Before I ever met food writer Kim Severson, I wanted to hate her.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not normally a hater. Not at all.
But imagine two athletes playing the same position, yet on opposing teams. There’s just a natural rivalry that develops.
That’s what I felt initially for Kim, now a New York Times food journalist, who years ago, was a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, when I was the same for the competition, the San Jose Mercury News.
She started her career as a hard news reporter, before switching to food writing. I had done the same. I’d turn up to events, only to find her there, too. I’d finish writing a story, only to find she’d just done a similar one — often far better, too. I’d be nominated for a writing award, only to find out she was up for two of them in the same competition.
That’s why I wanted to hate Kim Severson.
That is, until I actually met her, of course.
Because I ended up liking her immensely from the get-go.
When you compete head-to-head with someone on a pressure-packed field, there’s a tendency to build them up in your mind into something that they’re not. It’s a great motivator that propels you onward to try to beat or surpass them. But then reality sets in, and you realize that what you truly feel for this person is not envy or hatred, but the utmost admiration.
And that’s really what I felt for Kim from the moment I first laid eyes on her byline. The woman can flat-out write. She can turn a phrase like no one else, bringing you to tears one moment, and sending you into convulsions of laughter the next. That’s no more evident than in her new autobiographical book, “Spoon Fed” (Riverhead Books), a brave, revealing look at one of the nation’s most gifted food writers and the iconic female cooks who taught her valuable lessons along the way.
As I turned the pages, it was stunning to realize that Kim, whose talents strike fear in so many other food writers like myself, was herself so full of self-doubt and anxieties about her own abilities. Worse yet, she wrestled with all that while battling alcoholism when living in one of the premier wine capitals of the world — Northern California.
Even if you’ve never been fortunate enough to meet Kim in person, you come away from her book with so much respect for a woman who is ballsy, smart, resilient and generous of spirit.
We never talked about how our respective jobs made us natural competitors. It was left unsaid. And I’m sure it was mostly my own insecurities at play, as I was the underdog, working for the smaller newspaper, to her alpha queen, the star of one of the premier food sections in the country.
When I was nominated for a James Beard Foundation award in 2002, I was a nervous wreck just before the grand ceremony in New York, where a who’s who of food writers and editors gathered in anticipation for what’s considered the Oscars of the culinary world.
When I wondered what I was doing there and thought I had no chance in the world, it was Kim who walked over to me before the ceremony, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “This is YOUR night. I can feel it!” When my name was actually announced as a winner, and I somehow made it back from the stage to my seat on wobbly legs and a mind in a total daze, it was Kim who ran over to me first to throw her arms around me in a big congratulatory hug.
Two years later, when I called to wish her much success in her new job as she departed San Francisco for the New York Times, it was Kim who was the one to finally broach the aspect of our relationship never mentioned before. In her usual sincere, matter-of-fact way, she said of our years working against one another, “We pushed each other to do our best.”
And that’s the highest honor you can ask of any rivalry or friendship.
Meet Kim for yourself when she does a book-signing tonight at 6 pm. at Omnivore Books in San Francisco.
Join her May 18 at 6:30 p.m., when the New York Times brings its “TimesTalks” series to the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco. Kim will be part of a panel discussion, “The Way We Eat,” with Chef Traci des Jardins of Jardiniere in San Francisco, Chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Yountville, and Chef Michael Mina of Michael Mina Restaurant in San Francisco. Tickets are $20.
Whatever you do, pick up a copy of “Spoon Fed” and get to know one extraordinary woman and writer, whose words will continue to nourish you long after the last page is turned.