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Food Whore Author Jessica Tom Personal Essay

How My 3 Biggest Professional Fails Led to My 1 Biggest Win

Jessica Tom is a writer and food blogger living in Brooklyn, NY. She has worked on initiatives with restaurants, hospitality start-ups, food trucks, and citywide culinary programs. She graduated from Yale University with a concentration in fiction writing and wrote the restaurant review for the Yale Daily News Magazine. Food Whore: A Novel of Dining and Deceipt is her first novel. Read an exclusive excerpt here and connect with her at www.jessicatom.com and @jessica_tom.

So you love it . . . So what?

That's what I thought as I moved to NYC with the dream of starting a career in food. I was obsessed with it and had curiosity, some writing training, and access to public transportation and the Internet. Big f*cking deal.

Starting a blog or reporting on food happenings made sense, but it intimidated me. I didn't have a distinctive angle or voice. How could I stand out among the hundreds (thousands?) just like me?

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So what, so what, so what . . .

I decided that if I wanted to work in food, I'd have to do something crazy, something wildly bold that went against my normally pragmatic, introspective character. So, week after week, I did things that scared the hell out of me. Goodbye, doubt. See you later, shyness. No place for you, playing it safe.

Turns out if you push yourself enough, it becomes a habit, almost an addiction.

In 2006, I had been toying with a cooking show concept. While on vacation in Paris, I saw Emeril Lagasse checking in for my same flight. This was my chance. I convinced my mom to swap her first-class ticket for my economy one (she was traveling on business, and I was just tagging along. Thanks, Mom!) and planned my pitch, shaking the whole time. I almost chickened out, but one hour before landing, I had a glass of Champagne and asked myself, what's the worst that could happen? I walked up to his seat, squatted in his extra legroom at the head of the plane, and made my presentation. I was 22.*

In 2008, I had an idea to merchandise a plant from my mother's native country, Madagascar. It's called anamalau, paracress, or Spilanthes, but we called it "Tickle" because of the buzzing sensation, similar to a Szechuan peppercorn, it creates in your mouth. I chatted with every farmer at the Union Square Greenmarket who sold leafy vegetables, asking if they'd grow it. I gave some to Wylie Dufresne, NYC's master of modernist cuisine, in a plastic baggie. After deciding I'd make mints instead of growing the vegetable, I talked to candy manufacturers and prototyped a box using old matchboxes I took from restaurants. I was 24.**

In 2011, I found a request for culinary incubator proposals from the City of Brooklyn and the NYC Economic Development Corporation (the same organization that finances public parks and major museums). They wanted an institution to create a home base for Brooklyn's food producers, complete with facilities, education, and community. Even though the company I was working for had no culinary programming or industrial kitchen background, I spearheaded our proposal, dreaming up a 20,000-square-foot space with a meat curing lab, mixology studio, and rooftop farm. We won the $1.5 million grant. I was 27.***

I'm not saying this so you can be impressed with me. In fact, all of these pursuits — even that last one, in the end — were complete failures with no tangible returns (see footnotes). I say this because if you make a habit of reaching for the stars, and failing, and then reaching again, eventually you'll catch one.

I'll end with my most recent big gamble.

In 2009, I started working on a book about a woman who secretly writes The New York Times restaurant review because the real critic has lost his sense of taste. It took me a year and a half to write and two years of revisions. I received more rejections than I care to count, and my loved ones subtly, and then not so subtly, told me I should give up.

But I didn't. I holed myself up, cold-emailed, wrote on trains, boats, and coffee shops scattered across Manhattan and Brooklyn. And now my debut novel, Food Whore: A Novel of Dining and Deceit, is coming out from William Morrow/HarperCollins tomorrow, Oct. 27. I'm 31. ****

Here's the thing. You can like something, spend time and money on it, Instagram about it, name your dog after it. But if you love something, ask yourself, so what? Great love creates a dent in the universe. Is your passion passive, piddling away on something unremarkable? Pinpoint the fear and inertia that's holding you back — and then break through it. Again and again . . . and again.

Whether you love animals or singing or running marathons, I can't tell you what your dent will be. It took me almost 10 years to find mine. But I can promise you that calculated risks plus hard work will pay off.

And for the times when you're too scared: Champagne.

* I met his producers, and after a year of writing treatments, a show never materialized.

** One greenmarket farm grew 30 plants, liked them, but didn't sell at market because there was no demand. Wylie gave the seeds to his personal farmer, but there was a labor issue and they were never planted.

*** The company I worked for went bankrupt, and the culinary incubator never happened.

**** You can order it online here or buy it wherever books are sold!

Image Sources: HarperCollins and Liz Clayman
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