On Passion, Hard Work, and Becoming a Pro Food Blogger
My friends over at Pinch of Yum recently shared the following video by Devin Graham, who makes incredible YouTube videos that have been viewed millions of times. To his average fan, Devin’s success story seems to be the stuff of dreams: a guy having fun with a camera in Hawaii who becomes a YouTube sensation. Not quite. In this video, Devin describes how hard he fights for every single shot, and how his passion is really just a commitment to working insanely hard every single day:
I love Devin’s message here because it perfectly resonates with the heart of any creator. For me, as I started OneIngredientChef.com less than a year ago, I quickly dropped everything else and made this my full-time job. Everything felt so right and I knew I had the opportunity of a lifetime, but I also knew that it would require tons of work and sacrifices along the way. I would have to give 100% of my effort to this business, doing whatever it took, every day, for 5 years or more.
I have so much passion for what I do and I wake up excited to get to work every day. But while One Ingredient Chef has been the most fun, engaging, and rewarding project I have ever worked on, it is also an insane amount of work. What no one sees is the 30 minute drive I make for every photo shoot, or the trips to two grocery stores for that one perfect mint leaf, or the hours spent painting (and repainting) wooden tabletops until the color of brown is just right.
Like Devin, I have to fight for my passion day and night. Today, I thought it would be interesting to give you my version of the video above; a behind the scenes look at what it takes to go from idea to published recipe on OneIngredientChef.com.
Creating a Recipe: Step-by-Step
Earlier this week, I posted a simple recipe for Homemade Apple Cider. Throughout the creation of that recipe, I kept a record of exactly what steps were involved in turning that concept into a finished blog post. It went something like this:
1. Develop the Recipe
People often ask me where I get my ideas. The truth is, they come from a million different places. I currently have a note with over 30 future ideas and more are added daily. There are always more recipe ideas then I’ll ever have time to make. For this Apple Cider, it was pretty easy. I wanted to bring something to a halloween party and I’d never made cider before, so it seemed like the perfect fit. I spent some time researching other cider recipes and then drew up something of my own. Luckily, this one was simple enough that it worked perfectly the first time. (That’s not always the case. I once made snickerdoodles with quinoa that took 7 versions before I got it right.)
2. Borrow the Camera
I don’t currently have my own DSLR camera, which is essential to get great photos. So a typical shoot will start off with a 30-minute drive to my brother-in-law’s house to borrow his Canon Rebel T5i and I am so grateful that I have access to this camera (thanks, Shawn!).
Photography is everything. I quickly learned that if you want to be a top-tier food blogger, 80% of your work is in the photos. Photos tell the story, photos get shared, and photos get Pinned (Pinterest is a food blogger’s biggest source of traffic). The difference between good and great is rarely in the creativity, the recipe, or the writing. It’s all about pictures. As we’ll see, pictures are where I put most of my effort.
3. Buy the Ingredients
This cider has a pretty simple list of ingredients, but I still needed to go buy more apples for the cider, orange peel, and a few other varieties of apples for the photo shoot.
4. Prepare the Ingredients
You’ll notice in the apple cider post that I took a picture of the ingredients on a chalkboard before they were cooked. These shots add value to the post, but they take time to setup. I had to quarter the apples, prep the spices, arrange them on the chalkboard, get the lighting right, and then take the 5+ pictures to get one I liked. After that, I started cooking the cider.
5. Buy a Clear Mug
I didn’t have any clear mugs, which I considered absolutely essential for an apple cider photo shoot, so while the apples were cooking for 3 hours, I made a trip to Home Goods to find a nice clear mug. The one I used wasn’t my first choice, but it worked okay. Luckily, I’m getting to the point where I have accumulated most of the dishes and accents that I need for most shoots – I have a whole cupboard with one-off dishes, utensils, cups, and napkins. As a minimalist-ish kind of guy who craves simplicity and organization, this cupboard drives me nuts 🙂
6. Scavenge for Fall Leaves
I knew I’d want some reddish/brown leaves to tell the story of this apple cider. Luckily, it is fall here in California (finally), so I went for a short walk around my neighborhood to gather a handful of fallen leaves.
7. Finish the Apple Cider
It’s funny how cooking itself is the easiest and most straightforward part of the process. At this point, the apple cider was finished cooking so I mashed the apples and strained the cider according to the instructions in the recipe. Then, I set it aside in a pitcher while I setup the photo shoot.
8. Setup the Photo Shoot
While the cider was cooling, I spent at least 30 minutes setting up the backdrop for the final photos. I wanted to get just the right composition of leaves and apples, with the right lighting. I often shoot in my garage because, with the door open, it gives me a “wall” of light to work with. My neighbors often give me strange looks as I’m sitting in my garage with one plate of fancy food in front of me, but whatever it takes to get the best shot!
9. Style the Cider and Take 100+ Photos
It’s go time. I poured the cider into my new mug, added a cinnamon stick, and began taking a bunch of photos of every angle, with different lighting and different background compositions. The hard part here was removing all the reflections, so I hung a thin piece of white fabric that I have on hand just for this purpose. Then, I realized I wanted more depth in the cider so I topped it with some soy whipped cream (which I don’t actually eat because it’s disgusting, but it looks great) and some leftover caramel sauce from the cake pops I made last week. I was so pleased with this topping that I took another 50+ photos in this new setup. In the end, I used some photos with and some without the topping.
