Q&A: Food Writer Francis Lam

In this era where everyone who Instagrams his lunch and posts it on Tumblr fancies himself a food writer, Francis Lam is the real deal. He was a staff writer at the late, lamented Gourmet, before Condé Nast bean-cutters shut down the magazine in 2009. He then wrote for Salon.com and edited beautiful features at Gilt Taste before landing his current gig editing cookbooks at Clarkson Potter, publishers of glossy tomes by the likes of the Lee Brothers, Martha Stewart, Mario Batali, José Andrés, and Hugh Acheson.

Lam, along with Acheson, CNN's Kat Kinsman, Vogue/Garden & Gun contributor Julia Reed, Southern Living editor Hunter Lewis, and several others, will be a panelist at this week's Southern Food Writing Conference, a spin-off off Saturday's International Biscuit Festival. If you can't afford the hefty fee for the conference itself (which does include dinner at Blackberry Farm, so it's likely worth it), you can buy much cheaper tickets for Friday night's Biscuit Bash, which will feature all the writers signing books and a special screening of Joe York's documentary Pride and Joy, produced in association with the Southern Foodways Alliance. There will be bourbon slushes and pimiento cheese, and Knox Mason's Matt Gallaher is making panna cotta, so you don't want to miss it.

Anyway, we chatted with Lam over the phone about his career—and, of course, about his judging on Top Chef Masters. Just how fake is the show? Read on to find out!

So you went to culinary school. How did you end up going from there to writing for Gourmet?
Honestly, it was just pure dumb luck. When I was in culinary school, I was really geeked out. I was that guy who was always taking notes at the front of the class, and then coming home at night and writing about it. And I would send these long e-mails to my friends and family about what I was learning, going into all this detail about stuff like how to fillet a fish. ... And about halfway through the program I got an e-mail from someone at the Financial Times who said a friend had been forwarding my e-mails, and they wanted me to write for them, kind of a diary of culinary school. This was in early 2003, I think, kind of before all these memoirs about going to culinary school came out. So I did pieces for them. ... Then after I graduated I wasn't even writing, really—I had gone back to working in non-profits. And I met Ruth Reichl [the editor of Gourmet] at a conference, and she asked me to write something for Gourmet. That was in 2005, and I went on contract as a staff writer in 2006.

When Gourmet shut down, there was a lot of pain and outcry from the food community at losing such an institution. What was it like going through that?
I think I'm still only figuring it out. That was my first real writing gig, and so I didn't really know how lucky I was to be working at a place that values the quality of writing, of journalism, of editorial work. ...Then I was a staff writer at Salon, and just being on the Web was such a different monster—it almost killed me, all the stress. My body was literally falling apart. Having to produce every day was so different than having weeks or months to think about a story. ... Being at Salon was a great experience because I learned I could do that, that I could write every day. But being on the Web you see in a really direct way the shaky economics of media in general. [Page views] are a really different thing to have in the back of your head as writer.

Now you're a cookbook editor at Clarkson Potter. I don't personally have an iPad or tablet, but I have a lot of friends who do, and it seems like many of them are solely using that for recipes now—things they've saved on Pinterest or their favorite food blogs. Do you think that's eventually going to kill cookbooks, or will cookbooks just become digital?
I don't have the answer to that, and no one out there has the answer to that. One the one hand, people have been really moving to digital books—I think like 50 percent of fiction and non-fiction is now being sold digitally. But as far as cookbooks go, there's still a 90-10 split—90 percent of our readers are still buying physical books. (At least, those are the stats I've heard, if I'm remembering correctly. Don't hold me to that.) And what it can do, which is dangerous, is let cookbook publishers think everything is hunky-dory and do nothing. But what it can also do is give us time to come up with the next thing. The fact that people are still buying cookbooks says they still value them as objects. They have a sort of importance in people's lives—an emotional power. I think it is important to keep making them.

Do you think that's the reason The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook was such a success last year—one of the top-selling cookbooks of the year, even though most of the recipes are available for free on the Smitten Kitchen blog?
I think The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook is genius. I don't know Deb Perelman—I mean, I just know her from the blog—but that makes me feel like I know her. I just think so much of the book was a product of the blog, like getting suggestions from readers for improvements. And you feel like you're a part of that community and you helped write the recipes. So of course I'm going to buy the book, and I'm going to buy it for my family, and I'm going to introduce my friends to it. That community, that sense of belonging—when you have a book out, that's just brilliant.

So you were a judge on Top Chef Masters last year. What is that really like? Is there ever food that's really terrible that you have to pretend to like, or vice versa, where something's good and you act like you hate it?
If anything, there's the temptation to make stuff sound bad, because it's easier to be really catty and really funny that way. I was actually constantly in awe of the chefs—the fact that they could make food taste good, and make it in the constraints of the challenges. Like, the episode where they were at the Grand Canyon, and they had two hours to make something outside on a grill. And it rained! We're in the middle of the desert, and it starts raining, and they can't use their grills for the whole time. I was impressed that anyone was able to make anything, much less make it good. I was like, you people are superhuman. So you want to celebrate that. ... But I was also impressed just seeing how much the producers really let the competition be the competition. Because you hear all this stuff about reality shows, and how they keep on the people that cause the drama, but that wasn't the case at all. The producers never even hinted at who they would rather stay or rather go. It was really legit.

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and space.)