Special Sauce: Roads & Kingdoms’ Matt Goulding On …

[Photograph: Laura Pérez. Soft shell crab photograph: Vicky Wasik]

As you can probably tell, I love interviewing people for Special Sauce. That’s because we book guests who have compelling food-related stories to share with us. But Roads & Kingdoms co-founder and author Matt Goulding had so many interesting things to say about food and life that I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I probably enjoyed the time I spent gabbing with Matt more than any other interview I’ve done for the podcast.

Here’s Matt on his dad: “My dad, I should say, as many men are, was a great griller and was great with eggs. It seems to be two things that men generally feel comfortable cooking, even in a relatively limited culinary household.”

And here he is how he views his debilitating Crohn’s Disease diagnosis: “The two ironies of my food life is, one, that I come from a family that didn’t really value food, and the other is that I ended up being deeply in love with this world of food but nevertheless have a digestive illness that presents all these interesting challenges.”

Matt is just as good about how he got into writing as he is about his personal life. His first editorial job was at Student Traveler Magazine, an experience he describes as definitive: “That was my entryway into actually being paid for writing, at ten cents a word, but it was a check, and it was a drug. Immediately there was this high of seeing your name in print, being able to tell your story. Anyone who’s deranged and narcissistic enough to become a writer knows what that high feels like, and I was hooked pretty quickly.”

He went on to become the food editor at Men’s Health magazine, where he finally got his fellow editors to understand where he was coming from: “Finally at an editorial meeting I think I said something like, “The kitchen is the new garage.”

Matt ended up co-writing 18 volumes of the Eat This, Not That series, which grew out of a column he wrote at Men’s Health and ended up selling millions of copies. Why were those books so successful? “It was a brilliant four words. The convergence of syllables was extraordinary,” he says.

What does he find so compelling about writing about food? “I can’t stop moving. So one thing I realized is it’s going to be a really lonely life unless I find a way to connect with people as quickly as possible. It’s always, every single instance, food, no matter where you are, was just an instant entry point into a culture, into someone’s home, into their lives. It happened over and over again, so to be able to share those stories in some way, it would be stupid not to.”

And, finally, here’s Matt’s description of how Roads & Kingdoms, the James Beard award-winning website he co-founded with Nathan Thornburgh, transformed from being something only their mothers would read to the must-read site for anyone who has an interest in the intersection between travel, culture, and food, all because of the power of a single tweet: “We just kept writing these 5,000-word narrative pieces about the most random convergence of culture and politics that we could find. But we woke up at one in the morning on this houseboat after a long night out at Noma, and it was clear looking at my phone, something was happening. The phone was literally pulsating or something. Open up the phone, and it turns out that Anthony Bourdain had just sent out a tweet. It was very simple, but it said, ‘These guys do consistently fine work.’ It was just a link to the Roads & Kingdoms home page, and that was it.”

If you want to find out how that tweet led to Bourdain being the one and only outside investor in Roads & Kingdoms you’re just going to have to listen to Part 1 of my extraordinary conversation with the equally extraordinary Matt Goulding.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.

Matt Goulding: We had a segment on the Today Show when the first book came out, based on the 20 worst foods in America. We had put the silver domes over the food equivalents of 2,200 calories. In this case, it was 14 Krispy Kreme doughnuts. When we tell somebody, “If you eat those cheese fries you are eating 14 Krispy Kreme doughnuts,” the entire studio exploded and that book became an instant bestseller.

EL: This week, we are joined by writer and co-founder of one of our favorite websites, Roads & Kingdoms, Matt Goulding. Like his site, Matt covers the world of food and travel in mouthwatering, evocative fashion. His new book is called Pasta, Pane, Vino. Wow, I got that right. I’m so proud. As Serious Eaters can tell from the title, he explores the subject of Italian food and travel in his typically unique fashion. Welcome to Special Sauce, Matt Goulding.

MG: Ed, my man. Thank you so much for having me on.

EL: As they say I’m the fan, first time caller. Big fan.

MG: Honestly, I am super excited to be here because I am sort of a life … Well, it feels like a lifelong Ed Levine nerd.

EL: That’s really hard to believe. Not even my wife would say that.

MG: Probably not, but I’ve been geeking out on your stuff for quite some time, my friend, so to be here at the table on the microphone with you is indeed an honor.

EL: Oh. Well, thank you very much. Well, there’s so many things I want to talk to you about, but we’re going to end up in Italy and Spain and Japan. But first, we’re going to go into the way back machine and ask you about the Goulding table growing up.

MG: The Goulding table growing up. Well, let me start by saying the Goulding table was a Midwestern meat and potatoes table. Both my mom and dad were raised in the Midwest, my mom in Michigan, my father, well, in Texas. But neither of them were adventurous eaters. They both grew up in massive Catholic families. My mom was one of 10, my dad is one of nine. So it was a matter of getting food on the table, getting people fed, getting them to bed. Sustenance, essentially, to keep the engines running.

EL: What chaos must’ve …

MG: Oh, you can only imagine. I can only imagine, because it’s hard to wrap your arms around that idea these days.

