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Two years of Petaluma eating, writing

As the Argus-Courier’s Food & Drink section crests its two-year anniversary, I reflect back on what we have done in these pages.

Without the help of you, the reader, I would be hard pressed to stay on top of all the local food news, so for that, I thank you. Additionally, your positive feedback allows me to have such a great forum to follow my passion, which along with eating great food, is helping to support and promote some of the people that help make our community great.

Humble beginnings

I got started in writing back in 2001, when I wrote Amazon customer reviews. I was not much of a reader or writer as a kid, but as an adult I have developed a healthy appetite for both. Even though I was an Amazon shopper, I chose to purchase from local shops whenever possible, even if prices were higher, because I recognized that Petaluma’s personality would be lost if we lose our small mom-and-pop shops.

My first Amazon write-ups were for products that had yet to be reviewed by an authenticated buyer. As my Amazon ranking went up, I was encouraged to write reviews on everything I purchased.

Then in the 2007, I discovered Yelp. Although I am not a fan of their business model, it did give me a platform to try to help inform visiting diners about the Petaluma dining scene from a local’s perspective. My first review culminated with my move back to Petaluma. I had just discovered Sugo Trattoria, and after returning several nights in a row, I wanted to tell people about what I had discovered. Sugo is still one of our favorite restaurants — in the world.

Within weeks of my return to Petaluma, I also attended the 2007 Taste of Petaluma. Based on my background in logistics and resource management, I emailed the organizer with a few suggestions on how the event might be run more efficiently. That sparked a beautiful relationship I maintain to this day with the Queen of Cuisine, the Petaluma Chili Empress, Laura Sunday.

In an effort to raise funds for Cinnabar Theater, where her children attended, Laura developed and grew the Great Petaluma Chili Cookoff, the Taste of Petaluma and the Lagunitas Crab Feed. Thanks to all the contacts I made with local restaurateurs and food purveyors through this work, I ended up learning a lot more about the people behind the food than one normally would. This knowledge helped me round out my Yelp reviews, making them as much about the hardworking folks behind the counter as the food we were lucky enough to be tasting.

Above the Brim

In 2010, I was invited to write a blog for Petaluma360, the Argus-Courier’s website. Titled “Above the Brim – Rivertown rants, raves, and reviews from a man of many hats,” I wrote about everything from local museums to decorating our Christmas tree with locally made ornaments. I also blogged about food whenever something caught my attention, which happens a lot around Petaluma. A blog about the Wine Country Baseball League was turned into a feature article, which was my first published piece in the Argus.

My blog was sprinkled with food related postings, and I started blogging expanded versions of my Yelp restaurant previews. That’s when I was asked to write food articles for the Argus. My first food article was an edited version of my Yelp and blog review of Secret Kitchen, which appeared in September 2014.

At roughly the same time as that first article, I was studying for the California Bar Exam, which seriously restricted the amount of free time I had to write for the paper. But, once I took the exam in the spring of 2015 — not my first time, by the way — I began to write more frequently.

My articles appeared in the Community Section and were mostly about food and drink, including features on F.A. Nino’s, Stemple Creek Ranch, Jamison’s Roaring Donkey, The Big Easy and the California Artisan Cheese Festival. When Petaluma chose its 2015 People’s Choice winners, I was given the opportunity to highlight four of the finalists in the annual magazine insert.

Becoming a columnist

That same spring, a fellow foodie friend and writing idol was looking for someone to take over her column in the Argus. Frances Rivetti had just published her first book, “Fog Valley Crush: Love at First Bite – At Home in the California Farmstead Frontier,” which was all about Petaluma and West Marin’s current and past food culture.

Rivetti was looking to spend more time promoting her book, as well as start researching her next book, “Fog Valley Winter – Pioneer Heritage, Backroad Ramblings & Vintage Recipes,” which came out the following fall. Both books are must-reads for anyone who loves to learn about food, traditions, and where food and traditions come from.

Within a few months of taking over Rivetti’s column, I was asked to help revive the Argus food section with a regular food news column, as well as a feature article on a restaurant, food purveyor or food event.

This represented a great opportunity to expand Petaluma food coverage, but would also eat up a lot of my time.

The new Food & Drink section debuted on July 30, 2015, with a feature article on the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance’s Wind to Wine festival. The food column covered Speakeasy’s recent Best Late Night Eats award, Seared’s new happy hour menu and a fundraiser at Stemple Creek Ranch, featuring Chef Matthew Elias, then of Saltwater Oyster Depot’s, but now the chef/owner of the Bodega – CA food truck.

To date, I have written 52 food columns and 64 feature food articles. Just when I start to panic that I might run out of material, I receive an email from a reader about a barbecue fundraiser I had forgotten about, or from a restaurant owner who has a new idea they would like to introduce to Petaluma.

What is particularly rewarding is that no matter how far out I have to push an article, the subjects are always appreciative of the added publicity they receive through the paper, often times forgetting just how many Petalumans regularly turn to the Argus’s Food & Drink section prior to making their dining decisions.

Petaluma’s food culture

I do not consider myself a food critic. I like to call what I write “restaurant previews.” Petaluma is too small a town, with too many hard working restaurateurs for me to slam a restaurant simply because I had one bad experience or might not be a fan of their particular cuisine. If I have nothing nice to say, I say nothing. Otherwise, I write previews of restaurants that contribute to our community on any number of levels, and of course, have great food.

True food reviewers visit a location multiple times before rendering their verdict. The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, even the Press Democrat food reviewers do not operate on a hit-and-run model. They aim to inform, instead of just nitpick every little detail in order to make themselves stand out.

On top of that, here in Petaluma, if you have a problem with your meal, you tell the owner, who is likely in the house. They have to be given that opportunity, otherwise our restaurant scene will stagnate. I encourage everyone to talk to the owner first, before leaving a negative Yelp review that might be based on a fluke occurrence.

Along with being culinarily-satisfying, being a Petaluma food writer has also afforded me many great opportunities beyond getting to try every new restaurant in town. I am often invited to judge at food and drink events, such as the Wine Country Big Q, Sonoma Chefs of Tomorrow, Farmer Olympics, Sonoma County Home Brewers Competition and the Active 20-30 Club’s Ribs for Kids competition, to name a few. I also get invited to announce parades, cry auctions and emcee fundraisers, along with speaking to various local organizations like Rotary.

I love being part of such a diverse and vibrant community and I look to help promote those that bring this to fruition. I am thankful and humbled by the fact that so many of you read and enjoy what I have to say. Without readers, I would just be a guy that loves food.

You have given me a forum where I can express myself through all my local food experiences, and for that, I will forever be grateful. I look forward to serving up more food news as Petaluma continues to blossom into a culinary powerhouse.