The first thing you notice when you head to tastingtable.com is — as it should be — the food. Your eye immediately falls on and lingers over the site’s scroll of photos rotating through verdant swirls of pasta, pies resting on generous portions of whipped cream and perfectly seared steaks, all taken in house. As robust as the site is, the roots of Tasting Table are not Web-based but email-based. From its 2008 launch as a newsletter, the brand didn’t take long to grow its audience. With well over a million subscribers today and a reputation as an authority on restaurants and recipes, always carefully and conscientiously vetted by staff, Tasting Table’s ambitions are widening accordingly.
Editor-in-chief Kat Kinsman arrived in November, at a time when the organization has been expanding its presence, moving from an inbox-only phenomenon to a full-fledged Web destination. Kinsman is a bridge between two worlds, and her early thoughts on new content ideas for Tasting Table hint at an effort to merge where she came from to where she has landed. Her work at the helm of CNN’s Eatocracy blog found her chasing food stories with a harder-news edge, like the science behind ready-to-eat pizza produced for soldiers stationed overseas, or a salmonella-poisoning outbreak at a prison. Now, she finds herself heading an organization whose purpose it is to select and share the finest foods on offer across the country.
“I made sure that we’re still going to be able to hit on hunger and food justice and the not-so-lovely and Instagram-able side of the food world, because you can’t write about all this beauty and this indulgence… without paying attention to the fact that there are an awful lot of people who are not getting enough food. That balance is going to be interesting, but I have complete confidence that we can pull it off.”
When we caught up with Kinsman, not only was she in the first weeks of her new job, she was in the final few weeks of completing the manuscript for her first book, on the topic of anxiety. “I hope this book is going to help people realize they’re not alone, that they’re free to talk about mental health,” she told FishbowlNY.
We asked Kinsman about her frenetic first weeks and future plans for Tasting Table.
FBNY: You were brought on at a time when Tasting Table was looking to expand in a lot of different formats. What are you focusing on right now?
Kinsman: My bent has always been food news and culture and where that intersects from person to dish to farmer — where the human touch is in food. It’s a really great thing to be able to meld that with the very dish- and cooking- and chef-focused content they’re doing.
I’m going to come up with more regular series’ of content and define what those are going to be. People will be able to really become invested in particular franchises, whether it’s technique based, whether it’s people’s motivation for getting into food, whether it’s practical advice for getting the best possible restaurant experience you can. It’s going to have a lot of perspective to it, whether it is from the person making the food, the person serving the food, the person going out to eat the food.
[Tasting Table has] established such a tremendous look, such a tremendous visual feel of what the story is like, so we’re going to keep going with so much of that, double down possibly on that, and just figure out how we’re going to look to tell the stories. What I think I’m probably going to be doing is adding a little bit more personal connection to it, a little bit more fun narrative flow and see where we go from there.
FBNY: What has been your relationship with Tasting Table readers so far?
Kinsman: I’ve gotten to personally meet a lot of readers just over the past couple of weeks, introducing chefs and hosting dinners at the test kitchen, and that’s been a tremendous insight to actually physically get to sit down with readers over a great meal and hear what it is they love about Tasting Table.
These people are so fantastically passionate about what we’re doing. People have come up to me and said ‘I don’t go to a restaurant without checking to see what you guys have said.’ It’s really one of the first times I’ve met an audience that is so directly connected to the content.
I really value the fact that they trust us. So I want to listen to that and see what is working really well and resonating with them. They’ve been following those emails for a long time. I want to make the website more robust and somewhere they can really feel like they’re hanging out in our kitchen at a party of ours.
FBNY: You’d been a subscriber to Tasting Table before joining the staff. Are there things that, once you were on the other side, surprised you about the operation?
Kinsman: I had absolutely no idea the staff was as small as it is and that they do things in such a scrappy, wonderful way. I would look at those photographs, and drool on my phone. I assumed there was some sort of big production studio, that there was a dedicated room with a light setup. No. This team puts paper on a table, sets it up, lights it a little bit, shoots it back by the window — and they’re young and they’re talented and they’re driven and they’re executing all this stuff on such a beautiful, high-gloss, premium level. They’re just putting it together out of passion, out of skill, and making the most of what they can.
[The staff] is this onion that is being un-layered right now. Someone will say something, and it just opens this rabbit hole to who they are or what they do. I’ve been scheduling little meetings with them to sit down and say, ‘Let me know who you are, what you love to do, how can I help you tell more of the stories you want to tell.’
FBNY: What do you find to be the most challenging thing about covering food?
Kinsman: There’s so much of it. [At] CNN we [had] such a large scope of content. My job there was really interesting, especially since I started doing all of these stories that had nothing to do with food. When I was there, it was a matter of covering all the different aspects of food because we would be doing everything from food-culture stories, talking to multigeneration farmers and the challenges they’re up against, to breaking news about food to whatever Gordon Ramsey happened to do that day. It’s easy to feel like you’re on a hamster wheel with that kind of news pace.
At Tasting Table, it’s been really cool to go back down to the dish level, which I’d actually missed, and branch out from that into the people around it and retraining myself about how I’m thinking about food. Over here, I have the chance to come at it from a proactive point of view. We’re not just flinching and reacting and bracing and then moving on to the next thing.
FBNY: What advice would you give people who want to go into food writing or food media in general?
Kinsman: Ask yourself what’s the story only you can tell, and really figure out what your point of view is going to be and bring that to as many pieces as you possibly can. Don’t be afraid to let you shine through. All the food writers I read are people who, I can start reading a piece, not even see the byline and know whose it is and that’s because they let a little bit of themselves into their writing without making the story about themselves necessarily. And that only comes from working really, really, really hard and trusting what you have to say.
And be a utility player. Be as flexible as humanly possibly. You need me to go profile this chef? Yes, of course I’ll go do that. You need me to call around to all of these different restaurants and see if they have a kale salad on the menu? Yes, go ahead and do that. Nobody can be above doing anything. So long as you can kind of do both of those parts, be a generalist and be specific, they’re going to find a place for you, somewhere.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.