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April 4, 2013

Books, Journals & More

A closer look: Sarah Sudar

sudarA food blog, begun on a whim, has whisked School of Medicine staffer Sarah Sudar into the rising Pittsburgh food scene despite her lack of formal culinary training.

Sudar, who joined the Pitt staff in 2006 and currently is a communication specialist in the consortium ethics program housed in the Department of Medicine’s Division of General Internal Medicine, said the idea for came in 2009 during a workout with Mandy McFadden, a high school friend. They brought in two other friends, Julia Gongaware and Laura Zorch, and simply began posting on their culinary adventures.

“We just started blogging with really no schedule, no rhyme or reason. Just whenever you went out you’d write a little post and put a picture up and that was it,” Sudar said.

“We didn’t think anyone was reading it until we noticed people at [Allegheny County tourist promotion agency] Visit Pittsburgh were reading it. And we thought: People are actually reading this and it’s not our dads and moms?”

That led them to focus on covering local restaurants, chefs and food events. “We want to be the No. 1 food source” for locals as well as for visitors to the city, Sudar said.

In conjunction with the transformation of Pittsburgh’s food scene into a more varied and vibrant community, EatPgh has grown, with the bloggers expanding to include social media connections via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

“I feel like every night I’m either blogging about something, networking with someone, at some new opening,” Sudar said. “I’m always doing something with regard to food.”

In December 2011, Sudar received an email from a publisher of local food guides, asking the bloggers to write a Pittsburgh version. “I thought it was complete spam,” she said, but passed the message along to McFadden, Gongaware and Zorch.

A little research revealed that the email was legitimate. A deal was struck and the four  — all of whom have day jobs — took a break from blogging to work on “The Food Lovers’ Guide to Pittsburgh.”

The guide includes brief entries on some 220 local restaurants, with special sections for local food events, stadium food, drinks and specialty shops, plus a dozen recipes from local sources.

Entries are organized geographically, with sections for Downtown and Station Square, the Strip District, neighborhoods to the north, south and east, and suburban locations the authors deem “worth the drive.”

The entries “aren’t really reviews, they’re just about what you’re going to get,” Sudar said. “We always say we are not food critics. We don’t have formal culinary training. We’re just out to promote how great the Pittsburgh food scene is becoming.”

The entries include recommendations on what to order, plus details on the wait service, special features, when to go and when not to go, and interesting tidbits that might not be apparent to outsiders. “Every one describes what you get when you walk in the door until you leave,” Sudar said.

To start the book project, the four sat down together to create one huge outline, listing every local restaurant they could think of, by neighborhood. “We initially came up with 400 or 500 places”  — enough for two dining guide volumes — she said, adding that it was difficult to decide which ones to cut.

Chain restaurants aren’t included and some of Pittsburgh’s more traditional places — like those on Mt. Washington — were left out in favor of newer places that represent “what’s happening now,” she said.

Once they’d pared the list, the authors divided up the restaurants, based mostly on personal preference and familiarity.

Sudar, who enjoys Mexican cuisine, took those entries and also wrote the entries for many of the Italian places. McFadden wrote most of the pizza entries; Gongaware favored the desserts and sweets, and Zorch was the “cheeseburger queen,” Sudar said.

Over three months, they visited most of the places listed in the guide. “Not all together, but we ate at a majority of them,” Sudar said. “Julie and I toured the entire Strip one Saturday and ate samples the whole way down,” she said.

“It was so much fun, every night eating out,” she said, adding that she would bring friends along in order to be able to order a wider range of menu items.

“I would have dinner three times on Saturdays,” she said, admitting that she had to join Weight Watchers to counter the effects.

“It was fun exploring restaurants and neighborhoods you never knew about. I went to a lot of places I probably would never have gone to,” she said.

When the last dessert had been digested, the four sat down and edited the entire book in one marathon 13-hour session.

“We made every decision together,” Sudar said. “It was the only way to do it and make it sound like one. We all have the same voice, but they’re individually different a little bit. Laura’s a little bit more quirky in her writing, I’m a little bit more business-y because I come from a business background. Mandy writes like she talks, which is great. And Julia is just really good. We’d sit there and go straight through everything word-for-word.”

Pittsburg- the best restaurantsCompleting the project in three months was exhausting, Sudar said. “I remember turning it in and sleeping the entire week after. I’d wake up, go to work, eat, sleep. I was mentally exhausted.”

For eight months the four kept the project secret, breaking their silence with a blog post in July 2012, just before the book was released in September.

“We didn’t want to tell. We were so nervous,” she said.

The response, however, has been positive: Several printings have sold out and the book has been well received. “Pittsburghers have really used it and loved it to go outside their comfort zone,” she said. The book has led to a lot of speaking engagements in suburban libraries and bookstores. “A lot of people in the suburbs want to come into the city to eat. They want to know what’s new,” she said.

“I’ve been surprised by how successful it’s been.”

The book project led them to present an hour-long talk, “Eat. Blog. Publish,” on taking an idea, building an audience and becoming a trusted source, at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival last month in Austin, Texas.

“It’s been an exciting ride,” Sudar said. “We all have full-time jobs. We had an idea and never thought it would be a book and all these other things. It speaks to the modern times where people in our generation are not working jobs like our parents did — just creating our own ideas and running with them,” she said.

“We really just talked about how we had an idea and how we leveraged it into a book deal into another project we’re working on that will be out later this fall.”

What delicious project is next? “I’m not allowed to tell,” she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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