EL: Did you have that many aunts and uncles growing up?

MG: I did. My family is massive. I can’t remember names. I couldn’t invite any of them to my wedding because it would literally be like a 1,000-person wedding. I have 472 cousins. It’s a beautiful mess, but it’s a mess. And, well, unfortunately, part of what grew out of that mess was a very limited diet at the Goulding table. My mom, bless her heart, doesn’t touch seafood, doesn’t eat a number of different vegetables. Even just the word of “lamb” or “goat” makes her recoil in disgust.

So this was kind of an impossible story of, that is to say, my love for food. Maybe it was some sort of teenage rebellion that grew out of the contrarian approach to do exactly the opposite of what your parents say. Most parents were saying, “Eat your vegetables, and have some fish and some heart-healthy fats,” and my mom was like, “Here’s some potatoes. Here’s some meat. Have at it.”

EL: Have at it. It wasn’t gracious dining, was it?

MG: It wasn’t. But, of course, there are nice, warm, nostalgic memories of certain casseroles and a handful of go-to dishes. My dad, I should say, as many men are, was a great griller and was great with eggs. It seems to be two things that men generally feel comfortable cooking, even in a relatively limited culinary household.

EL: Could he softly scramble an egg?

MG: He could scramble a really soft egg. He can make a weeping omelet without even knowing who Jacques Pepin is. He kind of lucked into this talent. But those food memories do really carry over, so I am grateful for those.

EL: One of the things I really want to ask you about is your family’s travel itineraries, because in my case, the furthest we ever traveled from our house in Long Island was to Hershey, Pennsylvania.

MG: If I missed the culinary gene in terms of the family lottery, I got the travel gene. My mother was a travel agent growing up. I am the youngest of four boys, and they bravely ventured out into the world with us. Hell or high water, every year was you save, you save, you save, and you go on an adventure. So when I was eight years old, I was on my way to Fiji and then to New Zealand, then to Central America, incredible places. I was way too young and stubborn and foolish, like every eight-year-old or 10-year-old kid in the world, to truly appreciate it, but nevertheless the seeds were planted.

EL: The seeds were most assuredly planted. You went a lot further than Hershey, PA.

MG: Dude. Hershey, PA? No. No, no, no. It was like Auckland, New Zealand and some weird island I can’t pronounce. It was a very charmed lifestyle in those regards. It was one trip a year, but it was always ambitious, it was always far-flung, and it made a hell of an impression on me and particularly my next youngest brother after me, who is just a world wanderer, a guy who has seen more of the world than all of us combined and has helped continue on the tradition of Goulding nomads.

EL: Wow, yeah. This was in California, right? You grew up in California?

MG: Exactly. I grew up in Northern California, and then I moved to North Carolina when I was 14 years old, so I got a taste of the Deep South, or at least the middle South, as well as the West Coast.

EL: What did your dad do for a living?

MG: My father was an insurance salesman. When we moved to North Carolina he had just been diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, which turns out I also have. I was diagnosed about a year later. It comes from both sides of my family. The two ironies of my food life are one, that I come from a family that didn’t really value food, and the other is that I ended up being deeply in love with this world of food but nevertheless have a digestive illness that presents all these interesting challenges and new adventures out there for me.

EL: How did you end up writing? Did you write in college?

MG: I did. I wrote at the UCLA Daily Bruin.

EL: Which is a fine daily student newspaper.

MG: It’s an excellent student newspaper. I was cooking and I was traveling and I was writing, and there was some job, some life was going to grow out of that. I’d gone to culinary school for a little bit in Northern Spain. I had come back to LA and was cooking in some decent restaurants there on the West side and I was still 20, 21 years old.

EL: This was during college, or after?

MG: This is during college. This is the later years in college.

EL: I didn’t know that. So you were actually in the kitchen.

MG: I was in the kitchen, I was in the kitchen. My first real culinary job, my first cooking job was at an institution in downtown Raleigh called 41st Street Oyster Bar, a classic Southern fry-style restaurant serving 800 people a day. I ran the hush puppy gun originally. It really is a gun.

EL: That’s a station. The hush puppy station.

MG: The hush puppy station, when every single one of those tables gets a big basket of hush puppies and some melted butter to dip them into, it’s just a … When you run that station, you go home every night with just welts on your arms. But somewhere along the way, cooking between there, and I moved to South America and I was cooking down in Patagonia for a spell when I was just graduated from college.

EL: Wow.

MG: It was great, and it was an incredible thing to be able to do, but I realized I wasn’t really made … I didn’t have the DNA of a life-long chef. I had this romantic vision that being a cook meant improvising meals and constantly coming up with new ideas, and I realized that the reality is much more circumscribed than that. It is you’re going to cook 35 fillets of salmon a night, you’re going to fry this many soft shell crabs, you’re going to do these things night in, night out. Of course, the rarefied class of chef moves on to embody the romantic ideal of creative cooking, but most people are out there are just working a really demanding physical job. It felt like, okay, why don’t I save the cooking for me and for loved ones, and take the writing thing and move it into the kitchen, use that as my lens, use that as my entryway into a world that’s really hard to survive in.

