During a time when everyone, iPhone in hand, meticulously documents his or her meal wherever they go – because nothing actually happened if you didn’t snap a photo of it – the incredible volume of food bloggers has become “oversaturated.” We had the pleasure of chatting with well-known and long-time anonymous restaurant blogger, The Ulterior Epicure, now known as Bonjwing Lee. We talked about why he revealed his identity (stalkers are involved), what role he plays in the culinary scene, and how he continues to set himself apart from everyone else.
Just a few years ago, Bonjwing quit his job at a law firm and finally revealed his identity to the world. Since then, he’s turned hobby into profession and continues traveling the world in search of the next best dish, experience, and destination.
Where are you now, and where are you headed?
I’m somewhere in the Swedish countryside on a high-speed train. Stockholm is behind me, and Copenhagen – one of my favorite cities – is before me. This is my fifth trip to the Danish capital in a year.
Can you tell us a bit about what projects you’re working on now?
Sure. I’m actually in Scandinavia right now for a project that I’ve been working on with Christopher Haatuft. He’s the chef at Lysverket in Bergen, Norway. Every two months he hosts a weekend cultural exchange with a chef from another country. I’ve been collaborating on this project with him for the past year and a half; it’s incredibly educational for all involved.
More immediately, I’m editing a few pieces for publications. I’m spending my time on this train finishing an article I photographed and am writing for a major U.S. food magazine. As I am doing that, my friend Elyssa Goldberg is emailing me the first drafts for the fourth issue of Drift, a magazine about coffee culture, and the second issue of Ambrosia, a magazine about regional cuisine. Both magazines were started by Elyssa’s brother Adam and his girlfriend Daniela Velasco. They’re close friends of mine, and all of them are extremely passionate and talented. The four of us comprise the publishing team for the two magazines; I’m the copyeditor.
I have a few photography commitments coming up this year, including a four-part, charity dinner series hosted by my friend Gavin Kaysen at his restaurant Spoon & Stable, in Minneapolis. And it looks likely that I’ll be pulled into a couple of cookbook projects too – photography, and possibly writing as well.
And who knows what other exciting adventures await – it’s the best part of being a free agent.
What made you decide to reveal your identity a few years ago?
It was time. But the decision was actually a spontaneous one. I was being interviewed by Eater, and at the end of my conversation with Gabe Ulla – then a staff writer for the website – he half-joking asked if he could put my name on it; he was essentially asking to out me. I was on my mobile, sitting in my hotel room in Germany, getting ready for dinner. And I remember hearing Gabe’s surprise through the long-distance crackle when I agreed. I agreed for a number of reasons. First, I had left the law firm earlier that year – that job was a big part of why I remained anonymous as long as I did. Second, by then, my veil was growing thin. Chefs and industry insiders – like the editors at Eater – were beginning to uncover me. To their credit, most respected my privacy, and to this day, I thank them for it. Lastly, those who didn’t respect my privacy were the ones who gave me the biggest motivation to go public. By that time, I had managed to collect quite a following of stalkers. I know it sounds nuts, but my blog brought all manner of crazy to my doorstep – people tried to blackmail me with my identity, and I even got death threats. So, by outing myself on Eater, I took away the one weapon they had against me – my identity. And in this way, I got to come out on my own terms. Anonymity is a strange thing. You think it protects. But sadly, in my case, it had the opposite effect. I know quite a few highly visible bloggers – all of whom are open with their identity. And none of them have had problems with stalkers the way I did.
How have things changed since then?
The best thing about going public with my identity is that it has allowed me to make personal connections. For most of the seven years that I blogged anonymously, I guarded my identity fiercely. And that forced me into seclusion, almost in an extreme way. I didn’t associate with other bloggers or writers, and I avoided restaurant industry professionals. I’m sure people thought I was a pretentious asshole. But I didn’t care. I wasn’t writing about food or restaurants for friends, or status, or popularity. I was writing and documenting it for myself. But since I’ve gone public, I’ve actually found some of my closest friends in the restaurant industry. It’s not surprising, of course, since we all share a common interest and love. It has also allowed me to create an unexpected, niche career as a freelance writer and photographer.
