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Mike Gibson landscape

The journalist and content strategist on telling compelling stories, the future of restaurants, and sustainable eating and drinking

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In conversation with Foodism's Mike Gibson

What were you doing before Foodism, and how did your journey lead you to write about food? Is this something you’ve always been passionate about?

You could say I took some time to find my niche. After I graduated with a film degree I was working as a freelance videographer. This is how I came to be at my old publisher, Square Up Media.

They were publishing Square Mile and Hedge at the time and were just about to launch Escapism. So when the chance came up to start writing some small features for the magazines and websites, I took it.

Fast-forward a few months and the company was keen to launch a food title. I was asked to launch Foodism as a weekly newsletter and website. All overseen by my old editor Jon Hawkins.

I loved food, wine, and cooking already. And was keen to get stuck into an industry that I had always thought was exciting. In a city with a world-leading food scene.

A year after that we launched Foodism as London’s biggest food and drink magazine, I worked my way up from editorial assistant to associate editor. And then from deputy editor to editor in 2018.

There are loads of brilliant people who’ve contributed to Foodism’s success over the years. But it’s nice to be able to say I published the first words on its website. And worked on every single one of its 42 issues. It’s very close to my heart.

Foodism relaunched late last year after a year out of publication. What were you most excited about and what can readers expect from the revamp?

The last decade or two haven’t been kind to the publishing industry. There are so many great magazine brands. Many went out of business through circumstances totally beyond their control. Some at a time when they were arguably at the top of their game.

Early 2020 was a difficult time. Square Up Media ceased trading and the future of the brand was up in the air for a good few months.

But I’m pleased to say that what could have been the end was just a few months’ hiatus. Along with its sister title Escapism, it was bought by some of my old colleagues at Threadneedle Media.

They'd taken Square Mile and Hedge. Steering them through the choppy waters of the pandemic.

The setup isn't as it was before. And whilst the team’s a little smaller, it’s great to be working on Foodism again. And with a few of the people who were there from its inception.

I’ve also got my old mate and colleague Lydia Winter with me. All being well, she'll be overseeing a similar relaunch of Escapism later this year.

It’s great not only to have helped turn another negative story for the industry into a positive one. But also to prove that magazine publishing is still a viable business.

People still want to seek out great content. In print as well as online.

In terms of the magazine itself, it’s had a design refresh and I’ve commissioned some new writers. We’re working with some exciting new partners and advertisers who've been brilliant with their support for the relaunch.

Aside from that, it’s been great to use the magazine as a way to show support for the hospitality industry. Encouraging readers to support their favourite venues even while their doors are closed.

I can’t wait to be working on Foodism when restrictions have lifted and Londoners are eating and drinking out again. The industry’s been incredibly resilient and the at-home stuff’s been great. But getting in amongst it is what it’s all about.

Outside of Foodism, you’ve been busying yourself with some freelance content and strategy work. What have been some of the highlights over the last twelve months?

It’s been a period of adjustment. 15 months ago I was very much a magazine editor who never had the time or headspace for freelance work. Now I’m very much a freelancer, editing a magazine around my work in content strategy.

One good thing about the role of a modern magazine editor is that hands-on work with some of the biggest brands in the business goes with the territory. Especially at a publication that’s funded totally by advertising.

After I’d been editing Foodism for a while, we’d expanded into sub-brands, event platforms, branded content, and large-scale commercial partnerships. So my day-to-day was as commercial as it was editorial.

That put me in a great position to approach brands as a freelancer. Working with them to connect with their audiences through engaging content. Which is the niche I’m carving out now.

The sweet spot between brand comms and editorial is where I’m seeing the best results. I’ve done some fun work with food and drinks brands in the last year.

From e-commerce projects for drinks brand owners to working with wine regions on their marketing materials. I'm also working on content strategy for soon-to-launch hospitality platforms.

Then in addition to my freelance work, some friends and I started High Water. The creative agency - run as a collective - acts as a structure for direct branding work. From visual identity and design to tone of voice and positioning work, consumer-facing brand copy, and published products.

It’s still in the early stages at the moment. But it’s been really fun to build something bigger than just me outside of Foodism.

How do you think the restaurant and food worlds are going to change over the next twelve months? Do you think we’re in for the roaring twenties, or continued hardship?

Hospitality is an amazing industry. Shortfalls need to be made up for and rent is an issue - now more than ever. But it’ll start making money again from the moment the restrictions ease.

Outdoor dining is already booked up across the board. Even before places have opened back up. So I think operators can expect full venues from the word go.

I do think that carries with it an implicit danger, though. We're unlikely to have a clear picture for a while. And whilst the first weeks and months after lockdown may be buoyant. We mustn't overlook the long-term effects of the last 12 months. Consumer behaviour may have changed forever.

Having said that. A lot of people attribute the growth of street food and the casual-dining sector to the 2008 financial crash. It forced a rethink of the way hospitality wanted to function. Creating space for talented people in grassroots businesses.

Success stories like Franco Manca and Dishoom are testament to that.

