Times’ food writer dishes out stories

When Amanda Hesser told her mother about the position she had landed at The New York Times, her mom replied, “Yay! You finally have a real job!”

Hesser recounted this memory yesterday as she described how a passion for food she developed on trips to Europe during college eventually led to a book and her current job as a writer for the dining section of the Times. Hesser, a petite, dark-haired young woman, spoke in front of an audience of about 30 people in the Swing Space common room for a Saybrook Master’s Tea. The audience, mostly female students, was captivated as Hesser described living at a French chateau after she graduated from Bentley College and cooking for its owner.

While at the Chateau du Fey in Burgundy she became acquainted with an intriguing gardener who taught her more than just about tending to vegetables.

“The gardener had lots of rituals, which are dying out in France,” Hesser said. The interaction between the knowledgeable gardener and Hesser as a student allowed her to fill many pages in a journal she kept.

She penned a freelance article on her experience at the chateau for the Washington Post.

“I had never written anything before professionally.” Hesser said. “I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I felt there was a good story behind this man.”

After a stint as a freelance writer, she was encouraged to write a book about her experiences.

A successful book proposal led to her writing “The Cook and the Gardener,” which chronicles a year Hesser spent at the chateau and is accompanied by recipes she learned during that time.

Her mentor, a book writer named Nancy Herman-Jacobs, suggested her to the Times, and that referral helped Hesser to join the Times staff.

The audience laughed frequently as Hesser entertained them with anecdotes about her initial moments as a writer. She recalled one instance where an editor told her an article of hers needed a stronger nut graph. She replied with silence, indicating that she did not know what the journalism term meant. The editor looked back at her with only a little exasperation, given that he had been pushing for her hire in the first place.

Hesser’s transition from uncertainty about the future after college to the culmination of her attempts to follow her dream encouraged many of the students who attended the tea.

Melissa Lau ’02, a founder of the Yale Epicurean Society, found Hesser’s story pertinent to some of the interests she hopes to pursue after college.

“I love reading The New York Times food section, looking for her articles. It was just a joy talking to her,” Lau said.

Momo Sugawara ’04 found Hesser’s ability to get into writing about food despite her lack of journalism experience fruitful.

“She just showed that any good writing comes from the heart, and that’s the most important thing,” Sugawara said.

In spite of her frequently writing of articles for the Times on topics ranging from cauliflower to the size of chefs’ kitchens in New York restaurants, Hesser made a point to clarify that she is a feature writer, not a food critic.

“I don’t want to be a food critic,” she said. “Food critics basically have Thanksgiving dinner every meal.”

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