#carolinaconquest: Asheville, NC

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[Fried chicken at Table in Asheville, NC.]

Wonderful things about Asheville, NC: (1) It’s the most charming little hill town in eastern North Carolina, a corner of the world I’ve never been; (2) Spring is old news here; the thought now is summer, with rhododendrons in full bloom, and temperatures floating in the 70s; (3) The Mast General Store, the place for homemade condiments and cleaning products; (4) Views to the mountains surrounding us on all sides — sublime; (5) THE EATS.

Traditionally, every spring Eater’s Amanda Kludt and I hit the road for a roadtrip designed to let us plot the the future of Eater and eat a ton of delicious things somewhere in America. Several years ago, the jaunt took us through Texas; last year, we spent a few days in Nashville before heading east across Tennessee to Blackberry Farm. This year, we’ve embarked on a #carolinaconquest, starting with two days in Asheville then moving east to Lexington and Greensboro through the first of two distinct Carolina barbecue territories that we’re going to experience on this trip before docking in Raleigh for the night tonight and continuing farther east tomorrow.

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[Pizza with house-made burrata at Cucina 24.]

The big difference this year: Amanda and I are joined on our journey by Eater’s roving national food critic, Bill Addison. Bill’s based out of Atlanta, so he knows this part of the country cold, and his knowledge is already paying off bigtime.

At the tail end of last year’s trip, a massive banks of thunderstorms up the entire East Coast trapped me unexpectedly in Knoxville, TN for the night. Knoxville was kind of cool, but Asheville — with a similar vibe of old-town main streets — is way cooler. It’s an incredible charming place awash in mountain air and, from what I can tell so far, fantastic restaurants. I’m not going to go into detail about what we’re eating, because Bill will do that in due time on Eater, but we’ve had meals at Cúrate, Nightbell, Cucina 24, Table, and Rhubarb here in town and none have disappointed. (To my mind, Cucina 24 and Table would stand apart anywhere, but let’s see what Bill has to say.)

Yesterday also took us on an hour-long drive further up the hills to the remote hamlet of Spruce Pine, NC. There, something very unexpected and wonderful happened to our little group. But that, too, is a story for another day so as not to spoil the forthcoming reveal on Eater.

Enough words for now. Back on the road. The #carolinaconquest continues.

On Media Rivalry

When the news of the death of Josh Ozersky came across Twitter on Monday night, this tweet encapsulated the place my mind went: to the pleasure of having a good rival in media. In memory and honor of Josh, some thoughts on that era, and the value our rivalry created for all of us.

At Eater, we knew Grub Street was coming long before it was called Grub Street. Or even existed. That’s because New York Magazine had signaled its intention in the space by making an offer to buy Curbed and Eater early in 2006. It was incredibly flattering but not the right fit at the time — a story for another day — but we understood that Adam Moss and his team saw the value in restaurant blogging and that they would likely pursue it regardless of whether they bought Eater. And so for Ben Leventhal and I it became a parlor game, to ferret out whatever information we could about what they were working on at NYMag.

One day Ben came up with the scoop. “They’ve hired Cutlets. Mr. Cutlets!” I didn’t know who that was, but Ben did: Mr. Cutlets was Josh Ozersky, a meat expert and sort-of-known food writer who went by that handle. We girded for battle, and then it came. Grub Street launched on September 18, 2006.

Except we didn’t refer to it as Grub Street on Eater. Ever. We called it Cutlets. Like, “Cutlets has the word that…” or “According to Cutlets…” This amused us to no end. “I remember it was very obvious that we were going to nickname it Cutlets — and would have continued calling it that long after his departure if Ben Williams didn’t make a personal appeal to us to call it Grub Street,” Ben recalled to me earlier today via GChat.

Ben also reminded me that on Grubz’ launch day, Cutlets promised posts ON THE HOUR. Given Eater’s semi-leisurely pace at this point in September 2006, this scared the shit out of us — but also gave Leventhal the fuel to do what he does so well. “BREAKING: Cutlets Misses Noon Post, 1 PM in Question,” screamed an Eater headline. “Other NYM servers appear to be stable. If anyone has info as to Cutlets’ whereabouts, and if he’s hurt in any way, please let us know and/or call the authorities.”

Man. The things rivalries drive you to do. (This still makes me laugh hysterically, btw.)