EL: So how did you make that transition?

MG: I should say that it started with my last course in UCLA, and my college professor of my creative writing workshop. I’d been writing these tortured short stories the entire semester, and had been with varying degrees of success. Finally, I wrote the last story about Thanksgiving, about a particular Thanksgiving that we had improvised in college on the streets of Westwood in western Los Angeles. She pulled me aside at the end of the class and just said, “From now on, write about food. This other stuff you’re trying to do, like parallel narratives and other literary tricks, you’re probably not cut out for that.”

EL: You are not Colson Whitehead.

MG: Right, exactly. “Let it go. Let it go. Tell us about the turkey. Describe the smell of the roasting sage.” That was really extraordinary advice. I was lucky enough to have met somebody on campus that ran a magazine called Student Traveler that, at the time, was distributed at like 1,200 university campuses across the country.

EL: One of those freebies.

MG: A freebie, but it was done extremely well. Jeff Booth was his name. He was the editor then, and there was a guy named Matt Gross, who went on to become the Frugal Traveler at the New York Times. So it was a small but potent team, and these guys taught me a lot about writing and editing magazines. That was my entryway into actually being paid for writing, at 10 cents a word, but it was a check and it was a drug. Immediately there was this high of seeing your name in print, being able to tell your story. Anyone who’s deranged and narcissistic enough to become a writer knows what that high feels like, and I was hooked pretty quickly.

EL: How did you end up at Men’s Health?

MG: It’s a very strange path, because I went from being this sort of assistant editor at this Student Traveler publication to realizing very quickly that, listen, if you want to make it in this world you got to go to New York. You got to find a way in there, and so I became an intern at Harper’s Magazine, which is one of the golden grails of literary magazine internships out there, and worked underneath of Lewis Lapham in the last days of his career at that magazine. It was a very, very different editorial world than writing about food or travel, but that to me was serious writing.

EL: Yes, that’s very heady stuff.

MG: Right, and as somebody who wanted to write fiction, like every young writer, this was the closest thing to that in the magazine world. My internship was coming to a close, and they were going to offer me a job as an editorial assistant there, and I got an email from the same Matt Gross who had shepherded my early career at Student Traveler and said, “How do you feel about Emmaus?” I said, “What is an Emmaus?” I didn’t even know what this word was. It turns out that it’s a small town in Pennsylvania where Rodale Publishing Company lives and breathes, and where Men’s Health is based.

Suddenly, I found my way out to Emmaus as the magazine’s only interested food kind of dude. This is right when food was becoming cool. This was right when you guys were really digging your fingers into the digital world of food when I was beginning to really geek out on the stuff that you guys were doing online and realized, “Wait a second. You guys have been running this massive magazine that’s read by 2 million men a month, and you’re still talking about eating broccoli for your prostate. Can we get past that?”

It took people a long time to understand what that meant. Finally, at an editorial meeting I think I said something that … I think I talked to these really smart editors in their language, and I said, “The kitchen is the new garage.” It was like that somehow registered. Men should be in the kitchen, rolling up their sleeves, figuring things out, tinkering.

EL: Because you attached the kitchen to a male bastion.

MG: Right, exactly. Exactly. It was a really simple move to make for them as a magazine, food as lifestyle, food as a way to live and breathe day-to-day and also take care of yourself.

EL: I think that’s when you and I first talked. I don’t know if you were doing something on something I had done or something on Serious Eats.

MG: Right. Yeah.

EL: You and I had some kind of interaction. I can’t remember what it was.

MG: There was. I can’t remember what the-

EL: It was the pizza book?

MG: It may have been the pizza book, I remember you had done a couple of … You played the role of the expert in the classic Men’s Health formatted article style that we’d always do, and so here’s Ed telling us what the upskirt shot of a pizza really means, or things like that, or define a cornicione for me.

EL: Yeah, sure.

MG: But it was that type of material that you guys were doing that I really wanted to just find a way to do in this big, glossy magazine that had incredible resources and a really big name that opened up doors, because people wanted to be in a magazine read by 2 million people a month. The moment was right. It was a very fortuitous, serendipitous moment to find myself in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.

EL: Yeah. What’s weird is you then wrote those books with, I guess, the editor in chief, Dave Zinczenko. Is that his name?

MG: Yeah, that’s, right. D.Z.

EL: But the weird thing is, those books are so far away from what you do now. You’re probably fine with that because it was like, hey, it was a way to get co-author credit on a book.

MG: Sure. It was a very wild time because I had … I’d just written a long piece in the magazine, my first big feature, about going down to Brazil to see a shaman there to help heal this Crohn’s Disease issue of mine. The conclusion of this story was kind of like, I need to basically take matters into my own hands, simplify my life, a lot of these messages we’re trying to pass on to the male readership of Men’s Health. The reaction of D.Z., the editor in chief, who I didn’t even think knew who I was at that time, was to ask me to write a series of books with him.

