; write, download and edit my photos in the late evening when my kids are asleep, and proof-read finesse post the next day-- and when I'm happy, hit publish and share it on my social channels (although it's so like me to return to it again and again with extra thoughts)Total time from conception to post? Anywhere from 4 to 8+ hours depending on recipe and its content. And try posting 3 to 4 times a week-- Yes, it takes commitment!

It is important to note that my blog was a major contentious issue with my husband as he says I'm always on the computer taking away time from household duties and the children. It was a bit of a crazy battle but I was able to work out a feasible schedule, and manage my time by prioritizing my day's activities. Thankfully, my current writing and posting schedule seems to be working for us :).

For a deeper dive into all post-parts, especially for those of you considering to start a blog, I've broken it down to 8 important components. These are:

Content Content Content
Do Your Homework
Cooking and Recipe Development
Photography
Photo-Editing 
Writing and Construction
Posting and Sharing
Commitment and Consistency

Content 

The more time you give to it, the better a post will be crafted. I like to know the lay of the land for the month ahead and hone in on the upcoming two weeks, so I can get my radar up for ideas leading up to those posting days. With a calendar dedicated to marking up for my blog, I look for key dates such as holidays or special events happening in other cultures, and brainstorm a recipe idea to celebrate the occasion. 


For example, Korea was celebrating Pork Belly Day, the third day of the third month (as sam, which is the first part of the Korean word pork sounds like "three"), and I created a Stir-fried Pork Belly with Kimchi dish for dinner to give nod to the event.  Sometimes, it could be coverage on a food or multi-cultural community event, such as the Japanese Spring Festival followed with a series of my Japanese brunch recipe ideas.

Stir-fried Pork Belly with Kimchi

Japanese Spring (Haru Matsuri) Festival

On a regular basis, I cover mainly dinners (the meal where families are time-, idea- and skill-starved)-- when we have the most time to eat together as a family. The inspiration can be on a whim-- be it an ingredient in the fridge or discovered at the store, a mood for a specific cuisine or International dish, home-cooking (such as my mother-in-law's Vietnamese chicken curry) or restaurant-inspired dish (Persian Ju-jeh), to recreate a restaurant experience at home (Kamayan) or interesting recipe seen in a magazine, cookbook or on-line that I want to give a twist, getting creative with leftovers, using up the last bit of herbs in the fridge or meat from the freezer before it expires.... you name it, there is no limit to where my inspiration can come from...

Recreating the Filipino Kamayan Tropical experience of eating with your hands food laid on banana leaves.

Beyond family meals, I also love to share updates, and other great work from my fellow ambassadors in our Food Revolution community, and look for opportunities to feature and support great food ventures of my foodie friends and local restaurants with a unique story/heritage with their handmade offerings.

From top left clockwise: Artisan Noodle restaurant offering Xi'an hand-slapped street noodles, Chef Jordana Britt's 
home delivered healthy meal business and Muddy Hands-- a web-site and food forum in Singapore that celebrates real food.

I also invite guest bloggers-- my chef friends and Food Revolution ambassadors to give their food perspective around family traditions and to share a recipe from their culture or childhood, such as Chef Terri Salminen from the Netherlands, sharing her family recipe of Roasted Pumpkin Risotto, and reknown Indian cookbook author Smita Chandra from Toronto and her Home-Style Butter Chicken.



I've also been invited as a guest blogger on my friend from Dubai Prachi Grover's cooking web-site Orange Kitchens to talk about cooking with my kids. And when that got posted I shared it as well on Susan's Savour-It! I look forward to more cross-collaborations like this to exchange ideas, perspectives and to develop a new and broader audience on both sides.

See original post.

In blog partnerships, when we can, we align timing of relevant posts to share each other's recipes to add interest and give variation on our sites such as Yummy Lunch Club and their Sweet Potato Apple Lunch-box Mookie and my Banana Oatmeal Mookie

Yummy Lunch Club

Then there are the series I do periodically-- a week long theme with posts that coordinate to things like in-season ingredients, calendar events, something of interest I want to explore further such as Fresh Herbs, Packed-Lunch, and South East Asian Street Foods Series.


