Elettra Wiedemann, photo by Drew Wiedemann
Food writer and cookbook author Elettra Weidemann sounds off on the best advice she’s ever received (care of her mother, Isabella Rossellini, and Sheryl Sandberg) and the empowering nature of honesty.
By Emily Ramshaw
“I always just say I’m a writer and editor—that seems to be what people understand. I find it hard to give myself a job title. I create content for myself and for lots of other companies, whether it’s writing something for them or coming up with show ideas or speeches or podcast ideas. I’m always researching and reading a writing and trying to keep my fingers on the pulse in terms of what the conversations really are below the noise, so that I can extract meaningful and relevant information.”
Impatient Foodie is your baby (besides the baby you’re about to give birth to, of course!). What gave you the inspiration to start a food blog about slow food for urban life?
“I was modeling for 10 years and while I was modeling I got my Masters degree at the London School of Economics in Biomedicine, and I ended up focusing a lot of my energy on research for my dissertation, which talked about the future of feeding urban populations in light of climate change. When I came back from school, I had all these high-minded ideals about how I was going to eat and how my food, shopping and eating habits were going to be my little contribution to all these issues that I cared about. But, of course, as soon as I stepped away from real life and into my responsibilities, all of that really fell apart. At the time there was Buzzfeed, which was still doing the potato in the microwave for dinner tutorials, which didn’t make me want to eat, and then there was Bon Appétit, which was beautiful and luscious, but each recipe had a thousand ingredients that were hard to find and expensive and their recipes always took forever. I couldn’t find a website that was tailored to my interests—I really wanted to participate in slow food, but my life isn’t food, I don’t get paid to cook, and I need to be somewhat practical. So I launched Impatient Foodie as a way to marry the ideals of the slow food movement with the realities of fast-paced urban life. At the time I was living in a one-bedroom apartment with a teeny-tiny kitchen and a refrigerator that was the size of a gym locker. There wasn’t any website out there for people like me. I launched it thinking it would be a fun thing to do and now, four years later, it’s my full time job.”
What has come out of Impatient Foodie that surprised you?
“The first thing that I never expected to happen to me was that within three weeks of launching it, I got a book deal—my first book came out this past June. Another thing that I never expected to happen to me was to become an editor, and within six months of launching Impatient Foodie, I was the head of Refinery29’s Food and Drink vertical, helping them with the launch, creating and cultivating a team and a point of view. And the third thing I never expected to do was to be called up by Oprah and invited to talk at one of her events, and that happened this past summer. It’s been a pretty topsy-turvy journey and it’s brought me incredible gifts. I’m so honored.”
Sometimes I think when these things we get such joy out of become our jobs, we lose some of the fun. Have you been able to hold onto it?
“To be totally honest, I was very lucky in that from age 19 to 30 I was working a lot as a fashion model, so it set me up to be in a financial position where now, of course I still have to make a living, but I consider Impatient Foodie my ideas portfolio. I don’t have advertisers on my site and I don’t do sponsored posts. The reason for that is that even investigating those types of things will lead to the soul of Impatient Foodie being compromised, and that’s not something I’m ready to do. I can pick and choose. In that way I think my passion is still very pure. Do I love it every single day? Have I had incredibly hard moments where I hate it and want to shut it down and feel like it’s a failure? Yeah, all of those things. If you’re a person in the world—especially writers—you have an incredibly complex relationship with your own work. Sometimes I hate it, and sometimes I love it. But I’ve been spared from a lot stresses that can come from advertisers.”
What has been the most rewarding part?
“Impatient Foodie is something that I built and created on my own. When you’re modeling you’re at the mercy of other people’s decisions—you’re not that involved beyond showing up on set and making the day happen for everyone else. I went from that, to somebody who is, at this moment, retouching photos for a book that I shot myself, and formatting and paginating it—I’m doing projects completely on my own grit and gut. Again, sometimes it drives me insane, and looking at spacing issues on book pages makes me want to cry, but ultimately I come away with products that I built from nothing into something, and I know how to do it every single step of the way now, and I feel really proud of that. It’s not something that young people are necessarily taught. There was a really steep learning curve with me in just figuring out how to DIY literally all of these things from step one to making it an actual thing. I had people giving me advice and showing me things along the way, but it was a piecemeal operation, and I’m really grateful to have figured it all out after four years.”
What were some obstacles that you encountered along the way?
“I’m really happy that Refinery29 approached me and that I said yes to the opportunity even though I felt totally intimidated by it at the time. I’m really grateful that they came into my life at the time that they did because working with that company and working with Mikki Halpin and Christene Barberich, they were such incredible sources of mentorship. Having a marketing team like Refinery29’s marketing team at your fingertips was amazing. I’d have to humble myself and go to them—they’d send me reports weekly about traffic goals and SEO—I’d have to book a meeting and be like, ‘I don’t even know what the first word of your report means. Can you please walk me through it as if I’m four years old.’ And that was kind of embarrassing sometimes because everyone at Refinery29 is super fluent in the internet. But it taught me so much about my own site. My goal isn’t to become a super viral food blogger but it taught me about how the internet works and what SEO is and how Google spiders crawl the internet and why that’s important—all these things that I never would have known. I’m really grateful to Refinery for giving me a two-year sink-or-swim apprenticeship, where I learned a lot, made a lot of connections, met great people. I had a very intense education in a lot of things that I think are essential to know in today’s world.”