EL: He was one of the seminal editors as rock stars.

MG: Big time. Big time. He lived a lifestyle, he was a regular fixture on the Today Show, he was a guy very, very, very much intertwined with the New York magazine culture of the day, and still is. I was very grateful for Dave to give me this opportunity, but it was like, “Well, okay, you want to write a book. Well, what’s the book?” He said, “Well, we got to figure it out, but the title is Eat This, Not That.” I’m like, “Well, that’s …”

EL: He’s such a high concept guy that all he knew was the title.

MG: It was a brilliant four words. That convergence of syllables was extraordinary. It really was. We put together this first book in three months, maybe less, and it was about every day of your life is filled with dozens of food decisions. If you learn to just make a few better decisions rather than restructuring your entire life around simply fast-burning carbs or slow-burning carbs or healthy fats, or whatever the diet du jour is, just learn to make a few smarter decisions. If that means having this one instead of that one, drinking this beer instead of the other one. It was a very simple message, but we had no idea how this thing was going to do. We had a segment on the Today Show when the first book came out, and the segment was based on the 20 worst foods in America.

EL: And I’m sure it was exactly two minutes long.

MG: I think it was two minutes and 37 seconds, or something. We got that extra 37 seconds, which we used to basically present these extraordinary calorie bombs from fast food and sit-down restaurants, chains across America. We had one very simple idea. Because I could tell you, the average viewer in America, that the Aussie Cheese Fries, which at the time were the worst food in America, have 2,200 calories.

That maybe sounds like a lot, but next to that plate on the Today Show, as Dave was doing his presentation to Matt Lauer, we had put the silver domes over the food equivalents of that 2,200 calories. In this case, it was 14 Krispy Kreme doughnuts. When you tell somebody, “If you eat those cheese fries, you are eating 14 Krispy Kreme doughnuts,” the entire studio exploded, Matt Lauer lost his shit, and that book became an instant bestseller.

EL: As in 10 million copies, right? Or something.

MG: We did 18 books in about seven years. I remember at one point we would go on Amazon and the top 10 would have five Eat This, Not That books on it. It was just silly stuff. It was really hard to metabolize all these things that were happening, because you’re right. It wasn’t where my natural relationship with food, certainly as a writer, resides. But it was an opportunity. When you got it, you do it and you do it as well as you possibly can. I think Dave and I made a series of books that had a lot of really positive things about them.

EL: That’s great. Were you a writer for hire, or did you get involved in royalties?

MG: I got involved in royalties.

EL: That’s a beautiful thing.

MG: I was kind of nervous about asking for it because, here I was, I was 27 years old, and Dave was a big name and he could’ve just paid someone, cut them a check for $25,000, and that was it. But I said, “Listen, give me a couple of points on this and let’s just see what happens,” and my life was changed by that significantly.

EL: That’s fantastic. What a great story. You were the food editor of Men’s Health. First of all, Eat This, Not That is the greatest four-word elevator pitch ever.

MG: It’s so good. It’s so good.

EL: Because you know exactly what it is, it’s rhythmically perfect.

MG: Exactly.

EL: It’s not iambic pentameter, but it’s damn close.

MG: Even the spacing of the words on the cover lined up so perfectly. The first cover had a Big Mac and a Whopper on it. The “this” was the Big Mac at 540 calories and the “that” was the Whopper at 730. That’s 190 calories that you save, but visually and contextually, every part about it was just explosive. It was a hell of a heady time, honestly.

EL: Yeah, and you stayed there for a couple of years?

MG: I was at Men’s Health for about six years. I burnt out writing these books, basically, as anybody would. I probably, no exaggeration, was working at least 20-hour days every day for the better part of those six years. Finally, I just said, “You know, we’ve done an incredible thing here. This has been a wonderful ride, but I’ve done as much as I can possibly do with this magazine, and I’ve learned a lot.” I learned so much from the very smart people that worked at that magazine about the economy of words, about the importance of meaningful service, about counterintuitive information and how valuable that is as a writer, especially as one who’s working with information that you want the reader to be able to immediately put into use in their lives.

EL: Right, and more now than ever before in this age of an explosion of information coming at people, the value of counterintuitive information that turns out to be right is a game changer.

MG: It is. It is absolutely a game changer. Dave was a genius in those regards, and I learned quite a bit at his side. So here you have it. You have my first professional magazine experience was working under Lewis Lapham, who wrote, his edit letter at Harper’s was like 18,000 words long.

EL: Right, and you had to go to your dictionary, to the OED, for 17 words.

MG: You really did. You really did. Old-school magazine guy, martini-drinking, super wise, but was a stylist first and foremost. Dave Zinczenko was-

EL: The polar opposite.

MG: … really was about delivering potent batches of information that’s going to shock or provoke-

EL: A response.

