Katie let's start with some personal information about your experience, your history of blogging. When did you start? Why did you start? And how are things going in your blog? I started my very first blog maybe in 2005. It was just at the beginning of the blogging world. I wrote about all of the experiences I was having in Rome where I moved in 2003. I wrote about wine, beer, food, archaeology, random thoughts. It had absolutely no readers, and as my interests and my career developed, I began to focus exclusively on food and beverage. I changed the name of the blog to Parla Food which is my last name, and the word food maybe not the most creative name but certainly one that's catchy and now widely recognized. What I wanted to do when I started this blog, Parla Food, in 2008, was to provide another voice in the food journalism sector because a lot of what I was reading was not necessarily helpful for visitors. And because I was writing in English, I wanted to provide information that was not just your basic, superficial tourist guide. And although to be fair, I definitely do round-ups of the best gelato shops and budget dining. I wanted to give a slightly deeper understanding of the food that I was eating in Rome, how it was changing; and I wanted to analyze why it was changing. What do you know about your audience today? Thanks to a variety of analytics, I know that my audience is about 65% in English speaking countries, and then the balance is all over the world, Italy and Turkey dominating the foreign readership. Most of them are women, but only like 60%, 40%, and most are university graduates, and I know that a lot of the audience comes back all the time. I have a lot of return readership, which is very gratifying, so people might find me perhaps if they're looking for a restaurant recommendation when they go to Rome, but they might come back to see what I have written about Istanbul, or London, or even New Jersey. Let's talk a bit more in depth about the role of the blogger. One of the main roles of bloggers is to select. And you said you write reviews you solve questions about food, about places, about… How do you choose which place or food or restaurant to focus on and to write about? It changes all the time, sometimes I'll have three exceptional dishes with similar ingredients and I'll think that that common bond will make for a good review topic that allows me to write about three places. Sometimes I'll have a really tragically awful meal, and that that terrible experience will be the catalyst for documenting my experience and describing why the meal in my expert opinion, was a negative experience. Then sometimes I'm inspired, well often I'm inspired by the cultural context of places. I love pizza, pizza is a unifying feature in the world and it's fun just to write blog posts about pizza talking about how delicious it is, but I'm more interested in why a particular pizzeria thrives in its neighborhood, how it's relevant. And one of my favorite pizza places in the world is in Caiazzo in the province of Caserta, a place that many people might not ever have heard of but certainly the place warrants a visit. I like writing about the pizzeria down there, the Pepe in Grani. What's the framework of this place is a revolutionary business that has taken a traditional food and created a new economy in what was a vacant historical district, just simply through dedication to quality and tradition. And Franco Pepe, the pizzaiolo down there, such an interesting person. And I think often in Italy in the food industry, of course people appreciate quality food, but perhaps we've lost the respect for artisans to some extent as industrial food grows, and perhaps dignity in certain industries has declined. I like connecting people with the people who are doing great food, and giving them a voice, and showing what they're doing. So, the motivations for choosing my topics change all the time when I'm writing my blog. Things are little bit more, let's say, defined by external forces if I'm writing for a magazine or a newspaper, contributing to a column which already has its own editorial structure. Okay, basically, as far as I understand there is a lot of things that catch your attention on the things that you like and prepare, but is there any input that you get form your audience? Sometimes maybe you try something because the audience suggested it or showed some preference for a topic. Sometimes yeah, I definitely do get blog comments and personal messages through the blog asking me to explore a specific topic. I also get a lot of emails from young writers asking how do you earn a living and how do you build a career in food writing, which for a long time was a career that was in the hands of critics who were staff writers at magazines and newspapers. I think when it comes to covering restaurants and food trends and things like that, it's a much more free flowing type of thing. Whereas when people wanna know personal information and I feel like sharing it, that's when I get the mandate to, like tell us why Parla Food exists? Why do you keep doing this, what drives you? That's certainly where that comes from. Okay, and when you write, having selected a topic to write about, do you have some rules, guidelines, you follow help people navigate these road maps, landscape of food, beverages, cuisines, and recipes? I think it depends on, it depends on the topic. My responsibility is to provide the reader with enough information to understand the topic without taking things for granted. If I am speaking to someone who's reading on their tablet in another culture that may never have visited Italy, but wants to understand something then