For almost 15 years, I was the food editor of Stuff Magazine, the fun, slightly incorrigible biweekly little sister magazine published by the Boston Phoenix. I loved every minute of it. Writing two pieces for each issue, deadline agita marked most of my Wednesdays. (Some days, it flowed all the way to Friday.) I ended up with a staggering (to me) clip file of 400-plus published pieces. I started out as a pretty good writer, but with the expertise and experience of my editors, I ended up winning national prizes.
When the Phoenix and Stuff combined last fall, I became the contributing editor for food. I began writing about food when it was still just “food” and about chefs when they were mostly known by their first and last names, if at all. There were stories about young chefs and old chefs; how hard it is to open a new restaurant; and why everyone suddenly shifted to small plates all at once. I wrote about Sunday suppers; public health issues; how to deconstruct a lobster roll; how French food came back into favor; distinguishing Salvadoran food from Peruvian and Ecuadorean; kimchee; “Top Chef” and “Chopped”; and the puzzling rise of burger joints. I wrote profiles about dishwashers and oyster shuckers, essays about “professional manners” — hostesses who were rude or oblivious, diners who just want to game the system for a free meal.
There was a time when a new restaurant would open every few months, not once a week, and when the new “hot” place had a chance of staying “hot” until at least the end of the month. When there was other riveting local news besides how soon the local Shake Shack would be serving custard.
Stuff Magazine examined Boston’s food scene in a different way
What Stuff did for the food scene of Boston was to make it safe to succeed, safe to take a chance. Safe to become a star, or not — and just do a really god job of turning out good food 365 days a year. We saw ourselves as allies — not adversaries — of the thousands of hardworking men and women who chose a ridiculous profession where you are only as good as the last meal any single patron has had at your restaurant. In the process, Stuff@Nite became the publication where Boston chefs could tell the truth — to our readers and to each other. And we became the bible for the local food community.
When I came to Stuff, I’d owned and run three restaurants. As a seasoned restaurant person, I knew that the miracle was that good, hot food ever got out of the kitchen on time and per the diner’s order. The opportunities to screw up a meal are multifarious, no matter how talented or attentive the chef. If restaurants were only about preparing good food, it would be a no-brainer job. But restaurants are complex teams of people as tightly interwoven as the rowers on a crew shell. And people are much harder to control than the produce withering in the walk-in. I can still feel the vibe gone wrong when I walk in to a restaurant. Did the chef’s wife leave him only that morning? Is someone at the emergency room? Deported? Is the bartender out on a bender? You can’t tell exactly what, but you intuit the vibrations. So, I saw my job at the magazine as helping readers peek behind the service counter, demystifying the process, understanding the minds and hopes of chefs, the staffs, the investors. And the degree of difficulty inherent in the simple act of making good food at a fair price.
Our mission at Stuff Magazine (formerly called Stuff@Nite) was to write about food and people who were interesting and had interesting life stories or simply the story of working hard, apprenticing well and coming up through the ranks. A kind of judgment-free zone. No reviews, no recipes, no scathing takedowns of Todd English or whoever was the too-big-for-his-britches poster boy of the season. If I had a bad experience at a restaurant, our style was not to Chow it or Yelp it at the universe, but to have a cordial phone chat with the manager or chef about what we experienced and go back in a few weeks. When diners emailed, wrote or called about some terrible injustice at a bistro we had liked, we gently asked that they pick up the phone and give the useful feedback to the chef. Give the chef a chance to make it right.
Note: Chefs are always willing to hear from their customers. They went in to the world of cooking because they like to please and nurture people. In general, modern chefs are people-pleasers, white-collar intellects in a profession with more than its share of blue-collar effort.
What you’ve lost in the closing of the Phoenix and Stuff, which folded in to the Phoenix last summer, is a dedicated outlet with an authentic fondness for good food and the people who create it. There are lots of other avenues to get your local “food fix” now, but each seems to have a hysterical sameness where chefs are either beatified as the “new” best chef, the next food TV star or a community saint or sinner. Or, it’s a place where we’re all panting for the new door to open.
Chefs and the professional support teams that work in restaurants are talented, hardworking men and women. With the demise of the Phoenix and Stuff, you’ve lost a chance to get to know them simply as real people who love to feed you, the no-judgment zone where a chef could read and could feel good about a colleague or competitor’s success.
A thank-you to Stephen Mindich and the entire Boston Phoenix team. You gave Boston’s culinary community a virtual clubhouse. Thanks for keeping the lights on for so long.
Top photo: Magazine covers from the Boston Phoenix, which included Stuff Magazine. Courtesy of Boston Phoenix