Special Sauce Live, Ed Levine Edition: Serious Eats Lives!

Special Sauce Live, Ed Levine Edition: Serious Eats Lives!

Ed Levine eating a slice of pepperoni pizza

[Ed Levine photograph: Vicky Wasik. Burger photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Welcome back for part two of Special Sauce with Ed Levine, featuring Ed Levine!

This week, we pick up where we left off, with Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and Ed’s longtime friend, serving as a guest host. Meyer asks Ed about many of the events that are described in his memoir, Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption, which has been named one of the best cooking, food, and wine books of 2019 so far by Amazon.

Meyer and Ed begin by talking about how Ed decided to start a food blog in 2005. Ed had gone to business school, had published two books about the best food to eat in New York—New York Eats and New York Eats (More)—and was writing regularly for the New York Times and Gourmet, but the idea to start up Serious Eats occurred to him only after a deal to set up a food channel with MTV fell through.

In the course of conducting research for the project, Ed discovered food blogs, and he became enamored by the freedom the medium offered. As he says about blogging to Meyer, “It was an emancipation proclamation…. In one fell swoop, you got rid of every gatekeeper in your life.” Ed had the freedom to pitch himself on any and every idea that he came up with, and he would, of course, get immediate approval. And thus, Ed Levine Eats was born.

Ed confesses that he didn’t have a real plan beyond doing what he loved, nor much of an editorial strategy—”I convinced myself that I could make a business out of it by aggregating a bunch of other bloggers”—and he just assumed that he’d easily be able to raise money to fund what would become Serious Eats. “I just had no idea what I was doing,” Ed tells Meyer. “I had no idea how hard it was going to be. I had no idea how difficult it was to raise money.” And that, really, is the untold story of Serious Eats: Ed struggling to make his dream job a reality.

Ed established Serious Eats, bought up a couple other blogs (A Hamburger Today and Slice, both founded by Adam Kuban), and hired an extremely talented staff—including Kuban; the site’s original general manager, Alaina Browne; and J. Kenji López-Alt—despite offering very little in the way of compensation. The site started to rack up page views, but, while it seemed riotously successful to readers, Ed was constantly (for almost a decade!) trying to round up enough money from investors to keep the thing afloat.

Meyer and Ed go over that harrowing history in detail, but listeners should also look out for a few other moments during their conversation. For example, they’ll hear Meyer sum up the ethos of Serious Eats better than anyone, and in one succinct sentence, no less. They’ll also discover exactly what an “Eddie dollar” is. And the whole conversation ends on a poignant note, with Ed describing how the site wouldn’t have been possible without the most important person in his life.

To find out who that is, and to learn what creating a successful food blog almost cost him, you’re just going to have to listen. (Or, of course, you can buy a copy of Serious Eater for yourself!)

Special Sauce is available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Soundcloud, Player FM, and Stitcher. You can also find the archive of all our episodes here on Serious Eats and on this RSS feed.

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Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats podcast about food and life. This time, the conclusion of a very special edition of our podcast with Danny Meyer the prince of hospitality and King of the Shake Shack empire, interviewed me before a live audience at the Rizzoli Bookstore in New York. Why the switch? My new book entitled Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption is just hitting the shelves. Let’s dive back in.

Danny Meyer: Business school. Where does that fit in? Why did you do that? You didn’t need that.

EL: So I-

DM: Wasn’t that just a detour?

EL: That was a detour. I thought I was going to try to mainstream myself and be like everybody else. Turned out to be really bad at that. So the jazz club that I was booking was sold, and so my brother was like, “Why don’t you go to business school and become an entertainment analyst on Wall Street?” I was like, “Oh, that sounds like a good idea.”

DM: I think the folks in the audience should know this brother was quite a bit older than you, correct?

EL: Yes, he was 11 years older and he was an extremely accomplished person. He was a chaired professor of law and economics. He deregulated the airline business working for Jimmy Carter and Alfred Kahn, who was this economist that Carter had brought in to deregulate the airline industry, and then he eventually became the chief marketing officer. He became the president of New York Air and the chief marketing officer of Northwest Airlines. So he did a lot of stuff.