Is there any advice that you’ve been given by mentors inside or outside of work that you return to again and again?
“My mom said this to me for a long time, but I think the first time I paid attention to it was when I read it in Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, which I had just finished reading when Refinery29 approached me. Sheryl Sandberg’s advice was, if an opportunity comes to your front door and you have no idea how to do it and you feel unqualified, just shut up and do it. Just say yes because you’ll figure it out. That’s one way women hold themselves back in the work place. They go to this emotional place where they think they’re not qualified and that someone out there is better, but a lot of guys don’t do that: they might think they’re not qualified, but they do it anyway. And then they get the promotion or the big job or the salary. Whenever I am asked to speak to a group of young women or give advice to a teenage girl, I tell them to say yes to everything. Even if it feels like a not great opportunity at the moment or not a right fit, you don’t know what you’re going to gain from a specific work experience or relationship until you do it. Nothing in life is permanent, if it’s horrible the job will end or you can quit, but just say yes and see what comes of it. Especially in today’s world, everything is made on networks and connections, and the more connections and relationships you can cultivate, the better you are in the long term.”
Is there an issue or something going on in the world that feels really important to you right now?
“Because I’m pregnant with my first baby, I find myself waking up in the middle of the night thinking about the changing climate and pollution. It’s something that’s kept me awake since I was a small kid, but I think now that I’m pregnant it’s even more visceral terror. I don’t know what the solution is, but I’m trying to transition my house to solar and eat less meat and not use toxic chemicals when I wash my clothes—I try as much as I can to make tiny edits that I hope over the course of my lifetime will amount to something. When I’m feeling extra hopeless, I try to think about the fact that my actions aren’t in their own isolated silo, but imagine that maybe a million other people in New York City are having that thought today and maybe they’re making changes too. I try to hold onto those hopes.”
What are you currently watching, reading and listening to these days?
“I really only watch reruns of The Office because we don’t have cable. So every night to wind down The Office is on. Otherwise I’m looking to a lot of podcasts. My favorite podcast of all time is On Point with Tom Ashbrook on WBUR, which is an NPR station in Boston. I listen to him every day. I love Intelligence Squared on NPR, where two really interesting people debate a specific question, and then the audience gets to vote and whoever swayed more of the audience wins—it’s a really great way to learn both sides of an issue, everything from gerrymandering to Walmart wages. It helps you to get away from the media’s hysterical noise and listen to experts on both sides of the issue. When I’m looking for something a little less political, I love Esther Perel’s new podcast Where Should We Begin? I think she’s so smart and cool, and in this podcast, you get to sit in on someone else’s marital counseling session and it’s super interesting to hear what other couples are going through and how they relate to your own relationship or don’t. The way that she untangles people’s problems is so inspiring.”
Who in your life is a woman of empowerment? Who inspires you?
“There are so many. Mikki Halpin and Christene Barberich have taught me so much about writing and editing—and Mikki has been so helpful in teaching about local political issues and how to take action on them. My mom is a very strong woman who’s always taught me to only rely on myself, especially professionally. And I know it sounds so lame, but I hung out with Oprah on her cruise this summer and she’s amazing! I was invited to be a speaker on her cruise this summer and got to spend some time around her with the other speakers, and she’s such an incredibly smart, fun, empathetic, driven, cool, hilarious person. I really admire everything she’s done in her life and how she frames everything. I came away from that cruise thinking, ‘Wow, Oprah’s the woman.’”
How would you describe yourself as a woman of empowerment? How do you think you inspire people?
“I don’t know if I inspire people that much. But one thing that I do is I’m just very honest with people about where I am and what’s going on in my life. If I have any appeal it comes from a place of not ever trying to be aspirational or put the Vogue version of my life on Instagram. I’m always very honest about hating cooking sometimes. I was walking with my friend in the park who runs a food company and we were talking about how hard it is to be a freelancer and find good money, and I was very honest about how I struggle with that too—it’s really hard to monetize your time and talent—and it opened up this big conversation. She texted me later saying that our conversation made her feel so much better because she had felt so alone. And I have had people say that to me a lot. I don’t know if I’m inspiring—I’m definitely not an Oprah—but I think that relatability can be empowering. Every day I wake up not knowing how I’m going to make it work, but you figure it out, and I think most people feel like that. But on social media, because everything’s so polished, it looks like people have it so together and every relationship is so perfect and happy. I don’t believe in perpetuating that—I think it’s harmful to myself and to others. I have a young teenage sister and I don’t want her to think that if she’s an entrepreneur that it’s going to be easy—that’s a disservice to her and her self-esteem and her future and her resilience. I just always want to be very plain about that stuff.”
My mission is…with Impatient Foodie, I consider myself a stepping stone to bigger things. I think that there are a lot of people out there who love the idea of food and getting in the kitchen, but they haven’t been taught what to do or how to do it, and there aren’t many spaces for them to go. When I launched I really wanted to be the place where somebody who’s graduating from college and is moving into their first apartment can come to learn skills and be comfortable in the kitchen. So they can become the Bon Appetit subscriber or read the New York Times Food section and understand. I want to be a stepping-stone—that’s a very happy place for me. I don’t need to be the next Michael Pollan or Mark Bittman or Alice Waters, but if I can be a stepping-stone to get you interested in what those people are saying or get you active or make you feel confident to pick up tools in the kitchen and go to farmer’s markets and navigate with confidence… if I did that for enough people, I could die tomorrow and feel like I did something significant.”