Research

I do my homework. If the recipe is fairly straightforward, and I am confident in the recipe and my narrative on it, I may skip this. But generally I look on other blogs, do a search, rifle through my food books for further inspiration, to gain another perspective, to understand the topic/culture/recipe deeper and to compare recipes-- cooking technique, flavour profiles and/or instructions. Providing insight into the origins of the dish, its culture and being able to offer ingredient substitutions and variations injects richness and credibility to the story of the recipe you're telling. 

One of three shelves of cookbooks collected over the years-- I must own nearly 300!


Cooking, Recipe Development and Testing

Here is the highlight of blogging-- cooking of course! My posts are mainly family dinners-- sometimes easy and sometimes complex but almost always created from scratch-- bare minimum convenient processed foods other than some staple condiments and the occasional canned soup/good. Family appeal, multiculturally diverse, trying new foods, recreating restaurant dishes, turning over classics with a twist, and traditional favourites form the kind of ongoing meals I serve to my family. I can easily make everyday a different cuisine, spreading ingredients over the week to serve in a variety of ways and flavours. That is the true beauty of knowing how to cook-- you can just open your fridge, give it a once over and bam-- you can imagine what you can put together-- thus never necessary to waste anything- ever!

Eye-balling measurements, I taste continuously as I cook. As everyone is different, I often emphasis in my posts to make the recipe by customizing to one's own tastes, favourite ingredients and spice levels. I hope my recipes have acted as a guide for my readers/viewers to formulate their own recipes that they will love and enjoy! Dinner takes a little longer to prepare to allot time and effort for meticulous ingredient arrangement for photography and documentation. So, lots of stop-and-go, however after following this routine for a bit, you get faster and the process just flows. From simple everyday weeknight fare such as Easy Creamy Mushroom Tuna and Spinach Orcheitte and Pan-Fried Salmon Trimmings in Garlic whipped up along with some sides can take about an hour or so to cook including prep to more elaborate fare such as Jamaican Beef Patties and laborious soups such as Vietnamese Spicy Beef Noodle Soup (Bun Bo Hue) and Korean Spicy Pork Bone Soup (Gamjatang) that can take 3-4 + hours-- yes even on a weeknight. But I may defer these recipes for a weekend post to make it more reasonable. I know, I know not everyone has the luxury of time on their hands as I do being at home.... 


Dotting spicy Jamaican Beef Patties to differentiate from mild ones.

I have a recipe bank-- so a folder that stores extra recipes I cooked up for a meal as I typically feature one recipe per post. My meals often consist of three to four dishes especially if I am serving Asian, so a little more work to document and photograph another recipe(s) but I have it for content to draw from later, when I'm scratching my head for ideas. 

I will not go into detail about recipe development and testing-- I plan to do a separate article on its ins and outs from home-cooking, also my days working in Kraft's test kitchen and on Asian Gourmet Magazine, and provide a more technical point of view with examples for visual reference. Just know that recipes can have errors and different interpretations if not clear. Triple testing recipes from different people that leads to the same result means that the recipe is tried and true. Although I don't have the time nor manpower to retest all of mine, when I go to cook these recipes, I almost always refer to my posts and recreate from it, going back in to re-edit if necessary. And everyone loves cooking tips, secrets and substitutions, so I like to pepper those through-out my posts.

Easy Creamy Mushroom Tuna and Spinach Orcheitte and Pan-Fried Salmon Trimmings in Garlic

Korean Spicy Pork Bone Soup Gamjatang

To learn my family traditional recipes and master new techniques which I intend to pass on to my kids, I enlist my dear mother, and cooking together was simply incredible-- nothing says love more than wanting to learn how to make your family's precious recipes-- a legacy that will continue to live on down the family tree-- my wish, but certainly I'll do my part! Here are Zong Zi-- my grandma's recipe and Taro Cake-- my mom's. I believe people scout out these kinds of intimate tricks and tips to make their take on the recipe authentic, rich and with dimension.

Mom and my sis-in-law wrapping zong zi in preparation for Chinese Dragon Boat Festival!

