Michelle Dunner is a former journalist, now financing her food and travel habit as a marketer. She travels internationally from her home base in Melbourne, Australia around four times a year and blogs as 'Greedy Girl' - greedy for new experiences around the world. She never leaves home without her appetite, sense of humor and running shoes.
I think any Australian grows up being curious about the world that's out there, we're a nation of travelers. My heritage is British and Italian so I gravitated to Europe very early on and I haven't stopped. I haven't always been a foodie though - I didn't even eat cheese until I was 23. Traveling turned me on to food.
–How did you get started? Is it just a hobby or something more? Where do you see your work in 5 years?
My husband Barry is a great cook. We started going to top restaurants and whenever we really enjoyed a dish, we'd try to work out how it was prepared. The blog came about after our first trip to New York City. We'd had some amazing experiences at restaurants like Per Se, Le Bernadin and Eleven Madison Park. One of us would remember a particular dish but not any of the details.
When we embarked on two months of eating through Europe in 2012, I started to blog just so we could have something to refer back to and some links to send my friends. I started my working life as a journalist so I also wrote a bit about the stories behind the experiences, such as the chefs, the local produce and the heritage.
Inside a year it was attracting around 7,000 visitors a month. My day job is in marketing but my blog is growing so quickly I find I'm devoting more and more time to it and working out ways of taking it further. My main readers are in the US, Australia, the UK and Singapore but I included a translation tag on the site to make it easy for anyone to access it. I've had readers everywhere from Azerbaijan to Ukraine and I'm slightly addicted to looking at the audience stats. I try to incorporate a little humor into what I write so I'm not sure how that might translate into Japanese, for example, but I'm wondering if my audience is more likely to be expats living in some of these far-flung places.
Looking at other foodie blogs, I definitely skew towards more words than pictures, although the arrival of my iPhone 5 last Christmas with its much better camera has helped with photography considerably. In five years? The only thing I can guarantee is that I'll still be traveling, discovering, eating and writing. I'd love to be doing it full time and my goal is to work out how to achieve that.
–Do you focus your destinations around the foods you want to experience and write about? What’s your favorite and least favorite? And why?
If I'm choosing where to go, as opposed to being sent somewhere for work, the ability to find a new, interesting and good food experience is the ultimate factor - much more than scenery, art, history or adventure. I'll talk about my favorites in a moment but the destination that has most surprised me in recent years is London (and the UK more generally). I lived there for a time and went back about six years ago after a long absence. It was hard on both occasions to find good food (apart from Indian cuisine) that didn't require a bank loan. Now, the food culture is incredible. The celebrity chef phenomenon has transformed British dining. As I write I'm in Bray, just north of Heathrow airport, home to the famed Fat Duck and probably the biggest number of Michelin stars per square foot in the world. When I lived in the UK and headed to a pub I'd be lucky to get a Ploughman's lunch or a toastie - many have now been reborn as gastropubs with accomplished and inventive cooking on offer. It's a great way for travelers (and any picky eaters) to 'dip their fork' into something a little more adventurous and potentially less confronting.
My favorite destination for food is, without doubt, Singapore. This is home to an incredible variety of dishes in almost every style and just about every price point. You can go local with frog leg congee or chili crab, or go right to the top for an incredibly refined, exciting and challenging French-Asian fusion fine dining. Both my cheapest and most expensive meals while traveling have been in Singapore. I visited Tokyo earlier this year and was absolutely blown away by the food. I've never been a huge fish eater and the way it was prepared and presented in Japan was a real eye-opener.
My least favorite? That's hard. I think if you do your research you can find a good food experience anywhere. The trick is to avoid tourist traps. Prague's old town was a potential disaster. The restaurants in the square served heavy, greasy dishes of things like pork knuckle that tourists lapped up as 'traditional' Czech fare. Our rule of thumb is, where you have good food, you're likely to get a recommendation for where to find other good food. Where we have a great experience, we always chat to the servers to discover where they'd eat if they were traveling. In Stockholm last year I got a recommendation for a place in Budapest. From Budapest, we were directed to somewhere in Prague. Networking is the key!
–I enjoy trying new foods as much as the next person, but there are somethings I have major issues with... It can be because of the smell or the look or the texture, it really just depends. What’s some advice for the more picky-eating traveler?
I was in Argentina a while back on a sports tour. One day the other journalists and I went to lunch. Argentina is big on meat and two of the guys ordered a mixed grill. They started off by eating what they could recognize and then it got trickier. One looked like a spring out of a piece of machinery - I think it was actually intestine. The dish didn't have any sauces or sides to help mask the flavor. Both of them immediately spat it out and I fell on the floor, laughing.
What constitutes 'good' is up to the individual but food is such a key part of experiencing other cultures - it seems a waste, to me, to travel the world eating nothing but burgers and fries. I was at Joel Robuchon in Paris last year where a young American guy saw a plate of fries being taken to a child. He immediately asked for some and they arrived as a side dish to a beautiful quail leg and breast stuffed with foie gras. If you're investing in fine dining (because it's not cheap anywhere) you really should try to give the chef the benefit of the doubt. They prepare intricate dishes for a reason - the elements are all designed to work together. Having said that, I'm no different from anyone in that there are foods I just don't like. One is pineapple - particularly where it's used in a savory context. It just overwhelms everything else on the plate. I've tried it, at the hands of some of the world's best chefs, and it's never worked for me.
