Interview: Irvin Lin of Eat the Love
True story: The first time I met Irvin Lin in person, he was wearing black-and-white spotted pants of an indeterminate animal print. As he finished chatting with a fellow food blogger, I waited to introduce myself when a woman ran up, grabbed his arm and blurted, “I love your pants; I just had to meet you!” Without skipping a beat, Irvin then asked the two of us if we could identify the animal print. Our companion guessed leopard; I was stumped.
Earlier, he’d tweeted, “Question. Should I go for outrageous gay pants or must middle-of-the-road gay pants at #BlogHer Food?”
Perhaps in part due to the deluge of responses he got begging to bear witness the outrageous pants, Irvin chose the former—which, I can attest, were incredibly well received. The print? Dalmation.
The baker-slash-blogger-slash-designer launched his blog Eat the Love in March 2010. Since then, he’s been keeping busy—very busy. In just over a year, he’s reached a level of success that many food bloggers can only dream of. Not only did he co-lead one of the most popular sessions (on branding and design) at BlogHer Food this spring, but he was also asked to moderate a panel on taking blog content mobile, which he did with admirable aplomb.
Earlier this year, Irvin posed nude for Nudie Foodies, a fundraising project featuring food bloggers in the buff (along with their recipes, naturally), whose proceeds benefit the victims of the Japanese earthquake. Buy the book here. Another print feature is in the works: Irvin’s wordless recipe for Magic Shell Chocolate Ice Cream Coating was recently featured in the premiere issue of MasterChef Magazine. And finally, ever a champion of community, Irvin currently co-hosts DIY Desserts, a quarterly dessert social for home baking enthusiasts, held in community space 18 Reasons in San Francisco.
You launched Eat the Love just over a year ago and you’ve experienced some pretty incredible success so far. Why do you think that is?
I think success is relative. I had to stop looking at the big traffic blogs and comparing myself to them. In the end, I believe we all have our own style and our own journey and each blog is unique. I work hard at my posts and my blog, and try to create content that readers will respond to that is still true to me. Eat the Love is truly an endeavor of love and I’d like to think other people notice that.
In addition to working hard at my content, I’ve definitely invested time and energy in social media. Not only is a great way to meet wonderful people but it also creates a dialogue that is invaluable.
How has Eat the Love changed your life in the last year?
If you read my post “How a Peach and Strawberry Cream Cobbler is like Quitting My Job,” you’ll realize how drastically my life has changed since starting my blog. I never would have quit my job if I hadn’t started Eat the Love. For me, I always had a passion for writing and food, but creating the blog made me realize how much I had for both. The path I’m on now would never have happened if I hadn’t started my food blog.
Of course, I’ve also met some wonderful people who I adore, who I now count as close friends through my blog.
What advice would you give to food bloggers who are just starting out?
Just start. I’ve actually had two or three friends ask me about how to start a blog, and I tell them just to start writing. I think there’s a lot of pressure for people to create the beautiful amazing blog from the beginning. But the reality is, you learn as you go. Starting a blog isn’t hard. There are a number of sites that allow you to create a blog for free, all you need to do is come up with a name.
Start blogging, and just keep doing it. You’ll learn as you go, and understand that the beginning blog posts will most likely be read only by your friends and family. That’s OK. It’s a time for you to find your voice, find out what you like, experiment and do whatever you want with it. Learn from your mistakes, figure out what you like to write about and what you don’t, and keep doing it. Most blogs grow organically, and if you produce quality content, people will come.
Who are a few food bloggers you admire? Why?
There are so many food bloggers out that I admire. Shauna from Gluten-Free Girl is incredibly generous, sweet and supportive. She writes from the heart and not every post is about being gluten-free or even about food. But when you read her blog, it’s like hanging out with her and her fantastic husband and adorable child.
Michael from Food for the Thoughtless writes wonderfully crafted stories and recipes that accompany them. Smart, witty and sassy, each post of his is both insightful and personal at the same time. On top of that, he’s equally smart, witty and sassy in real life.
Tami from Running with Tweezers is awesome. A food stylist by day, she’s both charming and sweet, and her blog makes me pretty much wish she lived closer so I could come over and dine with her. Her photos, of course, are always fantastic and approachable.
Sean from Hedonia and Punk Domestics and Amy of Cooking with Amy are both incredibly supportive of food bloggers and are always there for me whenever I have a question about what I should do or what I’m doing wrong (or, occasionally, right). I love what Sean’s doing with Punk Domestics and Amy is an inspiration to me to always give back to the community.