My mother's Taro Cake recipe for Harvest Moon Festival


Photography

This is probably the toughest part as I am a one-man show, unless you have a handy helper steady on the camera, you need to make do on your own. Generally the shots are manageable, but when you are trying to knead, wrap or mould, not so easy doing it with one hand while trying to steadily aim with camera in the other (oh, and I don't own a smartphone making it that much harder). Case in point, shaping onigiri. If I'm lucky, sometimes my older sons would help me with my double hand shots :) My kitchen is small, I don't have an island for extra space and the fluorescent lights underneath my overhead cupboards reflect off my dark granite counter. I try to work with the space and lights-- like shoot my food in the skillet/serving vessel on the stove, and angle my camera to avoid the reflective light in the shots. It's a bit nerve-wracking at the family table with my hungry kids lunging towards the food coming out, already salivating from the aromas... "No not yet," I often have to shout, "Nobody move, or get close to the food until mommy takes her photos!" Truth be told.... 

Japanese rice ball (onigiri)-- this is hands-down a two-hand job!

In my posts, I always have an ingredient spread, and as many step-by-step photos-- showing action shots (my favourite)-- whisk swirling, tongs pinching, wooden spoon digging; it makes one feel that you are cooking along with them-- at least that's how I think. I take several shots of the finished dish-- in cooking vessel, plated, individual servings, and with the family eating. Gotta love seeing your kids chowing down your heart-cooked meal!

I use a standard camera-- a regular Fujifilm camera-- set on no flash and no, I don't own a smartphone. I strive for natural, attainable and achievable photos with minimal food-styling 'cept for garnishing...  but hopefully always appetizing, with simple to no props (on family table, or over the stove). Using culturally-fitting dishware if I have them and/or adding a serving utensil and a place mat is all there is to it! I leave the magic touches to photo-editing.

Taking a photo of plums off a plum tree.

Photo-Editing

I create a folder with name of the recipe, download all its photos in it and create a separate folder called BLOG for the photos selected to use in the post. You can get blurry- and cross-eyed working with a lot of photos, especially in collages. And you are at the mercy of the photo editor program you use. I favour picmonkey for all my editing and image resizing needs, but let me tell you there have been times when uploading my photos were sooooo sloooow I wanted to strangle myself! I think it's been just over a year since I started editing every image I post... I cringe at my earlier posts before I discovered how very necessary editing was. I say, you can pretty much take any photo as long as it is not super blurry and dark and turn it into something decent with editing. Pictures come out brighter, clearer and crisp, making the food more appealing and seem to come to life off the screen. It's so cool to change the mood of the shots with lighting effects, and be able to add text and overlay. 

Between uploading and editing each photo (cropping, straightening, exposure, effects etc.,) it can take a good hour or so to do depending on how many photos you have. I don't always look forward to manipulating a dozen + photos but when its all said and done, the results speak for itself and makes your post show-off worthy.

Succulent Beef Short Ribs au Jus edited in soft lighting

Succulent Beef Short Ribs au Jus edited in boost lighting

Adding text is always great to identify a table full of tasty food which happens with my gatherings a lot!

Writing and Construction

My computer and work space is right on the family table in the dining area-- the centre of all the action in the house. I am right next to the kitchen and I have lots of table space to spread my cookbooks, magazines and notes. I love not being holed-up, the open space, sunlight coming in from the windows and listening to the radio catching up on my tunes while writing. Having a great and comfortable space to work in is essential to want to hunker down and focus sometimes hours on end writing, photo-editing and posting. 

I'm definitely getting the hang of it-- just sitting down and writing. I use to labour over typing the first sentence and hang off every word. I learned quickly not to over think it. Since I just came off cooking the recipe and eating it, there is always something on my mind to say about it. Where the inspiration came from is an instant kick-starter, and I love injecting personal anecdotes, observations and experiences leading to introducing the recipe. Origins and history of the ingredient, food, and more on the culture-- even better. Everyone loves a good story and to learn something new-- one they can rhyme off to their friends with, "did you know...?" 

