Q+A: Jonathan Nunn, Creator of Vittles Newsletter

Nunn discusses building a sustainable business, UK food writing, and the Redwall books.

by | December 18, 2020

Jonathan Nunn started Vittles, a largely free Substack newsletter on food and how it affects the societies we live in, at the start of Britain’s first lockdown in March, and quickly gained a loyal readership. Members of the UK’s establishment food media have lashed out, with a particularly disgruntled critic (though all British food critics’ brand is being disgruntled) calling the newsletter the “Food Left.”

While the British food writing establishment acknowledges they are bourgeois and white, they are doing little to bring in new voices. With Vittles, Nunn seeks to publish stories seldom told in traditional food writing, ranging from an ode to the polski sklep (Polish grocery stores) to the merits of microwave rice to a Q&A with Manjit Kaur, “the spirit of the real Leeds.” Nunn is finishing up the year by publishing the rest of the newsletter’s seasons 2 and 2.5 — the seasons were a vague organizational structure (season 1 was pandemic-related stories; season 2 on cities, especially British ones that aren’t London or global ones outside of the US; season 2.5 jumped in during Britain’s second lockdown and revolved around recipes) — and has begun trying to figure out what season 3’s theme will be. What Nunn is doing is clearly striking a nerve: he tells me that the same British food writers and editors who publicly hate on Vittles are often subscribers.

Nunn only started writing professionally two years ago, for Eater London, mainly on London’s outer borough restaurants. A few months after he started, just as I had moved to London, Eater London editor Adam Coghlan said I had to meet him, which never ended up happening. This interview was the first time we spoke.

Nunn was drinking a 30-year-old raw-cake puerh tea when we talked — he works at Postcard Teas, an importer and shop in Mayfair, London. It was the first day London came out of its second lockdown, but we spoke over Zoom for convenience.

Study Hall: What do you think is the difference between American and British food media?

Jonathan Nunn: I think [British food media has] a very fixed idea of what works and don’t want to deviate from that too much. It’s entirely consumer-focused. The big difference for me is that, [in America], if you don’t want to write for legacy publications, you do have other options. There are plenty of independent outlets for that kind of writing, and we just don’t have that here.

I’d be interested to get your opinion on this, as a freelance writer. If you want to write about food in Britain, who do you pitch?

SH: I don’t. I tried, it didn’t work, so I gave up.

JN: This is an absolute problem for young food writers: You can pitch to the papers, obviously, [but] if you have any kind of scruples, there will be many papers you won’t write for.

SH: [Laughs] 

JN: I made a decision early on I would not write for The [Daily] Mail, The Telegraph, any papers owned by Rupert Murdoch.

SH: You just knocked out everyone but The Guardian, basically.

JN: Everyone has their own red lines. I try not to judge people based on those red lines, and if someone told me, “I don’t write for The Guardian because of certain editorial decisions they’ve made,” then I’d completely respect that. But that leaves you not very many places to write for. I feel, in terms of non-recipe writing, [the food sections] generally don’t want to experiment with the form of what they put out there.

What’s really interesting is that I’ve been published in The Guardian, not in Food, but in Opinion. I see Opinion as my way forward within legacy food media. The food sections pretty much hate what I do; I bypass them by going straight to Opinion, which is more read anyway, to be honest. I’m happy with being in that position.

SH: How have you found being in the freelance world?

 JN: I’ve had very little experience in being a freelancer, or pitching. In fact, I’ve only pitched once in my life — to Taste — but every piece of writing I’ve done has come from being approached. I’ve been very, very lucky and privileged to have a full-time job I can fall back on, so I try to not write, because I don’t have the time to do it. [There’s also been] a lot of delaying and ambivalence on my part as to whether I can do it, or some kind of imposter syndrome as to why they approached me, so that means I have a good relationship with the journalism industry. I feel if I were a freelancer, pitching every day or every week, I’d have a very different view of what that’s like.

Vittles has given me an insight into the kind of ecosystem that freelance writers exist in. I don’t want this to sound critical of freelancer writers — it’s critical of the system — but what I’ve often noticed is this tendency towards homogenization from pitches, in terms of the language that’s being used or the way it’s laid out. It’s like everyone’s read the same guide, and I sometimes switch off. I often end up commissioning from people who are completely new to the system, because it feels much more organic to me. But that, in itself, is a reflection on editors, because this behavior has all been learned by what editors want, and often what editors want is extremely boring stuff. I know a lot of established writers who’ve written for Vittles, who’ve said Vittles [is where] they can write stuff they actually want to write — something that comes from the heart and that grapples with complex subjects, which a lot of editors steer away from.

I’ve started this year very much as a restaurant writer, whose remit was primarily reviewing restaurants and trying to find novel ways to describe chicken wings. It’s ended with forcing myself to think outside of that: One positive aspect about writing the intros to everything is that it’s forced me to really engage with other aspects of food writing, which I’m not so familiar with. Even though we see food writing as this quite niche, small world, there are a lot of worlds within food writing [that] don’t generally talk to each other. I hope Vittles has been pulling together these strands and that pieces of writing don’t have to fit neatly into one of those categories.

SH: I should probably ask where the name “Vittles” comes from. Basically, what I want to know is: Is it a Redwall reference? [Redwall is a series of children’s books by Brian Jacques about anthropomorphic woodland critters.]

JN: The word “vittles’” is peppered throughout the whole series. In the first week of coming up with Vittles on a group chat, [we debated] if the spelling should be “victuals,” or the way the moles [in Redwall] pronounce it — “vittles” — and since I thought I am more of a mole than a mouse, I would go for “vittles.” It was [food writer and former Great British Bake Off finalist] Ruby Tandoh who made the decisive intervention in that naming. I think “victuals” would’ve been terrible. No one would have known how to pronounce it.

