No matter where you were when the two planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, you were profoundly affected by the events of that day. And if you, like me, were at all involved in the food culture at that moment, your thoughts quickly turned to Windows on the World, the glitzy restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower, where visitors could enjoy unparalleled views while sipping $5 drinks (at the adjoining Greatest Bar on Earth) or dropping serious coin for a celebratory dinner. One hundred seventy employees and patrons of the restaurant died that day.
Author Tom Roston, this week's Special Sauce guest, has written The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World: The Twin Towers, Windows on the World, and the Rebirth of New York, a compelling and doggedly reported book that details the history of both Windows on the World and the Twin Towers, from their inception to their demise. As Roston says, "It's no coincidence that the book is coming out in September, right around 9/11, because it's when we are all forced to remember. Even though we are all thinking about it. I think so many of us always have it in the back of our minds.... I didn't lose anyone, but as a New Yorker, my city suffered. It just makes sense when you're...putting a book out, let's do it when this is part of the conversation. And I want the life of this restaurant to be a part of the conversation about 9/11, because it's not just about the tragedy."
Roston was particularly drawn to the poignant stories of the many immigrants from all over the world who worked at Windows on the World. "...There are these stories that have gone untold. We experienced 9/11, we think of this smoke, we think of these awful things, potentially. Or people go to the memorial, and they commemorate what happened. But it was interesting to me as a storyteller to say, 'Well, what about all these stories that haven't been told?' And it turned out they were these incredible stories, like from September 10th. This range of experience of life that happened in the restaurant that, of course, is heavy with meaning and profundity when you consider what happened the next day."
These next two Special Sauce episodes with Roston moved me to tears, and I imagine they will move many other serious eaters in the same way.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/09/special-sauce-tom-roston-part-1.html
In part two of my thought-provoking interview with San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho, we dove right into how she thinks about restaurant criticism.
Soleil explained, "I like to think of restaurants as texts in the same way that you read a book and then you extrapolate upon who wrote the book, when did they write it, why did they write it, what did the audience think at the time? What does it say about society at the time? What kind of snapshot is it? You're really reading it for meaning, and I think restaurants, you can take the same way."
When she took the Chronicle job, Soleil announced that she was banning certain words from her reviews, including a widely used adjective like “ethnic.” “When you say ethnic restaurants, I would beg you, not you Ed, but people who are listening, to think about what kinds of restaurants you're including under that umbrella. Are only some restaurants under that umbrella or all restaurants, because don't we all have ethnicity?"
Soleil takes her responsibilities seriously. Very seriously. She was recently quoted as asking, ”What if I screw up and no one ever hires a queer woman of color for a role like this again?"
I asked her to expand on that worry. "I get...a lot of messages from young people, younger than me, who are coming up or who are just reading my work and find me inspiring. And so I take that to heart as something that tells me to tread lightly, to be honest with who I am, but to also make sure that the door is open even wider for them.”
To find out what other words and phrases Soleil refuses to use in her reviews, and why she gave a lukewarm review to the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, you're just going to have to listen. It’ll be well worth your time to do so.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/08/special-sauce-soleil-ho-on-representation-in-food-media.html
Like a great deal of food media in America, the world of restaurant criticism has a long history of hiring white writers and closing its doors to people of color. So it was exciting to see the San Francisco Chronicle break the mold last year when it hired Vietnamese-American food writer and co-host of The Racist Sandwich podcast, Soleil Ho, to be its lead restaurant critic. If that wasn't cool enough, Soleil also happens to be a fellow graduate of Grinnell College, the small progressive liberal arts college in Iowa that I attended a mere 40 years before she did. For all those reasons and more, I had to have Soleil on Special Sauce.
At Grinnell, Soleil remembers "having to petition dining services to leave soy sauce out for breakfast, and they didn't understand why we needed it. And I had to make my case like, ‘No, soy sauce and eggs is a thing that people eat.’” Vocal as she was about food, though, she didn’t start out wanting to be a food writer. "When I entered college, I wanted to get into physics. I was really into quantum physics and was reading the History of Time and all of these other books,” she recalls. But cooking always had an undeniable allure. "Oh, I used to be so into Iron Chef when I was a kid. I loved the bravado of it, of peeling eels alive and all of that stuff. And that's what really attracted me to that.”
Learning to cook came later, initially from reading, watching TV, and dining out, and eventually from working in Portland as a line cook. It was during her line cook days that she started her groundbreaking podcast, The Racist Sandwich, with Zahir Janmohamed. "We wanted the show to be a reliable place within food media for people to find these stories that seems like they only ran on special occasions. You know, like you'd only read black stories in February during Black History Month, or you'd only read LGBTQ stories during June, Pride Month, those sorts of things. And we wanted to cover that stuff all the time and not feel like those stories were an exception or tokens or anything like that."
We covered so many interesting topics during the first half of our conversation we never even got to her San Francisco Chronicle gig. For that, you'll have to wait until next week. In the meantime, you can check out her bylines for the newspaper right here.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/08/special-sauce-soleil-ho-on-her-journey-from-quantum-physics-to-racist-sandwich.html
In part two of Ed Levine's conversation with Max Falkowitz and Matt Rodbard, the three discuss how Falkowitz and Rodbard got started in food media and how their careers evolved.
Falkowitz begins by underlining how intimidating it was when he first started working at Serious Eats. "I can't really describe the terror upon walking into the office," he says- though, he observes, that fear was tempered by the frenetic publication schedule, which was both liberating and educational. "It was a great trial by fire," Falkowitz says. "There was no time to second-guess yourself, and there was no time to dawdle with irrelevancies that weren't going to move the next story forward."
Rodbard notes that the early days of his food-media career, around 2006, were an incredibly exciting time to be working in the industry. "It was a great moment for me to cover New York at a time when celebrity chefs were starting to really become a thing," he recalls. "It was captivating to me to cover this burgeoning celebrity-chef world."
The two then describe how they eventually ended up where they are now: Rodbard is the editor-in-chief of Taste, an online magazine, and Falkowitz is a freelance writer, consultant, and host for Taste's podcast.
Ed asks the two of them to expound upon the current state of food media, and what they think has changed. "I think it's a more diverse world," Rodbard says, echoing a point Falkowitz made in part one of their interview. "I think editors and editorial directors and bosses are making a really clear and conscious effort to diversify their staff, diversify their freelancers."