it's my responsibility to provide them with basic descriptions and something as simple as the address, the phone number, the website if the restaurant has one. But then also to key them into the particular dishes and the type of experience that they can expect, and some of my favorite places, the places that I love to write about might not be for beginners. If you're just coming to Italy for the first time and you want to have a delicious plate of carbonara, well, maybe the place that I would recommend isn't a place that a first time visitor would feel comfortable unless I provide information on how to get there, how to order it, what to expect from the service, or how to adjust your expectations for the service. But above all, it's such a practical thing but something I feel like in Italy is growing, eating here and spending time and money here, you learned to order specific things at specific places and to ignore the rest of the menu. It's something that's so basic in the sort of way that we interact with our menus here in Rome but it's so critical. I try to balance between giving sort of an in depth analysis of a place. And the the cultural history of the place in it's dishes but then also provide the basic details for enjoying it and getting there. After reading some of your insights you wrote in the past and some of the other blogs about food, It seems that there is a lot of storytelling which I think this maybe, at least in my opinion, is one of the main roads of the true blogger, that is to say to build a story, besides the basic information that you've just mentioned, to build a story about what people are going to approach, if they're going to approach this, or something that they can't imagine. Sure. Of course, and I think that's a way to engage the audience in what otherwise is a pretty passive type of medium. I think when you're trying to transport someone through food writing or travel writing, they want to be able to connect with what you're saying and I'm perfectly happy to sit at my computer and type away and write lots of things but I also want people to connect to it. Even if I don't have a face to face conversation with them I want them to be able to relate to what I'm saying so that they share my enthusiasm or they share my disappointment with restaurants or other venues. One of the topics that we discussed and our community members discussed a lot in the forums is what makes a food expert an expert? Yeah I have a lot of opinions on that. I think now, more than ever, food, food studies, and cultural history are valid academic pursuits. I'm pretty opinionated, I'm gonna speak quite freely on this. I mean I think that a lot of blogs are written by people with exceptional credentials. But most of them are not. Most of them are not meant to be necessarily expert opinions, but instead a way of connecting to people: Sharing family recipes, or sharing a holiday experience. I think that's actually a good thing that a lot of food blogs sort of stay under the radar, because we wouldn't want an exceptional, quality amount of content, written by someone who actually pays for all her food and dining experiences, to be confused with an amateur blog. But I also think that readers are savvy enough. And you can go to the About page and see why people are writing about what they're writing about and you can read people's bios. I think even though we're talking about digital media, you can sort of get a vibe on people. And if you notice that your five favorite food bloggers in London all happen to be at the same restaurant at the same exact time, you can probably deduce that they're invited guests and probably not paying for their meals. As we're bombarded with more and more examples of so-called food writing and so-called expertise I think we learn to read between the lines; we're completely bombarded with examples of sponsored content, which I am utterly against, but which I recognize as a major feature. It's the majority feature in food and travel writing for a variety of reasons, hopefully, we don't have to become all super cynical blog readers. But I think a lot of us have learned to be skeptical and critical of what we read, unless we know the person who's writing, by having tested their advice. Yes, you have introduced a very hot and delicate topic which is the relationship between you as a blogger, and companies operating in the food and beverage businesses and so which can be interested in obviously interacting with you and they do. Oh yeah absolutely. People reach out to me and other people with blogs all the time. I have a very clear editorial policy. It's stated on my blog that I do not accept free or discounted food or travel experiences. I'm absolutely not interested in becoming a part of the public relations mechanism. And I know that. That PR agencies who work for hotels and restaurants and a huge range of businesses have really used bloggers, and journalists as well, as tools for communicating. And I never have been attracted to food and travel writing for the potential freebies. I think my personal priority has always been I work for the reader. You’ve criticized them, as you said, in fair or reasonable way, advancing arguments for your criticism. Basically the food blogging world is so big, so various, that I think, at least from my point of view, that would be a very huge opportunity for them. Do you feel that there is feeling on the company side or it's just a matter of negotiating and compromising views between criticism and their approach to their business? Yeah, it depends. Usually when I write and I get reviews of places, the reactions from the vendors tends to be immediately negative, which