DM: Somewhere between a brother and a dad.

EL: Brother/dad/friend. And it was interesting cause we didn’t know each other that well when we were by circumstance brought together. It’s was really like, “Here’s your new dad.” I was like, “Wait, you left the house when I was seven,” but we worked it out and he obviously, and we can get into this in a second, but he was the first and largest investor in Serious Eats. It doesn’t mean he was the easiest investor in Serious Eats.

DM: You came to me many times scratching your head and talking about that.

EL: Yes. It’s true. But no-

DM: His investments came with some strings.

EL: Yeah. Like he-

DM: Can we talk about, can we get into that?

EL: Yeah. Yeah, sure. So I mean-

DM: Actually, I’m skipping a couple of really important things here. You wrote the book called New York Eats.

EL: Right.

DM: Made a name for yourself. Then, I think there was New York Eats More?

EL: Yes.

DM: That’s what I thought. And then you started getting some opportunities from the New York Times to-

EL: Yes, in gourmet and-

DM: You had a platform that said, “This guy actually knows what he’s eating and writing about, and showing people, and you might have become a journalist in a full-time way, but you had this entrepreneurial itch.

EL: Yes. I call myself in the book an almost entrepreneur because I had many ideas for business, including some I talked to you about. But in the case of Serious Eats, what happened was I had developed a television network about the food culture for MTV networks, and at the very last second after we shook hands on a deal, and I was going to run it for them, they pulled the rug out from under it. But in doing the research for that channel, I had learned about food blogs. I realized that food blogs were really great and this is why I convinced myself that it was a good idea to start a business.

DM: Remind us what year this is.

EL: Yeah, this is a 2004 so it fell apart in 2004. In 2005, I started blogging and it was the greatest feeling I had.

DM: You were one of the real early ones at that point.

EL: Yes, and I-

DM: We already had Chow Hound, and we had Steven Shaw.

EL: Exactly. You are to apply to post audit. That’s what I remember.

DM: Yeah, that’s right.

EL: But anyway.

DM: And there were a lot of people doing it.

EL: So-

DM: Excuse me, but we all came together in 2002 forward at the Big Apple Barbecue.

EL: Yes, it’s true.

DM: All you food bloggers started coming of age right there and you were kind of competing with each other.

EL: Yeah, yeah, for sure. But none of us really knew how to make it a business. But I thought, “Hey, I went to business school.” I knew… And so what I loved about blogging was it was for a writer, for a creative person, it was an emancipation proclamation. You, in one fell swoop, you got rid of every gatekeeper in your life. It’s like, and I used to say, “Here’s what a pitch meeting at Ed Levine Eats was like.”

EL: “Ed, I want to do a story on every fried clam shack in New England.” “Great idea, Ed. Do it.” So that didn’t happen when I would pitch my editor, Sam Sifton of the New York Times, who’s actually now back at the New York Times, and so it was just so great. Blogging was so liberating. I just couldn’t believe it, and because it leveled the playing field in terms of distribution-

DM: Did it help you sell books, because at that point you already had a book on the bookshelf?

EL: Yeah. It helped me sell books a little, didn’t… Look, Ed Levine Eats never became very big. I just loved it, and I convinced myself that I could make a business out of it by aggregating a bunch of other bloggers. In the business press there was, and I say this in the book, Dick Parson’s like, “I’ve see publishing’s future and it’s the blogosphere.” That quote was really helpful when I was raising money, but I just had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how hard it was going to be. I had no idea how difficult it was to raise money. Everyone said, “Oh, there’s so much money out there.”

DM: How much money did you… When you were first blogging, it didn’t cost you much money at all.

EL: No. It didn’t cost me anything.

DM: Once you decided that this was going to be a brand, you wanted to develop a real readership, maybe sell ads.

EL: So I tried to raise $1 million.

DM: $1 million.

EL: So my brother gave me the first $250,000.

DM: And what were the strings he attached?

