Cowboy Up, Girl

Timing is everything. When Ty Largo and I became friends in 2008, I had no idea that two years later, I’d be willing to forsake my 22-year career in the restaurant reviewing biz to join with him and Stacy Pearson in our brand new PR firm called Up Agency.

I had been unceremoniously swept out the door by PM in April of that year and I was wondering what on earth to do with myself. By early summer, I was thinking of trying to create my own food, chef and restaurant-related website, not understanding that such a thing probably couldn’t make me any money or that, in fact, everyone was already blogging instead. Looking back, I would say that I was ridiculously out of touch.

I asked Mari Belardi at Cowboy Ciao who might be able to help me with web stuff, and she suggested Ty Largo, adding, “We love him.” I got online first thing and checked out the websites he had designed for Ciao and Digestif. “Cute!” I thought, watching the little graphic of steam rising from a coffee cup over and over again. It was crisp, it was whimsical and I imagined he could make something just as darling for me.

So I called Ty and we met for lunch at Digestif. There he was: black and white-checked glasses, silky black hair standing on end in a faux-hawk, sitting up straight and putting on his best business-like demeanor.  “Cute!” I thought again.

We hit it off instantly, oohing and aahing together over Payton’s farm-to-table yummies, talking about our favorite restaurants and my possible future plans as a web-based food wonk. We promised to get together again soon and did, this time at the bar at House of Tricks, where we drank too much and got to know each other better.

By mid-summer of 2008, I was working freelance for the Arizona Republic, thanks to Howie’s suggestion that I call Jen Johnston, who would become my editor, friend and occasional dining companion. Life felt slightly more stable. I had work. Not enough work to really live on, you understand, but enough work to keep the wolves from the door for a few more months. Ty got busy. I got busy, wrangling as much freelance work as I could find and we didn’t speak for months.

Last spring (2009), we met at Quiessence and over cocktails on the lawn, we commiserated about feeling adrift. Ty raised his eyebrows and looked at me over those crazy glasses and, lowering his voice a bit, asked, “Would you ever consider coming over to the dark side?” That’s PR-speak for journalists who leave journalism for PR.

I laughed . . .  and then I started thinking.

I’d harbored the PR idea for years (as many of my pals will attest) but I could never work up the nerve to leave my career and try something new. Then too, after all that early tutelage at New Times (where publicists were characterized as having “666” tattooed on their skulls) PR still smacked of used car salesman in my snobbish little head.  More importantly, no one in PR had ever actually invited me to come on board before.

I was flattered, but I wasn’t ready.

No sir, I wasn’t willing to give up a single thing after losing so much already. I was hanging on for dear life to whatever I had. After about a month of back-and-forth, I confessed that I just couldn’t do it. Ty was clearly disappointed, but he rallied and with a little help from his friends (see his own blog post at Juxtapalate.com), started carving out an impressive client roster as he transitioned from web development to PR.

We remained friends, and, in fact, became better buds over more shared meals than I could ever remember.

And then, this spring, after starting the full-time job at the paper, something just snapped. I realized I was tired of doing the same thing, or more accurately, the thing that was purportedly the same but that had changed dramatically (but in piecemeal fashion) over time. I had become less enchanted with writing reviews and more enamored with the prospect of PR. Suddenly, working with journalists I knew and liked or chefs I admired sounded pretty fun. And just maybe, I’d have the chance to exercise the sort of creativity I yearned for. I didn’t give a hoot about being Nikki Buchanan, Restaurant Critic, anymore. The title didn’t mean squat. It was interesting, challenging work I wanted in a field that, in the scheme of things, wasn’t wildly dissimilar from what I was already doing.

Ty and I talked. Then, after he met with Stacy (who brings a boatload of her own impressive clients to the table), it all sort of fell into place. Suddenly, I had faith in Ty, Stacy, myself and the universe in general.  I was ready to dive off the cliff.

Well, now I’ve done it. And you know what? The water may be deep in places, but it feels just fine.

Stay tuned for my Goodnight, Sweetheart letter to the Republic.

Will Not Work For Food

As some of you may already know, I have resigned my position at The Arizona Republic. Although I was grateful to be offered a journalism job at a time when they’re particularly hard to come by, it was time to move on. My last day is August 4th.

It’s hard not to notice that my last post before this one, dated April 5, was my sharing the good news of my recently acquired full-time position as Southeast Valley  restaurant critic at the paper.  And then I dropped off the face of the blogosphere, which was not exactly coincidence.

I counted up how many reviews I’ve written since I started writing for the paper back in June of 2008. You know what number I came up with? 180. 180 restaurants in two years. My God, it’s a wonder I’m not 40 pounds overweight instead of 20. Still, I’m a beast. So there’s that.

And then there’s the aspect of mind numbing repetition: two restaurants a week, two ledes a week, two décor descriptions a week, two conclusions a week, two everything every week. It’s a treadmill, I tell you, and the pace can suck the creativity and enthusiasm right out of you.

Do I sound like a whiner? By all means, take the reins. Then get back to me in six months, a year, 20 years. Clearly, some people are born to this job (John Mariani and other fabulous writers of his ilk come to mind)  and seem content to do it forever. And maybe some people aren’t. Or maybe I just need a little break.

It has been suggested to me that writing a 500-word review is an easy task, something to be handily banged out in an hour, but I beg to differ. In many ways, short reviews are more difficult. There’s less room or time for graceful writing, transitions, jokes and asides, discussing trends, establishing underlying philosophy or creating a solid argument. Much of the good stuff, the little nuggets that make food writing fun get left in the dust for the sake of brevity.

Conventional wisdom holds (although I seriously wonder who dreamed this one up) that people reading on the web are like good old Sergeant Friday, too busy for anything more than “just the facts, Ma’am.” I disagree. It doesn’t matter if you’re holding a book, a newspaper, or a magazine or you’re staring at your computer screen, you still want the writing to be entertaining and brimming with personality. Otherwise, why bother?

Now, that I’ll have a smidge more time, I hope to stay a bit more current here at Wild Lavender. I still love food, and I still have strong opinions. That will never change. Talk to you soon.