How does a restaurant critic and food writer work?
“Everything I do is about sharing great food experiences, whether it’s through my restaurant reviews or feature articles, recipes and cooking videos, or travel videos and food tours. I love using food as a medium to connect.”
Dani Valent, is a journalist, author, cookbook writer, recipe developer, screenwriter and presenter with experience in print, online, video and film. She loves food, travel, people, writing, and creating and fostering Connection.
Dani, you started as an author for travel publisher Lonely Planet – how did that come about?
I live in Melbourne, Australia, which is where Lonely Planet was founded. As someone who loves travel and writing, it was a logical place to start! I worked as a travel writer for Lonely Planet for eight years, visiting places including Bulgaria and Bonaire, Corsica and New York, Hong Kong and India. It was a great job though not the glamorous life that some people might imagine. Guidebook writing is very laborious and detail-oriented and you usually have to move from place to place very quickly.
How did you move into food writing?
Lonely Planet started a series of guides to world cuisine and one day my boss said to me, “Dani, we need someone to go to Turkey…to eat.” Yes, that sounds like me, I thought! From my first few hours of food writing, I was hooked. It was so fun to wander through markets looking for the best spices, or to follow a lead to find an interesting chicken dish. I loved the way food connected me with people’s passions, histories and cultures. It’s so rich and endlessly fascinating.
You’ve written three cookbooks too. How did that come about?
In my work as a food journalist, I came across Thermomix, a food processor that also cooks. It’s a great machine! I ended up buying a Thermomix but I was really unsatisfied with the recipes and cookbooks available at the time. Instead of being frustrated, I decided to write the book I wanted. I worked with 75 top chefs around the world and adapted their Thermomix recipes for home cooks. The book was a success, being honoured in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards and reprinted six times. I ended up writing two more Thermomix cookbooks before moving onto new topics.
How do you approach your work as a restaurant critic?
My first question is always, ‘what is this restaurant trying to be, and does it succeed on its own terms?’ I try to understand the project of a restaurant, describe that to my readers, and then determine whether the restaurant is successful. I aim to educate my readers in a respectful way – I don’t assume they know fancy food terms or the latest trends. I write for a general audience and imagine myself as a trusted friend that can help them decide where to eat, and give them some context and information that will enrich their experience.
What advice can you give chefs and restaurateurs?
I believe the work of a restaurant critic is to see beyond the particular to the general. I never judge a restaurant on the basis of one mistake – spilling the soup, burning the toast. What is much more telling is how a restaurant deals with a mistake. I’m looking for genuine care and hospitable intention. I rate restaurants highly when they know who they are and they enact that identity consistently, warmly, deftly. There’s nothing as joyful as being in a restaurant that’s humming with confident spirit.
What are some of the silly trends you see in the gastro scene?
I think we’re all a bit bored with food that’s overly complicated. I don’t look forward to seeing dishes with a dozen elements, some of them incongruous, with the whole assembly seemingly designed for Instagram rather than the taste buds.
What are some game-changing developments you see in the gastro scene?
The biggest issues are veganism and sustainability, which you could also see as interlinked. I think we’re seeing so much interesting development in vegan menus – and I don’t mean fake meat, but creative ways to honour and showcase vegetables. We’re seeing efforts in sustainability in menus, sourcing, portioning, kitchen management and waste streams. It’s exciting and 100% necessary.
What else do you offer with danivalent.com?
I post a lot of my journalism and media appearances on my site. I also have a large membership area focused on Thermomix cooking videos. It’s the most comprehensive independent Thermomix video library in the world, with more than 250 videos, some just with me, but many featuring top chefs.
In 2020, I’m expanding the focus beyond Thermomix. I’ll still have all the Thermomix content, and I’ll also have content that helps people entertain at home: I think many of us wish we had people over more, but we are blocked by various concerns… too busy, house too messy, kitchen too small, it’s too expensive… Whatever it is, I will be sharing strategies to move beyond it so that we can all experience the enriching joy of sharing meals with family and friends.
How has your experience been marketing yourself through social media activities?
To be honest, marketing is probably what I’m worst at! I love doing things but I’m not so good at showing off about them. Content creation is the easy part for me, but promoting it is an effort. I’ve had people help me with varying degrees of success. But honestly, for me, social media is about being authentic and outgoing, it’s a place to learn and connect. I sometimes also use it as a place to sell, but that’s the part that I find hardest.
Where does travel fit into your life now?
I’m always looking for my next food adventure! I always build my trips around food investigations and my biggest problem is trying to get hungry before the next meal! I already run food tours in Melbourne; I’ll be expanding that internationally too.
How can we stay in touch with you?
Sign up to my mailing list at danivalent.com and follow me on Instagram @danivalent. You can also find me on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
Thank you so much Dani! All the best.