Rachel Levin ‘89 spends her days working as a restaurant critic and freelance journalist, but it’s not looming deadlines or bad gnocchi that is keeping her up at night—it’s critters and cougars. As humans increasingly encroach on animal habitats, animals of all shapes and sizes are being driven into more populous areas. Although she currently lives in the heart of San Francisco, Rachel knows that wildlife is all around her, like the stray mountain lion that could sneak up on her when she’s out running in the Marin headlands or the posse of surly raccoons that might jump her one evening as she’s taking out the trash. Rachel is the first to admit that her nagging fear of an animal attack is somewhat neurotic, but after bumping into a moose in Colorado one winter, she was inspired to write her first book: LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds (Ten Speed Press, April 2018).
LOOK BIG is a humorous survey of the fifty most “feared or frustrating” wild animals that humans commonly—and not so commonly— encounter, with expert advice on how to safely and sanely navigate those interactions. The book also underscores how statistically silly some of our biggest fears truly are. While sharks kill one American a year on average, cows are apparently dispatching as many as twenty. Sharknado, indeed!
Rachel began pursuing her career as a writer a few years after graduating from Colgate University, where she majored in philosophy. Shortly after graduation, Rachel packed a suitcase full of flip-flops and tank tops and moved out to foggy-windy San Francisco, promising her mom that she would only stay for a year. “I had never been to California and didn’t even pack a coat,” says Rachel, “but it turns out that I picked a good place.”
Rachel started out at San Francisco Magazine as an editorial intern. She left to work at an adventure travel company for a couple of years and then returned to SF Magazine as editorial assistant, eventually becoming a contributing writer. A short stint covering island news back east for the Martha’s Vineyard Times sent her running back to California, and she spent the next five years as a travel editor at Sunset Magazine, exploring the west and writing about her experiences. She went heli-hiking in the Bugaboos and skiing in Bend. She surfed in Mexico and explored the Sawtooths. "It was super fun,” she says, but even writing about the adventurous west coast lifestyle can wear thin after a few years. “Every September it was the ‘coastal issue,’ and I just couldn’t do another ‘coastal issue!’” she laughs.
So Rachel took her travel and lifestyle writing expertise and decided to go freelance. “I started experimenting with writing about all different kinds of stuff,” she says. She wrote about a crack addict ultramarathoner for Outside Magazine, speed dating mothers for The New Yorker, and a pop-up pot dinner for The New York Times.
Food writing has become a particular area of expertise, and last summer, she was hired to be the first San Francisco restaurant critic for Eater. Her restaurant reviewing work has also become a popular topic of conversation in her home, which she shares with husband Josh Richter and burgeoning young food critics Hazel, 9, and Oren, 6. When out to pizza, Hazel and Oren frequently ask, “How many stars would you give it, Mom?”
Meanwhile, despite enjoying the flexibility being a freelancer affords, she feels like she's always on the lookout for story ideas, and always working. She attributes her doggedness, in part, to her time at Fay. “Fay was academically very rigorous and instilled a work ethic that has stuck with me,” she says. “I still kind of feel like I always have a ton of homework."