In October 2015, I went up to Montmartre to meet a local blogger for coffee. She was hiring an editorial assistant, and though my plate was already overflowing with commitments (not to mention I was merely a month in to grad school) I saw the opportunity and knew it would be a perfect match.
Needless to say, I had no idea on that day in Cuillier that I would meet someone who would change my life so significantly. We talked easily for an hour about everything from Snapchat to food media, an ease of conversation that evolved from co-working into friendship. In seeking opportunities for my future career, I met one of my dearest friends and biggest cheerleaders. She taught me how to chop parsley and didn’t fire me the day I accidentally bought an entire fish she had to filet herself and three whole bunches of celery instead of three stalks (oops). I’ve had the pleasure of cooking alongside her, writing alongside her, and venturing everywhere from Michelin-star restaurants to karaoke bars to chocolate factories with her. The New York Times wrote that she’s the Parisian friend you wish you had—but she’s a Parisian friend I know I’ll always have.
This friend is Clotilde Dusoulier, the food blogger behind Chocolate & Zucchini and author of several cookbooks. In 2015, I began working as her editorial assistant, and last month sat down with her for an informal informational interview before I left Paris, the transcript of which you’ll find below (edited for length). I hope you are able to learn even a fraction of what I did from her in this small snippet of conversation!
Additionally, if you understand French—or would like to—Clotilde is launching an inspiring podcast TODAY about techniques to improve your thoughts and change your life (I can attest to the effectiveness of her methods!). In the interview, you’ll definitely hear little notes that this is the next trajectory of her multi-faceted career.
And now, the interview!
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the past 13 years of blogging? (Clotilde has actually already blogged about this here.)
The biggest lesson that I’ve learned over 13 years of blogging is that the answers are within you. You can look at what others are doing and you can read up on what other people recommend as best practices and what strategies people say are working, but you really have to boil them down and digest them and apply them to what works for you, otherwise you’re going to be really scattered and going in a million different directions. It’s you, and it’s your business, it’s your career, it’s your job—the only relevant compass is your intuition and your feeling.
What do you think it takes to stick out in the blogging world today?
I think what works is providing massive value to readers, to overdeliver. It’s not just about posting that little recipe that you thought of, it’s really giving people information about the recipe, the ingredients, the dish, and the technique to invite them in. Be very generous with the teaching and the value you provide. Recipes are a dime a dozen, so that’s not what they come to you for. I think readers respond well to this idea that you are going all out to provide value. That doesn’t necessarily mean having a million videos, or a million photos or anything, but it’s a mindset when you find a subject that you want to talk about. It’s about the reader feeling, “Wow, it was really worth my time to stop by.” It’s this idea that you’re very generous with your content, that’s what makes people notice you and come back.
When did you feel comfortable enough to change career paths and start blogging full time?
It was in 2005, the impetus was I had signed a contract to write a book. I was just 26 at the time and I was thinking the advance for the book was a bit of money, not enough to live on and also produce a cookbook, but it was this lump of money that felt like permission. I also had some savings from my years as an engineer so I wasn’t starting out with nothing, and I couldn’t have worked on this book while working full time in an office.
I thought, if I’m going to be writing this book well, I need to devote myself to it. And I had a year to write the book and thought this is a nice, well-rounded, self-contained project that I can take a year off to work on, then if I don’t like it or if I don’t think I can make it work I can always go back to IT.
What was it like working as an Anglophone blogger and writer in France?
When I started out, it was like I had a secret. I was completely fine with the idea that most people didn’t understand what I was doing, didn’t know what a blog was, and many of them couldn’t read what I was writing. I was fine with it because I had such a connection through my blog to other like-minded bloggers. I think that’s the magic of the Internet—the biggest value to me of the Internet, to humankind—is that you can find your tribe. Even if you’re someone who doesn’t fit in at all in your real life community, having access to people who think like you through the Internet is huge.
The biggest value to me of the Internet, to humankind, is that you can find your tribe.
Even though I live in a country that’s pretty food-oriented, the conversation around food then wasn’t what it is today. In France we’ve had a lot of food television shows and food has become more of a trend, but back in 2003, wanting to talk about food all day was a little weird. I felt a little self-conscious about that, like is it normal that this is something I’m so passionate about when people think it’s just this thing that we do three times a day? I didn’t really need the people around me to “get” what I was doing, because I felt validated through my online connections that were so gratifying.
What is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of my job, I think, is that I feel very free. It’s the freedom for sure. It feels amazing to be free to organize my days, to choose the people that I work with, the topics I want to write about, the projects I want to take on, the timeline in which I want to work on them, what time I want to pick up my kids, etc. Of course I have constraints, I need to make a living and pay bills, but within those broad constraints, everything else is really up to me. I can decide to work all night or I can decide to not work on a Wednesday if I don’t feel like it.
