Shelly Westerhausen Worcel is always a little ahead of the curve. A few years ago, when she was working on her second cookbook, Platters and Boards, she got a lot of blank looks when she tried to describe it. “I was like, ‘It’s a spread of food. You know, like a plate, a platter of different ingredients and recipes?’ People really weren’t getting it.” She laughs.
“And then right around when the book came out, the idea just exploded. If you say ‘platters and boards’ now, everyone knows what you’re talking about, because it’s so popular on Instagram. It’s crazy how that works.”
To date Platters and Boards has sold over 100,000 copies, gone through multiple printings, been translated into many different languages, and is distributed all over the world.
Food writer and photographer Shelly Westerhausen Worcel is the powerhouse behind the Vegetarian ‘Ventures website and blog, three cookbooks, and a host of recipes, articles, and food stories shared in online and in print on The Kitchn, Food52, Saveur, and more.
“I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 12, which was really hard when I started. I grew up in the country. My dad had half a cow in the freezer at all times! And the internet didn’t exist in the way it does now, with recipes and all those kinds of resources. For the first couple of years, it was my mom making spaghetti for the family and then putting butter sauce on mine.”
“Everyone told my parents I would grow out of being a vegetarian. And then I came to Bloomington and did the exact opposite, because we have such a cool food scene here.”
Having moved to Bloomington to attend Indiana University, Shelly got immersed in discovering new vegetarian food and exploring Bloomington’s international restaurants, groceries, and cuisine. “International food is huge for vegetarians, and coming from a relatively small town, it was all new to me. I was having such a fun time, discovering new vegetarian recipes through the scene here, that I decided I’d just start a blog to document my adventures.”
The blogging scene in 2012 was totally different. “It blows my mind to think about it, but the first couple of years that I had the blog, there was no social media. You didn’t promote yourself on Facebook or Instagram at all. Now that’s everything.”
“I got in at the right time. There was just a handful of vegetarian blogs, and you could easily create a scene around it and get to know the other bloggers and support each other in that way. Now there’s millions of them. When I started, people would make food, and they would talk about their life, like journaling. Now no one wants the story. They want the recipe. And that’s totally fine! But it is fun to see how it changes over time.”
The blog became the medium by which Shelly honed a suite of professional skills. She learned to write about food, develop recipes, and photograph food—a challenge even to experienced photographers—and her blog served as a portfolio of those skills. Soon she started attracting freelance clients including publications like Bon Appetit, food companies such as La Brea Bread, and even lifestyle and retail companies like West Elm and Williams-Sonoma. “Usually they’re paying for a photographer, a writer, a stylist—I do all of it. In fact, I had to do it all, in order to be able to do it from here in Indiana, in my house.”
Shelly’s work does take her on-site at times.
“I’ve done quite a few shoots out west—in California and Washington mostly. I always get comments like, ‘Why are you in Indiana?’ And I tell them there are a lot of advantages to living here. Bloomington is a really creative community.”
“We’re small, but we have so much international cuisine, so many great restaurants compared to other cities of our size. And I don’t have to worry about commuting an hour each day, each way to my job. That’s two hours a day I can then devote to my creative time. That alone is worthwhile to me. And on top of that, I’m not living in a tiny apartment. I have a house with my own studio, where I can have all of my equipment set up at all times. I don’t have to take it down, set it back up. I get creativity from this place, while also being able to benefit from the relatively low cost of living and housing.”
In fact, a Bloomington connection helped Shelly connect to a New York agent, who then helped her write her first book and find a publisher. “I would have never been able to put out a book without my agent. I didn’t know how to do anything. She helped me write my proposal, she helped me revise it. . . . it probably took us six months to get that thing in a good place.” Shelly’s agent pitched San Francisco publisher Chronicle Books, and the rest is history.
“My first book, The Vegetarian Heartland, was more a traditional cookbook. It was in Barnes and Noble and other bookstores. But when Platters and Boards came out, Barnes and Noble didn’t even carry it at first. The first pressing sold out in the first month, and my mom was like, ‘Where are they selling these? I can’t find it.’” Chronicle Books took an innovative distribution path, merchandising the book through non-traditional markets like gift shops at the art museum in Chicago, for example. Locally, you can find her book at Mira Salon and Spa and Goods for Cooks. This strategy proved very successful, obviously, and today Shelly’s mom could find Platters and Boards at most national book chains.
For most authors, publishing doesn’t generate much money. Shelly doesn’t take her success for granted. “A lot of people don’t realize that for every book sold, I make two dollars and fifty cents. That’s a lot of books you have to sell to make a living off of it. But at the same time, Chronicle does such an amazing job. I couldn’t imagine ever self-publishing, because they’ve gotten my books all over the world. And so I’ve been able to make six figures on my book, but that is so, so rare.” Shelly’s latest book, Tables & Spreads, will release on May 4, 2021.
Although her freelance credits are extensive and her book sales exceptional, Vegetarian ‘Ventures is technically Shelly’s side hustle. By day, she’s Head of Marketing and Sales for North America at Secretly Distribution, a renowned, global music distributor located in Bloomington. Secretly distributes over 50 label partners and works with artists such as Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens, Tycho, John Carpenter, Mitski, Moses Sumney, Phoebe Bridgers, and Sharon Van Etten.
“I think probably if I didn’t have such a cool job, I might have done Vegetarian ‘Ventures full time, but I really love both of them. Music is my one passion, and food is my other. It helps me from getting burnt out that I can shift back and forth.”
“It’s so funny how similar they are. Because I’m working on the marketing side in the music industry, when I go to do my books, I’m like, ‘We did this program for this record, we should try it for my book.’ It definitely translates. And it’s also just really great for me to have that understanding. At my job, I’m basically the distribution and marketing person talking to the label and the artists. And then on my book side, I’m the artist talking to the distribution and the marketing. That perspective is so interesting to see, and it’s helped me on both sides.”
When you talk with Shelly about her success as a food writer, she stresses her luck and good timing: she was lucky to start when she did. She was lucky to find a great agent and publisher. But clearly, creating that success while also building a career in a completely different arena takes grit, creative drive, and ninja-level time management skills.
“I have blog posts down to a science. I shop on Thursday nights, on Saturday mornings I spend three hours cooking and shooting, and on Sunday nights I write the recipe. It’s all very streamlined at this point. But some weeks I do one to three posts, and some weeks I don’t post at all. I just have to be okay with it. I have other things going on, and this is a portfolio, so I’ll get to it when I get to it. It goes in waves.”
For a writer whose latest work centers gatherings of friends and family sharing platters of food, the pandemic presents creative challenges. “Usually I find inspiration from traveling, trying new restaurants, and being around people and seeing what they’re cooking. And right now it’s all just staring at a screen, which doesn’t have the same appeal. We’re at that point in winter where I’m making one-pot meals, lots of stews and Indian food.”
But another adventure is always around the corner for Shelly. “The changing seasons always get me really excited. I’ll start my garden in my basement in about a month. I’ll start some seeds. I always do a garden, a pretty extensive herb garden and grow my own kale and tomatoes and peppers.” She’s even starting to think about her next book.
“When I write a cookbook, it takes a year and a half of me having my head down in it. And that’s another reason why I have two jobs. I love hanging out with myself and being creative alone, and that takes a certain type of personality. I love that part of it.”