Nycci Safier Nellis helps define the food and wine community of Washington, D.C. In 2003 she founded The List (thelistareyouonit.com), an online compendium of what’s happening and what’s important in the city. She is a regular contributor of food news on WTOP-FM and she and her husband, David Nellis, are the hosts of a weekly food and wine variety show, “Foodie and the Beast,” on 1500-FM.
Food is the common denominator of so much that you’ve done. Were you a “foodie” from the start or did you have other career plans when you were young?
I was very dramatic as a child. Every little girl wants to be an actress, I suppose, but I did think about going into TV as a newscaster. I even did an internship at WTOP-FM when I was in college. I loved it.
I went to Simmons College in Boston and then came back to D.C. I don’t think I knew how to get where I wanted to be. Had you asked me when I was 21 what my dream job was, I’d have said food critic. Now I know that although a food critic is a terrific position of power, it’s not at all where I want to be.
I’ve frequently been asked to do reviews but I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be that person in this community. I like being the one who gets to share information about a new menu or new chef or event. I enjoy that role immensely. But I wouldn’t have known that when I was 21.
Was food the theme from the start?
I was passionate about food and cooked from a very young age. When I graduated from college I became an event planner for a women’s association, which allowed me to stay connected with the food world. I arranged lunches and dinners and cocktail parties and I really enjoyed that aspect of it. I married a man who had three young children, so making lunches for young children suddenly became part of my life, too!
When I became pregnant with my own child, I started baking from home for area restaurants. It was a total lark. I talked to someone who owned a restaurant and he was looking for desserts. It wasn’t even something I thought I did really well. But I started providing him with some of the dishes he wanted and before I knew it I had a “client” and a business. I hadn’t expected to be baking out of my house.
And once I began doing that, I became aware of all the cooking classes available around the D.C. area. This was 10 or 11 years ago, before blogs. There was a food community online but the communication about what was going on around the city wasn’t nearly as prolific as it is today.
It drove me crazy because a restaurant might be offering a class on Wednesday and I wouldn’t hear about it until Thursday. You had to be in the know. I’ve always been a concierge to my friends, so I naturally wondered how I could gather all this information and get it out to people like me.
You were a pioneer in creating a local, food-centered website.
I was so green. I had no idea there were PR people. I didn’t know how the restaurant business worked at all. But I shook a lot of hands and explained what I wanted to do. There were a lot of naysayers. They asked me if people really wanted to know all that about the food world. Well, I did.
I paid someone to build a website. That was a little difficult because I don’t speak the language, but I found a tech-savvy person who did. He was terrific in putting together what I wanted and very quickly I had 400 subscribers. We accumulated new subscribers quickly: We go out to about 35,000 now. It’s been steady growth over the years. We have a new website that launched about a year ago. It needs a bit more fine-tuning but it’s in good shape already.
Were you confident or nervous about the leap to self-employment?
I didn’t think when I started that I was making a job for myself. I was just hoping that it could be a business eventually. But at first I wasn’t seeing it as a job. I just went for it.
I had a partner for the first nine months but she left and I made it my own. We hit 18,000 subscribers pretty quickly and my profile in the D.C. food and wine community increased because of that. I got to know chefs and their restaurants and their PR people. Where people may have been hesitant at first because they thought I was just looking for advertising dollars or looking to do a snarky review, that changed. They knew I wasn’t looking to sell, only to tell. It changed people’s perceptions.
I was fortunate because I began writing for some publications and I became a regular contributor on WTOP, a local all-news FM station. That brought us our radio show. I’m going into the sixth year of “Foodie and the Beast.” It’s a one-hour food-and-wine show that airs live every Sunday.
Do you see that show as an extension of The List website or as something all its own?
It’s different in that I don’t own it. But all these opportunities came to me because of the success of The List. I do regular TV gigs. I’m asked to judge cooking competitions and events. It’s all because I’m a very visible part of the food community and I think many consider me to be a tastemaker. I have 15,000 Twitter followers, so it seems people want to know what I’m doing. I’d say 90% of what I tweet is business and 10% is personal. But people want to know where I go to eat and what I eat and what I think.
Have the ways people connect with food and restaurants changed much since you started?
People’s opinions about food definitely have changed. All the programming that’s there now from Food Network and shows like “Top Chef” have created a broader appreciation for the food and wine scene.
Do you think those shows spawned the current foodie culture or was America already catching up to the love of food that most other cultures have had?