Any restaurant worth dining in will ask you about your preferences as well as any allergies or intolerances and work with you to create something you're going to enjoy. My advice to picky eaters is 'choose wisely'. If you don't like fish, don't go to a sushi restaurant in Tokyo expecting the chef to whip you up a teriyaki beef. This year, I ate (and enjoyed) things I never thought I would, sashimi sardines and soup made with 'Ishiri' sauce - made from squid intestines. Sometimes when you travel, you can't understand the description of what you're eating and that can work in your favor. If I'd known in advance I was eating squid intestine I may not have been as bold.
–What was something that really deterred you from eating? Was there anything you just couldn’t handle eating? What was the most exotic dish you’ve had? Have you ever eaten anything that you would consider a ‘pet’?
On my first trip overseas, I was guest of honor at a banquet in Hong Kong. The first course I thought was a type of noodle. It was transparent, slimy and very hard to pick up with chopsticks. I finally got one in my mouth and it was putrid. It turned out to be jellyfish. I've never tried it again. Smell is a key factor - if the aroma isn't good, it's very hard for me to get a fork past my lips.
Exotic? I've eaten sea urchin and sea cucumber (the former is quite delicious in the hands of a good chef, the latter not something I'd put my hand up for again), the 'Ishiri' sauce I've mentioned above was also pretty out there. I've had my share of offal, frog's legs, snails, even crocodile. I've seen people eat grubs and insects. Apparently Copenhagen's Noma has a dish of live ants with a dab of creme fraiche. Would I try that? Yes, but I'd probably rather not think about the description while I did it.
I've been to Korea and although I can't be sure I didn't eat dog, I think it's unlikely. That's the closest thing that could be a pet although, as a proud Australian, I've eaten both animals on our national coat-of-arms - kangaroo and emu. They're both delicious. I often think Australians must be the only country in the world that eats its national symbols.
–I’m sure loads of people out there would absolutely love their career to consist of traveling and eating everything in sight – so could you give some advice and need-to-know’s for those looking to start a travel food blog?
A blog is a personal opinion so you need to be prepared that other people may not share your views. I've had a few emails from people telling me their experience of somewhere I've blogged about was completely different - i.e., not good. That's the reality of food - we all have different tastes. If you're going to put yourself out there in cyberspace don't be fazed by negative reactions.
Your travel food blog should be about something that fires your passions - that's what you'll communicate through your words and pictures. If your passion is seeking out the very best burger wherever you go, then go for it. A travel food blog doesn't have to be full of exotica or high-price tag meals. Whatever floats your boat is likely to be something other people also enjoy. My passion is fine food - sometimes I find that in a market stall or, in Prague last year, in a perfectly-executed plate of truffle pasta in a neighborhood deli. Sometimes my husband and I find that in a restaurant where the experience, including wine, doesn't give us much change from $1,000.
If you're looking to develop something you can turn into a career, start out smart. Have a clear voice - make sure people know immediately what you're about. If you want to deviate from that as you go on, perhaps use a different channel (such as starting a different blog or using Facebook or Linked In) rather than confuse your reader and potentially alienate the audience you've attracted.
I incorporate travel tips in my blog, such as choosing a hotel over a home stay, or how to make easy airport transfers because the quality of your visit somewhere isn't just about the food. No-one likes getting ripped off in taxis or not being able to sleep because the hotel faces on to Times Square.
Don't try to be too clever, particularly with your headlines. I get a lot of traffic out of Google searches and that's because I use words in the headline that people would normally search for. My most popular post is a guide to cooking pork belly sous vide at home. Put 'pork belly sous vide' into Google and my blog comes up on the first page of results.
The key to blogging is consistency. Keep your blog ticking over. Remember your audience is worldwide so experiences in your hometown also count as 'travel' because you'll always have readers from far-flung places.
–Success comes in different forms and it’s defined differently for each person. What do you consider the most successful part of what you do in food blogging? What do you wish you could do better?
Whenever I can, I like to tell the backstory. Some of my readers have told me they've felt like 'they were there' by reading a particular post. That's a huge compliment. Getting the backstory can be tricky - and it's often down to how much time you can devote to research and what kind of relationship you can develop with your server during a restaurant visit. Staying with locals when you travel also helps enormously - you pick their brains and it adds so much to what you write.
My food photography has been a fairly recent development that I'm getting into more and more. Some plates truly are works of art and I'd like to be able to do them justice. I know chefs are getting more tetchy about blogger pictures because some of them make the food look absolutely dreadful - I'm as guilty of that as the next blogger, particularly when the restaurant is dark. I try not to use flash as I don't want to 'advertise' that I'm blogging and I don't want to disturb other diners. I'm investigating other ways of taking low-light pictures to try to get a better result.
–Do you ever write your own recipes and share them? If so, could you tell my readers a little about what inspires you in your cooking?
My husband's the cook - I'm more of a 'creative consultant'. That was the reason we started the blog. I'd wax lyrical about what we'd eat and he'd try to recreate. We're also addicted to TV cooking shows and cook books. There are times, though, where the dishes we make at home aren't quite right and make changes. I've started to post a few recipes on the blog, explaining how they vary from traditional methods or recipes and how they can be further 'customized'. That's what I love about food. Apart from the actual science around preparing certain things, you can basically try anything. I'm sharing this more and more. We're obsessed at the moment with 'sous vide' - this is a technique of cooking vacuum-sealed foods in a temperature-controlled water bath for long periods. It's particularly good for meats and vegetables, retaining all the flavor and nutrients and a technique used widely in top restaurants. The home set up is relatively compact and (depending where you live) quite affordable.
–Lastly, could you finish my offering up some words of wisdom. Random or whimsical is encouraged. Anything from cooking or travel tips, or even random words of wisdom...
Life's short, so live. Give most things a chance - and the good things more than one!