On a Wednesday afternoon, over a cup of coffee and some really great desserts from Patisserie G, we had the privilege of chatting with Tan Hsueh Yun, Food Editor of The Straits Times/ Sunday Times. We got to know her a little better, and gained some insight on what it takes to be a food writer.
So how did your journey as a Food Editor begin?
When I was away at university I cooked a lot, I was in a very foodie town near UC Berkeley, and I had always loved food since I was a kid. I started out as a reporter in the general news pool in The Straits Times and they want us to try a lot of different things at first. I did arts reporting and then I covered housing properties. Then in 2003, somebody suggested that I do something on food, and I guess finally I was able to find my niche in the organization.
What do you think it takes to be a good food writer?
All the other things that I’ve done have helped to hone the skills of getting information, reading between the lines, the nuances, all the stuff that you need to write well. There are some people, who can take beautiful pictures and have a very fine palate, but they can’t communicate that to the reader and that’s a big tragedy. And there are some who can write really well but can’t to save their life describe a dish. It’s a special kind of skill I think, you kinda need to mesh both together and come up with a lucid account. I also try not to be vague about my reviews. I try to be specific.
I’m sure your job can get pretty tough, what are some challenges?
I know it sounds stupid but there are days when I’m like ‘I just can’t eat anymore’. I’m out every single night, so it’s really like an 18-hour day job. Don’t think for a moment during dinner that I’m not working. When I go to a restaurant, I have to take pictures of the menu and the food, and I take notes on the food. Some nights I even go to 2 places. If you don’t love the whole restaurant industry and want it to grow and prosper- you can’t do this job.
You’re not going to be liked by everyone, but you just have to stay true to yourself. Just make sure your standards are high and that you are above board. Whatever it is, write the truth, write exactly what you think and don’t try to second guess what the reader might like or respond to. I want to be in this for a long time and I don’t want to have funny things associated with my name. I don’t want to have free food or known as a diva and stuff like that. I’m in this for the long haul, so it doesn’t make sense for me to lower the standards.
Do you usually keep your reviews positive?
Oh no, the whole idea of a review is to tell your opinion. A lot people expect that just because ‘A’ person likes this place, that ‘B’ will like it too. But we don’t all like the same music, movies, or books, so how can it be that we all like the same food? I insist on paying for the food, so I can absolutely say what I want about it, and am under no obligation. Unless I really like something, then I will write about it. My credibility is at stake.
What do you look out for when you are reviewing a place? Does ambience and service affect your opinion?
For me the food takes precedence. If the food is crap, I will not go back. No matter how good the ambience or décor is- it’s incidental. Some of your best meals are in coffee shops with a ‘C’ hygiene rating! But if you’re going to a high end place that charges a lot, I’m going to expect that your food, service and ambience be top notch, if not why am I paying this much?
Can you tell us more about your rating system in your column?
For my Zi Char column, it’s a 5-star rating. I have not given 5 stars yet because I always think there’s room for improvement. The highest I’ve given is a 4.5, which is when all the dishes are good, but a few are exceptional. Generally when all dishes are good, it’s 4 stars. The 3 and 3.5 category is when only a couple of dishes don’t work. If it’s a 3.5, then 1 or 2 were fabulous but some were not so good. 3 stars would be mostly good dishes with 1 or 2 not so good. 2 or 2.5 are ones that are a little iffy. Usually it’s because 1 or 2 things are really good but the rest are just not up to mark.
Tell us about your use of social media to reach out to readers?
In 2011 the company decided that some of the reporters should have a Facebook page linked to the ST website. I focus exclusively on food. People want to know about food, and by heavens they will when they look at my page. In many cases, Facebook is more liberating than print. On print I can only use 2 pictures per story, and on Facebook I can dissect each dish and say what I liked or did not like about it. I also get to have an immediate connection to my readers. Some of my readers follow me on print, some of them don’t. We started these pages to reach those who don’t read or subscribe to print. We want to reach out to you every which way.
I’ve noticed that on social media, you want to have a sunny disposition. If you’re a downer, people will be turned off. You have to be enthusiastic, and what is even more critical is that the enthusiasm has to be real. If you fake it, people can tell and they can respond to the emotional part of it. They will respond to your enthusiasm so I think that’s what you have to do.
I welcome all opinions; I don’t delete anything on my Facebook page. If you want to offer any criticism, I like that people would take the time to read what you have written and say I don’t agree with you on this because of that. It’s fine! Its ridiculous if everyone agreed with me. This sort of thing is drummed into you from Day 1- you do not let your editorial standards slip, and you don’t write about something you don’t believe in. So for me I’d never accept freebies, unless my boss compels me to, and I can work out a story that is objective enough to talk about the product. Certainly no one is going to be able to give me a weekend stay in a hotel, its just not going to happen.
What do you think the difference is between yourself and food bloggers?
The difference is that I’m answerable to a whole bunch of people higher up than me. Also, it’s going out to 1.4 million readers, so you’re not going to put nonsense or anything that’s not true in there. There’s an added kind of responsibility that I have. But ultimately, there is no difference. We’re just eating food and saying if it’s good or not. For the readers, it depends on who you believe, and our palates are all different. At the end of the day people need to know that everything is subjective.
Who’s your favourite food critic?
Me. Haha! (We really like this answer).
I really admire my colleague Ah Yoke, because he’s so dedicated to his job. There’s this writer called Ligaya Mishan, who writes for the Hungry City column of the New York Times. She has beautiful ways of describing food, things that I have not read before. She’s a fresh voice to food criticism, so I make it a point to read what she writes.
The food scene in Singapore is getting pretty exciting right now, how do you feel about this growth?
It’s an exciting time for the food world and I hope I have the stamina to keep up with it. These days people don’t just want to know where to eat, but why they should eat there. Is it because the recipes are from his mother or his unique philosophy? There are so many choices, where do you park your money when you go out?
Check our Hsueh Yun’s Facebook page athttp://www.facebook.com/TanHsuehYun as well as her columns on The Straits Times and the Sunday Times for amazing food reviews!
For quick and visual reviews, get the free Burpple app at www.burpple.com/getapp or www.burpple.com/android today to see what our food community loves!