Q&A with Antonia Allegra, Symposium founder

Interview conducted by Andrea King Collier


Q: How did the Symposium for Professional Food Writers get its start 26 years ago?

I was the Food Editor at the San Diego Tribune for six years, after teaching at my personal cooking school and previous culinary training in Paris. After I left the paper to establish the School for American Chefs at Beringer Vineyards, I was lonely for other food journalists. I searched for the right opportunity to re-connect, and a conference to bring colleagues to Napa Valley was my way of solving the loneliness. That gathering of pros in 1989 was the first Symposium for Professional Food Writers. 

The Symposium was successful immediately. We drew 80 food writers in 1989, and had a home with Beringer until 1991. But all good things come to an end (or are reborn). Beringer wasn’t interested in continuing the Symposium. Yet, I knew from the success we had over those early years, that there was a need for this kind of community and learning. So I continued the Symposium on my own. We hosted it one year at the Stanford Court in San Francisco. Then, with the suggestion of Anne Willan who proposed we move the conference to The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, we took a giant leap cross-country and established ourselves there in 1993. That “nest” was ideal for another 18 years until the last conference there in 2011.

When you look at the list of participants and faculty who have been a part of the Symposium community, it reads like a Who’s Who of food writers, editors, radio and television personalities and cookbook authors. Over those 22 years, more than 200 food-related books were “born.” 

Q: So now after a hiatus, you are bringing the Symposium back in a new location?

After several years at the Greenbrier, I’m delighted to say that the 2016 Symposium is moving to the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio. I cannot imagine a better site for our group. It has been in existence 30 years, always dedicated to chefs; now, the natural bond between chefs and food writers is bridged at The Chef’s Garden there. And the food is delicious under the care of Executive Chef Jamie Simpson.

The other big news is that the Symposium for Professional Food Writers has become a 501c3 nonprofit this year.

Q: You could have the Symposium in any urban food mecca in this country. Why did you pass up the big cities?

The philosophy behind the Symposium has always been different from the other food-related gatherings. In comparison to the annual International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), which is not food-writing specific, we are a small and focused group. When you come to the Symposium, we want you to spend your time living, eating and sleeping food writing, without the distractions of big cities.

What we create each year is a place that is a nest for food writers. People who have become a part of the Symposium family can attest to the fact that it is a place where you can mine the brilliance of all the professionals. And because of this small close-knit culture, attendees have had the opportunities to build and become a part of a true network.

Q: You have been the single driving force behind the Symposium for over two decades. How do you approach building your dream team of speakers, panelists and coaches?

I think about it and work on it all year long. In many ways, it is like building a patchwork quilt. Each speaker is chosen for the excellence that s/he brings, but it goes deeper than their writing and accolades. They are fine speakers, and they are excellent teachers as well. Our faculty acts as engaged mentors throughout the entire conference.

The Symposium brings together a mix of the highly traditional food writers who have had long illustrious careers. Julia Child joined us in 1991 and continued to join us every year thereafter until she died. We also pay close attention to the hot new writers, agents, editors and publishers. The Symposium always strives for absolute excellence. I research every single speaker before sending an invitation to join.

Ask anyone who has been to the Symposium, and they will tell you that there is no separation between the participants and the faculty. We are all artists. The speakers share their experience and networks, acting with no more importance than any participant. It’s actually amazing that, despite the rarified level of faculty, in 22 years none has expected payment for staying and sharing with the conference. They see their role as giving back to the food writing community and realize they will receive, “Great honor, but no honorarium.”

The Symposium is a safe place to talk about craft, but also to get into the trenches of the things that make food writers sustainable. And we realize that life as a food writer now is tougher than it was in our earlier days. It has been important to expand the lane to be inclusive and make room for everyone at the food-writing table. We are excited that print food writers exchange ideas and strategies with food bloggers carving names for themselves in this space. We are all in this together.

Over the years, both fledgling and well-seasoned food writers have come to us and left with ideas for new projects, collaborations. I can’t tell you how many times past participants have told me that their experience was life-changing. That’s what we hope for and work towards for any writer who wants to do next-level work—a life-changing experience.

Q: What does it feel like to be back in the saddle, planning a new Symposium for 2016, in a new location?

It is totally exhilarating to come back to it after a five-year hiatus. And it feels just as needed, or even more. The profession of food writing has morphed, changed and evolved. This coming Symposium will be significant because we will be tackling all those changes, as well as the craft and joy of food writing.

It also feels great to know that, for the first time, I won’t be doing it alone. The Symposium for Professional Food Writers is now a non-profit entity. Julia Allenby is the Executive Director of the Symposium, and journalist Andrea King Collier is the Creative Director.

 Q: There are so many writing conferences out there now. Why is the Symposium so special? Or, put another way, why should food writers put this at the top of their “must-do list?”

When you look at the list of participants and faculty who have been a part of the Symposium community, it reads like a Who’s Who of food writers, radio and television personalities and cookbook authors.

And scholarship winners have often been tagged by editors and publishers as future powerhouses based on the fact that they have been chosen by Symposium judges as writers of great note. Being a scholarship recipient is seen as a coup for writers, who often mention their award on their resumes.

And, once again, there is that life-changing quality about the experience of attending the Symposium. We hear it over and over again. There are many people who can point to their attendance as the pivotal point to taking leaps with their writing careers. Not many writing conferences can say that. Even though there are many writing-specific and food writing conferences that have been born over the last four years, there is still nothing quite like the Symposium for Professional Food Writers. I look forward to welcoming every participant and speaker next September... Who knows what possibilities will bloom from that new beginning?