MG: … a response, and inspire and do a number of other things. But those were the two extremes, and it just felt like somewhere in between there is something really interesting and fun to work with. So I left New York. I was, at this point, was barely standing, essentially, between the work and some of these health challenges. I said, “I got to get out of here. I got to just go. I’m going to go to Italy. I’m going to go to Bologna, I’m going to eat a lot of great food and learn Italian and meet a beautiful Italian woman.” Totally original idea. No one has ever once thought about this idea in America, especially not writers. I had this incredibly original idea, and I’m like, “I’m going to go chase this thing.”

I stopped over in Barcelona on my way. This is 2010 in the fall. I had studied abroad in Barcelona, and so I said, “Well, I’m going to go through Spain, just say hi to this country, and reconnect with this old city that I had loved as a study abroad student.” On my last day there, I was in a bar and I met a young, lovely Catalan woman and I never left. That was it.

EL: You had everything right. You had the wrong country.

MG: That’s exactly right. I’m like, “Wait. I’m going to go learn Italian. I already speak Spanish. I’m going to go over there and try to eat pasta, but I really love jamón more than prosciutto. What am I thinking?” It was almost that simple. But Barcelona is an incredible place, and she, Laura, was and is an incredible woman. She’s now my wife. We live in the middle of Barcelona, and she’s born and raised just outside of the city itself. It was exactly what I needed. I have no right to be as fortunate as I’ve been in these situations, but it all came together.

EL: Sometimes the world delivers.

MG: Sometimes the world delivers.

EL: But it’s funny … I was in Barcelona in 2010, I think, and this is when I really began to really understand the power of the internet. I posted on Serious Eats, this was when it was very personal. It was still more my stuff than recipe and technique stuff. I said, “I’m going to Barcelona, and I went to the boucherie yesterday, and I’m just overwhelmed by the number of hams. Can anybody make sense of ham for me, of jamón in Barcelona?” Within an hour, I got a bunch of responses. “I’m a ham wholesaler in Barcelona. This is what you need to know. There’s three J. There’s this, there’s that.” I was just like, “This thing is so powerful. It’s like so far beyond what I ever imagined.”

MG: So powerful. So powerful. You guys really tapped into a zeitgeist. I’m not saying this to blow smoke up your rear here on your own show, but I was geeking out on A Hamburger Today and-

EL: And Slice?

MG: … Slice, and everything that you guys did and the vernacular that you brought into the conversation and the unabashed geekiness that was brought to these things that most people deem trivial. But goddammit, this is culture. This is ours.

EL: Yes.

MG: And we’re not going to apologize to anybody. In fact, we’re going to dissect this down to a molecular level.

EL: Yes, and have fun doing it and poke fun at ourselves.

MG: Exactly, and that was a magical thing. It was really liberating, I think, as a writer and as an editor and just thinking about, “Okay, what do I want to do with food?” For a while, I just felt like, “I’m going to do food until I can do something serious. One of these days, I’m going to get past food and get into something real.” What’s more real than food? So rather than moving past food, I just moved food, for me personally, I just broadened my viewpoint there and looked at this as really an extraordinary lens through which to explore the most captivating contours of the world.

EL: I used to say about Trillin, Calvin Trillin, “You’re just a great writer who writes about food.” After reading your books, it really made me realize that you’re just a great writer who writes about food and tries to place it in a larger context, and does it in a really natural way.

MG: I truly appreciate that. That means a lot coming from you, Ed. As someone who was naturally drawn to just movement … I’m like the shark. I stop moving, I die. In Spain, they call me a “culo inquieto.” It means literally a restless ass.

EL: Yeah, that was that great line in the pasta book.

MG: Yeah, and I can’t stop moving. So one thing I realized is it’s going to be a really lonely life unless I find a way to connect with people as quickly as possible. It’s always, every single instance, food, no matter where you are, was just an instant entry point into a culture, into someone’s home, into their lives. It happened over and over again, so to be able to share those stories in some way, it would be stupid not to.

So really what happened was I was living in Barcelona and I had been thinking for a while about, “Okay, we’ve done this version of the nutrition, impactful, service-based stuff. I’ve done some of the longer form stuff.” I had met an editor at Time Magazine, Nathan Thornburgh. He was international editor at Time for many years, and a really, really, really smart guy. He was kind of going through his own existential editorial crisis of, “I love politics. I love all these elements about it, but I don’t want to tell the formatted, formulaic stories that a magazine like Time-“

EL: There is nothing more formatted and formulaic than writing for Time Magazine.

MG: Right. It’s a brilliant platform and it has an incredible place in the canon of American journalism, but he was as desperate to break away from that format as I was from that of service journalism. We sat down. Actually, I should say I was on assignment, one of my last assignments for Men’s Health. I was down in Mexico, doing a story that eventually was titled, “There Are No Nachos in Mexico”. Nathan had come over. He had been thrown out of Cuba by the Cuban government because they found out he was a journalist, so he washed up in Mexico City.

We went out to one of these smoked meat emporiums on the outskirts of Mexico City on a Sunday and had a bunch of barbacoa and pulque, and hatched this plan. Let’s combine your political world of foreign correspondence, my world of food and culture, because God knows we need more food in politics and we need more politics in food and we need to tell the stories behind the story that most publications just don’t have the bandwidth to do. Let’s just give this thing a shot. That was really the genesis of Roads & Kingdoms.