EL: Oh my God, where do I start? No. No, they were typical investor strings. They were… No, actually, there was one that wasn’t a typical investor string. He actually made me go to his apartment to sign out the money. That was a little strange, but other than that, he was just a typical investor, but I knew my brother. He didn’t say he was going to be a passive investor and my brother was not a passive anything.

DM: And how did you go find the other three quarters of a million dollars?

EL: I just, I talked to everyone I knew who had money and then they would suggest people who had money. One of my basketball buddies was Marc Lasry, who now owns the Milwaukee Bucks, so he had a few extra dollars.

DM: A few extra bucks.

EL: A few extra bucks, exactly, and-

DM: Use that at the next interview, okay?

EL: Yeah. And I just went to him for advice, and he said to me, “Look, you know I don’t give a shit about food, but I know the esteem in which you’re held by people in your world. So I’m going to give you $100,000.00. And so that’s when I realized that, especially for really speculative investments, like a blog or a Broadway play, it’s like people don’t invest because the numbers make sense. They invest in you, and that’s when I learned. So, I spoke with incredible conviction about where the blogosphere was headed.

DM: All right, before talking about the whole blogosphere, let’s talk about Serious Eats. You raised the money. It starts as what, and it pivots to what?

EL: Yeah, sure.

DM: A lot of roller coasters here.

EL: It started as Ed Levine Eats, sort of writ large. It was, there were no recipes.

DM: Just telling us where to go, trying-

EL: Yeah. It was the-

DM: It was a blog version of what the book had been?

EL: Exactly, exactly.

DM: Here’s where to get the best…

EL: Yeah, absolutely.

DM: Meatball, the best mozzarella, the best sausage.

EL: Yep. But the thing that was amazing about it was the kind of collective energy that I felt when I started Serious Eats. It was amazing to walk into our offices on West 27th Street, our funky offices. People said they felt the energy when they walked in because we all were true believers in the blogosphere, me and Alaina, and Meg Hourihan, who’s not here, and Adam Kuban who-

DM: He went onto pizza fame, right?

EL: Yeah, yeah. He had a pizza blog and a hamburger blog that I bought cause I was a big shot, and so he became Serious Eats-

DM: What did it cost to buy a hamburger blog?

EL: I think I overpaid, I think I paid $50,000.00 for both blogs, but I really just wanted Adam, and then I went to a party, this was really a life changing party for me at Meg Hourihan’s house. Meg Hourihan had developed the first blogging software with Evan Williams as her business partner.

DM: He was the Twitter guy, right?

EL: Yeah. He’s the Twitter guy in the medium guy. They’d sold it. It was Google’s first acquisition, and so she started a food blog. And so she invited me to a party and someone introduced us and we hit it off. I went to this party and I met Alaina and I met Anil Dash who’s here and there were all these people that were also blogging true believers. I just couldn’t believe it, and it was at the stage of the blogosphere where everyone was willing to help. It wasn’t this Darwinian struggle for survival. You weren’t going to survive and prosper at the expense of some other entity. So all these people I met at that party were like, “Wow, this sounds like a cool idea,” you know? And so Alaina and Anil were moving back from San Francisco, and so she became my first general manager. I had this crew of people and I just couldn’t get over the collective energy.

DM: When did you meet that guy, Kenji?

EL: So Kenji was the pivot to recipes-

DM: Who is Kenji?

EL: So Kenji Lopez Alt was an editor at Cook’s Illustrated when I met him, and Adam Kuban had actually met him first and he wrote a couple of burger reviews for us. I don’t even know why I asked him this, and his father is this famous professor at Harvard Medical School, famous scientist, and Kenji had gone to MIT. So, we went out to lunch one day and I was like, “You know, I’ve always wanted somebody to write a food science column for us.” And so he goes, “I can’t believe this. You’re asking me to write a food science column?” I was like, “Yeah. You want to do it?” He goes, “Yes!” And so he wrote, his first post was on how to boil an egg, and I… We weren’t doing recipes because I… The next recipe I write will be my first. Well, I actually wrote a recipe for tuna salad sandwiches in New York Eats, but it’s not very complicated. So, he wrote this, and all of a sudden sort of the blogosphere lit up. Kenji is a great storyteller. He’s a great writer. He’s obviously a great cook, and so it’s like, “Wow, I think this is kind of a game changer for Serious Eats.”