What’s the biggest challenge you face as a food blogger?
I think it’s the time commitment. To develop a recipe, style and take photos, and then write it up the way that I do, which usually involves a life story of some sort, take a huge amount of time and can be exhausting. I love doing it all, but I find that I just don’t have enough hours in the day to do everything that I want to do in my life.
How does your design sensibility inform your baking?
Baking, like design, is full of precision. But within that precision, there is much room for creativity. When I was a full-time designer, I loved getting outside, away from my computer and finding inspiration from the streets, museums, galleries, and generally the world away from the computer. I find I’m the same way as a baker. I can easily turn on the computer and look at other blogs or hit the many food porn sites like foodgawker or tastespotting, but a visit to a restaurant or bakery, or hanging out at my friend’s house, or a trip to the farmers’ market or just a walk down the street can lead to inspiration.
On top of that, I love creating baked goods that not only taste good (I hope) but also look good. Design was the same way; I always wanted my design work to look good but there had to be an underlying concept to it, or else it was just pretty and useless. I find that when I’m in the kitchen I’m constantly exploring, the same way I was when I’m a designer.
Let’s talk about your work as a recipe developer.
Mostly it’s happened organically. I think word of mouth is always the best way for me, as I’m not a big cold caller. Once a company contacts me, I sample their product and then try to figure out a final dish that will complement it. I usually come up with three times as many ideas to see what the company likes. Right now I’m developing recipes for Peanut Butter & Co., which is a line of specialty organic peanut butter. They have an amazing product and I was excited to create something with it. They had talked to me about making five different dishes for them, and when I sent back fifteen ideas, they loved them so much that I’m now making twelve of the ideas.
It’s a lot of work, and a lot of testing, but luckily I have friends who love peanut butter and don’t mind giving me honest feedback about it! I’m super excited about a cookie I recently created for them.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Ha! I have no typical day, as each day really depends on what’s due that particular day (I’m a bit of a procrastinator, doing things at the last minute). But things that usually happen throughout the day, inevitably will include checking into Twitter and Facebook, writing something (for my blog or for one of my numerous other projects I’m working on), baking or cooking something or starting to think about what I want to bake/cook and jotting down notes about it. I tend to do a lot of research before I dive into baking something, to make sure that I get pretty close to what I want on my first try.
I will probably also design something for a client or a friend who needs my help, catch up on email (which is a never-ending struggle), take a couple hundred photos or cajole my partner into taking photos for me, while over-the-shoulder art directing him, and process photos I took weeks ago that I haven’t gotten around to dealing with yet. Then I check my calendar to make sure there isn’t some social gathering or appointment that I might have missed, then curse at myself that I have, and run wild out the door to try to catch the bus/train for that particular meeting.
There will also, most likely, be a visit to the local store or farmers’ market as well to pick up ingredients for something or other.
Can you see yourself transitioning into the food world full-time?
I’d love to transition into the food world full time but sadly it’s tough, and there’s not a huge amount of compensation for it. That said, ideally the goal for me is to actually transition completely if I can. I know that I’ll probably always be doing a little design work here and there but I love design too, so I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
I am hoping to do more freelance food writing, recipe developing, or perhaps down the road, a cookbook or narrative book related to food. I’m also working on a collaborative project with two other artisan dessert makers (Jilli Ice Cream and Nosh This) to sell some of our desserts in a pop-up store. We’re in the initial planning stages right now, with a tentative date of the weekend of August 20th for it to happen. Also in the works is a series of community-building food blogger gatherings, but it’s too early to talk more about that.
What puts San Francisco on the map, foodwise?
People talk about San Francisco as a food mecca and I think it’s for various reasons. There are a number of notable food people who live or originated in the San Francisco Bay Area. Certainly Alice Waters, with her philosophy of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients changed the way chefs cook in the United States. I think people like Michael Pollan who made people aware of the food at the grocery store versus the food at a farmers’ market and the differences in processed food and whole food is hugely influential. Even Ruth Reichl spent a stint here in San Francisco which she chronicled in her book “Comfort me with Apples.”
