Michael Costa is the Editor-in-Chief of Refrigerated & Frozen Foods. Previously, he was Editorial Director of Hotel F&B magazine for 12 years, covering the business of food and beverage in lodging, including restaurants, bars, catering and more, for readers working in hotels, casinos, and cruise ships.
“I was actually a TV news reporter for six years during the 1990s, so my initial writing foundation was in broadcast, although I wrote for the school newspaper at Columbia College in Chicago before that,” says Michael. “I decided TV news wasn’t a long-term career option by the end of 1999 for a variety of reasons, so I moved back to Chicago, and completely changed careers.”
Michael enrolled at the then brand-new Illinois Institute of Art Culinary School (now gone) and a week later was hired in the pastry kitchen at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers nearby. “I’d work at the Sheraton during the day and walk over the Michigan Avenue bridge to take culinary classes at night.”
While at IIA, Michael wrote for its Food Vine newsletter and realized that he could combine his culinary experience with his reporting background. “I was eventually hired as a writer/editor at Hotel F&B magazine and worked there for 12 years until it folded in 2019,” Michael says.
“I’ve always believed having a broadcast writing background has sharpened the focus of my writing overall because I learned to get right to the point in broadcast and have a clear idea of what my story is about beforehand because the turnaround time is so short,” Michael says. “That kind of instant pre-editing mindset transfers well to any kind of writing.”
In the mid-aughts, Michael went through the writing program at Second City in Chicago, which lasted just over a year. “While not food related, that was an incredible learning experience from the standpoint of further economizing my writing style to keep only what’s necessary to move ideas forward and maintain audience interest,” he says. “Second City (Stephen King, too) emphasizes ‘killing your darlings,’ which are the lines you think are really clever, but don’t move the story or sketch forward in any way. It’s a great ego-busting tip I use often.”
Do you believe that being a writer helps you enjoy or appreciate food more?
Being a food writer helps me understand what I’m eating (or drinking) and makes me think about the ingredient sourcing, where the dish or drink originated and its history, how my modifications to it (if I’m cooking at home) make it a different dish, and so on. It still has to taste good and satisfy in some capacity, regardless of how many mental footnotes I make.
Do you ever travel for food?
Food and history are the two reasons I travel anywhere, and I make sure I have at least one guided food tour wherever go. In recent years, I’ve developed an odd fascination with shopping in European grocery stores while on vacation (I usually rent an apartment so I have a kitchen) to see how the departments are laid out, what the snack aisles look like, where shoppers are congregating at different times of the day, the quality of the bakery, produce, and meat selections, etc. They’re like mini-field trips to learn about everyday life in each city. The grocery stores in Berlin have been my favorite so far.
Also, I moved from Chicago to Houston almost ten years ago, and to my delight, Mexico City is less than two hours by plane from here. Close enough for a long weekend, but a destination exciting as anywhere in the world, with about 21 million people in the city and surrounding area. I’ve had multiple food tours through several neighborhoods there and I always taste something new each time. Mexico City is truly one of the great food cities anywhere on the planet.
Do you grow any of your own food?
We have a small backyard garden where we grow a handful of herbs and vegetables. Houston weather is tough on plants, but we have a small kumquat tree in our garden, and the most fruit it ever produced was a few weeks after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. It must have enjoyed the stress of the storm and the buckets of rain!
Do you try to create budget-friendly meals?
We’re always conscious of how far we can stretch our food dollar at home, but 2020 has obviously raised the bar due to the pandemic. We’re using more dry and canned goods, pasta, ancient grains, rice, beans, etc. than before. I smoke lots of salmon, chicken thighs, budget cuts of beef, and other meats in my backyard smoker (kind of a prerequisite living in Texas), which is great for inexpensive meats. I smoked a turkey for Thanksgiving last year, and the bones from that made an incredibly smoky turkey stock. Nothing is wasted in our house.
How often do you write about food?
When I was working for Hotel F&B, I covered all the food and beverage options in a hotel, which encompass restaurants, bars, catering, receptions, grab-and-go, mini-bars, room service, and more. I am currently the editor-in-chief at Refrigerated & Frozen Foods magazine, which covers the cold foods industry for retail and foodservice, and like Hotel F&B, is business, not consumer focused. I also have a variety of ongoing freelance food writing projects for other B2B magazines, and one of my few forays into consumer-facing writing has been for the Broadmoor resort’s annual magazine, where I contributed for several years.
Do you enjoy healthy food?
I try to balance healthy with indulgent whenever I can at home. Lots of vegetables and quality proteins. I just feel better throughout the day. I’ll strategically indulge sometimes if I schedule a difficult workout the next day.
Are you supportive of local food efforts?
I’ve subscribed to Plant It Forward’s CSA box (which was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Houston episode). Before the pandemic, when I ate in restaurants, I tried to pick places that were locally owned and operated. I still do that with carry out and delivery right now. Sadly, once we emerge from the pandemic there will be far fewer local places while the national chains will still be everywhere.
What have you observed about food, living in Texas now?
I truly believe that Texas has a terroir when it comes to BBQ. The combination of wood, meats and climate is unique, and tastes like no other BBQ I’ve had anywhere else—perfectly layered smoke and seasoning, and falling-apart tender. Much like pizza in Chicago, New York or New Haven, the competition is fierce for BBQ in Texas, so anything below a certain standard of quality will not be around very long.
Do you have any favorite food books or cookbooks?
The Tummy Trilogy by Calvin Trillin is my favorite food book. Some of my favorite cookbooks include Joe Beef: The Art of Living, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, Sean Brock’s Heritage, and Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street: Tuesday Nights. You also can’t go wrong with the latest version of The Joy of Cooking from a practicality standpoint.
Any favorite kitchen/cooking products you adore?
I use my Vitamix every day, I love my Master-Bilt smoker, and my Global chef’s knife.
Favorite food writers, chefs, or food-related TV shows/movies?
Calvin Trillin, M.F.K. Fisher, and Anthony Bourdain off the top of my head for food writing. There are many others. For chefs, here in Houston, Chris Shepherd is a gift to the city, and for TV, I really enjoy Marcus Samuelsson’s No Passport Required on PBS, and, I unapologetically enjoy Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. When I traveled around the country for Hotel F&B magazine, I would always check if there was a place featured on that show in my destination city. One of my favorites was Bocadillos in Albuquerque—unbelievable sandwiches.
Any favorite food travel destinations?
Mexico City. You can eat incredible street food, have a quick bite to eat in a neighborhood joint, or dine in some of the highest-rated restaurants in the world. It’s an exciting place for a food lover. My wife and I had dinner at Pujol a few years ago, and Rick Bayless and his wife were sitting at the table next to us. I thought that was high praise for the restaurant since Rick is synonymous with Mexican cuisine.
Where do you turn for great food inspiration?
Travel. I always become inspired about food from traveling. Tough to do in 2020 though.
What do you eat/snack when on deadline?
Unfortunately, I’m a junk food fanatic on deadline! Fritos, pretzels, peanuts, horrible-for-you breaded appetizers, tater tots, pizza, ad nauseam. Not good, but I always make sure I work out the next day to try and balance the scales.
Anything else you would like to add about being a writer who loves food, or being a writer in general?
I’ve spent 14 years writing for food-focused B2B magazines, and I would love to see more writers focus on B2B food writing—we need more voices. It’s business writing, so on the surface it’s not as glossy as consumer-focused writing, but you’re still able to dive deep into culinary topics, and when interviewing chefs in particular, they appreciate being able to talk “shop” about their menus, kitchens, new equipment, budgets, staff, customer strategies, and more.
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