The three of them discuss far more about the future of food media than can be captured in this brief blurb. To hear everything they have to say, you're just going to have to listen to the episode.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/08/special-sauce-ed-levine-matt-rodbard-max-falkowitz-2.html
In the next two episodes of Special Sauce, we take a deep dive into the challenges and triumphs of building a career in food media. I invited former Serious Eats editor/current contributor Max Falkowitz, and founding TASTE editor Matt Rodbard to share their perspectives. As two people who have co-written cookbooks with chefs, been on staff as editors and writers at food publications, and freelanced extensively, I thought they’d offer unique insights into what it takes to become food writer. And sure enough, they had no shortage of thoughts to share.
Max started us off with a hilarious tale about life at the Falkowitz family table: "So my dream story is to write one of those really tender, loving, emotional pieces about my dad's pasta sauce, which he spends all day making. He has these giant cauldrons that his aunt used to only used to boil gefilte fish in and they're probably 30 gallon cauldrons. He chops up all of his olives and he browns his ground beef and he gets special types of tomatoes and he spends all day making the sauce. He invites his old college buddies to have the sauce. It's a whole thing, and the sauce is terrible...It's so bad. It tastes like canned olive juice...which is effectively what it is. Both of my parents are wonderful cooks, and they were for the most part raising me as independent single parents and did a fantastic job and gave me a life long love of food, but they have their missteps and one of them is the sauce."
Matt's advice for aspiring food writers is quite simple: "Write all the time. It's like a muscle. It's like riding a bike. I mean, it's cliché, but it's true. You have to stay in shape. I think that's why I said the Yelp review was such a good thing to start with, because I was Yelping literally every meal I had and I think often with Twitter and with Social, people assume that's writing, but it's not writing. That isn't writing. That's something else."
Max added this bit of pointed counsel: “Give a fuck. There's so much writing that feels totally dispassionate and procedural. If you're not doing this because you love it, you're not going to get paid doing this."
Anyone who has contemplated pursuing this fulfilling but challenging career path should give these next two episodes a listen.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/08/special-sauce-matt-rodbard-and-max-falkowitz-on-becoming-food-writers.html
In part two of Ed Levine's conversation with Lazarus Lynch, who goes by more titles than any 25-year-old has any reasonable expectation to have (cookbook author, performer, singer...the list is incredible!), they delve into how Lynch decided he wanted to write his book, Son of a Southern Chef: Cook with Soul.
Lynch tells Ed that he came up with the title in his junior year in college, long before he even thought about what the book would contain, during a meeting in which a campus advisor asked him to think about his dream profession. "And I remember I kept bringing up my dad," Lynch says, "and I...went to my room that evening and woke up the next day with 'Son of a Southern Chef' sort of on the tip of my tongue."
And while Lynch adopted the phrase for his overall brand, producing a cookbook was just a natural extension of the many projects he'd already undertaken. But the process of writing the book was a bit mystifying, particularly since he didn't see any other book like it on the market- one written by someone who was in their early 20s and, as Lynch says, "who just came out of college, who's a part of the LGBTQ family, and who's talking about soul food." Add to that the skepticism he initially faced from publishers, many of whom rejected the book pitch out of hand. "We sent it out to about ten different publishers," Lynch says, "and...everyone was like, 'No, no, no.'"
Eventually, he found a publisher, and had to navigate the process of getting the book written and edited, but to hear more about what that was like, and how the book changed over the course of its writing, you're just going to have to tune in.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/08/special-sauce-lazarus-lynch-2-2.html
Singer, author (Son of a Southern Chef), and food personality Lazarus Lynch is not your typical cookbook writer or social media star. As an openly gay young Black man, Lynch is blazing his own trail in the food and media worlds, so I couldn't pass up the chance to talk to him for Special Sauce.
Lynch started his food TV career in college, where he enlisted friends to hold cameras and other equipment for his cooking show in exchange for free food. "We put it on YouTube. I didn't think anyone was going to watch it. And suddenly people on campus started to notice it, pay attention to it, and then [online food video network] Tastemade came calling." The next thing Lynch knew, Tastemade was flying him out regularly to LA to shoot his show.
Who inspired him to pursue a career in cooking on camera? "In the early days of watching Food Network, I would come home [from school] and turn on the Food Network- it was everyone. It was Bobby Flay, it was Emeril Lagasse, I mean, it was Ina Garten. It was all of the ones that we see, or that we know to be sort of the Food Network people. And that was my education, really.... I didn't know about the powerful women in soul food, like Edna Lewis or Leah Chase. I didn't know. I didn't know that they existed until much, much later."
Lynch came out to his parents in college. His father was immediately accepting, but his mother, a product of a strict Catholic upbringing, found his sexuality challenging. It took three conversations over the course of five years for her to come around. He told her, "I think that part of my purpose in your life is to help you evolve in accepting people of all different places, and whoever they are. That's part of what I'm here- to grace you in that process of learning and knowing. And you're here to support me in being my best full self. So, we had a very compassionate, loving conversation the last time we talked about it."
Despite the difficulty of those talks, the payoff for Lynch in increased self-confidence was huge. "It's been so freeing to be okay with who I am and where I am, and, you know, I think the best reward is not just living a happy life but also to know that there are other young people who are looking at me and who are being inspired, whether it's with their sexuality, or 'I need to change this.... My parents are forcing me to study something I really don't want to study,' which was very common when I was in school. Whatever that might be, but to follow your own heart and follow your truth."
I found Lynch's story and path fascinating and inspiring, and I think serious eaters everywhere will, too. And that's even before we get into a discussion of his cookbook and shows, which we'll do in next week's episode.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/07/special-sauce-lazarus-lynch-part-1.html
In part 2 of my extraordinary chat with chef-restaurateur-activist Alvin Cailan, we delved deeply into his socio-political motivations, but we still managed to fit in some laughs.
Cailan says he's always been motivated to confound the pessimism he frequently encountered growing up, akin to what former President George W. Bush described as "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
"I grew up in the early 1990s in the rebellious era of gangster rap and...the rise of the immigrant voice," Cailan tells me, and that spirit helped him push back against the people in his hometown of Pico Rivera in California, who would tell him his ambitions were fantasies. "Everyone tells you, 'Oh, you can't do that.' 'Don't even think about going to UCLA or USC.' My whole entire life I've always been fighting for,'I can do it, too.'"