It’s often talked about how having rivals pushes you to a higher level, certainly in sports, but yes, for sure in media too. Students of Nick Denton’s memos over the years can trace the way with which he cannily sets new rivals as a way to motivate his troops. (It’s flattering that Vox Media was positioned with Buzzfeed as Gawker’s top rivals in his December 2014 “Back to Blogging” screed.)

But let’s be real: the marketplace clearly has room for Buzzfeed and Vox Media and Gawker Media, as well a bunch of other big digital media properties that have reached scale. We’re still going to fight tooth-and-nail, of course, because we are better than the next company on this list. (Fact.) But when rivalry is at its most intense is when it appears that the marketplace may not have room for more than one winner. When failure is an option, and maybe the more likely one. When it’s you or them.

Which is why Grub Street’s launch led us to up Eater’s game. I know from conversations long after the fact with Ozersky that this was probably harder on him than it was on us: Ben and I loved cranking out short hits, while Josh’s style was longer-form; getting used to the blogging grind is really hard. But for better or worse, for the next couple years, our metabolism soared as we worked liked crazy to get every scoop onto Eater as quickly as possible to beat the other guy. Every minute mattered. Hell, every second mattered.

“In that frame,” Ben continues, “I will say that 100% were it not for the arrival of Cutlets on the scene, I would have been much more lax about Eater’s pace. We needed Cutlets to, as I put it in an email to Peter Meehan, dated 12/4/06, ‘Get the blood flowing.’”

In the end, both Eater and Grub Street found their place in the ecosystem, and both thrived. But it’s a telling point about the power of rivalries that I can’t tweet a Grub Street link to this day.

The Grub Street-Eater rivalry never ended for Ozersky, either. Just a few weeks ago, after reading my interview with Lucky Peach in which I bragged about how Eater had beaten Grub Street on the opening of The Dutch in summer 2010, he couldn’t resist tweeting back at me:

Great rivalries never die. But great competitors, unfortunately, do. RIP, Josh Ozersky.

UPDATE: Here’s a great bookend to my story, on the early days of Ozersky and Grub Street as seen from the opposite trenches, by Daniel Maurer. And there you have it: I have linked to Grub Street.

Voxfronts

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[Brands on brands in the lobby of the Paley Center.]

As teased here earlier this week, yesterday Vox Media presented at newfronts (technically, upfronts; more pleasingly, Voxfronts) at the Paley Center for Media on West 52nd Street. This was Vox’s first time tackling an event of this size, which ran for about an hour and featured half a dozen members of the Vox Media team talking to an audience of several hundred brand representatives, sales people, and media about what’s next for our company. Big themes: the growth of our video program (which topped 100m cumulative monthly views in March for the first time ever), and the launch of Chorus for Advertisers.

Coverage of Vox Media and coverage of Chorus typically go hand-in-hand, and yesterday’s event proved no exception to that rule. I love this, from Capital NY reporter Jememy Barr:

CEO Jim Bankoff announced “Chorus for Advertisers,” the company’s first deal in which Chorus will be used on behalf of corporate advertisers… The crowd seemed to respond to the news, as cheers of “woo!” and “yeah!” were audible.

Man, that’s almost obnoxious. But, as Ad Age observes in its piece about the Voxfronts, “Talk of content management systems is usually boring, but Chorus is sort of famous.” Ha!

The very best part of the Voxfront might have been the food served after the event, from Andrew Carmellini, Michael Oliver, and the team at Lafayette. Know this, if you’re thinking of attending a future Voxfront: come for Chorus, stay for the Spring Lamb with Frisée.

Curbed’s Rearchitecting

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[Photo courtesy Max Touhey/Curbed NY]

I’m sitting here at my desk in the Vox Media office as I type these words. Next to me, the Curbed team (which has encroached on my island) is talking about the new Whitney Museum that just opened in the Meatpacking District. As the only resident of New York that did not attend a pre-opening event at Whitney MePa, I can’t share an opinion of my own, but Curbed’s editor-in-chief Kelsey Keith just observed of Renzo Piano’s building, “It’s like a cruise ship docked on the High Line.” That’s a good thing (I think).

Speaking of Kelsey and the Whitney and Curbed, today the site ran its review of the new Whitney by Curbed’s new architecture critic, Alexandre Lange. This is Lange’s second piece for Curbed, following the announcement of her appointment and her debut column last week on the nutty (yet delicious?) Pier 55 design concept.

