How I broke into the coveted, and sometimes misunderstood, career of food writing

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

I had to eat a lot of ramen to become a full-time food writer. Instead of spending evenings in fine dining restaurants, I worked as a hotel concierge. I begged the publisher of the alt-weekly I worked for to bring me on full-time. Once I finally got my shot, the skies did not clear. The birds did not sing. We were paid once per month, and not very much. By the time the end of the month rolled around, I was scrounging through the couch cushions for ramen change.

This was my unglamorous entry into what has slowly developed into a more exciting career. Now, my life looks a lot more like what people envision when they hear "food writer." While I'm not exactly a traditional food critic, I have been spending my evenings sussing out the top 25 restaurants in Nashville with my colleague Brad Schmitt (stay tuned for the results, which will be revealed in September). I travel around the South talking to distillers, farmers and food producers. I'm creating fun food-focused packages for USA TODAY, including a recent grilling and barbecue opus

Mackensy Lunsford has lunch with Chandler "Bulldog" Mack, a player on the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition basketball team, in 2019.

But to get here, I had to do some dirty work. Just like I rose through the ranks of the restaurant business by first washing cheese-crusted broiler plates, I got where I am now with a willingness to roll up my sleeves. I obviously had to know a little bit about food, knowledge gathered in culinary school and restaurants.

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Most of my early work as a staff writer was chasing down restaurant owners and combing through public records requests to break restaurant news. Rather than dining on delicious food, I wrote endless copy for dining guides and helped count votes for readers' polls until the wee hours of the night.

Once I landed a job at a bigger daily paper, I picked up breaking news shifts and wrote about homicides, hurricanes and bomb threats while trying to file my regular food feature stories. I sometimes wrote 10 or more articles a week while maintaining a social media presence, answering reader emails and phone calls, planning print packages, assigning and captioning photos, and performing other clerical needs.

Turns out food writing is an actual job.

Todd Price, a former Times-Picayune reporter who's now with USA TODAY's The American South and Southern Kitchen, echoed the notion that you have to do a lot of grunt work before you can get the good gigs.

"I'll admit, food writing is kind of glamorous and cool," he said. "You eat great stuff (normally). You meet fascinating people."

But, like my first forays into food writing, Price cut his teeth writing dozens of dining guide entries for an alt-weekly.

Patricio Vera, co-owner and manager of Conosur, shows Mackensy Lunsford and Meherwan Irani a part from his rotisserie oven in Mills River Nov. 29, 2018.

"There was nothing glamorous about it," he said. "But it got my foot in the door and let me prove that I could meet deadlines (and meeting deadlines matters as much as anything else)."

Meeting deadlines will always matter. Here are other things to consider if you want to get into the food writing business. 

Be flexible

Especially when you're first getting started, you may have to take on assignments you don't really feel like writing. If you genuinely feel as though having your name attached to a story will make you feel embarrassed, go ahead and pass. But if an editor is willing to take a chance on you, you might have to write a few boring news roundups and event previews before you get to the stories you really want to write. Write them as perfectly as you would anything else. The good news is that you'll have some published work to show when you try to pitch a story you want to write. That's getting your foot in the door.

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Become fluent in a variety of media

In the modern storytelling era, you'll need to know how to use social media. You'll want to learn how to make videos for TikTok, how to craft great Instagram stories and how to navigate Twitter for amplifying your own stories and those of others. Twitter can be a great place to pick up news, too. 

Beyond social media, it's a plus if you can shoot some of your own stills and videos. It's a brave new digital world out there.

Get used to being edited

Respect your editor's time.

If you argue over every last tweak to your stories, chances are you're going to get passed over for someone who's a bit easier to work with. Everyone's busy these days. Gain a reputation for being easy to work with, and people will want to work with you. It's pretty simple. 

Also, ask if an editor can show you what he or she has fixed in your copy. The best editor I ever had would go through changes and point out little mistakes I made, which helped me develop into the (by most accounts) clean writer I am today. 

Expect to work hard

It doesn't matter how far you rise in the ranks. The writing jobs where you don't have to hustle are few and far between. Expect to work during nights and weekends for a while. Don't be surprised if you're tackling a rewrite on Christmas Eve. Some of the toughest editors I've ever had have added hours, if not days, to the time it took me to finish some of the most complicated stories. It's part of the business. 

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Just liking food is not enough

My past two food writing jobs ended in promotions and a vacant position that needed to be filled. I cannot count how many people reached out to me for advice on landing the job. The majority of them thought liking food would be enough.

You can't just like food; you have to understand it. You have to be able to write fast, tight and accurately on deadline. You can't let people use you for publicity. You have to be dependable and perhaps just charismatic enough to gain a following. You have to work hard. No one's paying you to eat. They're paying you to write, and write well.

Now get out there. May the odds be ever in your favor.   

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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