That can-do attitude basically led to the creation of the popular web series he hosts on First We Feast, The Burger Show. After convincing the producers of the FOX cartoon Bob's Burgers to allow him to run a pop-up that offered burgers featured on the show ("I had seven days, seven chefs, seven pun burgers and we did out of my incubator in Las Angeles."), Cailan became known for his burgers. Or, as he puts it, "I became the burger dude. People started asking me to go on their shows, their podcast, whatever. Finally, [the producer] Justin Bolois...asked me if I can host this show he's working on." And he couldn't pass it up. "I love burgers," Cailan says. "I never really intended to be a TV or personality."
The Usual, one of Cailan's restaurants in New York City, has an unusual sandwich board sign in front: "American comfort food cooked by children of immigrants." I ask him what the story is about that. "I want people to know, when they're coming here, they're going to have food cooked by people of color and it's American comfort food, but influenced by our ethnicity and our culture...It's American food in 2019."
I also get Cailan to explain to me why you can't order one of his signature sandwiches at The Usual, but to find out what sandwich that is and why he can't give it to you, you're just going to have to listen to find out.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/07/special-sauce-alvin-cailan-2-2.html
Every now and then on Special Sauce, I just hit it off with a guest, feeling immediately as if I've known them all my life. That's what happened when I talked with Eggslut founder, chef-restaurateur, and ruckus-causer Alvin Cailan.
Cailan, who grew up in an LA suburb, got his first kitchen job while still in his teen years, washing dishes at a retreat house run by the Catholic Church. His very religious mother thought it would keep her wayward son out of trouble, and it worked- sort of. "[I was] in my car on my breaks...getting stoned, and the next thing you know, a nun would knock on your window and was like, 'Hey!' And I'm like, 'Oh, my God'.... And so I slowly started to change, because their way of fixing that was giving me more responsibility.... At first, I was hired as a dishwasher, and the next thing you know, I'm the janitor. Next thing you know, I'm the prep cook, and the next thing you know, I'm on the line cooking food."
After college, Cailan went into construction management, but his heart remained in cooking, big time. "It was very tough, because every day I would look up recipes, and then every Friday, when I'd get my check...I would go to the gourmet grocery store, I would go to Costco. I would break down whole tenderloins, and I would buy pork butts, and I would smoke them all weekend, and that was the thing I wanted to do. I was like, this is what I'm supposed to do. And one day, after wrapping up an invoice for $40,000 for a reconstruction of a bathroom, I think that was probably the line in the sand. I was like, I've got to do something different."
Cailan moved to Portland, Oregon, where he worked in fine-dining kitchens and learned how to make charcuterie at Olympia Provisions. But, impatient to start his own project, he saved up some money and started Eggslut in 2010, serving a variety of gourmet egg sandwiches from a food truck. "I was approaching 30 years old, and I was like, man, I really need to step up my culinary game.... I wasn't really getting the opportunity to get the big-salary positions in these [fine-dining] restaurants, and so I was like, you know what? I'm going to take it up into my own hands."
When Cailan first started Eggslut, he had enough money to keep it going for just six months- which meant he had six months to "cause some type of ruckus," as he puts it, and get his business noticed. "[My generation] is like the gangster rap/punk rock era of chefs, where, in 2010, 2011, there were so many celebrity chefs. I mean, there was—like, every single person was getting a show on the Food Network. They were either going on Cutthroat Kitchen, or they're going on Chopped, or Top Chef, and they were becoming these mega-superstars, but then these dudes that are, like, line cooks that are hard-working, who've been doing it for years, were not getting any visibility whatsoever."
Cailan then moved back to Los Angeles and started another Eggslut food truck. There, a food critic forever altered the course of his career after trying his signature dish- the "Slut," a coddled egg set on what Cailan calls "[Joël] Robuchon buttery potatoes." Which food critic was it? All I'll say is that it's not who you'd think. Just listen to this week's episode of Special Sauce to find out.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/07/special-sauce-alvin-cailan-part-1.html
Welcome back for the second part of Special Sauce with Ed Levine, featuring Ed Levine!
This week we pick up where we left off, with Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and Ed's longtime friend, serving as a special guest host, asking Ed about many of the events that are described in his memoir, Serious Eater: A Food Lover's Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption, which has been named one of the best cooking, food, and wine books of 2019 so far by Amazon.
Meyer and Ed begin with talking about how Ed decided to start a food blog, in 2005. Ed had gone to business school, had published two books about the best food to eat in New York (New York Eats and New York Eats (More)), and was writing regularly for The New York Times and Gourmet but the idea to start up Serious Eats only occurred to him after a deal to set up a food channel with MTV fell through.
As part of research for the project, Ed discovered food blogs, and he became enamored by the freedom the medium offered. As he says about blogging to Meyer, "It was an emancipation proclamation. You, in one fell swoop, you got rid of every gatekeeper in your life." Ed had the freedom to pitch himself on any and every idea that he came up with, and he would of course, get immediate approval. And thus, Ed Levine Eats was born.
Ed confesses that he didn't have much of a plan beyond doing what he loved. He didn't have much of an editorial strategy- "I convinced myself that I could make a business out of it," Ed says, "by aggregating a bunch of other bloggers."- and he just assumed that he'd easily be able to raise money to fund what would become Serious Eats. "I just had no idea what I was doing," Ed tells Meyer. "I had no idea how hard it was going to be. I had no idea how difficult it was to raise money."
And that, really, is the untold story of Serious Eats: Ed struggling to make his dream job a reality. Ed established Serious Eats, bought up a couple other blogs (A Hamburger Today and Slice, both founded by Adam Kuban), and hired an extremely talented staff, including Kuban, Alaina Browne, and J. Kenji López-Alt, despite offering very little in the way of compensation, and started to rack up page views, and while the site seemed like it was riotously successful to readers, Ed was constantly- for almost a decade!- trying to round up enough money from investors to keep the whole thing afloat.
Meyer and Ed go over that harrowing history, but there are some other moments during their conversation that listeners should look out for. For example, Meyer describes the ethos of Serious Eats better than anyone, and in one succinct sentence, no less. Listeners will also discover exactly what an "Eddie dollar" is. And the whole conversation ends on a poignant note, with Ed describing how the site wouldn't have been possible without the most important person in his life.
To find out who that is, and to see what creating a successful food blog almost cost him, you're just going to have to listen. (Or, of course, you can buy a copy of Serious Eater for yourself!)