EL: That was the genesis of Roads & Kingdoms. Wow.

MG: That was it.

EL: I’m curious because I have my own horror stories about what it was like trying to get a website off the ground, especially in 2006. I’m writing a business memoir about Serious Eats.

MG: Oh, excellent.

EL: I’m most of the way through it now, but there’s a chapter that I titled, “It’s Gonna Be Great,” because that was the only thing I could tell would-be investors. Because there was nothing. I had no, “Oh, it’s just going to be like so and so.” It’s like, no. It’s just going to be great.

MG: What was there to compare it to?

EL: There was nothing to compare it to.

MG: But were you nevertheless able to entice these investors? Was, “It’s going to be great,” enough to get them to open up their pocketbooks?

EL: You know what, I will tell you something. I’m one of four boys too. I’m the youngest, and my oldest brother, who had adopted me when my parents died when I was a kid had been successful at many things, as an academic, as an airline executive. He said, “Well, I’d invest something if you brought me a business plan that could withstand my scrutiny,” which, of course, is a big deal with him. So I must’ve taken 50 business plans to him. Finally, one summer’s day in 2005, I guess it was … No, it was 2006. He said, “You know what, I don’t really understand what you’re talking about. I don’t really understand this. I have no idea if this is going to work. This is far off field from what I’ve done in my life,” and he’d done a lot of things in his life, right?

MG: Yeah.

EL: But he said, “You know what, I can tell how important this is to you, and so I’m going to do it.” That was it, and he was a very difficult man, and I love him to pieces, and we went through many ups and downs during Serious Eats’ independent tenure before we sold it. I realize as we’re talking about this that it was an act of kindness and generosity and love, because it was criminally irresponsible to actually expect somebody to put me up money for this.

MG: There’s no other way to interpret that act. There could be no more clear or potent act of love than to invest in a digital food venture.

EL: Right. It’s true.

MG: I mean, let’s be honest here.

EL: So how did you guys do it?

MG: From an investment standpoint, we started very, very small and very humbly. We self funded. We literally launched-

EL: So with savings.

MG: With savings. With savings, and we literally launched on Tumblr. For the first four or five months of existence, we were just a Tumblr.

EL: He was my first Chief Technology Officer.

MG: Oh, really?

EL: David Karp.

MG: I didn’t know this.

EL: Yes. It’s somehow been erased from his biography.

MG: Wow. That’s a huge piece, man.

EL: But it is true. Tumblr was developed for Serious Eats, and he said, “Look, I’m going to sell it to other verticals-“

MG: Come on.

EL: Yes.

MG: Oh, man.

EL: By the way, he was 18.

MG: Yeah. He was-

EL: And he did okay.

MG: … an impressive young man. Very impressive young man. We just thought, “Well, this thing is kind of new and shiny and interesting, and maybe we can hack this format some way.” The third co-founder was a lifelong friend of mine named Doug Hughmanick, who was a designer. We’re like, “Well, let’s just try this because it’s free and we don’t really know who or what we are quite yet.

The original idea was we were just going to travel around the world together and do these really concentrated reporting trips. So we started in Burma in 2011. This was when Hillary Clinton was traveling over there, Secretary of State, the first time an American diplomat had been there in 30 or 40 years. To us, it represented a place that had the perfect intersection of Roads & Kingdoms’ interests, geopolitics, incredible food that had been talked about very little in the mainstream because of Burma’s closed off stature in the global scale. It had interesting music, and it just felt like, “Let’s just spend 10 days on the ground, going every which direction, reporting our asses off, and see what we come up with.” That was the impetus. We did that. Later on, we went to Peru, then we went to Denmark, we went to South Africa. Very different places with very different DNA, but what they all shared in common was that kind of intersection.

EL: And you posted them on Tumblr.

MG: And we posted them on Tumblr, and we got like … We were just talking about this today, actually. We would get like two comments, and it would be one from Nathan’s mom and one from my mom.

EL: I know full well my brother was often the sole commenter on Ed Levine Eats, which was the precursor to Serious Eats.

MG: Amazing. It’s funny, because Nathan was up in … He was always doing the harder foreign correspondence stories. He was up in the north where a long civil war had been going on, reporting-

EL: In Burma.

MG: In Burma, and reporting on this on the ground, precarious circumstances, and he posted this beautiful piece about this conflict up there on Tumblr, which most people are posting 12-word sentences …

EL: … About Beyonce.

MG: Right. He posted this huge, long report from up there, and it gets one comment from my mom and it says, “Tell Matt to call me.” Are you kidding me? No. Is this where we’re going from? He gave up his job as international editor at Time Magazine, I gave up whatever I was doing, and here’s my mom, looking for me to call her on Tumblr.

EL: Were you paying yourselves salaries?

MG: At the beginning, no. We weren’t.

EL: Wow.

MG: We weren’t, and so we worked just looking to establish some kind of voice, some kind of position, in the media world that we thought was pretty unique at the time.

