Get ready for some serious job envy, because this week, we’re talking to Kat Kinsman, the editor-in-chief of foodie site Tasting Table. Her duties include writing about food, producing videos about food, tweeting about food, and staying on top of food trends. And occasionally hosting dinner in the Tasting Table test kitchen. Where do we sign up?
But, besides providing a glimpse into a seriously sweet (and salty?) gig, Kat’s story is also one that will be inspiring to anyone who’s falling into the trap of letting their past jobs define their future: Kat landed her current role after years of exploring what it was that she really wanted to do, which lead her down all sorts of career paths before she settled on writing. Read on to find out more about this motivating, real, and really awesome HBIC.
YOU HAVE AN MFA IN METALSMITHING. FIRST OF ALL, THAT’S AWESOME. BUT SECOND, HOW DID YOU END UP IN A CAREER AS A FOOD WRITER?
Thank you! When the apocalypse comes, I can forge weapons and tools for people. I’ve had a really strange career path that somehow all led up to this. I moved to New York City thinking I was going to be a seeeerious arrrrrtiste, and worked for a billion different established artists for a while before realizing that I’d stopped making any work of my own. Then I was the office manager for a psychiatrist and a graphic design firm because I was scared to make any work of my own. Then I got mugged on my doorstep by seven guys and thought, “Screw fear.” I worked as an art director for a few publications (CitySearch, Maxim Online, FHM Online) and skulked around the edges making sure that writing was part of the gig. I took a multi-year detour to the product and advertising side and when I had a chance to take on a summer grilling editor job at AOL, I grabbed it and never looked back.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB THAT LED YOU DOWN THIS CAREER PATH AND HOW DID YOU GET IT?
I’d say “all of them,” but perhaps most relevant, for seven years, I was the webmaster of the Yoo-hoo website. That might not sound logical, but I handled design, database programming, community, analytics, brand language, marketing e-mails, content. I went on parts of the Warped Tour and spent several strange days with Jesse James, Janine Lindemulder and a VW van during the Gumball 3000. I learned to be adaptable, useful and ego-free when needed—key components for any writer or editor who wants to stay afloat.
HOW DID YOU LAND YOUR CURRENT ROLE?
I got incredibly lucky, frankly. CNN.com was going through a lot of editorial shifts, and with them, I wasn’t going to be able to keep doing the things I do (in-depth food coverage and also explorations of underrepresented groups) in the way that I did them. I love and respect my former CNN colleagues, but I knew it was time for my next chapter. The domino chain of editorial moves that started with James Oseland moving to Organic Life and Adam Sachs taking over at Saveur left an open (and intimidating) slot at Tasting Table. Geoff Bartakovics (our CEO) and Kai Mathey (our GM) approached me and their energy and the quality of the editorial totally sold me.
AS THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF TASTING TABLE, WHAT ARE YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES?
First and foremost, I try not to screw up what’s working! On a high level, I shape focus, themes, message and voice, whether that’s inward-facing to the edit team and the stories we put out, or outward-facing to the advertisers and audience. On a daily level, I edit my colleagues’ work, write stories when I can, answer questions from the edit and sales teams, help produce video shoots, get my hands all up in the social media, and do whatever needs doing. I’ll also host events (like dinners at our test kitchen), speak at events and just generally say “Yes!” to whatever I’m asked to do.
WHAT QUALITIES AND SKILLS DOES EVERY SUCCESSFUL EDITOR-IN-CHIEF NEED TO HAVE?
I’m only a few months into the job, so I’m definitely learning. But I’m trying to take my cues from the best bosses I’ve had: praise publicly, critique privately, give people a chance to step up and go in assuming that they were hired for a reason and they know how to do their job. It’s also incredibly energizing to see a particular skill or passion in a writer or photographer that they might not even realize is there, and help them hone it.
WHAT QUALITIES DO YOU LOOK FOR IN THE PEOPLE YOU HIRE TO WORK UNDER YOU?
I’m a huge fan of what a former boss of mine called “Swiss Army People,” who can adapt to different tasks with gusto and glee. If you pigeonhole people and only allow them to do one kind of work, they might become really skilled at it, but you’re not giving the the opportunity to learn new things—which is, to me, is one of the primary tasks of a boss. I also appreciate people who don’t think they’re above any job, because I sure don’t think I am.
WHAT’S THE COOLEST OPPORTUNITY WORK HAS EVER AFFORDED YOU?
I got to host a dinner at James Carville and Mary Matalin’s New Orleans home with John Besh, Mike Gulotta and Kelly Fields cooking and Leah Chase, Bryan Batt, Lolis Eric Elie and a bunch of farmers, fisherman, artists and activists attending. While we ate, the whole table talked about what food means to New Orleans. I fell in love with those people and that city that night and have been back many times since. At CNN I also had a chance to write essays tackling the taboos of mental illness on a huge national platform, and from one of those came my book deal for “Hi, Anxiety.”
WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT YOUR JOB?
I walked into an editorial team that dazzles me each day. It’s small, young and scrappy, but you’d never know that from the caliber of work they put out every day. From the recipes to the photos to the reporting and hilarious headlines, they just get it done with grace and excellence.
WHAT’S THE BEST RECIPE YOU’VE LEARNED ON TASTING TABLE?
In our test kitchen, I had a bite of biscuits and sawmill gravy that turned my knees to Jell-O. I haven’t made that at home yet, but I do cook from the site all the time, and the Pork Chop Alla Milanese and Charred Cauliflower with Toasted Bread Crumbs, Cornichons and Parsley have made it into regular rotation.
WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST LESSON YOU’VE HAD TO LEARN IN YOUR CAREER?
Asking for help isn’t a show of weakness. It’s OK if you don’t know how to do something or are feeling overwhelmed. It’s a chance to learn and stretch and scare yourself a little. It’s also OK to say “no” on occasion.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?
Related to the previous question: “Embrace your chumpitude.” My pal Lissa Townsend Rodgers is an extraordinary writer and editor who was the first person who ever looked at me (I was the art director at the time) and said, “You. You should write.” And she gave me a shot. The “chumpitude” part comes into play when you go to interview someone and it’s awkward at first and you wonder what the heck you were thinking agreeing to do this, and you just give into it. It’s extraordinarily freeing and applies outside the interview scenario as well.