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/07/special-sauce-ed-levine-live-part-2.html
At the end of every week, Ed Levine- a.k.a. Serious Eats founder, a.k.a. Serious Eats overlord, a.k.a. "missionary of the delicious," a.k.a. Ed "The Good Ones Eat Through the Pain" Levine- hosts intimate conversations with food lovers of all kinds, diving deep into the ways in which eating and sharing meals has shaped his guests' lives.
For this and next week's episodes of Special Sauce, we turned the tables on Ed and had Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and Ed's longtime friend, grill Ed in front of a live audience at Rizzoli Bookstore in Manhattan. The event was held in part to celebrate the release of Ed's memoir, Serious Eater: A Food Lover's Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption, named one of the best cooking, food, and wine books of 2019 so far by Amazon.
The evening started off with a bang, as Meyer admitted at the outset that he was going to be a combative interviewer. He noted that he'd been hankering for a chance to interrogate Ed about his business decisions, in much the same way Ed questioned the integrity of Meyer's business when he wondered, quite publicly, about Union Square Hospitality Group's inability to make good French fries. Or, as Ed so diplomatically put it at the time, "Why Do the French Fries at Blue Smoke Suck?"
Despite saying that he should "have his head examined" for helping Ed sell his book, Meyer did a fine job filling in for Ed, asking him all the questions that Special Sauce listeners have come to expect, such as "What was it like at the Levine family table?" Ed revealed that his grandmother's cooking was what sparked his intense love of food, and he identified the source of his missionary zeal as his parents, who originally met at a Communist Party meeting and bequeathed their passionate intensity, if not their politics, to all their children.
Part one of the conversation begins with Ed's childhood and ends with his college years, when he discovered a love for music that rivaled his love for food, even as he dabbled in a life of petty crime with an associate who will forever be known only as "Jerry Garcia."
To find out what that means, and to hear the origin story of the man who would go on to create Serious Eats, you're just going to have to listen to part one of this Special Sauce interview with Ed Levine. (Or, of course, you can buy a copy of Serious Eater for yourself!)
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/06/special-sauce-ed-levine-live-part-1.html
This week, in part two of my conversation with chef and food writer Nik Sharma, we dug into the science-based approach to cooking that informs his terrific new cookbook, Seasons: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food.
Given Nik’s background in medical research, it made sense to learn that he thinks of his kitchen as just another lab. All of us, he pointed out, experiment in one way or another in the kitchen, even if we’re just tweaking a family recipe. In his case, though, Nik explains that he “had that training to do that…one of the things I really like about recipes, [is that] the way they're written is exactly the way I would prepare my buffers in biochemistry or in genetics… We call them recipes, we pretty much use the terminology, everything is arranged by volume or when it has to go in.” He even admits to using lab notebooks when he’s developing a recipe. It’s that analytical approach that he says allows him to make each iteration of a recipe better.
That said, Nik shied away from making <em>Seasons</em> read overly scientific. Instead, “I kind of wanted to introduce myself to people,” he said. “At the same time, I wanted to be really approachable, so someone who is intimated by being too science-y kind of understands that the simplest things that they're doing in the kitchen actually have a scientific basis to them.” He talked about something as simple as bruising an herb like mint to extract essential oils and introduce them to a cocktail. “You know, you're breaking those cells to release those essential oils so then they get solubilized in whatever solvent they're in, so like water.”
The moral of Nik’s story? Even if science intimidates you, “what you're doing in the kitchen is a form of science,” and even when it goes awry, learning from your mistakes is half the fun. Nik believes, like Bob Dylan once sang, "There's no success like failure and failure's no success at all.” When it comes to cooking, he told me "I want people to understand that when you walk in to the kitchen, you don't have to be compelled to succeed the first time, I think that's something very cultural where there is this impetus to push people for success, but I think we forget sometimes that it's okay to fail because it's your failures that you remember, you'll never remember what you succeeded at or why, but it's when you fail you start to remember what was wrong, how can you fix it, and it makes you much wiser."
I loved hearing what everyone's eating on Nik Sharma Day, but if I told you what it is, you might not listen to the whole episode. And that, serious eaters, would be a big mistake.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=445672
Cookbook author (Seasons: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food), blogger (A Brown Table), and newspaper columnist (A Brown Kitchen) Nik Sharma made the perfect Special Sauce guest. Why? He has a great, dramatic story, and he isn't afraid to tell it like it is (or was).
Sharma grew up in India, and as a man who recognized that he was gay at a young age, he had a tough childhood. "At least back then, it wasn't talked about. I'm talking about in the late '80s, early '90s, when I kind of realized something was different about me. It was difficult, because I had nothing to compare anything to. The only stuff that I heard about in terms of gay life was about Indians who were either getting arrested, or bodily harm, or even being killed. So for me, that was quite terrifying. As a child, then you start- you think there's something wrong with you."
Sharma resolved to leave India, initially coming to the US to study to become a medical researcher. But his interest in food eventually drove him to the blogosphere. "I'm really passionate about flavor," he told me. "I’m really curious to see how people in different parts of the world approach the same ingredient or the same technique. I find it fascinating, because a lot of it is also a reflection of society, the socioeconomics of a country.... I find that fascinating, and I wanted to reflect that in my work. I started reading a lot, and also cooking and experimenting with flavor. That's what I started to do with the blog and bring that in."
Though Sharma's blog brought him enormous pleasure and a devoted following, it also brought him lots of uninvited blowback about his sexuality and the color of his skin. He found himself at a crossroads. "I think one of the things people forget [is] that when you write or you do something and you put it out there, you're making yourself vulnerable.... Fortunately, I took a step back, just to reevaluate my decisions in life at that point, whether I really wanted to do a blog. I said, ‘Well, you know, this is something that I'm actually enjoying more than I was before. I would be a fool to give it away just because of the opinions of a few. Let me stick to it, do it in my best way that I possibly could.’ So if they had to critique me, they could critique me on the quality of my work, but not on anything else."
When reading Sharma's book, I came across a passage that I found particularly beautiful, one that summed up both his relationship with food and what he's learned from his chosen career thus far. I loved it so much that I asked him to read it on the air, and he graciously obliged:
"Mine is the story of a gay immigrant told through food. It has been a journey of self-discovery I embarked on more than a decade ago. One that taught me to recognize the inherent tension between originality and tradition, and to opt for the former without rejecting the latter. It's been a journey of acclimatization, adaptation, and acceptance. During times of discomfort, food became my friend and teacher. It taught me to reinterpret conventional techniques and flavors, and apply these reinterpretations to my food that would become a part of my new life in America. Seasoning is more than just a way to achieve flavor in the food we eat. It represents our desire to connect with our past, present, and future. It tells our story."