On the other hand, I do miss those days of anonymity. Integrity is everything to me. And maintaining that integrity was far easier as an anonymous blogger.
What I miss more, however, is the time I had to write my own blog. My travel schedule in the past five years has been so insane that I’ve not had very much time to do the one thing I loved doing the most – write my blog.
You don’t consider yourself a food critic. What role do you think you play in the culinary scene?
It’s a subject about which I have thought a lot, and yet it is a subject about which I have never had the opportunity to speak. So, I’m glad you asked.
Although I do write critically about food and restaurants, I don’t claim to be a critic in any formal or journalistic sense of that word. However, I do think that many of my readers, and people who follow me on social media, treat me as a restaurant critic, in so much as they use my evaluations and opinions to help determine where they should and shouldn’t eat.
As for the role that I play on the culinary scene, I think it has changed a lot over the 12 years that I’ve been blogging. I created my blog as a way to combine the four things I love the most: writing, photography, food, and travel. It was, and still is to this day, a personal journal about my relationship with food and, to a lesser but growing degree, my relationship with the world. It was created as a personal log – only for myself – so I never expected anyone to want to read it. But, a decade ago, chefs didn’t travel like they do now, and the internet wasn’t flooded with pictures and reports about restaurant meals. So, when chefs turned to the internet for information, they found me – my online index of notes and photos from restaurants all over the world. Back then, I think my readers considered me a field reporter, and somewhat of a documentarian. For chefs, I offered a glimpse into kitchens outside of their own – you have to remember, this was before Michelin guide came to the U.S., and, for most Americans, Michelin-starred restaurants remained shrouded in an air of mystery. So my photos and reports from Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, in particular, attracted a lot of attention early on. And for people who liked to eat, my blog offered an aspirational look at the culinary world that awaited them. Now, of course, chefs are far more mobile, as is the dining public. Smartphones and social media now bridge much of the gap that I, and few others, bridged over a decade ago. Twelve years on, I’m still reporting and documenting. But I think I’m doing so with broader strokes. There are enough people reporting the details, obsessing over restaurant industry minutiae nowadays. So I’ve taken to being more of a commentator on the restaurant industry, and especially food media – about which I’ve been increasingly critical.
As a food blogger in this generation, what kind of impact do you think you have in comparison to food critics?
I don’t have the reach that published food critics have. Few restaurants bloggers, if any, do. Although I’ve managed to earn a considerable, international following as an independent restaurant blogger, my blog is really more of a cult phenomenon. Because I’m a total geek, and because I tend to dive deep, my blog has always been kind of “inside baseball.” I suspect the majority of the people who read my blog are restaurant professionals, food editors and writers, or people in food media. Although I’m cognizant that many are reading, even today, I still write for an audience of one: myself.
I’ve turned down attractive offers for critic positions, because I don’t want to write for the masses. I want to write about what I want to write about (which is not to preclude the possibility that there may be an editor out there who would let me write about what I want to write about). As I alluded at the end of the preceding answer, I think the greatest good I can do now, as someone who has been around the industry for over a decade, is to comment critically on the dulling standards I notice with growing concern. Because I’ve been so dissatisfied with food media lately, I’ve increased my emphasis and focus on writing about quality – a subject that the industry, abetted by food media, seems to have abandoned. And I’ve started to use what credibility I have earned through my blog to champion those in the restaurant industry that I think are getting overlooked in the mainstream. I’ve never been a populist. And I don’t plan on becoming one now. So, in this way, I suppose I’m hoping to have a similar type of impact to that of a good food critic – that is, as a strong consumer advocate.
From hobby to profession, how else has your focus or your goals changed since you first began?
