Leanne Clancey, freelance restaurant critic and food writer

Leanne Clancey, freelance restaurant critic and food writer
"Working as a freelancer is not for the faint-hearted. Like most freelance creatives that I know, I’ve had plenty of teary meltdowns and a lot of trying times because of the fairly constant uncertainty." Restaurant critic and food writer Leanne Clancey tells Christine Byllaardt about the challenges of the job.

How did you go from small town Warrnambool girl to travelling and writing about food for publications such as SBS Feast Magazine?

I left Warrnambool when I was 19 and I came to Melbourne to study sound engineering. As a teenager I had my own radio show and I used to produce a little magazine, so I was always interested in doing things for myself and in my own way. I worked in the TV/film industry for a little while, but while I was studying I needed to pay the rent, so I started working in restaurants, and then I got totally hooked. My first job was with Greg Malouf at O’Connell’s in South Melbourne. I was 20 and working with someone like Greg was a huge eye opener. He’s been very influential for me. I come from a family of passionate foodies, which certainly laid the foundations for my interest in food. I’ve spent the best part of 15 years travelling the world and everywhere I go it’s always about the food and wine. It took a while to come a full circle and start writing about food, which was only really in the last six or seven years; but now the whole journey makes complete sense.

So you started writing… how did you transition into that from hospitality?

 There were a few years in between where I went from working in restaurants into roles where I was doing projects and events in universities. I did that for about five years and it gave me the space (and income) that I needed to start writing on the side. I started very gradually, freelancing for a few different publications; it meant that I didn’t have to rely on writing as an income, which can be a difficult thing. It’s tough to make a decent living out freelancing, especially in the first couple of years. While I was still working full-time I just got out there and did heaps of stuff [for Broadsheet, Epicure and The Age Good Food Guide, but for very little money. Because I had my money coming in from my day job I just crammed as much freelance work (and blogging) as possible into my spare time to get the experience and the skills.

What were the biggest challenges you faced?

The challenges of surviving in the industry never really go away, even at the level I’m at now. It’s a constant hustle to stay busy, stay published and stay relevant. Luckily I can now supplement my income by writing content for business clients. If you want to be a food and travel writer, the biggest challenge is making enough money to survive, because unless you have a regular column or an established relationship with a bunch of publications, that’s really, really hard. You will probably need to have a day job (like I did) or someone to help you out financially while you get started (which I didn’t!). The second point is that this area of journalism is hugely competitive. This means that nothing is ever handed to you. You constantly have to be ‘on’… you need to have an intimate understanding of the industry globally, as well as locally, to have that edge against your competitors.

How did you survive the stress of journalism?

Some days I question whether I actually have! It’s certainly been a massive rollercoaster. Working as a freelancer is not for the faint-hearted. Like most freelance creatives that I know, I’ve had plenty of teary meltdowns and a lot of trying times because of the fairly constant uncertainty. With freelance life, unless you have a part-time job, a weekly column or regular clients for business work, there’s no real safety net. There’s no reliable source of income that’s going to cover your rent every week, you’ve got to make that happen for yourself. And when you’re trying to make that happen and you’re getting ‘no’s from editors on story pitches, or if it’s just generally a quiet time… that can be absolutely terrifying, quite frankly.

How does a young reporter break into the industry today?

Work hard – just do it, just go for it. Don’t wait for anything. My key word when I first started out was ‘action’. You just need to get off your butt, do the work and make stuff happen. Don’t wait for opportunities, try and look for them, create them yourself. Have the conversations, meet the people, go to the places; see what you can find out. And don’t be afraid to put your work out there. The best way to do that is by starting a blog. You can make your mistakes, find your voice and do it in your own time without too much pressure. Be tenacious, be persistent and have faith.