To hear more from this eloquent writer, you're just going to have to listen to the whole episode.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/06/special-sauce-nik-sharma-part-1.html
In part two of my delightful conversation with Priya Krishna, she delves into her book Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family in so many unexpected and revealing ways.
"Indian-ish" is not just the name of the book; it also describes her mindset and worldview. "For my whole life I always felt Indian and American but not quite fitting into either of those molds," Krishna says. "It was like I was too American to be Indian and too Indian to be American. But I think that as time has gone by I have found ways to really feel proud of that tension. You know, in my book I talk about how we wear our kurtas with jeans and we listen to Bollywood music alongside our top 40 hits and...these are all equally important parts of what we do. I love Indian food, but I also love Italian food and I don't think that those things need to feel mutually exclusive."
Krishna admits that she is no expert on Indian food. "I don't want to pretend to be an authority on Indian food because I'm not," she says. "I didn't want this book to be like, 'This is your guide to Indian food.' This is a guide to the food that I grew up eating."
Krishna is very comfortable being a missionary for Indian food we can make every day: "I feel like food media just, there is still this mentality that American cooking encompasses Western cuisines and everything else is the other. I still think Indian food is treated as this sort of strange esoteric thing and I really want to change that. I admire people who are doing that for other cuisines. I absolutely adore Andrea Nguyen, who just authored Vietnamese Food Any Day. I hope to do what she's doing for Vietnamese food for Indian food."
As an example, one of the things Krishna hopes to educate people about is the importance of chhonk, which Priya rhapsodizes about in the book. As she describes it, chhonk is "this this really fundamental technique in South Asian cooking and basically the idea is that you're heating up some kind of fat, whether that's tahini or oil, tossing in spices and/or herbs and basically crisping them in the oil. You pour it on top of a dish and it adds this unbelievable texture and extra layer of richness and complexity."
Of course, I asked Krishna what she plans on doing next. "There will always be some kind of collaboration with my mom and me," she says. "I think that the best recipe developers are people who kind of just have this intuition about cooking and I don't think I have that intuition. I think my strengths lie elsewhere. I'd love to develop more recipes, with my mom. My mom the other day told me, 'I think I have enough recipes for three cookbooks.' And I was like, 'Let's not get ahead of ourselves, Mom.'"
There's so much more in my conversation with Krishna that will resonate with Serious Eaters everywhere. But don't take my word for it, listen to the whole episode. I guarantee you won't be disappointed- not even a little bit disappointed-ish.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/06/special-sauce-priya-krishna-2-2.html
I knew that Priya Krishna, author of Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics From a Modern American Family (I am predisposed to like any book with the word antics in the title), was smart and funny and focused, since I'd read her book. But I still wasn't prepared for the delightful, incisive, and revealing chat we had on this week's Special Sauce.
Perhaps the most obvious question to ask was what "Indian-ish" means. Krishna explains that the concept was inspired by her mother and the book's coauthor, Ritu Krishna, whose cooking Krishna describes as "rooted in Indian flavors, but [it] kind of pulls inspiration from all the foods she was encountering from her travels as a businessperson, to what she watched on PBS cooking shows, to just going out to restaurants."
The result was a balance between the practical and the creative. Krishna says her mother "had limitless ideas for how flavors went together. She had this amazing intuition, but she also didn't have time, so her recipes are this perfect marriage of 'I have all of these amazing ideas, but I've got 20 minutes to put dinner on the table, so what do I do?'" It was another editor, and not Krishna herself, who first recognized the potential for a cookbook on that theme- one that would, Krishna says, "dispel this notion that a lot of people have that Indian flavors and Indian food, that making that at home is hard or complicated."
Before she began her writing career, Krishna grew up the daughter of immigrants in Texas, who were intent on her having a classically "American" adolescence. "I feel like it's many immigrant parents' desire, by raising kids in the US, that they will lead different and hopefully better lives than they did. That's the reason why so many immigrants settle down in a new country. I think that my parents, even though they had these stringent rules, they fundamentally believed that and understood that, and they wanted us to go to prom and go to college, and to have a college experience. They turned a blind eye but knew that my sister and I went to parties, and they were okay with that because they were like, 'This is part of being an American kid.'"
We saved most of our discussion of Indian-ish for the second half of our interview, but to hear why Krishna calls the Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez vehicle Shall We Dance? one of the most important movies of our time, and learn how she turned Cracklin' Oat Bran and baked sweet potato into dessert for a column she wrote on dining-hall hacks while at Dartmouth, you'll have to check out this week's- there's no other word for it- delightful episode of Special Sauce.
In part two of my far-ranging interview with Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan, we talked about his career in journalism and the ever-evolving world of food media.
Joe told me about his winding path to food journalism. After years of reporting local news, he eventually made his way to the Boston Globe. There, he became travel editor, but found himself yearning to write about food, instead. How did he manage to acquire one of the few coveted roles as staff food writer? He told his editor, “I’m going to leave… if anyone's listening and you're able to do this, make yourself indispensable and then threaten to leave."
At a certain point, it felt like his career at the Globe was stalling. So when the Washington Post came calling in 2006, Yonan listened. “I just said, ‘I really want to do it.’ I mean, it also was more resources, bigger staff. I thought naively at the time that the Post was in so much better shape than the Globe was.”
Little did he know, Joe was about to take on the monumental task of shepherding the Food section into the digital age, transferring thousands of recipes from the papers archive to the Post's online database. Since that was shortly after I launched Serious Eats, Joe and I would have long conversations about where food media was going. "You know, Ed,” he said, “I remember your advice having something to do with my mindset back then… I knew what you were up to with Serious Eats… I remember you told me about Twitter. I mean, you didn't tell me about it, but... I remember asking you. I was like, "You know, I don't know. Should I bother with this? Should I bother?" And you said, "You absolutely should bother."
Finally, we got around to talking about Serious Eater, which Joe had just finished reading on the train up from DC. "It's so much more dramatic than I had expected. I think for me what resonated was the passion and the drive to make something work in the face of all of these obstacles. I mean, just one obstacle after another. And just the commitment to keep going and making it work no matter what happened." After all, it’s not a story so dissimilar from his own.