10. Clean Up
After all the photos were taken and I felt confident I had what I needed, I put everything back in its place, cleaned my kitchen, and did all the dishes.
11. Return the Camera
At some point after the shoot, I return the camera to my brother-in-law and sister. I also typically bring along their rental fee, which is a steep percentage of whatever creations I made that day. My nephew has absolutely no problem with this arrangement:
12. Edit the Pictures in a Coffee Shop
I usually take a 1-2 day break from a recipe after shooting the pictures. Often, I’ll do two photo shoots in one day, then edit both on the next day to chunk tasks together and save time. So the next day, I hid in the corner of my favorite coffee shop, with Calvin Harris blasting in my ears, to edit all the photos in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. I also exported them, reduced the file size, and imported into a blog post draft for OneIngredientChef.com. This process takes about an hour using a DSLR. If I was using a point and shoot camera, it would take 2+ hours because they would require much more editing just to look normal.
13. Write the Blog Post
At this point, most of the work is done. Getting the recipe completed with great photos is 90% of my work. The only thing left is writing the blog post and recipe steps. I typically use the same standard format for every recipe where I write a dorky intro, list the ingredients, and then explain the recipe steps themselves. This is fairly easy, but I often put it off for too long. This time, it wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that I finally got around to writing the post. When I was happy with it, I proofread the whole thing (there are ALWAYS typos) and scheduled it to be published on Monday morning.
14. Promote the Recipe
The post was published by the time I woke up on Monday and is automatically emailed to my subscribers (which is awesome). But I still have to manually syndicate the recipe through my social media channels. Later that day, I wrote individual blurbs for Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram. I also reformatted the images and submitted to the “food porn” sites including FoodGawker, TasteSpotting, Healthy Aperture, and Finding Vegan.
Obviously, this is a lot of work to publish one recipe. Multiply that by 2-3 recipes per week, then add on untold hours doing marketing, writing guest posts, interacting on social media, and responding to every mention and comment. It becomes an absurd amount of work that never takes a pause. So, why go to all this bother?
The short altruistic answer is because I care. If a reader is kind enough to give me their trust and attention, I better deliver only the highest quality content. The longer answer is because “good” just isn’t good enough. I have no option but to make this brand phenomenal.
You see, I go through a weekly ritual. I have a tool setup on Facebook to report how many new “likes” my page has received, as well as the same data for Jamie Oliver’s fan page. Last week, I gained 40 new likes. Jamie Oliver gained 28,405 likes. What drives me is knowing that, right now, Jamie Oliver has a professional photographer taking pictures in a professional studio with a $10,000 Nikon camera. He has an office full of people building his brand. He has a 15+ year head start. Can I really expect to gain any attention if I’m using my iPhone to snap yellowish fluorescent-lit pictures of poorly-styled food on a tile kitchen counter? I can do that as long as I’m content to have 0.1% the success of the leaders in this industry.
Of course, this isn’t a silly Facebook competition, but I do understand that a reader’s attention is seriously limited. If I don’t produce outstanding content, people will give their time to other sources. Every night I go to bed knowing that while I’m sleeping, there are people out there like Jamie, like Angela from Oh She Glows, like Kathy from Healthy. Happy. Life., like Lindsay and Bjork from Pinch of Yum, and a mind-boggling number of others who are doing great work, who are already successful, who are already fighting hard for their passion.
My only opportunity (and it is just an opportunity, not a guarantee) is to produce GREAT work in my own right. I have to publish content that meets the incredibly high standards I have set for myself. I have no choice but to make that 30 minute drive to get the better camera… to buy that one specific mug for that one specific shot… to search through a pile of dirt until I find that one perfect leaf. Not just once. Not just from 9 to 5. Not just Monday through Friday. But every single day of the month. As Devin says in the video, to be successful, “you have to be willing to get the shots that no one else will fight for.”
Success is about being disciplined enough to put everything on the line, day after day. That extra effort is the dividing line between success and failure. The landscape has changed – it isn’t 80/20 anymore, where you do your job and have a nice shot at success. No, the internet lowered the barrier to entry and created an ultra-competitive world of 99/1 where only 1% succeed. But that one percent owns the industry; they get all the opportunities for books and restaurants and TV shows and advertising deals. While they are working day and night to make people smile and create a veritable empire for themselves along the way, the ninety-nine percent are watching TV and complaining about how you can’t make any money with this blogging stuff.
Don’t get me wrong: this is not a success story. I am still getting crushed every single day. Many food blogs get more traffic in a few hours than I do in an entire month. Their pictures are better, their creativity is stronger, and I am a baby getting drowned out by the titans. This One Ingredient Chef brand is, and always will be, a work in progress. While I can already see the wheels starting to turn, I am patient. I understand that this is a 5-year project.
Although, in truth, this isn’t about the numbers. I have already achieved success in the sense that I wake up every morning to something that is so engaging, so meaningful, and so rewarding that I’m willing to inject this much passion into it from Sunday morning until Saturday evening. Forget about the Instagram followers or the money; this feeling, guys, is what success is all about. Do whatever it takes to find that feeling, fight for it with everything you have, and trust the rest to take care of itself.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to Calvin Harris and my beloved coffee shop; the matcha muffin pictures in front of me aren’t going to edit themselves.
See you Friday,