How can I describe the perfect conference? A revelation? An inspiration? An epiphany? Grand words, highfalutin ideas for just a conference. But how does one, how do I, describe the sensation of having arrived in New York on a Tuesday feeling like a blogger and leaving one short week later assuming the full force of being a writer? Yes, I know, I am already a writer, you argue. But sometimes we each need some kind of concrete affirmation of our own belief in ourselves, a mise en oeuvre, the validation of our own self-regard. Am I a writer because I feel a writer in every bone of my body? Because sitting at a computer or with a pencil in my hand in front of a blank sheet of paper is exhilarating? Because I revel in the flow of words from my mind and coursing out of my fingertips as they clatter across the keyboard, words that I then shape and mold into a story, infusing sentences with emotions, paragraphs with sentiments, pages with meaning? Or is one a writer only when one is recognized as a writer by the movers and shakers in the professional milieu? Can one simple conference be responsible for this transformation?
interspersed with hints on how to prepare for IACP San Francisco:
1. I swept through the revolving doors into the Millenium Broadway Hotel in New York City as Alice through the looking glass, into a world at once real and imaginary. I felt both large and clumsy, as if every set of eyes was turned upon me, as if all of those random people littering the entry would laugh at my utter aloneness, and small and insignificant, completely ignored, as my own eyes swept the lobby anxiously searching for the first familiar face. I half expected to stumble upon a table with slices of cake labelled Eat Me! or tiny teacups begging Drink Me!
And then, lo and behold, I peered into the shadowed darkness of the bar and saw Domenica Marchetti huddled behind a drink, masked behind dark glasses, all alone. Daring to dare, I accosted her and my heart jumped with delight as her face lit up. I sat down and we began chatting away like old, old friends and I knew that everything was fated to turn out all right.
2. The weeks running up to the conference, I often felt as if I was filling up a dance card: “you Friday at 3:00, you at 3:30, you Saturday for breakfast, uh, no, sorry, taken. How about a late lunch?” Popular was I? Not so much popular as simply knowing that this was my one chance, just at this time in my life and at this point in my career, to be surrounded by so many great and influential people, to meet them, to introduce myself and to make that important face-to-face connection. One chance.
3. Business cards. Mucho business cards. To hand out right and left as a famous star of stage and screen passes out air kisses to adoring fans. Sweep into a room and begin the dance. And a calendar, a schedule carefully typed up and printed out, now smeared and hazy with pencil scratchings up and down the margins, filled with back-to-back sessions interspersed with meeting this person or that, breakfasts, lunches, coffees and dinners all perfectly aligned and ordered. I had to arrive in New York, at this conference, absolutely and completely prepared. And if that meant pre-arranging meet ups, making dates ahead of time, daring to email requests and invitations and scheduling in must-attend sessions whether I was signed up or only on the waiting list, then come hell or high water I would do it!
And I did it.
4) Opening panel presentation: The Fashion of Food. I didn’t particularly care for the whole Food as Fashion argument defended and raised to glory by the few albeit distinguished superstars who spoke to us all as one. Yes, food trends allowing for discovery and adventure, cultural mergings, new ideas, I will give you that, yet the love affair with the new and the hot began to turn sour, their enthusiasm a bit over the top. Except, I will add, for Marcus Samuelsson, whose cultural roots showed through his thoughtful points. My question asking when does fashion become fad, requesting the chosen few to come down off of the pedestal of glorifying food trends and discuss it in a more cultural light, discuss the dangers of food as fad, was brushed off as frivolous and unimportant. And for the rest of the weekend I was met with “Aren’t you the one who asked that great question that they refused to answer?” Ah, yes. Me.
When I wasn’t “Oh, you’re that Huff Post girl, right? The one who wrote that article?” Yep. Again, me.
5) Inspiring, motivating, sensationally informative panels. Dynamic presenters, personal one-on-one sessions or open to group give-and-take, questions and answers, I gathered so much information that I felt newly armed against a tough career choice, prepared to face hurdles, make bold decisions and allow my creativity to bloom and merge with something more pragmatic. Yes, we have heard it all before but possibly the fact that these panellists were speaking to professionals rather than bloggers, they added layers of inspiration, more precise information, went above and beyond mere talking points and facts. Was this conference for bloggers wishing to focus entirely on and make a success of their blog? Probably not. Was this a conference for those whose blog is merely a steppingstone to a professional career in any branch of the culinary business? Absolutely! The information culled from the sessions, the opportunity to network, discuss, ask questions, create professional relationships is beyond measure.
My favorite panels? Building a Winning Proposal, How to Turn Your Freelance Work into a Career, Oxford Gastronomica’s How a Food Can Make a City Famous and, of course, Mix and Mentor: Okay Writers, Here’s What We Want! And one hint: you want to attend a panel or session that you are only waitlisted for? Show up a tad early and just walk in, head held high as if you belong, and slide into a seat. Works. And thank heavens it did! Big things happen when you are bold!
6) Liberté, égalité, fraternité (oh, sorry, I got caught up there in the French elections for a second.) Availability. Accessibility. Equality. I was absolutely taken by the ambiance at this conference. The utter availability of every attendee and speaker, no matter their professional status, was truly extraordinary and mind-boggling (for a first timer); we all had come as equals. Each fellow IACPer was approachable. The welcoming smiles were palpable. We were all attending this conference to network, and how easy and natural it was to simply walk up to someone, anyone, introduce yourself, trade business cards and discuss projects, not only welcome but expected. Sit down next to anyone at breakfast, turn to your neighbor in a session, stop someone in the hallway. It was as easy as that. Interest, encouragement, camaraderie was the spirit of the conference.
7) Networking and recognition. How did I fare? With my suitcase and pockets overflowing with foodstuff and business cards, notes and hand outs, I left the conference so much more knowledgeable about how things work in the world of professional writing and publishing. I was offered a peek into the workings of Saveur magazine, spoke endlessly with fellow writers and published authors, understood the importance of networking via internet and in person, the delicate balancing act of humility and confidence, of give and take. I put myself, my work and my ideas forward, discussed my projects and my professional goals, seizing every chance to speak to those who could offer valid information and guidance and those holding keys to my future.
As an American blogger and writer living overseas, far off in my dark hole of isolation, my own private island where it is terribly difficult to gauge my place in the sphere of American food writing, this trip and this conference afforded me the opportunity to understand where I stood, to know how widely my words are read and to receive feedback on my work. I reinforced and solidified working relationships that had begun in cyberspace and created new associations and professional connections. This conference was indeed a steppingstone in my career and I now have so many projects awaiting my complete, constant and immediate attention. So, as the French say, “Au boulot!”
I do want to thank: Dianne Jacob, Jackie Gordon, Ken Leung, Robin Zachary, Dana Bowen, Renee Schettler, Nancie McDermott, Jayne Cohen, Nancy Baggett, Giuliano Hazan, Domenica Marchetti, Denise Vivaldo, Abby Dodge, Bruce Shaw and Adam Salomone.
So happy to have seen and/or met: David Leite (and The One), Kathleen Flinn, Melissa Clark, Martha Hopkins, Maria Speck, Cathy Barrows, Margarent Chen Doughney, June Jacobs, Heather Jones, Virginia Willis, Michelle Jaffee, David Dadekian, Lora the Mad Hausfrau, Jessica Lee Binder, Brian Samuels, Sara Hafiz, Winnie Abramson, Mardi Michaels, Karen Covey, Warren Brobow, Gina Stipo, Grace Young, Chef Jonathan Forgash and Amanda Hesser.