I had a blast talking to Joe, and I think you’ll equally enjoy listening to this episode of Special Sauce.
It's always fun to have a longtime friend on Special Sauce because I always learn so much about the person sitting across from me, no matter how long I've known them. And that's just what happened when I sat down with Washington Post Food Editor Joe Yonan.
Yonan spent the first ten years of his career writing, reporting, and editing for suburban newspapers in the Boston area, during which time he learned a lot of valuable lessons about telling stories. "You know one of the things that reporting does," Yonan notes, "especially if you start out in a small place, is that you have to learn how to make a water-and-sewer board meeting interesting and relevant to people who have no interest in it."
Eventually, he got tired of hard news coverage, and so he did what many other people at the time did: He read What Color is Your Parachute?, the enormously popular self-help book. "You're supposed to sit in a quiet place and have a pen and a pad down and you're supposed to close your eyes and imagine yourself both working and happy, believe it or not," Yonan says, recalling one of the exercises in the book designed to help you find your calling. "And I got all set up to do it, I had the pen and paper and I closed my eyes and in five seconds I was like, 'Oh, it's food.' Food makes me happy, food has always made me happy."
I met Yonan when I went to Boston to promote my pizza book in 2005, and I took him on a Boston tour de pizza for the Globe's food section, and during our conversation he reminded me of a sage bit of wisdom I gave him way back then, which I'd completely forgotten. "I don't know how many places we went to," Yonan says, "I mean, it was ridiculous. I remember at one point we're on place eight or nine or something, and I am suffering physically...Do you remember what you said to me? I've repeated it hundreds of times since then. You said to me, 'Joe, the good ones learn to eat through the pain.'"
For anyone interested in writing about food, becoming any kind of journalist, or just coming to terms with who you really are, or even about learning how to eat twelve slices of pizza in a three-hour period, this episode of Special Sauce with Joe Yonan is required listening.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/05/special-sauce-joe-yonan-1-1.html
In part two of my conversation with Xi'an Famous Foods cofounder Jason Wang, he and I talked mostly about the struggles and challenges involved in first getting the business off the ground, and then expanding.
The restaurant's original location, in a subterranean food court in Flushing, Queens, had a napkin problem. Money there was so tight, Wang said, "We had to cut back on things.... Back in the days, I'll be honest with you, we didn't give out napkins. We didn't have a napkin dispenser.... People were like,'Oh, you guys are so cheap, you don't give napkins out.' Fights started out because of napkins in Flushing."
Wang knew it was important that both Chinese and non-Chinese customers enjoy the food. "It's important for our food to continue to appeal to Chinese eaters that are in the US directly from China....They know what the food is supposed to taste like. If we have their, sort of, following, that speaks to the authenticity of the food. If we have other folks that are in New York City, we're lucky to have a lot of guests who are more adventurous. They're willing to try different things, try something new every night."
The keys to the restaurant's success? "Our food is very approachable. It's very reasonably priced. People can try without feeling like it's a big risk. It looks, smells good, people talk about it, so they'll come. Now, when they do come, there's a positive feedback effect that goes on. The Chinese people will see the American eaters, and the American users will see the Chinese people there. They'll look at each other, and the Chinese people will be like, wow, Americans like this stuff? That must mean it's high-quality, it's well packaged, because that's what the perception, the stereotype of Western products is.... Then the Americans will see the Chinese people, they'll be like, there's, like, a Chinese grandma that's just sitting there eating. She doesn't speak any English.... Yeah, it's legit."
As Jason and his dad, who cofounded Xi'an Famous Foods with him, began to expand the company—which now has 15 locations across New York City—they took seriously the challenge of preserving the qualities that had made it successful in the first place. "For our part, as we expanded—there's always the whole stereotype of that C-word, 'chain.' When you become a chain, it becomes very washed down, you start losing the soul of the food. My day-to-day job is, these days, really is to maintain that soul.... It's something I'm obsessed about. I think that's what we do on our part. My father's equally obsessive."
But Wang isn't all business, and he brings lots of smile-inducing surprises to this episode—including where he was headed to lunch when we finished talking, and which outspoken rapper/singer he wants at his last-supper table. You'll learn all that and more when you tune in.
One of the many reasons I love doing Special Sauce is I get to interview people who shed light on various parts of the food culture I know very little about. People like Jason Wang. Wang and his father, David Shi, are the co-propietors of Xi'an Famous Foods, the fast-casual Chinese food concept that introduced New Yorkers to dishes like as lamb burgers, liang pi "cold skin" noodles, and the legendary lamb face salad that's unfortunately no longer on the menu.
Wang emigrated with his family from the city of Xi'an, China, when he was eight, and life was not easy for the Wang family. "My father's work life in the U.S. is kind of what you would imagine it to be [for] someone who is a middle-aged immigrant from China who doesn't speak any English," Wang says. "There's only a few things that he could really do in this country, and one of those would be working in a restaurant."
Wang's father would be away for weeks or even months at a time working at restaurants all along the Eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, the family lived in Queens, NY, in the basement of someone else's home. His dad "would take a bus somewhere, and someone would pick him up from the restaurant [he was employed by], and he would basically live in the boss's house with the other workers," Wang says. "So in middle school and high school, I wouldn't see him for at least one or two weeks [at a time]."
Wang's family really wanted him to get a college education, and his mom and dad ended up saving up enough, when combined with some scholarship money, to send him to Washington University in St. Louis. While he was away at school, his father finally was able to leave his itinerant restaurant work behind. Shi had saved up enough money to open a bubble tea franchise in one of the subterranean food courts that dot the Chinese-American enclave of Flushing, Queens. And that's where X'ian Famous Foods was born in 2005.
Besides selling bubble tea, Wang says his father also "sold some food on the side from our hometown, namely our cold skin noodles, our liangpi, the burgers, and a little bit of the noodles. It was just a side thing." And, after a brief stint at Target after graduation, Wang joined his father.
During our conversation, Wang offers up a concise description fo the defining elements of the food he and his father make and sell. "Traditionally," Wang says, "every region of China has a few words to sum up their food. Like, Sichuan is 'mala,' so it's spicy and tingly. That's their profile. Our profile is xiāng là and suān. So 'suān' means sour. 'Xiāng là' means fragrantly spicy. So that's kind of how our food is. If you've had our food before, you see a lot of use of the black vinegar, a lot of use of, of course, the red chilies."
