Amanda Michetti is the Creative Director and driving force behind chewtown.com, one of Australia’s most successful food blogs. In a crowded industry, where it seemingly only takes a computer and a domain address to post about anything from sewing to parenting, Amanda’s approach is refreshingly innovative and smart.
Amanda’s site is ranked in the top 130,000 websites worldwide and the top 3,000 in Australia, so if she took the step of plastering her site with advertising to reap the rewards of this success, no-one would be in the least bit surprised. Which is why her decision to not go down this path is so against the grain. I spoke to Amanda to try and understand her philosophy and what drives her.
Amanda started out as a mezzo soprano opera singer in Western Australia. She went to the conservatorium of music, and eventually moved to Sydney with the specific goal of being an opera singer. But life threw her a curve ball, which stopped her in her tracks and made her question the path that she was on. At 25, she developed bronchitis and started to have voice problems. With her dreams in tatters she had to ask herself some pretty tough questions at a young age. If she couldn’t sing, what would she do? As a creative person, she knew that she needed to do something that would allow her to use her creativity.
Growing up in Perth, Western Australia, in an Italian family, Amanda had watched her father’s drive and work ethic see him succeed in running several successful businesses. He ran a hairdressing salons and Italian restaurants. She could see that getting a foothold in a career earlier in life, rather than later, was definitely a recipe for success and happiness. But what could she do that would combine her artistic proclivities with a paying job that would pay rent, food and all the other necessities of life? She already had music degrees from her time at the Conservatorium of music, but she knew she didn’t want to teach. It wasn’t for her, and she didn’t think it would be fair to students if she went down a path that her heart wasn’t really in. Instead she headed back home to Perth for a year and completed a postgraduate degree in arts management.
It was this path that led her to her current role as the corporate partnership manager for Opera Australia, which is where she has been for the last 6 years. The role allowed her to stay close to her passion for music, but as happens to all artists, there was a deep need inside for a creative outlet. Which brings us to the birth of chewtown.com
There were two things outside of singing that she was passionate about. Eating good food, and photography. As Amanda tells it
“My mother is an amazing cook. Growing up I naturally assumed that everyone ate like we did. But as I grew older I realized that wasn’t the case. I had always wanted to paint as a child, but I wasn’t good enough. I had bought a camera to explore photography, and was getting into portraiture. It occurred to me what a great opportunity I had to combine my love for food, my love for photography and blogging. I didn’t want to review restaurants; I wanted to create beautiful food and photos. I rebelled against doing Italian food at first. Mostly because it was easy for me.”
Amanda learned a lot along the way. She realized that the more she cooked the better she got at cooking. She got better at flavors, and tips and tricks to make things work or to make things easier. Eventually she posted up a recipe and story about her Italian heritage, almost as an aside really. But that post got the most traffic she had ever had. There is a reason that Italy has one of the world’s most popular cuisines after all and she realized that people were interested in knowing about what she saw as just a fundamental part of who she is. It was at this point that the focus of the blog began to shift.
“I sort of gave in a little. I realized that my Italian heritage was interesting to people. I started doing things like, how to make pasta from scratch. I still make the flavorings traditional, but I do put my own spin on the classics. “ Amanda tells me.
The fundamental values of her heritage had made her stand out from the crowd and there were some important life lessons from her family that had helped her get to this point. Amanda still remembers the big move she made from Perth to Sydney and her father telling her
“No matter how poor you get, don’t buy two minute noodles and don’t scrimp on great produce”.
This is the Italian way, eating fresh food and good quality produce prepared simply. The Italians do this in a way that we could all learn from. At this point in our conversation, I share with Amanda my surprise when I first ate Pizza in Italy. I couldn’t believe how simple the toppings were. At first I thought that there was some mistake and they had forgotten to put all of the toppings on. But it was the best pizza I have ever eaten. Amanda laughs at this and tells me that she has just made a big batch of pizza dough which are now waiting in the freezer for an authentic Italian pizza night.
