Editor’s Note: Tara Stevens is a well known name in the Barcelona food world, both by expatriate readers of the popular English-language magazine Barcelona Metropolitan, as well as by locals who hound her incessantly for a review of their new joint. Knowing Tara personally, it’s funny to me when she comes up in conversation. Everyone claims to know her. Tara says that she’s used to people using her name, but what most readers in the city don’t realize is that the width and breadth of her knowledge, experience, and skill goes way beyond the pages of our beloved local publication. “Has she cooked for you yet?” a friend of Tara’s asked me at a recent restaurant opening, a sly smile on her face. “Wait until she cooks for you.” I’ll be waiting…
To start, could you tell us a little bit about who you are? What is your background and how long you have been living in Barcelona? Where are you from and what originally brought you here?
I’m from Wales, but left the UK a long time ago living in Copenhagen and Puerto Rico before ending up in Barcelona. I’ve been here for nearly 14 years.
How has the world of professional writing changed since you began your career? How did you first start?
I started about 14 years ago. I got a job writing the Adventure Guide to Puerto Rico for Jupiter Books in Miami and it went from there. Over the years I found that all of my travel writing was really about food – markets, chefs, where to get a great conch empanadilla – and that’s what I’ve done ever since. Professional writing has changed greatly though. The Internet has made information much more accessible, blogging means there’s a lot more content too and a lot of that content is free, so it’s tougher than it was.
Have you always written about food? What else do you cover? How many publications have you written for over the years?
I also still write a fair amount about destinations, hotels, a little bit of arts, culture and design. I write for a lot of different people – as a freelancer you have to – among them Barcelona Metropolitan as you know, but also Conde Nast Traveler, the Guardian, the Telegraph, Olive Magazine, Fool (a fantastic food magazine), Easy Jet Traveler, Scanorama. These days I think it’s important that you’re specialized, but you need to remain flexible and keep your finger on the pulse where ever you are.
So how do you stay connected to the new things happening around Barcelona? Events, restaurants, festivals, etc. Do you have a system to help keep your finger on the pulse?
I wouldn’t say I have a system as such, but like most journalists, I read local press, attend openings, speak to people – I have a little black book of important sources for information, which I think is probably the most important thing. And I always carry a note pad so that if anything strikes me as interesting when I’m out and about I can jot it down there and then. You think you retain things in your head, but the truth is when your head is full of a couple of articles, half-way through a book and a restaurant you need to review, you don’t remember stuff. At least I don’t.
What does the daily grind of a full-time journalist and author look like? How do you manage your time?
I’m strict, but that’s taken years of patiently training myself. I’m generally up at 7:30am, and at my desk with a big pot of tea by 8:00am. I try to spend the first hour of my day dealing with email and making a list of what I need to prioritize that day. Then I go for it writing wise. Thankfully I’m not a Facebook addict so that doesn’t distract me too much. I do try to tweet something food or lifestyle related once a day, but only if it’s relevant to what I normally write about. I’m quite often out for lunch or dinner, so those lost hours have to go back in somewhere. It’s normal for me to work until 9-10pm. These days I try not to work at the weekends as I think it’s as important to get a break as to work hard, but that doesn’t always pan out.
Also, how do you manage to eat and drink without overdoing it? I know you have said that you follow certain “rules” at home to allow yourself to enjoy rich food for work.
If I don’t have appointments during the day then I try to get to the gym for a swim or onto Montjuïc for a run. I also try to walk everywhere in town so when I’m reviewing a restaurant or interviewing a chef my default is to walk. I love to cook, but if it’s just me I try to keep it light and healthy: last night was baked sea bream with braised fennel and tomatoes, I’ll often just have a salad for lunch. It’s really about trying to keep everything in balance. I think I do OK, but as you get older the battle of the bulge gets harder. I also make sure I have at least three-four nights a week that are alcohol free.
When you write a restaurant review, how do you act during the meal? Do you take notes? Do you wear a disguise? Do you order off the menu or ask for recommendations? On a personal level, how many times do you need to eat in a restaurant to truly judge its character.
Ha, no I don’t wear a disguise, but I do try to be inconspicuous. Obviously, if I’ve interviewed a chef, restaurant owner or producer then they know who I am, although those are generally guys I know to be reliably good anyway. The Metropolitan column pays for its own dinner and I wouldn’t consider myself to be well-known enough for people to pin a picture of me in the kitchen as it is said they do with some of the famous critics in London or New York. I tend not to take notes at the time if it’s for the restaurant column though I do scribble down my notes and impressions when I get home. I always take a few surreptitious photographs of the menu and the dishes so I have something to jog my memory once I start writing.
