Sarah Gim certainly didn't invent food porn. But she's perfected it.
Gim runs TasteSpotting, a virtual buffet showcasing some of the most arresting food images available online with a collection that tops 140,000 stunning photos. The majority of the 5 million clicks logged each month come from visitors who graze with their eyes and gobble up kitchen inspiration and recipes. They drool. They lose themselves in the aspiration of it all. A red beet salad adorned with chives that were sprinkled just so. A snowflake cookie with impossibly perfect pink icing. And a plump fig, torn open and lovingly captured in a photo that is so simple, so transporting that it borders on heartbreaking.
It all looks so artful, so effortless. But there's a grittier side to the site. If you could pull back the curtain, you'd see food bloggers worldwide relentlessly vying for an audience with all those readers. As the gatekeeper, Gim can get as many as 1,000 submissions in a single day. But, alas, only a fraction land that coveted spot on TasteSpotting's home page. And the angry emails — "Why didn't you post my apple tart?" — can quickly pile up.
"I do sometimes feel like I am one of the most hated people in the food world," says Gim, who works from her spacious, sun-drenched home in Los Angeles. "I read the Twitter feed. I definitely know…. I feel so bad when somebody is hurt by it.... It's a hard job to do."
Gim is referring to the disappointment food bloggers feel — and give voice to — when they are rejected by TasteSpotting. Although it is just one of many so-called food porn sites, alongside the likes of foodgawker, Serious Eats' Photograzing and Food Porn Daily, Gim's site is considered by many to be the gold standard.
"From a food blogger's perspective, TasteSpotting is No. 1," says Los Angeles food writer and blogger Greg Henry of the food blog Sippity Sup. He has had his share of photos featured and rejected by Gim over the years. Landing a spot on TasteSpotting is like hitting the lottery.
The Web traffic lottery, that is.
"You see it immediately," Henry says. "You just watch your food traffic go through the roof."
The site is such a phenomenon that there is a mock site, TasteStopping, that accepts the photos that Gim rejects. "I think it's funny," Gim says of this "rival" site.
The most common criticism leveled against TasteSpotting is that it's too subjective. Why did this photo get accepted while this other photo was rejected? And who is Sarah Gim anyway? Is she some kind of photo expert?
Gim, 36, is the first to admit there is an element of subjectivity. But the general guidelines — a photo should be sharp and well composed, it must look inviting or intriguing, it must link to a blog or a site that offers something substantial for readers — are all intended to lend harmony and order to the reader experience, and build toward a certain look that says "TasteSpotting."
"It would be easy to approve everything, but that kind of defeats the whole purpose," says Gim. (And indeed, even the most critical food bloggers concede that they don't want Gim to approve all submissions, as it would take away from the sense of accomplishment that comes with earning TasteSpotting's seal of approval.)
Food was never part of Gim's intended career path. She started her own personal food blog, the Delicious Life, in 2005 as a way to meld her obsession with food and food magazines with her career in online marketing.
TasteSpotting came along in 2007, started with Jean Aw of the popular online design site NotCot, but the two have since parted ways. In the beginning, the photos on TasteSpotting were generated by Gim, Aw and a close group of friends. "It was kind of like a personal collection. We didn't anticipate that people would be posting their own things," Gim says.
But TasteSpotting took off as food bloggers flocked to it, and now Gim's full-time job is overseeing the ad-supported site with the help of part-time photo editors. On a recent weekday morning, Gim trolled through submissions like a fairy godmother waving a magic wand. Approved. Denied. Denied.
Now and again, she offered commentary. "Not sharp enough." "I'd eat that." And "I can't really tell what that is. It's too close up."
"Oooh, no fingers!" she exclaimed at one point with a little shudder.
Food bloggers, take note: By and large, Gim does not like to see food being handled.
But if you think the raven-haired Gim wields this make-or-break power with impunity, think again. She is the picture of tension as she sits at her desk, which is actually a low-slung sideboard in her living room, and Gim uses one of the cubbyholes as a foot rest. Her dog, a Chihuahua named Daisy, scampers about as Gim clicks through a morning's worth of submissions, the equivalent of flipping through 25 cookbooks — or more — each day. "I just don't know. Let me think about it. I'll come back to it," she says of one photo. She does this throughout the morning, repeatedly circling back to images that fall into a gray area — not perfect, but not bad either. "This is really hard. I don't like to say no. My preference is to say yes."
She does not have a quota for approvals, she says. And she tries her best to reply to every rejectee, typing out a few words explaining why the image was rejected, such as poor lighting or composition. Often, she makes a suggestion to bloggers after clicking around their site — "submit this image instead" — or refers someone to a list of links to photography tutorials. "Someone took the time to submit something, so I like to at least let them know. This is a community. And ultimately, if the photos get better and the submissions get better, then that makes the site better. I try to get to as many of these as I can."
The site documents the changes in food photography. In the beginning, it was all macro, super close-up shots. Now the "top-down" shot is in vogue. "And people are trying to tell a story with their photo. There's a lot more food styling."
Although the online food world is a close-knit bunch, particularly in L.A., Gim remains a bit of an outsider. She largely avoids the limelight. (While many food bloggers post photos of themselves on Twitter, or occasionally on their food blog, Gim does not. Her Twitter avatar is coyly cropped, making her unrecognizable.)
However, Gim will step out from behind the curtain next month when she is scheduled to appear at Camp BlogAway, a Big Bear-area gathering for food bloggers, many from Southern California. One of the most hotly anticipated panels? A Q&A with Gim.
She isn't likely to face a hostile audience. After all, she is the gatekeeper.
"I think they will be adoring her," says Henry. "I think there will be a lot of kissin' up."