it's sort of like one of those deadly sins of the hospitality industry to go after the people who criticize you. And I think it's in some, I'm trying to think if there'd been cases in which I have written something critical and then the property, the venue, bar, restaurant, hotel, wherever, has said, hey read what you wrote, will really take that into consideration. And usually it's like, hey read what you wrote, would love if you would have a newspaper print a retraction. Or, which is not done in journalism, but people are accustomed to commanding, you know telling bloggers what to do. And I think it's very telling because when I criticize a place, I'm immediately that blogger who criticized a place. When I praise a place, I'm immediately the Freelance journalist who writes for the New York Times who praised a place. So I think the way that people sort of brand criticism tends to be like, maybe not necessarily professional. But people also who make food, people who produce anything, people who exist don't like being criticized publicly. And certain cultures in particular Don't respond constructively to what is perceived as criticism which sometimes is not meant to be damaging, but just sort of reporting an experience. It’s a complicated balancing act I have to do writing about restaurants between Italy and the UK and the United States and write appropriately. So just elaborating a bit more on this, just talking from his learning approach or any other differences, Are there any differences sin different countries in terms of food blogging culture if we may call it this way? So in terms of the recipients, people reading blogs, using blogs or on the other side, the companies, Approach to what is written about themselves and how they can learn or not or do whatever about the reviews that are written about them? Is there anything in the different parts of the world? Yeah, I mean I think it goes even deeper. There aren't just national differences, but there are cities that vary from place to place, and how restaurants in New York, or London, or Paris handle bloggers, and how they handle outreach to bloggers. Or food journalists, how they seek coverage, so there definitely are differences. I also think that there's a culture of more vocal and direct criticism in the UK. And you see that in a lot of the food columns and coverage in the major news outlets than in perhaps in Italy, where there is I think, a little, well not maybe a little. There's definitely less sort of direct criticism because it's considered in a way bad form to make somebody look bad. So you sort of focus on positive things and maybe sneak in a few critical lines. But wouldn't necessarily do a like a real hard core take down of a place although you will find them occasionally. They're much more common in the anglophone press. You don't get on the company side or those receiving, being the content of the reviews? When it comes to people receiving the content of the reviews, I don't know. I think in New York and London and Los Angeles and San Francisco, the people who are receiving the reviews are often the ones who are investing in public relations in order to cultivate positive reviews. And that will certainly influence how people are writing about places, without a doubt. But I know it's not necessarily fair, but talking about your colleagues and sort of the food bloggers that you know. This has been a topic of discussion in one of your threads. Would you say that food bloggers are, I know that the terms here are very, picking up the right terms is difficult, at least to me. But are they fair enough, or can they be considered reliable? Or, again, most of them are caught up in this PR big machine and so at the end they are one of the communication media that the food business has introduced in the last few years? Yeah, I mean I know that this is a delicate topic. I have no problem talking about this. But many of my colleagues, I wouldn't consider people who are doing food journalism. I would consider them food bloggers who happen to be part of this large PR machine and who don't disclose their relationships with restaurants. Or the fact that they're reporting on an experience like an opening party. I think that we've entered pretty dangerous territory in the food journalism world. And I don't necessarily think that food bloggers have destroyed the culture of criticism. I mean, I think it's definitely been a collaboration between PR, which is hired to promote restaurants and hotels. And an economy in which people can't necessarily afford to write about food and take freebies. Because they wanna have fancy meals, and they wanna go on nice trips, and so are willing to overlook the ethical obligation to disclose your connections. I mean, I have some brilliant colleagues who pay for everything. Or the publisher, their editor, the publisher that they're writing for will pay their expenses, but that's a handful. I respect a lot of food bloggers, but I don't respect a lot more. I am, now there is something 16,000 food blogs in the world. I read ten. I trust ten people to tell me an independent professional assessment of a vineyard or a restaurant or a beer or a pasta brand. And that goes back to becoming a sort of a cynical reader. I mean I can read between the lines when someone all of the sudden is making all of their dishes with a certain pasta brand. Or when someone I see them on Instagram snapping lots of photos of an infinity pool in Sardinia and then there happen to be six other bloggers there at the same time and then they write about this amazing trip they had, I know where you've been. I know that you got paid to go on that trip or at least comped