When my husband and I moved from New Hampshire to Orlando, Florida seeking a better climate and also better work opportunities, it took us a while to get back on our feet. Jim eventually got a job as a producer/director at the CBS TV affiliate in Orlando, and I began rebuilding my freelance copywriting business with Florida-based clients.
One of the first contacts I made was with a restaurant magazine that published articles each month about an Orlando eatery. The articles were supposed to look like restaurant reviews but in actuality were paid ads. The restaurant would purchase the space in the publication and in return a professional copywriter from the magazine would write a positive story about their food.
Even though I was not a foodie and my culinary skills were limited to frying an egg and microwaving a frozen Lean Cuisine entrée, I somehow convinced the publisher I could write these positive reviews.
I would meet with the restaurant owner and/or chef, and conduct an interview during which I tried not to make a fool of myself by asking something stupid or in some way revealing my limited culinary background.
Fortunately, most of the chefs and owners I interviewed were passionate about their restaurants. They’d worked hard to get where they were and had interesting backgrounds. They delighted in telling me what went into creating each dish as well as the restaurant’s history. And I’d usually leave with enough written notes to be able to craft a good story.
Sometimes, I’d see an opening to request a visit the restaurant as a customer so I could try some of the food and write about the ambiance. With practice, I became quite skilled at weaseling my way into a free dinner for my husband Jim and me. I should add that eating at the restaurant did help me to write a more detailed article, so it wasn’t completely self-serving.
That said, Jim and I ate at restaurants we never would have gone to on our own. They were way too fancy and expensive, an extravagance we couldn’t consider at that time when we were still paying off our moving expenses.
At each of the restaurants, the chef would select dishes he or she wanted us to try. Jim, whose idea of a fancy meal was eating inside a McDonald’s restaurant as opposed to going through its drive-thru, knew even less than me about fine dining. Together we would smile approvingly at each item the server brought, saying as little as possible to avoid revealing our culinary ignorance.
It was a fun situation that gave us an opportunity to try delicious foods and upscale dining. And I did write extremely positively about every experience we had.
At some point, I came up with a suggestion for the restaurant magazine to let me write an article about dinner shows. Orlando, being a popular tourist destination, has quite a few. I called each one and told them I was writing an article and did they want to be included?
That one article resulted in Jim and I attending dinner shows at American Gladiators, think American Ninja Warrior but with teams; Sleuths Mystery, solve a murder while eating steak; Pirate’s Dinner Adventure, watch swashbuckling pirates have sword fights while wenches service you dinner; Medieval Times, knights on horses joust at each other as you eat half a roasted chicken; and Dolly Parton’s Stampede, where cowboys ride bulls and lasso pigs while you enjoy some down-home southern cooking. We had a blast!
But our favorite experience, the one we still talk about today, was for a restaurant at Disney World. Most people think Disney is just fast food, but the company actually has many high-end restaurants in their hotels, resorts and shopping areas. Most of them are amazing with talented chefs cherry-picked from around the world.
I was assigned to cover the California Grill, serving the finest in Californian cooking, with large windows that overlook the Seven Seas Lagoon and Magic Kingdom park. Time it right and you can even watch the nightly Disney fireworks show while you’re eating.
The California Grill was a fine dining restaurant and the chef was told that “a reporter” would be coming and they should treat her well so she’d write a positive review. In reality, Disney was paying for the article, so yeah, it was going to be favorable.
When we arrived, the chef came out and introduced himself. He asked for permission to select some appetizers and entrees for us. We acquiesced figuring we probably wouldn’t have known what to choose on our own anyway. This restaurant was way more hoity-toity than any place we’d ever eaten before.
Within a few minutes, food started arriving at our table. And it just kept coming! The chef chose at least half a dozen appetizers, followed by a bunch of entrees, and then literally every single dessert on the menu.
The table was covered with plates. It was way more food than we could ever eat. We could see people staring at us. California Grill was an expensive restaurant so no doubt these other patrons were surprised at how much food we’d ordered.
Finally, one woman who’d been staring at us for a while, worked up the courage to come over. She introduced herself and said, “I just have to ask. How do you two stay so thin when you obviously eat so much?”
Jim and I thought that was hysterical. We still laugh about it today. The lady left before us or she would have seen how much food we took home in doggy bags. It was at least a week’s worth of good eating.
I freelanced as a writer for the food magazine for about two years. It was a positive experience overall, although it did take a toll on my waistline.
These days, I’m a little more educated about restaurants and fine dining. I certainly wouldn’t call myself a foodie, but I have written restaurant websites and menus. I’ve also written about restaurant software and point-of-sale systems. Unfortunately, none of those assignments came with the perk of free meals.