I’d be surprised if in a decade we’re not looking at some really interesting and valuable developments in hospitality. Future success stories themselves that sprung from the effects of the pandemic.

Healthier eating, sustainable food systems, and regenerative agriculture are all big talking points right now. How do you see these continuing to develop and proliferate in the short and medium terms?

I’ve always been passionate about sustainability in food, drink, and agriculture. Foodism has put out cover-to-cover sustainability specials every year since 2015. We’ve worked with some market-leading brands in that time. And put on an awards initiative based around it, too.

I think much of it comes down to how much consumers want to put their money where their mouth is and demand change. What’s abundantly clear is that if we keep consuming as we have been, it’s game over for us as a species. It’s as simple as that!

If it’s a scary thought, then good. It should be. Ultimately, if someone begins to let their behaviour be guided by their ethics, whatever choice they come to is a good one.

In food terms, if someone believes eating animal products is wrong and they go vegan, that’s great. If they believe the problem is factory farming and buy high-welfare, traceable meat from a quality butcher, that’s great too.

It’s easy to exist in the echo chamber and believe everyone cares as much as you do about this stuff. It’s clear the average consumer is better informed about this stuff than a decade or so ago. That’s a good start, but that’s all it is at this point.

I mentioned this in one of your Clubhouse sessions. I’m a big fan of the term “regenerative” when it comes to food and agriculture.

In its essence, it accepts that damage has already been done. And that this damage needs to be undone before we’re on an even footing again. This is a crucial concept for consumers to understand.

There’s still so much work to be done when it comes to the language of sustainability. And the key is better education. Things like greenwashing will become less of a problem, as the average consumer becomes better informed.

What advice would you give to restaurants when it comes to creating PR-able stories? How can they stand out from the crowd?

Foodism might be an outlier. In that outside of the odd piece on the website, we’re not what a PR would consider “listings press”. We’re much more about long-tail, in-depth stories than events or news.

That means that I don’t respond too much to “The UK’s first [insert gimmick here] restaurant,” or similar. For me, it’s about telling stories of great people and businesses in hospitality, food and drinks, and I don’t need too much of a hook beyond that.

Our regular Five Dishes feature is a testament to that. The conversation might start from a PR getting in touch about a new opening or cookbook, but the whole idea of it is to talk about a chef or operator’s journey.

How they started, what drives them, their successes and failures – and get under the skin of what they’re trying to do, rather than just give the headlines of their newest project.

From an operator’s perspective, I’d say it’s all about having a genuine approach that comes from the heart. Whether that’s a certain style of cooking or influence, leading with something that’s purpose-driven or rooted in strong ethics, a talented chef who’s on their way up – and finding ways to communicate that, internally and externally.

London has restaurants that have been in business for decades. And the really good ones don’t tend to struggle for press, even despite their longevity. It’s about quality and authenticity.

Which emerging chefs or new restaurants are you most excited about for 2021?

To be honest, while there’ve been a couple of new openings over the last year, I think it’ll be a bit longer until new concepts launch. So I won’t namecheck anything right now.

I’m just hoping as many of the restaurants I love as possible will be able to reopen their doors. And when late June rolls around, people will have made up for the lost time. Throwing themselves into eating and drinking out.

On a personal note, I’m delighted to see my mates Ferhat and Sertac Dirik doing great things with their restaurant, Mangal 2. I used to live across the road from the restaurant in Dalston and got to know them well.

Over the first lockdown, they took time to reimagine and reopen it. Launching a more forward-thinking menu with a great drinks list. Some dishes are inspired in part by the amazing restaurants Sertac worked at in Copenhagen.

As a food journalist, the first time I hear about these concepts tends to be when they’re pretty much ready to open. But I was talking to the guys about their plan way before they shut and throughout the process of doing it.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a classic Turkish ocakbasi restaurant. But I’m delighted for them that they did what they set out to do and are now reaping the rewards.

The restaurant’s infamous Twitter account is a testament to Ferhat’s long-standing hatred of Dalston hipsters. So it’s nice to be able to give him shit for finally owning an East London restaurant that does sharing plates and natural wine. You absolute sellout, Ferhat.

Which three venues are you heading to first on or after April 12th?

There’ll be a few casual dinners locally and a few good pub sessions. Likely quite impromptu.

But what I’ve really missed is a proper destination restaurant. Somewhere upmarket. A tasting menu, amazing wine, and all the things you can’t replicate at home.

One of my best friends is the champagne ambassador for LVMH (yep, really). We go out to eat a lot and we’ve wasted no time getting a couple of things booked.

We’re doing lunch at Fallow’s terrace in Mayfair in April. And then dropping into my client Victor Garvey’s restaurant, Sola, for lunch in May. They've just won a Michelin star.

I’m also going to Coombeshead Farm in June with my fiancée. We went just after it opened and booked it again for my 30th last April. That didn’t end up happening for obvious reasons. So it’s been a long time coming.

Tom, if you’re reading this, I’m coming for you and your hairy pigs 😉