EL: Then I went, and I talked about this in the book, I actually went to breakfast, I’d gone to breakfast a couple of years earlier and Nick Denton, who was the founder of Gawker, was a friend of Meg Hourihan’s. I think he was also at that party. And he said, “So what about recipes?” And I said, “Well, the world doesn’t need another recipe database,” and he pulls out his phone and he goes, “How many recipe searches are there a month on the web?” I was like, “I don’t know, man. 30 million.” He looks at me with this bemused half smile. “If I were you, I’d figure out a way to do recipes Serious Eats style.” So when Kenji came along it was like, that’s our way to do recipes Serious Eats style. And so Kenji has just took off like a rocket, and so did Serious Eats. Serious Eats was doing well-

DM: I feel like as a reader, I felt that Kenji helped you and you helped Kenji.

EL: Absolutely. Look, Kenji wrote the most beautiful forward to the book, and that is tear-inducing, at least to me. Kenji was like most incredibly talented and smart people. We bonded over, he could be difficult, but we bonded over shared values, and we both believed in the same things. I used to say that every post on Serious Eats was passionate, discerning and inclusive. And Kenji used to say, “Okay, that’s true, but we’re really secrets snobs. We just don’t let people know about it.”

DM: No, he’s brilliant because that’s what you are. You are an inclusive snob.

EL: Yeah.

DM: No, you are, and I think a lot of food writers are. I think it starts off with, “I know something you don’t know,” but then I think the most successful ones are the ones that are happier themselves when they’re actually generously sharing that as opposed to excluding you because you’re too stupid. And I think what you, what you and Kenji and your entire team did so brilliantly was to… You did know something that the rest of us didn’t know, but you let us in on it in a way that almost felt like a hug.

EL: Yeah. Well, you know-

DM: Except when you said our French fries suck.

EL: Alaina remembers this. For years on our homepage, it said, “Welcome Serious Eaters,” and I thought that welcome was super important, and I fought long and hard with the-

DM: Well, you created a tribe.

EL: Yeah, we created a tribe, and I didn’t know it. Through my publisher, I met Seth Golden who wrote this great book called Tribes, and I… This was after I had sold the company and I said, “You know, if I just read your book, I had known that what I really was doing was creating a tribe.” And the other thing, and this is something I’m sure you can relate to, one of the greatest, most unexpected pleasures I derived from Serious Eats was watching all these insanely talented young people take flight. Alaina, Kenji, Aaron, every editor. I once counted up, including contributors, I think Serious Eats people have written 25 books and even just editors, it’s 10 books, and I loved it. People use… When Kenji’s book took off, Food Lab, and became this huge bestseller, everyone said, “Are you jealous?” And I said, “No. I feel like I’m at my son’s Bar Mitzvah.”

DM: Yeah.

EL: It’s like, because you know that that… And that’s something, I was just a guy who did stuff for years and years and years, and to be able to do that, to be able to provide a place where people could take off was just so satisfying.

DM: Yeah. Well, that’s one of the good things about getting older. Why did you drop the $1 bill on the floor?

EL: Oh, because I’m always dropping… They used to call this my… My friends and I we used to call these Eddie dollars.

DM: All right. Well, let’s talk about money because it’s something that I think as a through line in your book, how to raise it, how not to lose it, when to risk it, and I want to just, I’m wondering if you’ll share, because you obviously have an interesting relationship with money. Your family has had to deal with that.

EL: Yes.

DM: And I think that that was one of the beautiful things that you reveal in the book.

EL: Well, I-

DM: Now, can I have that dollar bill?