I’ve been a longtime reader of Lange’s in publications ranging from Dwell to New York Magazine, so I was thrilled when Kelsey said she was bringing her on at Curbed. This hire — as well as the addition of Asad Syrkett, who recently joined Curbed from Architectural Digest and is sitting to my immediate right as I continue to type these words — marks the beginning of Vox Media’s investment in Curbed leading up to its relaunch later this year. Just as Eater invested in serious restaurant criticism at a time when local newspapers are cutting back on it (and won a James Beard Award for it), so too does Kelsey perceive an opportunity for Curbed to publish deeper criticism about the built environment at a time of increasing scarcity of same. I’m extremely pumped about this.

If you despise words but don’t mind looking at photography, well, Curbed’s got you there too. Check this post on Curbed NY by photographer Max Touhey which captures the new Whitney from literally every possible angle. Literally every single one. All. Every.

Meantime, as I noted moments ago to everyone sitting in my vicinity in the Vox office, I’m still marinating on my landmark review of One World Trade Center. While other critics rushed to file on the tower, I have kept my powder dry, gathering thoughts and observations, stringing together two- and three-word phrases and rhymes. The time is drawing closer when I will publish my review of 1WTC in this very space. Perhaps even by summer. Time will tell.

Onstage

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Now that it’s clear to all that I’m back to daily blogging (three = trend), here’s a completely gratuitous photograph of me onstage at Digital Content Europe in London last week, talking Vox Media. This presentation followed one the previous week that Vox Media Creative Director Chad Mumm and I gave onstage at MIPTV in Cannes, France.

“Cannes? Oh, it’s an armpit,” Mom Steele remarked when I told her the plans for my trip. She wasn’t exactly wrong — I knew what she meant, at least — but I’d never been to the South of France and I figured going there in mid-April from New York would not be worst thing. Nor was Cannes’ old harbor non-charming, nor was the food at Da Laura not completely delicious both times I lunched there.

But there’s something funny about these industry gatherings: the main outcome of them appears to be getting oneself invited to more of them. Vox hosted a lunch for MIP attendees my last day in Cannes, at which numerous persons associated with other conferences lined up to invite me/Vox to their conference. Nothing wrong with a nice invitation, and I’ll probably go to at least one of them, because I’ve always wanted to see Antarctica. But as Ezra Klein pointed out to me when I was hanging out at the Vox office in Washington, DC a few weeks ago, the problem with conferences is that arguably the best thing that can happen at them — meeting talent you’d like to hire — tends to happen less often the fancier the conference is.

He’s surely right. Yet abstractions of the conferences world aside, I do love going onstage in front of an audience. The gathering in London in particular was very savvy about Vox Media and deeply fascinated by what we’re doing, so it blossomed into a great conversation. Inside Vox, we’re getting better and better about talking about what we do in these kind of public settings. This Thursday, we’ll put that to the test when Vox showcases at Newfronts for the first time at a big theater in midtown Manhattan. Full report from the front lines to follow.

It’s Eater Hack Week

Damn @qualityrye

A photo posted by Amanda Kludt (@kludt) on

Last Friday night, for the first time in years, I skipped the James Beard Book, Broadcast and Journalism Awards. This proved to be a seriously genius move on my part: with my jinx out of the equation, Eater racked up three Beard Awards, this first ever bestowed upon the publication. (Here’s a complete rundown of the winners.)

What’s especially cool about the awards that Eater won is that they came in the two main areas that Editor-in-Chief Amanda Kludt chose to invest in following Eater’s acquisition by Vox: restaurant reviews and feature writing. Eater’s lead critic, Ryan Sutton, was honored for his data-forward approach to restaurant criticism, specifically for three reviews: “Artisanal-Everything Roberta’s Defies the Stereotypes,” “Once an Icon, Per Se is Showing its Age,” and “Six Reasons Why Cosme is One of NYC’s Most Relevant New Restaurants.” For my money, Sutton’s Per Se review was his best of the year, spotlighting how his fascination with restaurant pricing can further inform a review that would already have been a powerhouse without the added angle. (Sutton remains on a roll in 2015, bestowing four stars on Momofuku Ko last week.)