Wang's story, his father's story, and the story of Xi'an Famous Food's beginnings, had me riveted. When you listen, I think you'll be mesmerized as well.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/05/special-sauce-jason-wang-on-the-origins-of-xian-famous-foods.html
When we last left chef and memoirist Kwame Onwuachi, he had dived back into his catering business in New York City. Business was decent, but he’d begun to see holes in his game. "The food tasted good, but was it completely hot when it hit the table? I would roast the meat perfectly, but by the time I got to the table it'd be a little overcooked. The sauce that I thought would be really good, when I reduced it down, it was a little bitter. It was like these little things I didn't know what was going wrong, and I needed to get to the bottom of it. I needed to scratch that itch, and education was the next step for me."
Onwuachi went to the CIA to hone his craft and then went on to extern and work at fine dining institutions like Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. But he ultimately found his own cooking identity through the now-defunct pop-up dinner company, Dinner Lab. "I cooked a dinner for it. It was a culmination of my life story. It was labeled Candy Bars to Michelin Stars. I cooked everything from the cheesecake [his sister's recipe] that I made to…the Butterfingers I sold on the subway (we did those as mignardise)…It was an anecdotal tale through the food of my life."
Eventually, Onwuachi opened the high-end restaurant Shaw Bijou in Washington, DC. His inexperienced restaurateur partners told him money was no object; that, in fact, they didn't care about making money. Onwuachi naively believed them. "Yeah, it was like adding gas to a locomotive. I mean, we were adding coal. It was just like, keep going, keep going, we're powering the engine. I was so deep in it, there was so much going on. It was the first time dealing with a lot of press, and I was really, really young. I came from the South Bronx and I'm catapulted into the stratosphere of the dining culture across the country, and I was trying to just do anything to stay afloat really."
The restaurant failed after less than six months, its demise hastened by a less-than-stellar review in The Washington Post. "It was soul-crushing to read that," Onwuachi said. "I remember reading it in the back alley, and it was not a good review, but it also pushed me, you know? It pushed me to change some things up, switch some things around, get everybody excited again, and keep going. It wasn't like, ‘Okay, now we need to close.’ I was like, ‘Okay, we're gonna fix this. This is the first bite.’" But they couldn't fix it in time, because, as he put it, "We ran out of capital. That's why businesses close. That's the short answer."
The last chapter of Onwuachi’s book, Notes From a Young Black Chef, is called "The Lesson." Why? "The lesson that I learned (from Shaw Bijou) is to keep going," he told me. "Just keep going. Not to stop, no matter what obstacles get in your way. If you have your mindset and you have goals in place, stick with those goals, figure out how to adapt, how to pivot, and continue moving."
Kwame Onwuachi’s tale is as inspirational as it is cautionary. Catch it all in this week’s episode of Special Sauce.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/04/special-sauce-kwame-onwuachi-part-2.html
This week's Special Sauce guest, chef-restaurateur (Kith/Kin in Washington, DC) and memoirist (Notes From a Young Black Chef) Kwame Onwuachi, has led an interesting life, to say the least. How interesting? By the time he was 21, the now-29-year-old had already started a catering business and cooked on a ship cleaning up oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico- all after discarding a previous life that included membership in a gang and selling "nutcrackers," or homemade alcoholic punch, on the streets in the Bronx.
Early on, Onwuachi discovered the satisfaction he could derive from cooking for other people, by helping his mom with her catering business: "Yes, serving food to actual paying customers...there's a certain high about it. You know, like being in the weeds, you know, prepping, putting stuff together, and then reaching that finish-line moment when you're serving it to the guests, and all is well. They're happy...and you can see the genuine joy that they get when eating the food. I love that moment, and I got addicted to it."
The entrepreneurial spirit he inherited from his mother had a way of colliding with some of his more destructive adolescent impulses. He would bounce back and forth between cooking gigs and less savory endeavors, including selling drugs, until he found himself at a crossroads around the time of Obama's first inauguration: "Obama is walking across the stage accepting his presidency. At that moment, for some reason, it clicked for me. Because...I went out and I voted for him, but I was like, 'There's no way we're gonna get a black president. There's no way this is gonna happen. No way.' And when he walked across the stage, I was like, 'What am I doing? This man defied the odds. Fifty-five years ago, we weren't even allowed to eat in restaurants; like, that was [when] the last restaurant was desegregated. Now this man is walking across the stage. That's huge. And I'm sitting here selling drugs?'"
After that realization, Onwuachi ended up starting a catering company called Coterie, for which he raised the start-up capital by selling candy in the subway- yes, you read that right. His most popular item: peanut M&Ms (take that, plain-M&M advocates).
All of this, of course, was before Onwuachi began his restaurant career-cooking at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, moving on to a seriously upscale restaurant in DC (which closed within three months), and, this year, being named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine for his current restaurant, Kith/Kin. But his pre-fine dining life was so eventful, we had to save all that for the second part of our interview. Rest assured, there's plenty here to chew on and listen to.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/04/special-sauce-kwame-onwuachi-part-1.html
When we last left the irreverent Robicellis in the first part of their Special Sauce interview, they had decided to leave Brooklyn, their beloved hometown. I wondered why Allison and Matt decided on on Baltimore. "It feels like the New York I grew up in," Allison says. "It is an inherently broken city. Everything is broken and if you're a creative type like me, there's nothing more electric than that. Because everything is a possibility. Everything about your life has stakes. Everything is fun, you know?"
The move to Baltimore actually made the Robicellis' podcast, the Robicelli Argument Clinic, possible. Allison says, "When I was in New York, we talked about doing a podcast for a while, and everything was like, 'Well you need to pay this person all this money, and we need to monetize, and who are our sponsors?'" But that changed after the move. "In Baltimore," Alison says, "you meet other people who are like, 'Let's just do this stuff because we want to.' The art scene there is incredible. Everybody has something to say. Everything influences you."
But moving was important for their personal lives, too. "It was really important for us to bring our kids to a city that had problems," Allison says. "Brooklyn was so messed up when I was a kid. I mean, we had, like, 21 hundred murders when I was in fifth grade. We had riots and all these things. And I'm like, 'If I teach my kids just to sit on Facebook and ignore these problems, or just have ideas about these problems while they're in a gated community, that's bullshit. I want my kids to be better than us.'"