If adapting from another recipe, I always credit the source as well as photos. Give credit where credit is due just as I would like others to do for my work. Step-by-step instructions and photos are placed accordingly composing the body of my posts. Formatting can take a lot of time too-- depending on your blog host functions, you may be toggling a lot between your edit and preview screens. The final food shot is often peppered with detailed sensory descriptors as food should be enjoyed with all our five senses. Articulating its aroma, flavours and textures coupled with alluring food shots can entice your reader to actually try their hands in making your dish, in which cheers!!-- The ultimate reward for a successful post! To hear someone tell me they now like such and such ingredient because they've tried my recipe, or their kids never liked such and such, until they tried it the way I cook it.... let me tell you the feeling of complete joy and overwhelming love-- the more reason to keep doing what I'm doing...


Posting and Sharing

After I hit publish, it is not unusual for me to go back and re-edit the post and finesse my words. There's always room for improvement, and with time apart, a fresh take or another angle you didn't see before. I recook from past recipes of course because they are family favourites, so this gives me an opportunity to retest, notice errors and rewrite clearer instructions. Sometimes, if I make a variation to a recipe, I would update the post with the new addition as another version to try. I also manage my other pages as tabs on my blog-- if the recipe fits in those categories such as making Brussels Sprouts Caesar Salad, I would also link it in Try New Foods. Linking back and forth to recipes in relevant posts and themes is helpful to increase rate of click-throughs and engages your audience to linger longer.

Cantonese Chow Mein post updated months later with a different variation on the topping. 

Once the post goes live on Susan's Savour-It!, I share it on my social media outlets. I am on Facebook-- personal and Susan's Savour-It! fan page, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn (I rarely post my blog here unless there's a relevance). Can you believe I am not on instagram-- the front-runner media for food photos?! In due time.. my dear husband is in the market to get me one :) I heard that when you have a web-site, blog or business, you must do at least three social media posts daily to maintain presence and audience engagement. Since I am not running a business, I feel posting and sharing 3-4 times a week is sufficient. And to fully engage with the audience you must acknowledge and answer every inquiry and comment coming in on all channels. This article, although I've been procrastinating to write since last year, was actually jump-started by a comment recently from my cousin Eva, on how challenging it must be to do a blog. So, here is your answer Eva--  a huge thank you and hugs!


Commitment and Consistency

If you are posting for yourself-- fine. But if you want an audience, that's a different story. At the very beginning I was posting 5-6 posts weekly-- I just thought I had to keep providing new content all the time to appease to my viewers/readers. The fact is unless there is an avid fan out there, they are likely to jump on periodically and when they have more time like the weekend. Anyway, if they like your content they will catch up on everything they've missed by scrolling through. Instead I adapted a "post-less-but-with-more-quality" mentality.  My highest traffic days are on Friday and the weekend. Now, I am steadily posting 3 times a week with a 4th the odd week. You do have to maintain the consistency to have presence. I've heard many stories of people taking a short hiatus and was never able to get back to their level of viewership. I know I don't feel good not having anything posted in a 72 hour period.

So what's next? Some say build on your brand if you want to move ahead and start making some dough. I say, my blog as my food diary is still the meat and potatoes, and any opportunities that come from it, well, it's pure gravy!. Happy to nurture this fourth baby as long as I can. Even with new work opportunities taking over my time, I will still post but perhaps with less frequency to manage realistic expectations. My next real contemplation is-- stay with blogger.com as my blog host or move onto WordPress with my own domain-- www.susanssavourit.com (hmmm...I like it!!) ヾ(@^∇^@)ノ

Ironically, the night before I was watching Hugh Grant in The Rewrite as I was jotting down notes for this article... in it he is a former screenwriter teaching a screenwriting course, and during his class he says, "When it comes to writing, there are no rules. Be true to the story you're telling. Make it your own unique voice!"

Exactemente! No rules! Your story! Your voice!

I hope you've enjoyed reading this as I did writing it! Facts-- this post took me 12 hours to put together, and yes, I am going to come back and edit this after I hit publish :) Feel free to contact me if you have questions-- I would love to hear from you. Toodles! (◕‿◕✿)





2 comments:

  1. Gosh Susan...I know that it's hard work - but your passion shows everyday and in every post. Thank you for sharing. xoxoxoxo - Eva

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you dear Eva for your feedback and support. Nothing brings me more joy than to share my passion for food, convey inspiration and food education and to fill people's bellies with homecooked love.

    ReplyDelete