to travel. So it makes you be more vigilant. >> Yeah. >> So I think, this is such an interesting topic to me because I think I've had to sort of acknowledge that the environment of food writing is not one that's based in independent reviewing, one that has to coexist with this culture of freebies and discounts and sponsored content. And it's tragic and unfortunate but I'm surely not gonna be able to change that. So I need to find a way to sort of assert my independence in that culture. You also have a great experience in other media, so you write books, you write columns for newspapers or magazines. So how, I suppose the answer would be yes, so how do you change your style or content or everything when you change the medium of communications who you write for? I think this is one of my major flaws. I can't change my style. I have a style that I write in and that's the way that I write. Definitely the content changes depending on the location in which a place is referenced. So for example, let's say I write a blog post about my experience visiting Ponza. I'm free to write whatever I want, negative, positive, banal, scintillating, whatever. I'm in charge, it's my blog, I pay for the hosting and all that stuff. If I'm writing an article about Ponza for the New York Times travel section, I am required to hit a certain word count, cover a certain number of venues. And if I had a really terrible meal, I'm not allowed to write about that. I mean, I suppose I could maybe suggest some places are much, much better than the competition, but I couldn't single out a restaurant and say do not go there. This was a terrible place for these reasons. And a lot of travel publications are really not interested in negative commentary. So, for that reason, when I write about travel, it tends to only focus on the the joyful experiences in travel. If I'm writing for an Australian publication, I find there's a fantastic magazine in Australia called Australian Gourmet Traveler. I find that they're much more open to talking about the real experience of dining in Rome. Whereas a lot of other especially US media, wants to hear that everything's like perfect and flawless, and everybody makes great pasta, and Romans eat 4,000 calories of carbonara a day, and everybody's thin. And they wan to perpetuate a stereotype because they have a certain sort of editorial objective, so it's interesting. Maybe there aren't necessarily national differences, but certainly the outlets will dictate the content. Although, because I'm so devoted to writing what I think is an honest experience, I won't write a lot of fluffy roundups if I don't feel like there are places that fulfill the list. Like I get a lot of offers to write top ten lists and I'm always like how about a top seven? Or what about a top five? I can't make it to ten. And be honest. So that's how you sort of maneuver within that sphere. If food tasting is so subjective, how can you write in the most objective possible way? I mean taste is perhaps subjective, but I think over the course of the last, I mean I grew up in the hospitality industry. So now, I'm like three and a half decades into the restaurant business. I eat at restaurants more than the average person and I have a very good handle on the quality of ingredients that I’m being served. I also am that annoying person that's always looking into the kitchen to see if what is being presented as fresh food is indeed fresh food. So I think by reporting, by reporting facts by stating the pasta did not have the flavor that was promised by the menu and because of these reasons I think you can eliminate the idea of subjectivity by giving supporting facts. It's through dedication and experience and constant research that subjectivity in the food world or the art world starts to diminish and be replaced by expertise. I also think that subjectivity is what I can say a real value that you provide. If I follow your blogs and I like what you write, what I'm looking for is exactly your subjectivity. I can read another blog and get another subjectivity. I think this is a matter of value, and it's part of the value provided by an expert. This subjective point of view of value for an audience. How important is it not to disclose everything in order to keep some mystery? Eating has a lot to do with surprise. I mean, this is a personal point of view, but I like when I'm surprised. When I go to a place and I I act surprised basically. So it's like a movie, if you know too much about the movie reading the reviews or there are always some friends who are nice enough to tell you about the end of the movie. What is this sort of effect? When it comes to disclosing too much, I'm not sure that it's the same as revealing the ending of a film or the plot of a movie in a lot of senses. It's great question. I think that sometimes, I can definitely answer this when it comes to negative reviews. When it comes to negative reviews, sometimes you don't have to put everything in. Because then it appears ad homonym and really over the top, when you're trying to assert a point and recount an experience. When it comes to good reviews, I don't think you can disclose everything. Unless you're writing a book about the meal, or a very long essay. And I think a lot of blog posts don't exceed 1,000 words. A lot of restaurant reviews, maybe 12, 1,500 words. Yeah, so you can't really cover everything, so it's a problem that solves itself. But I think also, it's also again a matter of story telling, writing a review's a creative act, like writing a script for a movie. It depends on the way, the style, the way that you tell the story. So the mystery can be in the story if you tell it well. Sure.