A certain part of the population already was into food. I was. My parents were. But I had friends in college and even now who aren’t really interested in food. They love to go out to eat but they don’t want to know the process of the meal. I do.
I love the changes that are happening now in the food culture, with chefs working with local farmers and ranchers. And yes, sometimes it can be a bit elitist and out of control, but overall I love it and I’m open to it.
All the cooking shows on TV have done wonders for the food culture in this country. I don’t think Middle America cared about where their food came from 10 years ago. You hardly saw any farmers markets in cities a decade ago and now they’re popping up everywhere. And not just on Sundays. In some areas, like DC, you can now find a quality farmers market almost every day of the week. It’s definitely a trickle-down effect from the increase in food shows. Those shows are reaching people who otherwise might not have developed an interest in food.
Why do you think your role as “concierge” to your friends and the community is so fulfilling to you?
Perhaps because I’m a know-it-all! I like being in the position of knowing something first. I don’t break news because people share a lot of confidential information with me. I could break news but I would hurt relationships. I’m happy writing about it when the time’s right
Everything I’ve learned about food business in this city and all the people in it whom I’ve met make me respect it more and more. I’m proud to be part of it.
Because you were an early online food writer, did you have any real role models or mentors?
I really didn’t. But what I did have was a terrific support system. I met a lot of women—some older, some younger—who were in similar positions. We were all trying to establish careers in the growing food world. Some were writers, some were in PR and some were restaurateurs. We got to know each other. It became a network, largely of women but with some men as well, that grew and became my lifeline.
My husband was a huge source of support as well. I couldn’t have done any of it without him. But the support I received from these women was critical. They cheered me on. There were days when I wondered what I was doing and if I should be doing something else and they were there to say, “You can do it.” Whatever I’ve accomplished, it wouldn’t have happened without this cheering section by my side.
I wish I had had a mentor who could have shown me the way and where to step. But in absence of that, my support system did fine. It still does.
Do you try to be a mentor to young people?
Absolutely. We have had a slew of interns at The List. Many have gotten jobs as a result and I’m thrilled to help young people get out there and find what’s next for them.
How do your young interns differ from you when you began your career?
I was already 30 when I created The List so I was at a different stage in my life than most of the interns. But many of them are real go-getters. I’m impressed. I think you can tell who’s going to succeed and who’s not.
It takes some people a little longer to decide what the prize for them is. I can speak to that because I didn’t go out on my own until I was 30 and I had no idea that doing something for yourself by yourself could be so fulfilling.
Some people know at 15 that they’re going to become a doctor and that’s what they do. I always knew food was important but it took some time for me to know in what capacity I would connect with the world of food and wine.
What do you tell young women about succeeding in their careers?
There’s no putting life on cruise control anymore. Twenty or 30 years ago, some people got jobs that were fulfilling perhaps but that didn’t allow you to move around or up very easily. You stayed in that job unless you moved up by going to another company in your field. Today, there’s no sitting back and relaxing. It’s a go-go-go world and you have to keep up with it.
But the best piece of advice I can give is that your relationships with people should be the most important thing to you. Someone who is an intern today can be the editor of a magazine tomorrow. You never know who someone may be in a few years. I tell young women to be professional and courteous to everyone. Everyone. You never know who will end up where.
The relationships I’ve made fuel my business and fuel me. That’s the truth. I’ve made terrific professional relationships, some of which have become friendships. That has pushed me forward and allows me to take my passion to other levels. I’m delighted that it has done that.
Who is at the table for your ideal dinner?
I definitely want Wolfgang Puck with me because he is the life of any party. [Pioneering food writer] M.F.K. Fisher. I have so many questions to ask her. [Writer and former Gourmet editor-in-chief] Ruth Reichl, too, because she can spin a tale like no one else.
And what would be served?
I’m really partial right now to very spicy Asian cuisine. I would take everyone to a new restaurant that just opened in D.C. called Doi Loi. Haidar Karoum is the chef there and he serves spicy Asian food in a glorious setting. I would take everyone there.
What’s next for you?
I hope to continue to evolve. I hope the radio show grows because it was something unexpected. But I truly love it. And I hope The List grows, too. We’re looking to add video. It’s hard to know what people will want. Lots of outlets now supply information about food and wine, but no one has the number of food and wine events on their calendar that we have. I want to continue to supply a service that’s meaningful and to learn what changes that will require.