An Audible Feast

Dan Pashman photo by Scott Gordon Bleicher
Dan Pashman photo by Scott Gordon Bleicher

How the best food podcasts keep you coming back for more.

Think of the best piece of pizza you’ve ever had. Your mind might wander first to the ingredients—tangy marinara sauce, fresh mozzarella, topped with a dusting of herbs and parmesan. The flavors are so familiar, you can almost taste them now. Or maybe you’re picturing a specific slice you documented on Instagram, tagging the spot you found it. One thing you’re probably not imagining? How it sounds.

These days, there’s a podcast for any and every topic you can imagine. But not every subject lends itself quite so naturally to audio. Take food, a subject that relies heavily on your eyes, your nose, and your tastebuds, but not so much on your ears. Yet there’s no shortage of food podcasts to choose from, from those that chronicle legacy and upstart food publications to those than explore the food of a particular region—there’s even one devoted to the inner workings of Trader Joe’s. We sat down with some of the best food-centric podcast creators to learn how they use the constraints of the medium to boost their creativity and develop stories that keep listeners coming back for another helping.

Follow your curiosity

When setting out to tackle a topic like food in audio, it’s essential that you have something interesting to say about the subject. For Dan Pashman, creator and host of The Sporkful, a James Beard Award-winning podcast about how food — and our obsession with it — intersects with our lives, the idea for the show was born out of turning to a subject that he thought about a lot in his day-to-day life. “It was always my dream to host my own radio show. And I had been laid off from six radio jobs in eight years,” he says. Despite a background in news production and comedy, Pashman found himself drawn to a topic that felt more unique: food. “I felt like I sort of had a quirky, idiosyncratic approach to food and that there might be a show in there,” he says.

That meant diving deep on things that Pashman was passionate about. “In the early days of the show, it was really about obsessing about the smallest details of the eating experience.” No detail was too small, according to Pashman. “We would spend 20 minutes talking about the ideal surface-area-to-volume ratio of ice cubes, or what’s the best strategy at an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

For the team behind the Bon Appétit Foodcast, an audio edition of the magazine that’s equal parts interview and cooking tips, curiosity about podcasting itself was the impetus behind the show’s launch. “It was really not a very well strategized plan, I’ll be honest,” says producer Carey Polis. Armed with little more than some recording equipment and a desire to learn, Polis, an editorial assistant, and Bon Appétit’s deputy editor at the time set out to make a podcast—and learned on the fly. “We hired an audio engineer, we started putting things out on a weekly cadence," Polis says. "We got a lot more serious about thinking about programming and editing. And now I'd like to say we're a legitimate operation, but at the beginning, it was us kind of locked into a conference room not knowing what the heck we were doing.”

Now Foodcast is one of the regulars atop the podcast charts, and its crew is still driven by that inquisitive spirit. “A lot of it is just kind of by osmosis—we all work pretty close together so we know the conversations people are having, the articles that people are really psyched about," Polis says. "If someone goes on a rant at an editorial ideas meeting about a certain topic, we'll often see if that can work for a podcast.”

Use sound to make an impact

For aspiring food focused podcasters, listening to current shows can offer a helpful guide of what works and what doesn’t — especially when it comes to using tape. While it might seem counterintuitive, there are ways to use sound to your advantage when food is your subject. “Food has some of the most vibrant audio environments,” notes Dan Geneen, co-host of the recently launched Eater’s Digest, a podcast about news and happenings in the food world each week “If you can get into the place you’re talking about, even if you’re just capturing the sound of the kitchen when you’re interviewing the chef or whoever it is, audio has this magical way of making you feel like you’re actually in the space,” he says.

One episode that featured that approach found Eater’s Digest exploring restaurants where it’s tough to get a table. “We just brought a shotgun mic and we literally asked maître d’s or hosts if we could get into the restaurant,” Geneen says. While the premise of the exercise was simple, the sound payoff was huge. “When they said no, you could really feel it. When you listen to it, the space felt a lot busier. There seemed to be a lot more commotion. And I don’t know if we really picked up on it at the time, but almost when you listen back, you can be like, ‘This one’s not going to work.’ You can hear all the buzz.”

Those seeking to make their own mark in the food podcast space should also keep a cardinal rule at top of mind: put your own flavor on it. For The Sporkful’s Pashman, podcasts also allow listeners to connect more deeply to food by making it personal. “To me, audio is the perfect medium for food. Sure, you could cook a juicy cheeseburger and take a picture of it, or make a video of it and it’ll look really good,” he says. “But that’s not my cheeseburger—it’s your cheeseburger. But if someone starts talking about a cheeseburger and describing it just in audio, then you're going to form a picture in your head. So you know what it tastes like and what it smells like; you don't need to see it or experience it. It's like... reading a great book. The sensory experience of eating ends up being generated in part by the listeners and in part by the show. And that makes it interactive and it makes it more personal.”

A word of caution from Polis—there’s one element that doesn’t work when it comes to creating a sound-rich piece, she notes. “We've tried a couple of segments of people kind of chewing or trying things on air," she says, "and the sounds of people eating is pretty awful.”

—Katie Ferguson