By Tess McCabe
Tell us about your background. What have you studied, where, and how did you come to specialise in writing about food and lifestyle matters for publications such as Epicure, Gourmet Traveller and Broadsheet?
Because I come from a really ‘foodie’ family (which includes several chefs, a winemaker, a butcher, growers, bakers and fishermen), the food thing was always there but I didn’t really consciously pursue it as a career path in the early days.
During high school I was obsessed with music. I hosted my own radio shows, ran club nights and all-ages shows, DJed, published little ‘zines, interviewed touring bands – all that stuff. Looking back, I guess I was quite entrepreneurial and courageous from a young age. After VCE, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts (Social Science) at Deakin University in my hometown of Warrnambool, but after the second year I had really itchy feet to get to the big smoke, so I quit uni and enrolled in an Audio Engineering course in Melbourne. That took me into the worlds of film, TV and studio recording, which I loved.
Like a lot of university students, I started working in restaurants to pay the rent. My first real hospitality job in Melbourne was at O’Connell’s Hotel in South Melbourne, where I worked alongside chef, Greg Malouf for almost five years. It was here that my real food and wine education started. I really lucked it – the place was iconic and influenced a lot of young chefs at the time. I worked with so many seriously talented and passionate people during those years and I was a total sponge for it all. What I lacked in age and experience (I was 20 when I started there) I made up for with enthusiasm; I was forever asking questions, so I learnt a lot.
Later, I spent three years travelling around Europe. While my friends were more interested in getting drunk and pashing boys, I voraciously chased down wine and food experiences like drinking Soave in Soave and sherry in Jerez and WWOOFing(working on organic farms) in Umbria. My whole world opened up. I was in my element and it inspired me like nothing else.
Back in Melbourne, I worked in a handful of high-end restaurants as well as helping manage a really great little 2 Chefs Hat restaurant in Port Fairy owned my two brothers, Shane and Andrew. It was a great time for us – three passionate siblings with our own areas of expertise (Andrew is a chef, Shane’s a wine maker, I was the front of house doyenne). The place had a real buzz and the customers loved it. We worked hard and had a ball.
In 2005 I started teaching hospitality, wine knowledge and barista courses at William Angliss College. This experience taught me good skills in observation, assessment and critiquing – which now informs my work as a restaurant critic.
The food writing thing came out of a gnawing, long-term passion that I just couldn’t ignore any more. I did a couple of short courses on food writing and travel writing and editing in 2009, and later started a blog. I then took my mentor, John Weldon’s advice and started approaching some editors about doing proper, published work. I started writing for The Age Good Food Guide, The Age Cheap Eats Guide and Broadsheet in early 2011 and that’s when it all started taking off.
How did the opportunity to write An Appetite for Melbourne come about - did you approach the publisher or did they approach you?
They approached me, though it all came about quite serendipitously, actually. I had been aware of the Herb Lester guides for some time, after reading about them in Monocle magazine and then seeing them in bookshops like Hill of Content and Third Drawer Down. I was a big fan and was really drawn to their excellent design, unique themes and snappy copy.
In early 2013 I caught up with an old school friend,Caz and her author husband, Paul who were out visiting from London. As it turns out, Paul had written a guide for Herb Lester the year before, called The Look of London. After finding out more about me, my work, and my crazypassion for all things food and MelbournePaul later recommended me to the publishers to write a Melbourne guide. I was very flattered to be commissioned for this project and the finished product makes me really proud of my city. Melbourne’s dining scene really is world class.
What was the process for putting the guide together, and how long did it take? Did you suggest the content or was it a collaborative process with the publisher and editor?
The process took me a few months, as I had to juggle my other work around it. Plus Ideliberated for some time over who to include and how to squeeze Melbourne’s best stuff into just 40 listings. It was also a challengeto get the right mix of places that I thought would appeal to Herb Lester’s predominantly international audience.
The Herb Lester guides often like to uncover nostalgic gems and aren’t so interested in what’s new or hot or cool. This meant really taking a step back from my usual work of chasing the new/hot/cool, and instead looking at some of Melbourne’s more enduring classics with new eyes.
I also get that if you’re coming to Melbourne from London, Paris or New York City that you don’t necessarily want a ‘European’ experience (which Melbourne does so well) but rather, you’d want to get to the heart of what’s unique about the city and its culture.
My London editor, Ben steered the broad themes quite loosely so really, curating the guide was all up to me. This side of things was both liberating and scary; I was pretty concerned about how many industry friends I’d lose via the whittling down process!
What makes this guide special in comparison to other Melbourne guides, for the local and the tourist?
I think the guide’s most obvious charm is its beautiful design and the sense that you’re really getting off the beaten track with a savvy local’s insider tips. There are hidden gems and character-filled places that locals might’ve forgotten about. For a tourist, it’s a little peephole into the bits of Melbourne that I love and chance to live like a local, even if they’re just visiting for a few days.
What other projects are you working on now?
As well as my regular editorial work for The Age Epicure and Broadsheet I also contribute restaurant reviews for The Age Good Food Guide and Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Guide. This kind of work keeps me busy and means that I get to eat out a lot and meet some great people. I love it.
Right now, I’m working on some pieces for SBS Feast Magazine, as well as another travel guide (as yet under wraps). There’s a book in the works too; something I’ve been chipping away at for a while now. Hopefully this year will be the year to get it over the line.
I do a bunch of copywriting, ghost blogging and social media for other people – like wine makers, designers, chefs and producers - too. It’s fun, and I love getting the opportunity to help people with their business in this way.
Recent highlights? Spending almost a month in California ‘on the job’ with my favourite photographer, Peter Tarasiuk for some editorial work.
I also had great fun doing a guest spot on radio recently; it took me back to my teenage days of community radio and has prompted some other media opportunities too, which is exciting.
Another big one this year was being invited to appear at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I’ll be speaking at two events in late August where I’ll be chairing panel discussions with some industry heavyweights on themes around food ethics. It’s a huge honour and I can’t wait.
Where can people get the guide and how much is it? Also how do we follow you for more Melbourne tips?
The guides are available from a number of local retailers including Shelley Panton Store, Books for Cooks, Third Drawer Down, Hams & Bacon, The Lark Store, and Hill of Content. You can also purchase them online via the Herb Lester website. They retail at around $12 each.
Catch up with what Leanne is doing/writing/eating via her Instagram (@clance), Twitter (@tourdeclance) and her blog.
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