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PD Dining Editor Heather Irwin: ‘I said yes at the right time’

Five things to know about Heather Irwin

1. I planned to become a professional French horn player and have a music performance minor.

2. I’ve moved 36 times.

3. I have a master’s degree in writing and reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, but I’m even prouder that I launched the first women’s web content network, EstroNet, in the 1990s. I was kinda famous for like five minutes.

4. I own two crabby rescue Chiweenies that my husband and I spoil to the point that my children feel a little slighted.

5. I'm a die-hard Trekker. Live long and prosper.

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To meet more members of our team, visit here.

“Behind the Byline” introduces you to those who write stories, shoot photos, design pages and edit the content we deliver in our print editions and on pressdemocrat.com. We’re more than journalists. As you’ll see, we’re also your neighbors with unique backgrounds and experiences who proudly call Sonoma County home.

Today, we introduce you to Heather Irwin, our dining editor.

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The first question I usually get as the dining editor of Sonoma Media Investments is: “How did you get that job?” The second is: “Can I come with you on a review?”

When your job is to eat and drink all day, people are pretty curious how you landed such a ridiculously awesome gig.

They want to know what sort of magic juju you’ve cast into the world to have an expense account for Michelin-starred restaurants and be able to order literally everything on the menu you want.

What's the secret, they ask, to spending your days drinking cocktails, eating piles of chocolate and hobnobbing with the fooderati?

Let me peel back the curtain. It’s a damn lot of fun being me, but my life is far from charmed, and there’s no magic in how I got here. I just have a habit of saying “yes” at the right time.

I wasn’t born with a silver serving spoon in my mouth. I grew up a painfully shy kid, preferring the company of the Dragonriders of Pern and hobbits to mere mortals.

I was a precocious and voracious eater, leading to a lifelong battle with my weight, but mainly subsisting on bland, carbohydrate and cheese-loaded Midwestern food for most of my life. What passed for a taco in our house would horrify you. Still, whenever there was an opportunity to try some new culinary delicacy, a Vietnamese rice noodle bowl, beef heart, menudo, dried crickets or fried chicken feet, my answer was a resounding, “Yes!”

My life as a writer started as a cops and courts reporter in Youngstown, Ohio. I can tell you it was not at all glamorous. It kind of sucked, but I learned the ropes and paid my dues for the next 20 years.

Flash forward to 2006, when I naively agreed to become the first blogger at The Press Democrat.

The subject was, loosely, “about food,” something I'd done for a few years prior at this region’s alternative newsweekly, the North Bay Bohemian.

I wasn't exceptionally skilled at it, but my boss thought it would drive traffic to our fledgling website. I said yes, and “Biteclub” was born.

It was years before anyone took me seriously. I fell flat more than I succeeded.

As a single mom, my parents often babysat my children when I would review restaurants at night. Later, I took it as a personal victory when my 6-year-old son explained the difference between country pate and foie gras to his friend.

But my “job” as a food writer never actually existed. In fact, it still doesn’t.

I’ve always been a digital creative manager at The Press Democrat, and that’s what my job description still says (I have no idea what it means, but I design the websites and stuff). I just sort of made up the whole food thing, one post at a time, until everyone believed me. And all it took was a single yes and a leap of faith.

Since 2017, I've had a double life as the founder of a nonprofit called Sonoma Family Meal.

A disaster-based feeding program, it supports our local food system by bringing together chefs, farmers, producers and volunteers to make meals for survivors of this region’s floods, fires and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

It was something that evolved organically from my long relationship with chefs in Sonoma County who wanted a way to help their friends and neighbors in need.

It’s grown and evolved into a massive feeding project with more than 600,000 meals served. We'll be opening a 3,000-square-foot community kitchen in early 2022, and I’ll be handing over the reins to a new director later this year.

It hasn’t been easy, but it happened because I said yes and took another giant leap of faith.

I believe in the power of saying “yes” to the unknown because that’s the secret behind my success as a writer, a nonprofit founder, surviving single motherhood, and living every day knowing something great is just around the corner.

So, how did I end up with this dream job? I just said yes.

Five things to know about Heather Irwin

1. I planned to become a professional French horn player and have a music performance minor.

2. I’ve moved 36 times.

3. I have a master’s degree in writing and reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, but I’m even prouder that I launched the first women’s web content network, EstroNet, in the 1990s. I was kinda famous for like five minutes.

4. I own two crabby rescue Chiweenies that my husband and I spoil to the point that my children feel a little slighted.

5. I'm a die-hard Trekker. Live long and prosper.

____

To meet more members of our team, visit here.

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