This is something that you earn, I think, from putting in enough years and building that muscle of self-discipline to know what activities actually move the needle and what don’t. I have much more clarity now about the essence of what I do and what I need to be doing. It’s an ongoing thing because distractions keep coming in. It’s my intention everyday to focus on what’s essential, where I bring the most value, things that align with what I think I can contribute, and the ways that I can help people. I can’t be everything to everybody, so I work on refining that idea of what I can be and to whom and do that really well.
How do you stay focused while working from home?
I’ve always been a fairly self-disciplined person. In school, I was always very conscious of my duties and my obligations as a student, I wasn’t just doing n’importe quoi. It was kind of drilled into me by my parents, and the school system, and perhaps my inner temperament.
I think if you want things strongly enough and you’re super motivated to achieve something, it’s easier to keep these things at the forefront of your mind. If it’s not something that comes naturally, it helps to start the day by listing the three things you want to accomplish and just repeat them to yourself every time your mind wanders. My distraction is not so much doing other things, because I don’t watch Netflix in the middle of the day, but I can get sucked in to do stuff around the house, like do laundry or pick things up or tidy things.
I also sometimes getting sucked into distractions online. For the most part I’m not completely wasting my time because I might be interacting with people on social media or getting inspiration from things. But what I hate is when I get sucked into seeing some kind of conflict about some topic and I see someone posting about an issue and I’m like, oh, I wonder why they’re reacting so strongly and what do the other people say and what are the different points of view? All of the sudden you look up and it’s been half an hour. You just consume that bad energy of people being really argumentative, so now if I sense that I’m tempted to understand what people are fighting about, I’m like no, this is not what I do. This is not the energy that I want to be around. I just try to pull away as fast as I can, as fast as I am able to notice.
What advice would you give an entrepreneur who works in many different formats like you do?
I see the areas I work in as kind of an ecosystem, kind of feeding on each other. I feel like there’s a lot of kind of inspiration and ideas going from one sphere to another. I may, for instance, write about a topic for a magazine that sparks an idea for a blog post, then I talk about it during my tour. Because I talk about it on my tours, I know that when I write a book about Paris it’s something people are going to be interested in. If a company approaches me about consulting on that subject, I feel like I have really tested the idea, the concept, so it’s kind of like the blood stream circulating between different organs—I don’t know if that’s a very food friendly image.
I like the idea of “flow.” It’s not so much going wherever the wind blows, but it’s more that at any given point I feel pulled in one direction or another. Since I have this freedom to choose projects, why not just follow the project that excites me the most, with the added caveat that I don’t pick things up, work on them for three weeks and just leave them half-finished to work on some other shiny idea. I’ve gone through phases when there’s just so many things that I want to explore that I start in 20 different directions and I don’t have the energy or the work hours to follow through on all of them and it’s very frustrating. It’s energizing at first, but eventually it’s just frustrating because I haven’t actually accomplished anything. It’s just a matter of being aware of whether or not you have the time to follow through when you start new things. I try to do a good balance between following my flow and following my curiosity and my joy, but also putting things in place to make sure that I don’t just go all willy-nilly in all different directions.
Do you ever think of it as a hindrance to not have more formal culinary training?
Did you ever run into a situation where you needed it?
I did take that one year class, introduction to French cuisine with the Mairie de Paris. This was basically the training that young cooks go through when they’re 15/16.
I feel like it gave me a glimpse into what formal training is about. I feel like through this and a lot of reading (Clotilde’s book list can be found here), I know the basics of what formal, French cuisine is about. What I don’t have is the practice that I would get from just doing choux pastry over and over and over again, but I feel like since my audience is home cooks, I only need to be a little better of a home cook than they are. Not necessarily in general, but in specific areas, so I have things to teach them.
I started to cook in 2000, so I’ve been cooking on a daily basis for 17 years. I’ve been reading a lot. Between the practice and the theory, nothing really scares me. There’s nothing that you would tell me, “Do this,” and I would be like, “Oh no, I can’t.” I’m not saying that to be arrogant, it’s just that at the end of the day, to do something really well and restaurant quality—precisely, consistently—that is not what I know how to do. But if you give me a chef’s recipe and I have the equipment and I can take however much time I want, I can do a lot of things just from the combination of my basic skills. I’m not saying that you can serve it at the Plaza Athenée, but I feel like I know enough that I know how to learn and how to acquire skills that I need to acquire. The macaron for the book, for instance, I had to do several attempts, but after a few times I got it right. Sometimes things are harder, but I also know that I don’t get discouraged because it’s just a matter of technique. If you watch enough videos and take enough classes and ask enough questions, you’ll be able to do it eventually. It’s a pretty comfortable position to be in, because when I develop a recipe I know in my head how things are going to go. I can write a recipe and test it and have it come out—not necessarily exactly the way I want it, but it’s not going to be a total failure. I feel like that’s all I need in terms of professional training, is having that proficiency.
Mille mercis to Clotilde for taking the time to chat with me and teach me so much over the course of our work together. You can find her on the blog, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and of course, via her new podcast! Go take a listen and report back 🙂