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