On the features side, Kludt hired Helen Rosner to head the Eater features team. That move paid off in not one but two Beard Awards for the same essay, John DeVore’s wonderful Life In Chains: Finding Home at Taco Bell. DeVore won the Beard for best personal essay along with the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. Never prouder of the Eater team.

Meantime, it’s Monday morning in the big city, and the kickoff of Eater’s first-ever Hack Week. Inspired by the Hack Week that The Verge did last August — the very one that roused this blog back to life! — numerous members of the Vox Media product team and the Eater editorial team are gathering at an offsite location in Chelsea all week long for a series of workshops, brainstorms, and building. This sort of radical collaboration is what we do best at Vox Media, and what’s likely to come out of Eater Hack Week are new ways to tell stories as well as a better understanding of how we can collaborate in the future.

I’ll be dropping by the Eater Hack Week venue whenever I can, mostly just to listen. Well, and, if someone will let me, maybe to touch one of those James Beard Award medals.

Maine’s Spring Rebirth

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[Ramps! At Eastways!]

It’s a cold, gray Sunday morning on the Maine coast. Spring comes sloooooowly here. In the garden, the peonies have yet to break through the soil (though, to their credit, the lilies are off to the races). Trees are bare. But underfoot, around the yard, vibrant clumps of green leaves, sprung fully-formed from the last of the snowmelt: ramps! Turns out our property is awash in them — here they are coming up around the ledges amongst still-dormant clumps of bayberry, and there they are underneath the pine trees marking the line between our house and the neighbors to the east.

I’m amused to no end that, after years of anti-hyping these first green edibles of spring on Eater, there’s ramps aplenty just steps from our front porch. Yesterday, inspired, I pulled bunches of them from the patches under the pine trees. Cleaned and sauteed on the stove, they made a perfect side dish for my brother’s and my dinner of grilled steak and baked potato. This morning, my mind races — scrambled eggs with ramps? Spaghetti with ramps? All of the above?

The (re?)discovery of ramps on our property adds a new wrinkle to the seasonal cycle of our time in Maine. I blogged last fall about the rhythms of the seasons in a house that we close up in the midst of the baseball postseason on Columbus Day then reopen every April soon after opening day at Fenway. My brother and I arrived here Friday night for the first time this year, and we’ve spent most of the weekend rearranging furniture, scrubbing down surfaces blessed by winter visits from tiny mice, and starting the work of bringing the yard and gardens alive by picking up the biggest and most obvious of the endless supply of fallen branches. Water, miraculously turned on an hour before we arrived on Friday, leaks from a faucet near the garden. My brother’s to-do list grows, and we’ll be lucky to get through most of it by June.

Life has been upside-down lately — a better topic for conversation than blog posts — so this annual rebirth, the unfolding of spring, arrives on the calendar at a much-needed moment. With it, the physical act of reopening the house, of restoring order, carries with it a promise that the wheel will turn, and that everything will be okay. And it will, and will be. But first, there is work to be done.

Flooding The Zone

With thanks to Bryce for the nudge, let me first blog this piece about blogging that Lucky Peach published yesterday, and now blog a bit about it.

Brette Warshaw, who runs the internet operations of Lucky Peach, approached me last month wanting to talk obsession and the web. (It’s Obsession Month at LuckyPeach.com, following the publication of LP’s new issue, which has the theme of obsession.) She dropped by the Vox office a few days later and I talked for an hour, laying out a fair bit of the backstory of Eater and how obsession figured into it.

Somehow Brette managed to take my ramblings and cohere them into a piece that captures my thinking about web obsession really well while also telling a great story about Eater itself. It’s called Flooding the Zone. Please do check it out.

One more thought. Rereading the Lucky Peach interview yesterday, I was struck by my somewhat wistful tone. While I did love those early eras of Eater, and the strategy that we employed back then to win them, their passing doesn’t trouble me. The challenge of media on the web is always evolving, and as we’ve moved from the blog age into the social age, we’ve adapted our approach. Surprise: it’s still as much fun as ever. And we’re still winning. For the full accounting of how all that’s going down, check back here in 2021.

Racked Relaunch

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Racked relaunches today with the complete Vox Media Makeover Look™: new site design, new logo, new glow. This makeover was a sprint compared to the Eater revamp: 10 weeks from kickoff to launch, but a resulting design that’s the lightest, most beautiful site in the Vox stable, as befits our next-generation fashion and shopping brand. Bravo to Eliot Shepard, who oversaw the product side of the launch, and all the folks at Vox Product that made this magic happen.

