To start, can you give a brief introduction of yourself and tell us about what you do?
I’m the food writer at the Virginian-Pilot, which in modern newspapers usually means wearing a couple different hats and keeping them straight.
On the one hand, I work as the paper’s primary restaurant critic, writing weekly reviews in order to provide readers with informed, sometimes helpful, and always 100-percent correct opinions on local restaurants. On the other, I’m a day-to-day food business reporter offering context and information on the openings and closings and goings-on of local restaurants and bars, plus a writer of long-form feature pieces on local chefs, bakers, ham agers and booze makers.
I started at the Pilot in April of this year, but I’ve been writing about food for about a decade – starting at a paper called Willamette Week in my hometown of Portland, Oregon.
Before that, I had the same career path as nearly all food writers: I majored in physics and philosophy and got a graduate degree in fiction. In the meantime, I worked as a translator for a German pacemaker company, as an inspector of wind turbines, and as a taste tester for a university food science program.
What made you want to get into food writing in the first place? It’s a pretty specific beat to get on for someone coming from a fiction/philosophy/ physics background.
Most food writers I know came to the field through other arenas of journalism or writing, rather than start as a chef and get into reporting. I’m no different. I’ve written for newspapers about everything from books to pro soccer to fluoridation fights.
So, I learned about food the same way as every other reporter, on any other beat: with boots on the ground. You ask a lot of questions, you always assume you’re dumber than the chef about their own food and you explore constantly. I’ll drive two hours to chase down a rumor about a taco. I’ll go a lot farther for barbecue.
But as to why food is what stuck? In part, I think it’s that few fields reward curiosity the way food does. It’s really the most intimate way that cultures regularly come into contact—sharing a meal. And that’s true whether that culture is the Baba-Nyonya of Singapore, rednecks in Wyoming or the entrenched experimentalism of molecular gastronomy. The stories are at least as interesting as the food. Also, I’m probably just a glutton.
“I learned about food the same way as every other reporter, on any other beat: with boots on the ground. You ask a lot of questions, you always assume you’re dumber than the chef about their own food and you explore constantly.”
Piggybacking off that leave no stone unturned taco and BBQ missions, tell us about one story (either a review, or food news story) you’ve done for the Pilot that really sticks out in your memory.
My favorite piece at the Pilot so far is one I worked on with my colleague Denise Watson, about a local melding of Chinese and soul food called yock. The dish is far from fancy—the sauce is based on ketchup—but it’s a century-old tradition that exists almost nowhere except in the African-American neighborhoods of Hampton Roads. The noodles are made only in a single factory in Norfolk, and many of the old restaurants that serve it are beginning to close.
Otherwise, this year I also spent a month eating hot wings at just about every prominent wing spot in town—and ranked them from top to bottom. Sometimes the job is also an endurance sport.
What’s the worst dish you’ve encountered on assignment and what made it so awful?
Honestly, the worst thing to eat on assignment is rarely the truly “bad” dishes—the grotesqueries that make you question the trust between diner and restaurant. I mean, sure, I’ve been served sushi so freezer-damaged it might as well have been slurry, mayo-and-meat monstrosities that evoked uncomfortable biology, rubbery brisket, yeasty pizza, chicken so pink you swear you can see the salmonella swimming. Or just some stupid stuff made with kale and spelt. But those, at least, are stories.
Where I actually hate dining on assignment is the obscure and mediocre spot just a touch below average. A place run by people trying to make something good, or follow a dream they don’t know how to fulfill. You feel, as a human, for the people running the restaurant—but can’t say anything particularly good about it without betraying your compact with the reader, where your actual responsibility lies.
Most places like that end up unwritten about. There’s no reason to insult them in print, and no reason to send your readers there. But the sadness lingers—as does the deficit on my expense sheet.
“A lot of my job is to chase down some of the most interesting experiences that people can have in their own city—whether a hole-in-the-wall they’d otherwise drive past, or a restaurant most could only afford on a special occasion. It’s a privilege to do that for a living.”
To you, what’s the best part of writing about food? It seems like through your job you get to see how food kind of defines, in a way, what a culture and people are. Is that accurate? What else does this beat give to you?
I couldn’t even define my own culture, let alone anyone else’s. All you ever have is a good story, and food is full of them. Food goes down deep in memory—it’s literally what made you.
At the same time, “culture” can be as simple as whether you grew up in a Red Vines or a Twizzlers family.
But let’s not get too high-falutin,’ here: The best thing about food writing is eating the food. Going to a new restaurant is the closest most people get to an adventure on a Tuesday night.
A lot of my job is to chase down some of the most interesting experiences that people can have in their own city—whether a hole-in-the-wall they’d otherwise drive past, or a restaurant most could only afford on a special occasion. It’s a privilege to do that for a living.
But on the flipside, I’m also the canary in the coal mine. I eat a lot of absolutely terrible food you’ll never read about. And that’s also part of the job.
Essential book on food: Most of the restaurants it describes are probably now closed, but my guide is always Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles, by Jonathan Gold. It is a compendium of small and traditional restaurants in Los Angeles written with insight, empathy and wit—animated by the idea that old-school home cooking is every bit as important as anything you’d find in Escoffier.
Your personal favorite Virginia meal: That’s easy. A Chesapeake Bay jumbo soft-shell in June, lightly dredged in milk and flour and fried. There’s nothing like it on earth.
Your food mantra: Whenever you see something new or strange or unfamiliar, place it immediately into your mouth.