EL: It was, and it still is.

MG: We eventually moved out of Tumblr and founded an actual website and built it out, I think, in the spring of 2012. So we’re basically six years old now.

EL: You have some outside investors, right?

MG: Well, we have one.

EL: Just Tony?

MG: We have one outside investor. We were on one of these trips, in Denmark, actually. We were staying on a houseboat because it was the cheapest place to stay, right next to Noma. We’d spend a couple days with Noma in the kitchen, with Renee and those guys, and we’re still just wondering, “Who the hell is reading this stuff?” Our numbers are just infinitesimally small. It’s not possible to be getting less page views than we’re getting right now.

EL: I used to say the high two figures on a good day.

MG: Oh, man. Exactly. That’s what it felt like, and it was more or less like that. Honestly, we were reporting our asses off, like I said. We were writing some good pieces, but we had no idea who was reading us, if anyone, beyond this tiny little numbers we were looking at.

EL: And you had no web genius amidst your crew.

MG: Zero. Nothing. We had nothing. We’re were like, “Wait, what? SEO is a conference for basketball, for college basketball.”

EL: I hooked up early on with Adam Kuban and Meg Hourihan and Elena Brown, and many-

MG: You guys had it.

EL: Yeah, because I knew I know nothing.

MG: We knew we knew nothing, but we didn’t have the wherewithal to find someone who actually did know something. We just kept writing these 5,000-word narrative pieces about the most random convergence of culture and politics that we could find. But we woke up 1:00 in the morning on this houseboat after a long night out at Noma, and it was clear looking at my phone and Nathan looking at his, something was happening. The phone was literally pulsating or something. Open up the phone, and it turns out that Anthony Bourdain had just sent out a tweet. It was very simple, but it said, “These guys do consistently fine work.” It was just a link to the Roads & Kingdoms homepage, and that was it. At least in that moment in time, that was it.

EL: It was a game changer.

MG: It was. It was. For morale, obviously, it was an extraordinary dose of good vibes for us to know, “Okay, so he’s reading, and that means everything to us,” because obviously what we do shares a lot of DNA with Tony’s world and did from the beginning. Obviously, he’s been an inspiration from that perspective of using food to go deeper and deeper into cultures around the world. We kind of played it cool. What do you do with that information? You share it with the world, and then you move on, you keep doing your stuff. That’s what we did. We kept writing and reporting, and we started noticing … This is right when Tony made the jump over to CNN. In his first season on Parts Unknown, he went to, in sequence, basically, to Burma, to Peru, to Sicily, to South Africa, and to Denmark.

EL: This dude’s stealing our shit, man.

MG: I think he’s following us. He actually says it himself these days, so I’m not afraid to say that. So basically, I ended up in … Flash forward about a year, and I had just gotten married and I was in Japan on an extended honeymoon and I was falling deeply in love with this cuisine and my new wife in equal measure. I was just like, “You know, I really got to do something … I want to write something bigger than a series of articles.”

Before going there, I had been looking for a book. You know when you’re at the bookstore and you’re like, “I’m going to this place and I want some information, but I really want to just read a deep tale that’s going to help me connect and contextualize what I’m going to experience over there.” So what do you do normally? Well, if you’re going to go to Vietnam, maybe you get the Lonely Planet Vietnam and you buy Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. And you fuse these two things to get your culture and your information. I just thought, “Well, damn it. I just want one place where I could tell really great stories that give you information that’s useful, but more than anything, gives you the context to have a deeper experience.” I was in Hokkaido after a crazy day of eating, and I just sort of took a moonshot and wrote Tony an email. I had met him a few months before.

EL: This is before he’d invested.

MG: This is before he invested. This is before we had any … We had no contact whatsoever, but I had his email address and I’d just been holding that card for a while. I finally just said, “Hey, I think you know who we are. I really appreciate-

EL: The tweet?

MG: … the tweet. It was like six words, or whatever it was, like changed things for us, so thank you very much for that. By the way, I’m thinking about writing a book about Japan. This is the idea for the book. Thank you very much for your time and consideration, Mr. Bourdain.” Went to bed thinking, “Okay, well, I had to send it. That’s that.”

EL: That’s a Hail Mary there.

MG: Yeah, that’s a Hail Mary. It was. It was a Hail Mary, but by the time I’d woke up he had written a very thoughtful and lovely response that was basically, “Yes, but what else can we do? I want in, some way. How else can I be involved with you guys?” Of course, I was doing my end zone dance across the bed there in Hokkaido like, “Holy shit, this is extraordinary.” Tony came on as our first and only investor. I guess it would’ve been early 2014. Obviously, that is an extraordinary privilege to be able to be invited into that world and collaborate on ideas, both big and small.

EL: Yeah, and it’s a door opener in so many ways, obviously.

MG: Oh, and I got to say, there was never any conversation about, “Okay, what’s your guys’ business model? What’s your traffic look like? Can I see …”

EL: Fascinating.