There are a number of amazing restaurants in San Francisco, but I think it’s the small local markets like Bi Rite that have really been influential in putting San Francisco on the map. Not only do they support the local artisan producers of products, but they also support the local organic farms directly. I remember going apple picking up in Sebastopol (in wine country, north of San Francisco) and talking to a farmer at Gabriel Farms, a small organic farm. I mentioned I lived right near Bi Rite and he lit up, exclaiming that he loved Bi Rite. I’ll never forget the way he proclaimed to me how most markets will talk about local and seasonal produce, but Bi Rite really walks the walk and talks the talk. [He said,] “They sell our apple and Asian pears there, and they really go out of their way to get to know the farmers.” It made me realize that I am lucky to live where I live.
I think there are some amazing things happening in San Francisco and it continues to surprise me whenever I turn around see something new pop up.
What are a few of your favorite ingredients, and why?
I love fresh summer fruit. A ripe honey nectar sweet peach that has to be eaten over a sink because the juices drip down your arm is probably my all-time favorite thing to enjoy. Berries, cherries, plums, pluots, all the summer fruit that comes in during the months of June, July and August makes me so happy. Of course I also love my citrus, and adore blood oranges and Meyer lemons. Pretty much all fruit just makes me happy.
I love playing with alternative flours like millet or Kamut or mesquite and I’m lucky to live in San Francisco where those sorts of flours are easy to obtain (I buy them at Rainbow Grocery in bulk). What’s great about baking with different flours other than all-purpose white is that the flours actually add flavor to your final product. Most people don’t think about flour adding flavor (regular all-purpose white flour is pretty flavorless) but if you start adding the alternative, heirloom flours to your baked goods, not only [will they be] more nutritious, but the flours also add a flavor, pulling their own weight in the final product. I have about thirty types of flours in my kitchen, and I keep on buying more, much to my partner’s chagrin. One of these days I’ll figure out a way to organize it all. In the meanwhile, they are just in Ziploc bags underneath our kitchen table.
What’s your eating philosophy in a nutshell?
I believe in eating in moderation. I eat most everything, and will at least try most things. I’m lucky that I don’t have any major food allergies so my diet isn’t too restrictive. But I believe that the bacon, the piece of cake, the slice of pie sitting on the table isn’t going to make you fat. It’s eating too much bacon, cake, pie that will. I think people get obsessed with low-fat food, which drives me crazy. Often times packaged low-fat food is full of sugar and other preservatives and is an excuse for people to eat more of it (e.g., “This quart of ice cream is low-fat, so now I can eat the entire thing”). If they bought a rich, full-fat, artisan-made ice cream, they’d realize that one or two spoonfuls would be enough.
You’ve written about unfinished business in the kitchen on Eat the Love; what are a few highlights on your life bucket list?
In terms of making food, I still haven’t made croissants, and that’s on my list. I’m still working my way through the Professional Baking book by Wayne Gisslen, though I don’t write about it too much on my blog (I should, but I’ve been too busy writing up other stuff). I still want to make a tiered wedding cake, just to say that I have, and strangely I really want to make a bûche de Noël but every time the holidays roll around, I’m too busy to make one. I should just make one in the summertime to get it over with.
In terms of bigger life bucket stuff, I have a number of ideas for cookbooks that I would love to do. I would love to write a novel or narrative book as well, though those ideas are less concrete than my cookbook concepts. I’d love to do a kitchen internship somewhere and truly learn to how to work in a commercial kitchen, and I’m excited to be collaborating with Jilli Ice Cream and Nosh This to make treats to sell to people.
I’d also love to travel more. There are so many places that I haven’t been to as an adult. I lived in the Netherlands when I was a teenager, and I would love to go back and visit as well as see continental Europe again; I’d also love to travel across Southeast Asia (specifically Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) and Australia. I hear Sydney has amazing food.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I’m inherently a shy and lazy person. I usually have to force myself to socialize and to meet people, and it’s a constant struggle for me to not just sort of fall into my couch and just read a book or watch some television.
What do you love most about what you do?
Creating the food and watching people eat the food I create. I love experimenting with flavors and coming up with combinations that I never thought of before. I love watching people take that first bite of something I created and seeing their reaction. Hopefully it’s good, but even when it’s not, I love to see their facial reactions. Eating can create such a visceral reaction, whether it’s pleasure or pain, and watching someone take that first bite is like seeing them naked, with all their expressions and feelings up front and honest.
What’s next for you?
Ha! I don’t even know. I’m working on a number of projects, like the collaborative pop up shop and the food blogger community-building project as well as a few personal projects that I can’t really talk about yet. And I’ll continue to blog as always.
Editor’s Note: Dear readers, Irvin shared a few of his favorite food bloggers–now it’s your turn! Who do you turn to for eating inspiration?