I’ve had this pet thesis for a while that Brian Jacques is, low key, the most significant British food writer of our generation. You have a group of people who are now in their early 30s who grew up with the Redwall books in this as their formative childhood books. I don’t think you quite realize this at the time, but the way Jacques was describing food was very unusual. There was this philosophy of what British food should be that runs through those books that complements, but also challenges, the new paradigm about what modern British food is. If you look at a food menu in a random trendy British natural wine bar, that menu looks mainly like Redwall food to me. I feel, in a way, Jacques’ vision of British food has found a resonance with those who read him. At first, I thought this was an idle theory, but it has been completely vindicated by conversations I’ve had with writers and chefs.

SH: You’ve interacted a bunch with the food industry in London through your job. What is it exactly?

JN: It is a blend of a high-end retail job, barista, sourcing tea, packing tea, copywriting, and hospitality. Loose tea in this country is fairly esoteric — it just attracts interesting people. It’s not like coffee — anyone can be interested in coffee. It’s a job where you have a lot of intimacy with your customers. The closest thing may be a bartender, but it’s a much closer relationship than that because tea is really slow. You would have people spending their entire day there, and you’d get to know them. It’s a business that’s taught me a lot about ethics and how things should be done: It’s not a business set up to make a profit — it does — but, for me, it does the right thing, and there are very few businesses I can think of that I can say that about it.

SH: So are you not looking to make a profit with Vittles, either?

 JN: I don’t particularly care about making profit. I’ve always been kind of shy about talking about money, and I need to be a bit more vocal about it because people talk about Vittles being an alternative to British food media, but that is never going to happen if I don’t pay people — that’s the bottom line.

Without naming names, there are a couple of magazines who have marked themselves as the kind of rebellious counter-cultural food magazines and they don’t pay their contributors. That leads to an ecosystem where you have people who can afford to write their stuff for free, and mainstream food writers who might give an article to a magazine — something they maybe wouldn’t place in their own paper — but it’s not counter-cultural or diverse in any meaningful way.

Vittles isn’t a meaningful alternative if I’m not paying as much as a paper, and you can publish this if you like: Everyone who has contributed to the latest season — the Iterations season [which ran during the second London lockdown] — has been paid £250 for the article and photo. [Vittles paid a baseline of £110 per article for season 2.] Iterations has been a bit shorter than things I’ve been publishing, so you’re talking slightly less than 20p a word.

I am happy with that, but I’m not going to be complacent. I want it to be more: I want to get to a point where I am, at least, on parity per word with what you would get with, say, Guardian Food [standard rates across most sections in British legacy papers are 30p a word]. 40–50p should be the kind of money I should be aiming towards.

I can [then] say [writers] have a choice to be paid either by a legacy media publication or by me, and that gives them an actual choice where to place something. I may start publicizing even more about how much I’m paying because it’s an important thing to talk about.

I need to be more responsible for Vittles in a business sense — I don’t have a business mind. I need to be taking it more seriously. I need to grow the business in a way that’s organic to me and feels right: It’s my responsibility to do that to make sure that I’m paying more.

SH: You have a full-time job, Vittles, a monthly column with Prospect, and other freelance writing work. How do you fit it all in?

JN: I’m not fitting it in. It’s weird, because I’m a lazy, lazy person by nature. It took me ten years of talking about food writing to actually do it. Even that was a complete mistake; it was something I put no effort towards doing. This is the first year I’ve felt like I’m busy — I’m doing stuff and that’s great, but since my job came back in July, it’s been quite stressful: [I wake] up, [then] before getting dressed or getting washed, sitting at my desk either editing other people’s work or setting up that day’s Vittles.

I have to write my intro at the desk on the day or else I won’t do it. I’ve tried doing it the night before and I’ve been like, fuck this, I can’t think. That’s been useful in a sense, because my intros are a very immediate form of writing: They don’t take much more than half an hour because I have to get it out. I do that until about 11, go to work, come back around 7, then keep editing again. On Wednesdays — which is my day off now — I try to fit in my [own] writing.

Between March and July, all my previous commitments kind of went: restaurant reviewing, work. I had all this time to spend on Vittles and, mentally, those were the most fulfilling months of work I’d ever had. I was getting so much done in such a small amount of time and I had a lot of time to think and to read. Suddenly work comes in, and I’m trying to do both things at once; it’s sustainable for a bit, but I feel I’m going to have to take a break soon and reset myself.

[I’m] especially thinking about a new remit for Vittles — it needs another season change; but then, also the future of it as well. I haven’t been able to think of it being anything apart from a newsletter: It has been a newsletter because it was the easiest thing to set up in a pandemic, [but] I don’t necessarily see it as a final or natural form. It could be its own thing: It could be its own site, it could be a magazine. I have to have time to explore those avenues, so I’m going to have to be serious about lessening my workload next year to find a balance.

SH: At least Christmas is coming.

JN: Exactly! I can just pause subscriptions. This is the thing about subscriptions: There’s a difference between writing a column for a paper, and being paid by the paper, and writing a column that’s going directly to people who are paying for it. Every week, I constantly have this fear people are paying me money for this content — it really has to be fucking good or else people will be upset or think this is a waste of money. I put a lot of that extra pressure on myself.

I was really writing for myself in the beginning. I suspected people might want to read this stuff, but I didn’t quite realize how popular it would be. It’s not like I’m the first person to write about this stuff in the UK — I have plenty of predecessors — but the food writing world had stagnated to the point where something like this did seem quite new and I had definitely tapped into something. There’s now a really huge space for that kind of writing for many writers to be in.

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