EL: Yes. No, it’s true. We have, I think, ambivalent feelings about money, and it was never about the money. Serious Eats was never about the money. I just wanted, and I say in the book because I interviewed Chris Bianco many times, who’s this great pizzaiolo in Phoenix, and he once said to me, “I’m just trying to do one small thing,” and that was make great pizza. I felt like with Serious Eats, we were just trying to do one small thing, so at the same time we were doing that one small thing, we also were dealing with the realities of the marketplace. So we had to survive the financial meltdown of 2008. Turns out that summer of 2006 was not the ideal time to start an under capitalized business, and so I was always raising money and it got to a point where, and this is where my amazing wife comes into the story again, so I had to start borrowing money and you know that small businesses can only borrow money if you personally guarantee it. So, I borrowed $100,000.00, and I went to Vicky and I was like, “We’re good, I’m not going to need any more money but sign this piece of paper,” and then that number kept increasing. By the end, it was more than half a million dollars, and so literally I was betting the ranch. I say in the book that willful naivete and passion are a first time entrepreneurs best friend. And so I just convinced myself that come hell or high water, I would come up with the money so that I didn’t have to lay off people and that I would just figure out a way to keep the business afloat. It was totally irrational. By the way, I think it showed really poor judgment in a lot of ways. I say, really-

DM: And yet?

EL: Somehow we dragged this mother across the finish line, but it was at a-

DM: There’s a part of you though that you always put on an incredible game face when you needed to. You would confide in me at our breakfasts about how difficult and challenging this was, but I believe that you led it with integrity. You never missed paying somebody who had worked for you.

EL: No. No.

DM: And you always expressed the belief and the hope and the passion that this was worth fighting for.

EL: Yes. When I was living through the Serious Eats years, there was no difference between me as a person and Serious Eats, so if Serious Eats died, I felt that in some ways I would be dying. So, if you could imagine that as the backdrop, it was… I knew that I needed the people that worked there, that we were a team.

DM: So you would do this again?

EL: Yeah. I don’t know if I would do it again. Talk to my wife.

DM: You were very-

EL: I don’t know that I would do it again.

DM: You were very quick to say, “Yeah,” before you… No. Okay, Vicky says no.

EL: That ambivalent attitude about money both hamstrung me but also got me through and I would never stiff anybody, like if anybody didn’t get paid, it would be me. So occasionally, and Vicky was not happy about this, I would not pay myself for a month. I think maybe I cut people’s salaries for a very short time, but I couldn’t imagine doing Serious Eats without Alaina. I couldn’t imagine doing it without Adam. I couldn’t imagine doing it without Kenji, and so-

DM: I’m going to keep interrupting you so we can get through this right now.

EL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DM: Who’s going to be at your last supper, and no family members are allowed.

EL: Oh, now you’re getting to the Special Sauce.

DM: Yeah, I am.

EL: I would say that my two writing heroes, one of whom is still alive and one of whom is not, so Calvin Trillin whom I adore, whom you know, I know I’ve had the good fortune, not that we’re good buddies, but we’ve hung out, and he’s even written a little bit about me and I wrote a piece about him after Alice died on September 11, and Nora Ephron who is no longer with us and who I… She just wrote with such heart and so much love, and yes, she was tough-minded when she had to be, but I just, every sentence that Bud and Nora wrote, and the fact that I got to know them was just one of the great, great treats of my life.

DM: Can I just share something?

EL: Yeah, sure.

DM: I don’t think I’ve ever shared this with anybody.

EL: Yeah.

DM: I also had the pleasure of knowing Nora. The last email I ever got from her, which was a week before she died, said, “See you soon, I hope.”

EL: Wow.

DM: I had never heard it put quite that way, and it didn’t mean anything to me until after-

EL: You know that she came to dinner at our house probably three months before she died, the only time I was just like, “This is the coolest thing ever,” and she never said a word.

DM: Yeah. She didn’t do that.