Baltimore has been great for the kids for many reasons. "The way that they think, their empathy level, their ideas of how to be people and how to be solutions to problems and how to think big. The school that they go to, we've got kids there who...We raised money for a washer/dryer, so kids would have a place to do laundry for those who couldn't afford it. You know? And in Brooklyn, people would raise money for lacrosse uniforms. But my kids need to know that. My kids need to understand that they're such a part of something bigger, and the world isn't always perfect, but just by existing, by doing the right things every day and being motivated, we make huge differences."
To hear more of the Robicellis' brand of manic, madcap genius, you're going to have to listen to part two of their Special Sauce interview.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/04/special-sauce-allison-matt-robicelli-part-2-2.html
Sometimes our Special Sauce guests are just so idiosyncratic, so entertaining, so thoughtful, and so zany, I find myself alternately laughing and near tears for an hour and a half straight. That's what happened when I had Matt and Allison Robicelli on the podcast.
Allison is a longtime baker, cook, and James Beard- nominated food writer; Matt is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute who has cooked at City Bakery and Lutèce. Together, they opened the acclaimed bakery Robicelli's in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (which closed in 2015), and wrote a cookbook, Robicelli's: A Love Story, With Cupcakes. But before all of that- before they ever met, in fact- each of them faced life-changing events that indirectly led them to pursue their culinary interests professionally: Allison was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma, and Matt was a paramedic who suffered injuries while responding at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Neither had even reached their 21st birthday at the time, which helped them bond when they finally met. "I think one of the reasons we got along so well was because after I survived cancer, it's really hard to relate to somebody who's 22 and didn't go through that," Allison says.
Nowadays, Matt and Allison run a culinary consulting business, co-own a couple of New York food businesses, and host their own podcast, The Robicelli Argument Clinic, whose name is self-explanatory: "We just quibble a lot, and we argue," Allison says. "We've been together for 14 years, and somebody was like, that's entertaining. Cut to tape. That was it. So we decided to do a podcast of just- we have these ridiculous arguments, just any kind of food topic. We just want to have more fun."
I asked my standard question about what life was like at Matt and Allison's respective family tables when they were growing up. Allison dispelled the stereotype that everyone has warm and fuzzy memories of their childhood dinners: "I remember a lot of yelling [in my family], I remember putting a TV there because that would shut everybody up.... Food can bring up all the memories. It can bring up all of the feelings. It's complicated just like we are. I think that's the kind of beauty about it."
Family meals don't have to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting, Allison contends: "There's all these beautiful stories on the internet about the family table, and not everybody had it. You know what? That's okay. If your family dinner was eating McDonald's in the car alone- that's fine." The table that the Robicellis share nowadays includes their two preteen boys, Toby and Atticus, and that makes mealtimes predictably challenging. "The pickiest eaters I've ever met," Allison calls them. "They drive me insane."
In keeping with their own podcast style, my conversation with the Robicellis turned out to be a series of wacky and wise, well, arguments, and you'll have to listen to this episode and the one that follows to enjoy them. Matt and Allison are two wonderfully human interviewees, and great company. My guess is that they'll make you laugh as hard as I laughed, and they might make you cry as well.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=443265
In part two of my wonderful conversation with Tommy Tomlinson, author of the impossible-to-put-down book The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man's Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, we talk about how he decided he was going to have to do more than just diet to successfully deal with his weight issues.
Tomlinson describes asking his friends and family about what they thought about his eating habits. "I learned a lot from them about how they would watch what I was eating. And they would be surprised that I would eat the same as them, but I was the one getting bigger. They didn't know that I would stop again at the drive through on the way home and get a second dinner or something. But I also learned about their concerns about me, and their worry that I was going to be gone too soon, those sorts of things. And then I had longer conversation on the record that I taped with my wife, Alix Felsing, and my mom, who are two people who've been with me for most of this journey."
Tomlinson credits his wife in a major way for helping him confront what he calls "the one big problem" in his life. "Alix has been this incredible kind of guide for me," he says. "Without ever nagging or hectoring or browbeating me about it, she has gently and lovingly nudged me to become a better and more healthy person."
Tomlinson writes in his book about something Alix once said to him, which I asked him to repeat on ai because I found it so moving. "She looked at me and said, 'You made my life.'" he remembers. "That was probably the best moment I will ever have as a human being, to know that I made her life. She has certainly made mine."
I hope that exchange, which brought at least one Serious Eater to tears, gets you to check out the rest of our conversation. This episode is as moving, as wise, and as human as a Special Sauce episode gets.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/03/special-sauce-tommy-tomlinson-2-2.html
It's pretty rare for a Special Sauce interview to speak so directly to me that it feels like I've been hit in the gut. But that's exactly what happened when I talked with Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Tommy Tomlinson, whose book The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man's Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America is a moving memoir about struggling with eating and weight issues.
As someone who has grappled with a weight problem my whole life, I identified with every word Tomlinson wrote and every bite he took, and I often felt during our conversation that he was speaking about my own experiences with food.
For example, here is Tomlinson on how food makes him feel: "I've never done hard drugs, but the feeling that I've heard people describe when they shoot heroin, for example that incredible rush and that warm feeling that goes over their body, is very similar to what I believe I feel when I have like a double cheeseburger from Wendy's. It's just this burst of pleasure and good feeling."
Tomlinson is similarly eloquent about how he started to make the connection between obesity and food: "I didn't really connect being overweight with eating because I was eating what everybody else in my family was eating. I just wasn't working the way they were working to burn off calories. And as I got older, I started to realize even more deeply that I had these two lives. I had this one life where I was successful and doing well, had good friends, had people who loved and cared about me. And had this second life where I had this addiction that I could not control. And...up until basically this book and me trying to figure it out, I never could reconcile those two things. And so, sure, I knew from early on that I had some fundamental issue, I just never could figure out what it was."
And here he is on the fraught relationship between food and love: "And then there's stuff that's very common in food which is it's about love and affection. Your family has made this gift for you often still to this day it's your mom or your grandmother or somebody like that has made this thing. And they've sacrificed and they've sweated over it. And they've worked on this recipe for years. And it's a family tradition. And they always have it. And so for you just to not indulge in it carries a whole lot of symbolic weight. It's like rejecting the people who love you."
This episode of Special Sauce made me laugh, made me cry, and made me think, and any podcast that can make you do all three of those things is worth listening to, whether you struggle with your weight or not.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/03/special-sauce-tommy-tomlinson-1-2.html