Blog Spotlight: A to Za’atar

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Author and food blogger Courtney Brandt spoke with MediaSource about her A to Za’atar blog, and describes how a trip to top Danish restaurant Noma changed her outlook on fine dining.

What inspired you to start blogging?
As an author, I’ve always been writing. I have had a blog for my book and expat musings for a number of years, so A to Za’atar seemed a very natural extension of what I was already doing. However, I decided to get more serious about food after a trip to Noma in 2013. While I was intimidated to visit the restaurant (officially ranked #2 in the world at the time), I walked away a changed person. The experience taught me that fine dining is for everyone - no one should feel they aren’t good enough or not entitled to celebrate food.  Since then, I’ve planned and looked forward to tasting some of the best restaurants available in whatever city I visit. Ultimately, that’s the message I want people to take away from my blog – everyone deserves to eat well!

What makes your blog different?
While there are amazing restaurants of all levels and varieties across the Emirates, I like to focus on more high-end experiences, and would expect visitors to my blog to enjoy the same. While I think (of course) the food is the star of most places I go, I also factor in many of the intangibles. For example, my husband and I went to an elite restaurant in Dubai where the food was spectacular, but the service was formulaic. Based on the mediocre service, I wouldn’t return. If my blog focused only on food, I would make the recommendation to visit. More than the food and service, I also appreciate we all have a limited amount of time and money. I think visitors to A to Za’atar will understand the value for money of the places I go. Yes, some of the restaurants will have a high price tag, but I will mention when I think the costs are justified (or if they are overpriced).

What can readers expect to find on A to Za’atar?
I have a set schedule that I tend to follow. Every Thursday you will see a collection of interesting food and hospitality links that I have collected throughout the week. On Fridays, I post a ‘Friday Foodie Foto’ which can be from anywhere in the world. Outside of these regular posts, I tend to try and review one or two restaurants a week. Another fun feature I have is using the Polyvore website to create unique ‘date looks’ to go with many of my reviews. All of the posts are meant to be read and enjoyed in a 5-10 minute period.

Going forward, I’d like to start putting together more ‘top’ lists. In my head, I’m always trying to figure out what recommendations I would make to people, so I’d like to formalise it by listing my top brunch experiences or favourite appetizers.

Do you accept invitations to review restaurants?
I recently started accepting invitations to review restaurants. While I am flattered by the number I’ve received, I tend to focus my acceptances on those I feel would be of most interest to my readers and me. As for a policy, unless otherwise agreed to, I will always disclose that I was a guest of the restaurant, but the opinions are my own. While there are no hard and fast rules, it is a personal ‘best practice’ I believe in. While other bloggers certainly make different choices, I think my readers have a right to know if I paid, or did not pay, at a venue.

How important is impartiality to your blog?
If I am the guest of the restaurant, there is more pressure to share a positive experience. After all, the chef, the team, and those involved in the marketing have already put in hours to have me dine and I always want to respect a kitchen for their hard work and creativity. However, if I give a less than stellar review for a restaurant (which I am not afraid to do), it’s because on some critical level, I didn’t connect with the experience. It is one opinion. Others might think differently.

If there is some part of the meal that I am not enjoying, I usually ask my husband, “Who would we take here?” I would tend to not give bad marks to a restaurant without offering some suggestion or positive moment. For example, I had a dining experience this spring which was arranged with the management of a particular brand and something my guests and I were sincerely looking forward to. The night was so terrible on all levels, I spoke with the management and told them no one would win if I gave an honest account of my experience, so I never posted a review. In that instance, I believe the best feedback was provided offline and not in the public realm.

To remain as impartial as possible, I try and ground some of my review in research. Where does the chef come from? Was this restaurant recently launched? Are they trying a new menu? I believe one must take into consideration all of these factors when giving a final rating.

How do you like to work with marketers and PRs?
I think marketers and PR personnel have an uphill battle in such a busy market as Dubai, and I have the utmost respect for them. I understand they are trying to ensure the vision of a specific kitchen, menu or venue is shared correctly with the larger market. Thus, if I have to say no or turn down an offer, it’s mostly because I don’t think I would be reaching the right audience they might be after. 

On a technical level, an e-mail invite one or two weeks before is always appreciated. I tend to make my bookings and plan my calendar in this manner, and it allows me to make sure my weeks are balanced and that I would be able to post a review within a matter of days.

Any advice for PRs and marketers looking to work with you?
Another blogger friend of mine and I were just discussing this and, for both of us, our main advice is in the follow through. After the event, I think it’s great to hear from marketing professionals and the best ones will ask how things went. I usually tend to send a thank you e-mail through first thing in the morning, but I think those who do best are able to take my initial notes and give them back to the kitchen or management.

How do you measure blogging success?
It’s always good to see my numbers growing, but I think it’s also a lot of fun during meet ups with other bloggers to have your work known and respected. Hearing from your colleagues is the ultimate compliment. Certainly, I have specific goals of how I want to grow A to Za’atar and that measurement is based on a number of parameters including Instagram growth, my ranking on Zomato, the level of restaurant I receive invitations to, the level of interaction I can generate with my readers, potentially having a standing review or column in a local magazine, and looking beyond the Dubai market.

What advice would you give to new bloggers?
Understand your voice and what you are going to offer the market. Right now, there are a ton of food and lifestyle blogs, so make sure you are going to commit to a long term approach, one that has been researched. Anyone can start a blog, so what will set you apart? Make sure that your brand is one that is professional – from your website to your business cards. If you are going to approach or pitch to PR and marketing professionals, use a pitch that is well researched and doesn’t waste anyone’s time. Go out to network. Ask good questions and don’t be afraid to say: ‘That didn’t work for me’. Good Luck!