EL: By the way. Trillin never… Trillin told me, and they knew each other for 50 years I think, and she never told Trillin, so they would be there and then somebody else I write a lot of the book about, Jimmy Heath, who’s this tenor saxophone player, still alive, 92 years old. Then this, and this is something that I don’t know if a lot of people know, there’s this amazing jazz singer, who’s died, named Betty Carter. I used to see Betty Carter all the time in New York at this place called The Needle’s Eye, on Little West 12th Street. There were probably room for 20 people in this club, and you’d go in there and Betty Carter would make you cry every song.

DM: An incredible group of people, eclectic group of people, what is… Everyone here wants to know what’s for dinner when you have that-

EL: Well, you know-

DM: Come on, let’s get to it.

EL: You’ve got to have the Serious Eats crew cooking. So you know Kenji is making burgers and Rich is making risotto. We don’t have anybody who’s really a barbecue freak, so we might have to get some barbecue shipped in. Kenji’s fried chicken is pretty good, and then we have to have Stella Parks’ Brave Tarts Pie. I mean, come on. You’d want to come to that dinner.

DM: I definitely want to be, but you didn’t name me in the invitees, and you could have because the only condition I said it was no family but you didn’t. Ed, is there anything you want to share from the book itself?

EL: There’s one thing I was going to try to share and it’s about Vicky, and if I make it through without crying, that would really be a miracle. There’s a chapter in the book called Aftermath, when I was trying to make it right to my wife and so I wrote, “I mistakenly thought at the time that the proceeds of the sale would wipe away all Vicky’s conflicted feelings about the whole Serious Eats saga. The rewards were worth the risk, weren’t they? But I couldn’t wipe the slate clean. Why? Because when I learned about the relationship between risk and reward and business, no teacher at Columbia Business School spoke to the collateral, emotional and psychological damage associated with the risks you take to reap the rewards. That damage, it turns out, is really difficult to repair. Vicky thought I didn’t give credit where credit was due. She was wrong. Maybe one of the only things she’s been wrong about in 35 years of marriage. It was true that I couldn’t entirely admit how instrumental she’d been and it’s true that I was too dumb to really give credit where it was due, but it’s also true that I literally can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to do this without her, and I am keenly aware that it wouldn’t have worked if she hadn’t been on my side. In fact, the most her harrowing details I’ve had to relive in writing this book have nothing to do with financial security, only the terrifying knowledge of how close I came to doing real damage to a relationship that made it all possible. For the nine long years that it took to get Serious Eats off the ground, in fact long before that and after, I relied every single day on Vicky’s solid judgment and her business savvy, her good counsel, her sense of humor and her preternatural calm. Her unwavering belief in me was, and is, humbling. I do not for a moment downplay the difficulty of the situations I put her in or the tremendous sacrifice she had to make, which isn’t to say that I was any good at communicating any of this at the time, so we kept fighting. More than a year after I sold the business, we had yet another argument that ended without a resolution, neither of US giving an inch. I got on my bike and rode to Tiffany. I had never been inside Tiffany, so I had no idea what to do when I went through the revolving doors. I asked the person stationed right inside the door where I could buy pearl earrings from my wife. Vicky had been talking about how much she wanted a pair of pearl earrings for years, even before Serious Eats.” “A kindly sales woman showed me a variety of diamond and pearl earrings. I picked a pair out for Vicky. It’s not a bad metaphor, a piece of grit in an oyster shell, a lot of work to make something that looks so effortlessly beautiful. She opened the box like a kid opening a present on Christmas morning. Vicky grinned from earring to earring as she walked over to a mirror to try them on. I almost started to cry, mostly out of frustration at myself, why had it taken me so long to get to this place I obviously needed to be. Pride? Stupidity? Stubbornness? No matter, I made it. Let the healing begin that continues to this day.”

DM: That’s beautiful. All of you listeners, get yourself a copy of Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption. It’s a great read and an incredible story, even if you’re not interested in food. Of course, listen to Ed’s podcast, Special Sauce, and keep logging on to Serious Eats.

EL: Thank you, my friend.

DM: Thank you all.

EL: Thank you so much, Danny Meyer, for hosting this extraordinary edition of Special Sauce here at the Rizzoli Bookstore in New York City. I’m Ed Levine, see you next time Serious Eaters.

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