I act like any other diner. I always try to be very polite, even if things are going badly downhill. I can’t bear rude or indifferent service, it’s absolutely inexcusable and I feel strongly that I have a responsibility for how my readers spend their hard earned money. Likewise, if I think service has been particularly good I’ll always ask for the name of that person, and make sure they are credited in my reviews. Chefs are so famous these days, but I think it’s important we remember the front of house team, who make our experiences special so I’ll always give them a big shout out. Today it goes to Diana and Jorge at Barraca Barcelona (the best place in town for paella at the moment), who are just wonderful.
Yes, of course I’ll always ask for recommendations in a restaurant, but no I don’t start demanding things that aren’t on the menu.
I suppose I’d go with the New York Times on how often you need to eat somewhere. Three times will tell you if somewhere is consistent on all levels – food, service, atmosphere – but the reality is, these days, with budgets slashed the way they are, that isn’t always possible. At places where I’m a regular, I’m very loyal to them.
What do you do when a restaurant offers you free food in exchange for a review? Do you think that blogging has changed the integrity or credibility of the food writing that is now available?
Like I was saying before, the way budget restrictions are these days, and particularly at the more expensive places, sometimes we’ve just got to take the invite. If that’s the case, I’ll do as much advance research as possible so I feel confident the review will be positive. I’m also very clear in my correspondence with the destination that a freebie doesn’t necessarily guarantee a review (my policy: if I don’t like it, I don’t write it, rather than to write negatively on the back of a freebie). If I’ve paid, then yes, a negative review is a possibility though I’d always try to be fair if that was the case.
Blogging for me is still a bit of a grey area. There’s some good stuff out there, but there’s an awful lot that isn’t. Like any journalism, the key is really to be discerning about what you read.
What do you think of Trip Advisor? Many businesses live or die by the website here in Barcelona. There are so many reviews and photos that may either help or hurt a business, but from unknown sources.
Like blogging, I read it, but I read it with a pinch of salt. Most of the business owners I know hate Trip Advisor because of the way the algorithms work. It’s not actually the bad reviews, people are entitled to their opinions, but the fact is on Trip Advisor, it only takes one dud and it sinks you to the bottom of the list so that doesn’t seem entirely fair. I’ve also heard (from friends in the business) that when things do go wrong there is no recourse. For example, a friend of mine who had a very good, set menu only supper club in Barcelona, found a very negative review about her tapas. She contacted Trip Advisor to say they must have her confused with someone else as she didn’t serve tapas. Trip Advisor said there was nothing they could do, but I don’t understand why they couldn’t have checked out her website, and done a little bit of desk research to try and verify the situation. They take abuse down, but that does seem to be about the extent of their monitoring, which for me doesn’t really work.
So what’s the next step? New business ventures? Books? Travel?
In May, I’m opening my house in the Fez medina as a rental for food-loving travelers (most people have four bedrooms, I have two bedrooms, two kitchens, two dining rooms) plus a little courtyard cooking school, so that’s very exciting. I’m also running a Chefs-in-Residence program in the Fez medina with a friend at Restaurant 7, and we’ll be having Jerome Waag of Chez Panisse, California in for all of June, and Analiese Gregory of Quay, Sydney for September, October and November. And we’re open already for applications for 2015 if anyone out there is interested.
I’m also working on two books for Phaidon at the moment who publish beautiful food books so I’m thrilled to be writing for them and about to go to Pembrokeshire, Wales for a month. So I’m hoping to find some good food stories there. Wales has some interesting stuff, like laverbread (a sort of seaweedy sludge that we eat with breakfast).
Finally, what advice would you give to young writers who are new to the professional journalism world and are crazy/driven enough to stick with it? How do you get your voice heard? How do you improve as a writer?
Write! I’ve met a lot of people who dream of doing this but don’t actually put pen to paper. So you must write and develop a thick skin. For most writers, for every story we sell, we have a lot more we didn’t. Don’t write for free – you must value your own voice if somebody else is going to value it too – and don’t be scared of the pitching process. It’s intimidating at first, but on the whole, most editors are constantly looking for new, fresh ideas about something, so they do want to hear from you. To improve as a writer the same rules apply. Read a lot and write a lot. There really is no other way although a little bit of luck is always welcome.