Okay, we admit that it's kind of cheating to feature someone who doesn't have a real job in food yet, but it's yet another opportunity to highlight the spectrum of ways to pursue your passion. So in case you're not independently wealthy, and actually have to pay bills and bank loans, Noah proves that you can exercise your interests while you figure out exactly where you fit in the food world.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
Raised in an Ashkenazi household, eating was never a very special time for me. I failed to understand why I was forced to eat bundles of vegetables, brown rice and chicken breast, while my friends were able to enjoy sodas, fast food and all those great junk foods that kids can't get enough of. This all changed however, when at the age of ten my family and I attended a family friend's traditional Mexican wedding where Oaxacan Mole Negro was served at the reception. I was shocked! This was the first time I had eaten something and it had been an experience. This was a moment that would become a memory to be visited and reviewed for years to come. Before this plate of saucy black chicken, I had only been exposed to bland and beige foods that often lacked flavor. The combinations of sweet cocoa and cinnamon, the spicy ancho chilies and chipotles shined through with a hint of nuttiness that was supernatural to me. Eating this mole while mariachis played in the background felt like the whole party had been put together just for me alone to have this culinary experience. I'm sure many of you can identify with what I've just described. My life had been changed forever and all because of food.
That one day became the catalyst for my future fascinations with all things food. I became interested in the way certain cultures used specific ingredients and what specific dishes were the most traditional. As I got older, I attempted to get my feet wet in the food industry several times, but was always unsure about how to do it beyond the usual route of culinary school.
While earning my Bachelor's degree, I spent more hours reading books on food than I did studying for my architectural history classes, by such authors as Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Anthony Bourdain, Bill Buford, Robb Walsh, Upton Sinclair and Marion Nestle. Additionally, I spent most of my free-time finding the best local eatery's, understanding food trends and most importantly, having a blast eating! Friends became annoyed with my constant endeavors to get them to try different foods such as: beef hearts anticuchos, fish heads, soondae, shio ramen, headcheese, oysters, razor clams, tom kha kai, pig ears, dim sum and many others. My extreme curiosity and passion for food came to a head during my junior year, and this is when I knew I had to get involved in the food world. At this point, I seriously contemplated pursuing a master's degree in food studies or gastronomy, however I received no support from most of my family and was fearful of pursing a (passion) career with no clear direction.
How did you get your current good food job?
Architecture, historic buildings and the complexities of urban environments have always been fascinating to me. I therefore pursued a masters in urban planning and historic preservation. During my additional years of schooling, study sessions were often disrupted by conversations about food, followed by loud, sloppy, great dinners at local hole-in-the-walls. These years were also a time when I experimented with food the most. I spent as much time as I could with food; whether it be cooking, hosting dinner parties, traveling to a certain region for a specific dish, or spending the entire day exploring different restaurants.
Even though I was not working in the food industry, I thought I could be content spending all of my free time with food, while spending the weekdays working with the built environment. However, throughout my time in graduate school, my indecisive mind would end up convincing myself that I needed to find a job in the culinary world (thoughts that were often provoked while consuming too much wine) rather than planning. However, the following mornings I could always re-convince my sober-rational self that I ought to at least try working in the planning field for a few years since I had invested so much time and money.
Today, I am an Environmental Planner (Architectural Historian) for an historic preservation and environmental planning consulting firm. While I truly enjoy what I do, most of the time, I have come to realize that every job/career will have aspects of it that are not super exciting. That being said, while working on a project recently I became a bit melancholy over the boredom of my specific task. It was at this moment, sitting in my semi-cubical desk area, that I had my epiphany. I could write and research things that I love (food & culture), and I can put my understandings of planning and preservation to use in an original and unique way!
As so many other Gastrognome stories have revealed, sometimes your have to create your own job. After several years of scratching the surface of the food world, I created www.goodfoodpreservation.com. "Preservation" not in the typical sense, but defined as "the act or process of applying measures necessary to sustain an existing culture through its food." Even though this is not a real job (yet), it is a means to an end in filling a gap for my passion of food and culture, and it has been amazing! Good Food Preservation documents and advocates the celebration of cultures through its food. This will ensure cultural understanding, tolerance and food heritage for future generations. On a weekly basis, GOOD FOOD PRESERVATION hosts discussions with those who are actively preserving cultural traditions through their craft. Additionally, there are weekly posts of rare and endangered recipes that are not widely practiced.
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
Even though Southern California is culturally and ethnically diverse, many of the cities and neighborhoods are still extremely segregated. School was the true make up of the heterogeneous community. There, I interacted with students whose backgrounds were different than mine. Lunch-time was the best in Junior High and High School. Based on what a lot of my friends brought to school for lunch, cultural stories were often thrown back and forth across the table. I always found this interesting and it helped fan the spark of my initial interest in understanding cultures through food.
As I got a older, I was lucky enough to have a God Mother who is passionate about food. She worked long hours and ate out almost every night. I started joining her for dinners and subsequently became exposed to dozens of new and different cuisines. These experiences I had, and still have with her today, made me realize that eating is a time that is not only about enjoying life with friends and loved ones, but about experiencing the food itself in a variety of ways and an opportunity to learn.
Finally, my education and experience working in a wide variety of fields (especially historic preservation) prepared me to effectively and accurately write about food in connection to cultures that I do not often see. At work, I constantly examine and analyze large tangible art (buildings) to understand the historic context and to make a correlation with it today. Food has been important to man since the beginning of time, and there are many people who are eating food, often good food, but without the knowledge of where it comes from or the history behind the dish they are enjoying. When examining a piece of art, it is so much more exciting and worthwhile when you understand when, why and how it was created. Good Food Preservation will give you those answers, which I hope will strengthen your future food experiences.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
Taking into consideration that I feared a career in food might damage my relationship with one of my greatest passions and that ultimately I might not be good at it (whatever "it" may be), I decided not to leave my planning job and pursue a food related practice on the side. This was one of the most difficult decision I've had to make so far; though, one that has already been incredibly rewarding. This seemed the best way to keep a roof over my head while simultaneously setting the groundwork for Good Food Preservation. Hopefully, this slow transition into the culinary world will allow for endless good food opportunities and become my fulltime job in the near future.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
The greatest opportunities in food right now involve food awareness. The most important and critical thing we can all do with food regardless if we work in the industry or not is raise awareness of the dangers of processed foods or "synthetic food-like substances". Yes, all of you reading this already know the dangers, but the masses are largely in the dark. I recommend advocating and sharing your knowledge of eating healthy, nutritious foods in moderation to someone new every day. Additionally, the best, most enjoyable and rewarding opportunities in food can be derived from ones own interest and skill set, which will allow for great satisfaction.
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
Endless travel opportunities and books.
Do you have a day job that you'd rather ditch for food? If so, what projects do you take on to inspire you?
Update from Noah, as of 2014.04.02
Although the website has been shuttered since 2013, Good Food Preservation morphed into something different than I expected; it turned into a large study of Los Angeles's diverse neighborhoods where I analyzed the cultural, physical, economical and social impacts restaurants can have on these neighborhoods. As a result that I got a lot of satisfaction from doing such research, this fall I am starting PhD program in Public and Urban Policy at New School where I am going to study the impacts the point-of-service-business (the restaurant) has on low income neighborhoods throughout New York City; within that, I also plan to study the ethnography of the restaurant. Additionally, I just relocated to NYC one month ago and am currently working as a transportation planner for New York City Transit.