This is the great strength of Italy’s long food tradition, it’s emphasis on big flavors that work well together, fresh produce that isn’t over processed, and the knowledge that over complicating a dish isn’t going to make it any better.
I ask Amanda about how she actually applies this food philosophy in her day-to-day cooking. She has some fantastic examples of how this all works. She uses Pepe Saya Butter, an artisan butter made by a French born Australia man. She is happy to use normal store bought butter for things like cakes or desserts, but if she is going to serve beautiful crusty bread she will only serve it with an artisan butter. In this case, the butter and the bread together are two simple ingredients but that very simplification calls for beautiful flavors.
She also tells me that if she were making a bruschetta she would never go to the supermarket and buy tomatoes. She heads straight to the farmers market to get vine-ripened tomatoes that are full of flavor. But if she is making minestrone, a store bought tomato is fine. Over time she has learnt the different effects that different ingredients have on her cooking. She emphasizes that it is all about buying the best produce you can afford and knowing where to splurge a little because the dish calls for it and where to hold back, because you can don’t need to spend too much.
It is clear how much family means to Amanda. She shares with me her recent trip back home to Perth for the annual making of the sauce. This is a huge deal in the Italian community and an opportunity to catch up with each other, to enjoy each other’s company and to work together on a shared task. In the Michetti family they make a years worth of tomato sauce for the respective family members households. This year they bought 36 x 14kg boxes of vine-ripened tomatoes in order to make Passata. This classic Italian tomato based sauce forms the base for so many Italian dishes, and is a staple in Italian kitchens. The flavors in the sauce come from the quality of the tomatoes used, a little basil and some salt. Simple but beautiful. It took seven people from 6am in the morning until 7pm at night. But of course there was a big pause in between for a massive Italian spread at lunchtime. I ask Amanda at this point if her family would be interested in adopting a 30 something woman? She laughs, but I am sure countless people like me, who envy the warmth and centuries old tradition that is wrapped up in this annual ritual, have asked her this question before. As Amanda says:
“It is more than Tomato sauce. It’s family. And that is how the blog has grown. I was so resistant at first, because it was so fundamentally normal to me. But it’s who I am. “
Another story she shares with me illustrates how close knit the Italian community is. Amanda wrote a post about her father’s home village of Quintodecimo in the Marche region of Italy. Suddenly she was receiving emails from people who had grown up there, who were still there or who had a long lost relative in the village. People asked if her father remembered them, or if he knew of people that they had lost touch with.
“It was lovely as it brought people together” she tells me.
Much like her countrymen have done with the slow food movement that was pioneered in Italy, Amanda has taken a deliberate and uncompromising approach to her blog. It’s clear to me as I listen to this articulate and driven woman, she has a vision for her brand and is unwilling to compromise.
When I ask her how it is that she hasn’t given in to the almighty dollar and plastered her blog with ads, she tells me:
“I do say no to a lot of things, including paid opportunities if they don’t fit in with my philosophy. It’s my blog and I want it to be me. Plastering it with ads is too big a price to pay for a design aesthetic.”
It just isn’t where her brand is going right now. It looks as though she doesn’t really need it anyway. She has paid gigs recipe testing for Queen’s baking products, has just entered a social media deal with Vaalia yoghurt and has a major supermarket job coming up. She is also freelancing as a food photographer. But above all else, her blog is about recipe development and beautiful pictures. Photo’s that are so good you feel as though the food is right in front of you and you can almost smell the delicious morsels.
After spending an hour speaking to her, it isn’t really surprising that Amanda’s blog is such a success. She is articulate, driven and she is unwilling to compromise her values.
As Amanda says herself
“I want to be really content with the art I’m creating, and it’s all about the art for me. I am incredibly driven and I think it’s important to always be learning something new. “
I expect we will be seeing a lot more from Amanda Michetti and her blog chewtown.com
To read Amanda's post about her recent trip home to Perth to make Tomato Passata click here.