MG: Nothing. It was really, “I love what you guys do, I trust the voice, I want to be a part of that. Let’s do it.”

EL: That was it.

MG: That was it.

EL: You know, that’s so interesting because a lot of people that I talked to would always say, “I love Serious Eats, but I really have to talk to my business manager,” because that’s the typical response of a well-known person who has made a lot of money who reaches out and says, “I like what you do.” Every time, by the way, I realized that’s a no.

MG: Right, yeah. I’ll get back to you. I’ll get back to you.

EL: “That just sounds really good. Can you just send some stuff to my financial advisors?” That’s a no.

MG: If Tony had a business guy that he turned to in these situations, it never would’ve happened. He would’ve been like, “You’re fucking crazy. These guys are going to bankrupt you, you know? Do not do this deal.” Thankfully, Tony has a really small team. It’s basically Tony. Of course, he works and collaborates with ZPZ and a lot of very smart people, but at the end of the day-

EL: Tony makes the call.

MG: … it’s Anthony Bourdain and that’s it. It’s unlike a lot of these other, like you mentioned, very large food personalities who have just massive teams that stretch on for blocks and blocks. It’s not that way.

EL: They all have people.

MG: They have people, people surrounded by people. You got to have people to talk to you about every little nuance of every conversation. That’s never been the way. It’s just been, “Guys, just keep doing what you’re doing. Now maybe I won’t be stealing from you. I’m actually just, we’re all kind of doing this together.”

EL: We’re collaborators.

MG: We’re collaborating. It as a remarkable change in fortune for us.

EL: That’s the only money you’ve had to take in?

MG: That’s it. That’s it.

EL: Are you close to self-sustaining?

MG: We are, we are. Knock on wood, 2018 looks to be a very good year for us. We will definitely be-

EL: Profitable?

MG: … a profitable company, imagine that. Along the way, we had all these kinds of soul-searching business moments that you had yourself for years and years, is, “Who are we trying to be? How do we monetize? How do we grow? Do we take an investment?” I think right after Tony came on, especially, it was like, “Now that we have the biggest fish in the sea, we can go get great money.” Because at that moment, this is in 2013, ’14, suddenly Silicon Valley was just throwing dump trucks of cash at people in the media industry.

EL: Right, and websites weren’t a four-letter word at the time.

MG: Right, exactly. There was this two- or three-year period where money was just falling from the sky. It would’ve been really easy to get money cheap at that moment, but we still just decided, “You know what, we don’t want that. We don’t want to invite someone else into this very small, abstract, perhaps unsuccessful in the long run party, but it’ll still be our party.”

EL: Yes, and you need that. One of the things that my brother used to say to me, he said, “No matter how desperate you get, Ed,” he said, “never sell too much of the company so that you and I do not own 51%.”

MG: That’s right, and that’s tremendous advice. Never say never, but in general we’ve taken on the posture that we want to continue to grow at the rate that our means allow us to. That means we’ve been lean for the better part of our history.

EL: You have like 10 full-time employees?

MG: About that right now.

EL: And you’re advertiser supported?

MG: We have a bit of advertising, but on roadsandkingdoms.com it’s kind of slim pickings. What we have right now, we have something with Trivago and some stuff like that. One of the things that really helped us, we’ve done some of the branded content work that everyone does, and that’s always a slice of the pie for the digital success.

But we came to CNN and basically said, “Listen, you guys have this massively successful show.” Tony at that point, after a couple seasons of Parts Unknown, was really one of the, especially with the hot age group, from 25 the 40, was the biggest thing they had going. And said, “But you guys have the most ugly godawful website, when this really could be an incredible digital entryway into his world. Let us work with you to build partsunknown.com.”

Unfortunately, partsunknown.com is owned by a coat seller in the Midwest that sells pantyhose and raincoats. For all the money in the world, they were not going to give away partsunknown.com. So we gave up on that and we found explorepartsunknown.com. But basically, we collaborated with CNN. It’s not part of cnn.com’s monolith. It’s an island out there, and it basically takes episode by episode, the parts of an experience and brings it … It takes the conversations that Tony starts on those shows and really picks them up and continues them.

EL: Do they pay you to develop that?

MG: Yeah. CNN has helped fund the development of that site, but we share ownership over it. It’s done really well. It was a no-brainer, because look at that intersection of Tony’s world. It’s attractive for advertising because it’s-

EL: Sure, and it gets you more scale than you had, certainly.

MG: A hell of a lot more scale. You have the massive CNN fire hose that, as soon as they turn that on, it just blasts everything that you’ve ever done out of the water in two minutes because it’s so huge. But it’s been, I think, both from an editorial standpoint and from a business standpoint, it’s been a really remarkable opportunity.

EL: Yeah. That’s amazing. Well, Matt, we’re going to have to leave it here in terms of part one of our interview, but since we haven’t gotten to your new book or your old books, we’re going to keep you here, hopefully not against your will, although we did lock the door, and we’re going to cover those topics on part two.

MG: Excellent. Look forward to it.

EL: So long, Serious Eaters. We’ll see you next time.


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