Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ben Paynter, former Pitch scribe, is now a James Beard Award winner

Posted By on Thu, May 24, 2012 at 11:40 AM

Paynter and his wife Katie celebrate after he received his James Beard award.
  • Paynter and his wife, Katie, celebrate after he received his James Beard award.
This was not the year that chef Colby Garrelts was destined to return home with a James Beard medal around his neck, but three nights earlier at the James Beard Foundation Book, Broadcast & Journalism awards, another Kansas Citian found himself making his way to the podium to deliver an acceptance speech.

Ben Paynter, a staff writer for The Pitch from 2003 through 2007, won in the Environment, Food Politics and Policy category for his Fast Company piece, "The Sweet Science."

"A lot of what I write is science and technology stuff, but I have a huge passion for food. I've even written about Cargill before and how they save offal from slaughterhouses in order to repackage it. This story was a nice way to combine those two passions," Paynter says.

Fat City caught up with him to learn more about his story on the sweetener Truvia (you can read it here), the awards night on May 4 at Gotham Hall in New York City, and what's next for the writer who still lives in Kansas City.

1. How did the piece happen?

Truvia hit the market with a huge media blitz. The proposition was that it was unique - a no-calorie, natural sweetener. The two choices before that had been zero calorie and chemicals or full calorie and no chemicals. This was a product giving an alternative. My question was, how did they do that?

Sweeteners have always been pink, blue or yellow and now Truvia was the green package. I wanted to know more about the designs behind it and the marketing push. I called Cargill and the story developed from there. One of the really unique aspects is that was sort of created by the exact consumer who would use this - an executive who considers herself a "yoga momma."

The story boiled down to what does natural really mean. The USDA has no formal term to regulate natural. It was also about what Cargill was doing and the tradeoffs and lasting impacts for customers who use [Truvia]. The broadest question was probably what is this going to be doing to our national waistline.

2. What's a night at the James Beard Awards like?

Everybody says that the James Beard Awards are the Oscars of the food world. In that sense, it was just an honor to be nominated. I had no other expectation other than I was excited to be there. It's just the food writers on Friday night (the chefs awards were the following Monday) and it was excellent people watching. There was Ted Allen and Andrew Zimmern, just hundreds of incredibly talented people which made for really great conversation. Some of the most interesting people I met were book photographers and cookbook writers and NPR correspondents.

Still, that night was really nerve-wracking. They call the names and introduce categories in the order you're nominated. My category was way down on the list. So we had the cocktail hour, appetizers and were almost done with dinner before we got there. I didn't eat or drink a lot because I was nervous.

When they called my name, I gave my wife a big hug and kiss and got up on stage. The hosts of the night - Michael Symon and CBS correspondent Martha Teichner were there. Martha put the medal around my neck and Michael was standing offstage. We both have the same haircut [both are bald], so I was a little more comfortable. I gave my 30-second acceptance speech, thanking my editors, James Beard, my fellow nominees and my wife. Then they took me to get my picture taken in front of a Hollywood style banner and I just tried to let it all sink in. The night couldn't have gone any better.

3. What have you been working on recently?

I'm still writing full bore for Fast Company, Wired and Businessweek. I just finished the smallest story on the world about a bug stunt man for Wired. There's another piece in the Spring 2012 edition of Good Magazine about a partnership between cops and scientists to create better eyewitness ID lineups. I love the Midwest and I think where I am really helps inform the way I approach stories. There are interesting people doing really interesting things out there.

The Cargill story was in Minneapolis, but I still consider that the broader Midwest. I think people take it for granted that the Midwest has innovation, but I believe there are tons of examples of that. You just have to stop and look.

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