Not much, really. My focus and goals are still the same as when I started blogging 12 years ago – to keep a record and to tell stories through pictures and words. My photography always has been more journalistic in style, and, ironically, I think that has become more pronounced now that I do it professionally. My goal is to continue indulging my curiosities, and to learn as much as I can from this amazing world in which we live. The biggest change, of course, is that I now get paid to do it – for my photography and writing that is. I want to dispel any misguided belief that I make money directly off of my blog, because I don’t. Getting paid for what I love doing is extremely rewarding. But it also complicates things. A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “blurred lines,” in which I explored the increasingly fuzzy boundaries between my former role as an anonymous blogger – an outsider – and my new life very much inside the industry. Straddling those two worlds has been the biggest challenge in maintaining my focus without compromising my integrity.
Nowadays, everyone is blogging about the food they eat. How do you continue to set yourself apart?
As I said earlier, I spent the first seven or eight years reporting from the table as a diner. But, in the past half-decade, since I’ve shrugged off my anonymity, I’ve somehow slipped behind the line, so to speak, and have started reporting more from the kitchen, and from behind the scenes. For several reasons, which still surprise me now, I have been privileged with truly amazing opportunities in the culinary world, and I have been trusted with intimate and often exclusive access to some of the best chefs and restaurants around the globe. So, in a way, I am still able to offer a window into worlds not commonly inhabited.
But, ultimately, I think what sets me apart from many other bloggers and food writers in today’s over-saturated blogosphere is that I continue to write, to photograph, and to document, because it’s my obsession, my disease; it’s still just my journal and journey. To this day, my name still isn’t on my blog. And despite the avalanche of solicitations I get, it remains advert-free. I’m just a guy who really likes good food and continues to search for it. And in that search, I’ve been presented with some unbelievably amazing adventures that I feel obligated to share with the rest of the world. Not out of a desire to be boastful, but out of sheer gratitude for the blessings I’ve been given. People tell me they love my blog because of my writing and my photography – that few others are producing content with as much care. And that’s nice to hear. But I think my honesty and my genuine enthusiasm for life is what sets me apart from others, and what keeps readers returning.
Please share one of your most memorable dining experiences as of this moment.
I’ve eaten at some pretty incredible restaurants, but I think the most memorable meals I’ve had have been at home or elsewhere with friends. Last year, I went hunting and camping with my friend Mark Lundgaard Nielsen on the Danish island of Fyn. Mark is the immensely talented chef of Kong Hans Kælder in Copenhagen, which just received a well-deserved Michelin star. He’s immensely thoughtful about his craft. After shooting a deer that afternoon, he dressed it, and then cooked us a five-course dinner at our campsite in the woods. Using the deer he shot, he made a venison consommé, chopped up some of the loin meat for venison tartare, and seared some of the meat as well. In addition, he sautéed some fat, white asparagus in brown butter, which he smothered with freshly shaved Parmesan. While he was preparing all of that, he sat me down by the campfire to stir a pot of røgrød med fløde, a traditional Danish red berry porridge with cream. The small patio table we brought with us was set with Royal Copenhagen china and Zalto stemware – he even brought an extra glass so he could put his iPhone in it, using it as an amplifier for music. We had wine, cheese, and lots of laughs. We ate and slept very well that night. It was very special, and I will never forget it.
Favorite travel destination(s) to date and why?
New York City, for its energy and excitement. London, because it’s quirky and sophisticated all at once. And, Scandinavia, because it’s the closest thing to utopia I’ve found in the developed world.
Anywhere you’re dying to visit?
Where do I begin? My goal is to hit 40 countries before I turn 40, which gives me two years to get to two more countries (one of which will be Australia in a couple of months). I’m embarrassingly geeky about history, and much of my travel revolves around that. Robert K. Massie’s breathtaking biography of Catherine the Great puts Russia – particularly St. Petersburg – high on my list, and Lady Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary Queen of Scots puts Scotland not far behind it. I’ve been to northern Africa, but I’ve always wanted to go sub-Sahara. India, Israel, and Antarctica are also places I’d love to visit. And, Alaska is the only U.S. state I’ve not visited; so Alaska too.
5 things you absolutely need with you to survive?
I only need two: air-conditioning and high-speed internet. Everything else in this world is just icing on the cake.