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On Passion, Hard Work, and Becoming a Pro Food Blogger

BTS_Superfood

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 โ€“ 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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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:

Tyler Cookie

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.

BTS_Cider

But… WHY?!

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.

Facebook_likesYou 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 โ€“ 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,
– Andrew

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16 Comments

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  1. I love that you wrote this. It’s nice to get a real
    snapshot into what goes into your site and creations. There’s so
    much writing on the web right now that over-simplifies success and
    paints an inspiring but very vague story. I worked as a Pastry Chef
    for 12 years and I remember the work involved in just taking a
    photo of a wedding cake, much less actually designing and making
    it. And now.. I just started making jewelry at home and it’s the
    same thing. So much involved in finding the right materials and
    taking a professional photo of the final product, updating a
    website, etc, etc.. and in the end I could tell you 10 things I
    could of done better. But, I love it. Working and improving a
    little bit daily. The process itself is rewarding. I love seeing
    any progress. I’m sure not everyone wants to be that dedicated, but
    for those of us that are, it’s well worth the effort.

    • Thanks, Denise! Yeah, it’s all about that commitment to doing whatever it takes, and constant improvement.

      Being a pastry chef sounds like so much fun (and a lot of work!) ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Wow. Awesome post. I’ve been inspired by your recipes for months. Now I’m inspired by your passion and drive. Good for you. No, GREAT for you. This is how dreams get done. I’m looking forward to watching your meteoric rise through the ranks of food bloggers. It’s so clear you have the talent, humor and dedication it takes to make it. I’m just happy I can say one day, “Oh, that guy who’s totally huge now? Yeah. I’ve been reading his blog since the beginning.” ๐Ÿ™‚

    • That’s so nice, Amy! Thank you

      Solar Rain Bucket is fascinating, by the way! After that “meteoric rise”, I’m totally moving into the country and going off the grid too ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Hi Andrew, I subscribed to your blog after stumbling upon
    it by accident in the quest to find creative more healthy desserts
    to make, since I’m just starting out with teaching myself how to
    cook. I had no idea so much time and effort goes into just 1 post!
    I appreciate all the more you sharing your passion with myself and
    the rest of the world. Thank you!

  4. This is such an inspiring & informative post. I had no idea how much work what you do takes…WOW. You are truly gifted and talented so I’m sure your hard work will pay off. I’m very choosey where I give my time and I always open your emails first because I’m so excited to see what you’ve cooked up for me to try! I’m not a blogger but I am curious how bloggers make their money. Is it advertisers? I just don’t see how one could make a decent living blogging but what do I know. I have always wondered about that. Keep up the good work Andrew, there are lots of us out there rooting for you!

      • What an excellent site they have at Pinch of Yum! Thanks for the resource Andrew. I just made your healthy cake pops for my daughters 12th birthday and they were the hit of the entire dessert buffet I created! I love your food! Can’t wait to see what’s next. Thanks again for all the amazing work you do and the love you put in your recipes.

  5. Andrew, What a lovely post! I saw Devin Graham’s video on Pinch of Yum and it most certainly struck a cord. It’s so important that people know all the work that goes into food blogging and following your passion in general. I love that you are “fighting for that feeling” it definitely shows in your work. I’m SO impressed by the brand you are building! It’s inspiring.
    P.S. I’ve searched and searched for good apple cider in So Cal and it just doesn’t exist so I was beyond excited to find your recipe…. it honestly never occurred to me to make it myself. Duh!

    • Hey Diana, thank you for the nice comments! I’m so glad you can see my passion and I’ll “fighting for that feeling” every day.

      haha, that’s always my answer: when you can’t find a brand you like, make it yourself. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. I love this post!!! Somehow I’ve only just discovered your blog but I already know it’s going to be one of my favourites. Your recipes are awesome and you take gorgeous photos.

    I totally agree with your final few paragraphs – I often see other bloggers complaining that they get no traffic, and when I ask how they’re promoting themselves, they say that they’re notโ€ฆ I don’t get it! Success doesn’t get handed to you on a plate. A couple of days ago I even saw one of these bloggers saying that the ‘successful’ bloggers must only have so many social media followers because they’ve paid money for them. Some people really just don’t realise how much work some people put into their blogs!!

    Anyway, sorry for the rant. Just wanted to let you know that your blog is ace ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks, Becca! Yes, it is relentless and you have to approach it like a professional because everyone else already is. Let those other people complain while we keep working on proving them wrong, okay? ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks so much for stopping by – I really appreciate your nice comments!

  7. Thank you so much for this post! I’m a registered dietitian and recently started blogging as a way to have fun in my field while working on practicing what I preach. SalutNutrition is my third go around at blogging. I must say it looks like third time might be a charm. Once I started taking blogging seriously I didn’t realize how much time, effort, and money you have to dedicate and put into it. But it is all worth it! I’m also taking your Basic Food Photography class (this is what brought me here).

    Once again thank you for not only this post, but the food photography class, and the inspiration!

    Salut!

  8. Great post Andrew! I had some idea what was involved in setting up a successful food blog, and you confirmed all of my suspicions. From my own previous attempts I realized very quickly that in order to do it right it was going to take a lot of time and effort!

    • Hey Jeanette! I hope you guys are doing well, haven’t seen you in forever. Yes, it’s a lot of work, and I got really lucky, but it’s very rewarding too ๐Ÿ™‚

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