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