Editor-in-Chief Leslie Price has been part of Racked’s DNA since the brand was born in March 2007, serving as the launch editor of Eater NY, then later as editor of Eater LA before returning to the mothership to oversee Racked’s transformation into its new, better self. Leslie’s welcome letter lays out her vision for the site, one replete with a mix of video, feature, and op-ed content, and of course the news and sales reports that have defined Racked over the years.

Among the Racked relaunch highlights:

1) Try Hards, Vox Media’s first scripted video show, features Danielle Gibson and Alexandra Fiber, the team behind SRSLY, navigating absurd fashion trends in the guise of Racked editors. New episodes will drop each Tuesday at 10am.
2) Also on Racked’s expanded video slate: a partnership with with seminal fashion magazine Dazed, directed by photographer Columbine Goldsmith, the first in a series of videos Racked will produce in collaboration with other style-focused editorial outlets and brands; Racked Hauls, obsessive weekly shopping, ever Monday at noon; and the addition of Lo Bosworth of The Hills fame as Racked’s new health and wellness editor, who will helm a video series testing the workouts of the moment.
3) Racked’s launch cover story, Fashion Gateway Drugs, in which 36 of Racked’s favorite stylish people to talk about the moment they first fell in love with fashion. It features contributions ranging from Iris Apfel to Drew Barrymore.
4) And, just trust me on this — follow @RackedShopping on Instagram. It’s the start of a more shoppable Racked. Which is going to be insane.

As is this whole undertaking, as WWD reporter Alexandra Steigrad makes clear in this deep dive on the Racked relaunch which appears in today’s issue. (We ended up talking about ethics, which in a world as challenged as the fashion media, is actually a really big deal.) Bottom line, Team Racked is on it, and the new site finally gives them the tools they need to go crazy. Couldn’t happen to a more awesome team.

Monday’s List, Vox Media Edition

Been a little while since a Monday’s List, so let’s fire it back up. Apologies for the work-centric nature of this week’s list, but work is very much the theme of the week. Check back next Monday for smack talk unrelated to Vox Media and the fine people who work here.

OBAMA: THE VOX CONVERSATION
In which Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias of Vox.com sit down with the sitting president of the United States, becoming the first pure digital news source to do so. The transcripts are fascinating because the conversation’s conducted at a very high level (NB Obama’s hilarious burn on Vox: “brainiac nerd types”), but the approach the Vox.com team took to the videos of the interview are where the real ground is broken. Check the transformation of the White House Maps room undertaken by the Vox team — a transformation that made possible the graphical wizardry unleashed in the clip above.

BILL GATES GUEST-EDITING THE VERGE IN FEBRUARY
Meanwhile, at The Verge, Bill Gates is guest-editing the site for the month of February. What does that mean in practice? Nilay Patel explains: “Throughout February, Bill will be narrating episodes of our animated series The Big Future to explain and illustrate his vision… Gates is our guest editor, but we have promised his team that we’ll do serious independent journalism against these themes; we will present a complete picture of this future to you.” The first video, above, ran last week; the next one drops momentarily.

THIRD GIANT SECRET THING
Obama and Gates is a whole lot for the first nine days of the month, but the 10th day of the month is bringing something equally momentous on another Vox Media site. Check back tomorrow for this annoying teaser to be FULLY REVEALED.

ALTON BROWN Q&A
The Food Network maestro dropped by Eater last week for a live chat with Eater readers in the Eater Forum. Hilarity transpired, as did some real cooking advice. Looking forward to seeing more of these interactive conversations at Eater and elsewhere at Vox Media.

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CITY ISLAND <3 CURBED
Every December, Curbed NY awards the Curbed Cup to the Neighborhood of the Year in New York City. This year, after a frenzied reader vote, the Bronx enclave of City Island took the cup. That’s all well and good, but where things really got fun was when the local media got all excited about the victory, and Curbed’s own Hana Alberts and Sara Polsky were invited out to a local bar this past weekend to celebrate with the locals. I couldn’t make the voyage, but there’s talk of a return visit this summer, which, rest assured, I will not miss.

JOBS AT VOX MEDIA
Finally, we’re hiring up an absolute storm right now across editorial, product, sales, and corporate. Be the dream. Join us.