It is the end of an era: food editor Kris Browing-Blas said good bye to the Denver Post last week after 14 years with the newspaper. A farewell party last Thursday at Euclid Hall gathered the who's who of the local media. The next day, the James Beard award-winning journalist, who has taken a position with the communications department at Colorado State University, talked to Eater about her career, PR pet peeves, best meals, worst interviews, and more.
How did you end up at the Denver Post? I actually answered an ad in the printed-paper. They were looking for a part time food writer — this was in 2000 — and they wanted someone who could write about food and other features topics a couple days a week. So, I applied for the job with a resume and had an interview with Bill St. John, who was the food editor at the time. It was about 14 years ago this month.
What was your first assignment? Oh my gosh, my very very first assignment was a little sidebar on a story he was doing on how to slice an onion and how to hold the knife. He told me I needed to write up directions on how you slice an onion, and so I did.
How did your career evolve from there? Well, I covered food and then I wrote other feature stories kind of on spirituality and sort of like living kind of stories that you see in features sections. I was sort of evenly split between that and food, and then I got more and more into food — I think it was two days a week — and then Bill quit to move to Chicago while he was working on a book, and so I kind of filled in for him until they offered me the actual food editor job. That was maybe 2003? 2004? Somewhere right in there. It was more like 2003. And so, at that time, the food section was really the cooking section and it was on Wednesdays, and the restaurant reviews were in the Friday entertainment section, and Bill had been the restaurant critic and the food editor.
How did the food section of the Post evolve? They hired Kyle Wagner from Westword to come be our restaurant critic, but she reported to the entertainment editor and wrote in the entertainment section. She and I went to a food journalist conference — I think it was the one in Boston. I had been talking to Sam Sifton, who was a features editor at the New York Times, and he was asking why we have the restaurant reviews separate from food. And I said, "You know, I've been thinking the same thing. I really want to combine those two in a different kind of food section." So Kyle and I kind of cooked up this proposal that we would bring the restaurant reviews, restaurant news, cooking, shopping, everything to do with food in one section. It just made sense. The editors agreed, and I think we debuted that new kind of redesigned section in about 2004. And then in 2005, Ellen Sweets came, and she was really a dedicated food writer, and I was the editor and did some writing, and Kyle did the restaurant reviews. That was the year that we won the James Beard award. I think the award was in 2006, but it was for the work we did in 2005.
What was it like to win a James Beard Award? That was a huge thrill. The category was food section under 300,000 circulation, and we were all sitting together, and when they said my name it was really one of those shock moments when you're having an out of body experience. It was really a thrill and really validating because we were so passionate about this new idea of how to do a food section, and to have it recognized in that kind of prominent national way was really rewarding.
Would you say that was most memorable thing that happened in your career at the Post? Definitely, but there were more. One of the most memorable things, although I never met her in person, was interviewing Julia Child about a year before she died.
Tell me about it. Oh gosh, it must've been for her 90th birthday. I think she died about a year after that. John Imbergamo got me her home phone number. I still have the piece of paper with her name and her Santa Barbara telephone number written on it. The day of the interview, I waited until everyone in the office was gone because I was so nervous and I didn't want anyone hearing me. I dialed the phone, and she answered in her Julia Child voice. And I think she knew I was going to be calling and had been kind of setup, you know, and she said that she was brining a chicken leg and wanted to know if I knew anything about brining. She could tell I was nervous so she started asking me about my kids and my family, and I don't know why, but we got started talking about kitchen equipment. I think Rick had just given me a KitchenAid, you know, a stand mixer, as a birthday present. And she wanted to know what model it was. I was like, "I don't know. I don't really know the model number, but it's blue!" And she said, "Well I just bought myself a tomato knife and it's fabulous." She was just exactly like you would imagine, just charming and down to earth. It was a thrill to talk to her.
So, who was a nightmare to talk to? Alton Brown wasn't very nice. He was promoting something; I think probably a new book. And you get the press release from the PR people asking if you want to interview him. I was like, "Yeah that'd be cool." I like him. I like his show. And I've met him once before actually at the Pillsbury bake-off. That was maybe 2004. I'm not very good on my dates. I sat next to him at lunch and really liked him. I thought he was just really cool. So, in advance of this interview, and this is just a few years ago, I posted some questions on Twitter like: "I'm going to interview Alton Brown. If you were going to interview him, what would you ask him?" Because that's what Twitter is for, right? Audience engagement. And during the interview, Alton kind of implied that was a lazy way to think of questions. Like, "So what kind of journalist goes on Twitter and asks people for questions?" or something like that. It just didn't get us off to a very great start.
What are some memorable reporting stories on local restaurants and chefs? Maybe a really positive story. Let's see, it's sort of like this mosaic of chefs and dishes and faces are coming to mind right now. I've got to say, one of these memories involves Steve Redzikowski (of Acorn and Oak at Fourteenth), who doesn't like to have his picture taken. I just wanted to take his picture. He cooked at a field-to-table dinner up in Boulder, and that was the first time I met him, and it was just so cool to be sitting out in this field and watching them cook. And it wasn't the best of conditions for them there in like a little tent, but it was so graciously presented. It was just lovely. And really his work at Acorn is the kind of food you start writing about in your head on the way home and hope that you can describe it with the same care that he prepared it. It was just inspiring.
Have you had a local Alton Brown-esque situation? I hate to name names. It's usually not so much the food when it comes to negative experiences. Usually it's a service issue that can just ruin a meal, where the server is just uncaring, obviously doesn't care if you have a good time or not, or just doesn't care how the food is presented. I think good service can make up for a bad meal, but bad service can just ruin a great meal.
What are you over as far as food goes? One thing that comes to mind, and I was going to write about this before I left but I decided it was an if-you-can't-say-anything-nice kind of thing: I am kind of over food trucks. Civic Center Park, where they have them on Tuesdays and Thursdays, is right outside our offices. It is really cool to go down there, but they're loud, it's just full of diesel fumes, it's crowded, it's hot, and the last meal I had down there was awful. I got a hamburger with pot stickers on top of it, at a Japanese-Hawaiian place, and the idea was great, and the coleslaw on top of the burger was great, but the pork pot stickers were raw and so was the hamburger. They were trying to serve people fast, but when you bite into a pork pot sticker and its just pink and slimy inside… I was just like, "I'm done with these food trucks!" I am over it.
What about some memorable PR stories? Any good ones to share without naming names? PR is sort of like service. There's really an art to PR. I understand they are trying to get publicity for their clients, and I play a part in that. Hopefully, I use good journalistic judgment on what we decide is news. But to PR people who say, "Can I get a story on this, and when is it going to run?" I say, "No and no." Same with allowing them to see a story before it's published, which is completely against the rules at the Denver Post. If you want to control the story, then you buy an ad and put whatever you want in there. Being overly familiar is another example of bad PR. Sending me a press release and then following up in a few days saying, "Why haven't I heard back from you? Are you mad from me?" Well, I'm mad at you now because you're being overly familiar when it's a press release about a restaurant that has no opening date. Get back to me when you have specifics. I try to keep that at arms length so I that I don't get in trouble with the PR people.
What should PR people should continue to do? Well, they should develop relationships with writers and editors, not necessarily expecting that there's always going to be a story out of every phone call. And they should make sure their information they send to the media has all the facts. Like if a restaurant is opening, when? Include the address and just the basic stuff that gets left off that makes us go DELETE. We just get too much stuff these days to spend time tracking down the facts that should be there from the beginning.
What is the memorable meal you had in the last year? Well, we took some friends to Frasca — a teacher friend and his wife who is basically a school nurse. They like food, but they don't have those kinds of meals very often. It was almost like we went to another planet. You know, the service there, the bubble that you feel like you're in… Both the food and the service were amazing. I love those bread sticks. You know, it's just the simple stuff that's so good. And what's also great is the pairing of the wine with each course and the education that you get. We were with some friends who don't know a lot about wine and we were never made to feel ignorant. It was all about pleasure. It was just lovely.
What are you going to miss the most about your job? You know, I guess I would say the relationship with readers and the feeling that we are helping people just enjoy life by finding good places to eat and sharing good recipes. I always used to say that the food section is like when the best parties end up in the kitchen. I always wanted the food section to have the feeling that everyone is just standing around, having a good time, and talking about food. And so, maybe I'll miss that, but I can have that in my regular life.
What is your advice for someone who wants to be someone like you when they grow up? They had a going away party for me at the paper, and one of the features writers said I helped him think that he could be a food writer. I thought, well of course you can be a food writer. If you can write, and you're a journalist, and you can interview people, and you eat food, you can be a food writer. Its not like there's this special club of people. Well I guess there is a special club, but it's not like you can't be a part of it. I'm not being very clear about it, but if you enjoy something, and you are drawn to people who also share that enjoyment, then you will naturally be able to write about food. It's not something exclusive. It's just about feeding ourselves and finding pleasure in that fundamentally — that's what I always enjoyed sharing with people who just want to bring others around the table and enjoy a good meal. That really wasn't advice was it? Just write the stories that make you feel excited and it will all work out.