1. About you: Where do you live, what do you consider your 'hometown', how long have you been in New York?
I grew up in Clarkdale, a town with 800 people in the exact center of Arizona, and Ive lived among the hordes on the Upper West Side for 23 years.
2. Describe your first job ever.
It was courtesy of Lyndon Johnsons War on Poverty, I think my junior summer in high school, when I would get into the back of a pickup truck four mornings a week with a bunch of other kids and ride over to the country club. The guys would go tend the grass and the girls and I would spend the day cleaning the managers booze-reeking house for $1.25 an hour, paid by the OEO. The fifth day was supposed to be some sort of education for pay, but we all just rested.
3. Are there publications or websites that you read faithfully? If so, which ones, and why?
This is why I get so little done: Wall Street Journal (smart), Daily News (quick), NYT (obligatory); New Yorker, Time Out, New York, Time, Observer, the Financial Times and the NYPost on their respective food days; Harpers, Sunset, Vogue, Fortune, W, Food Arts, Saveur, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Mother Jones, Metropolitan Home; online: the Guardian, romenesko, gawker, wonkette, gothamist, atrios, talkingpointsmemo, washingtonmonthly, smirkingchimp, dailyhowler, cursor, juancole, tomdispatch, dailykos, altercation, digbys,
rudepundit, workingforchange, stevegilliard, michaelberube, allhatnocattle, bartcop, thomasmc, corrente, blah3, southknoxbubba, whitehouse.org, thefoodsection, manhattanusersguide, chowhound, sautewednesday, badthings, nyceats, toomanychefs, jameswolcott and more. (I also look in obsessively often on pieces of many more sites in hopes of detecting signs of intelligent life in the food universe.) Before the internet and especially pol(itical) porn, I might have had a life.
4. Your weblog, gastropoda.com, reads like a list of hilarious Page Six blind items and cynical observations, with capsule restaurant reviews and links to your printed articles in newspapers and magazines. In a business (food writing) that is all about flattery and hyperbole, you point fingers at naked emperors, publicists' whores and bad ideas, executed badly. How did you come to create
I wanted a showcase when I left what the Times would have you believe is the be-all and end-all, and I never wanted to have to send clips out again to some editor who had no idea what Ive been doing for the last 20 years. While I was planning my exit strategy, I had a brilliant web designer, Sloan Smith, who made me really think about what I wanted from cyberexposure, and I realized a chance to unvarnish the truth was No. 2 or 3 on the list.
5. You're still writing for the LA Times, Metropolitan Home, House Beautiful, et al. Is it difficult to reconcile such 'legit' journalism with the unfiltered honesty of a weblog?
Writing for the LAT can be like typing for gastropoda but with a much huger audience. Otherwise, I try to remember what my dead dad always said: You have to look in the mirror to shave.
6. You were deputy editor of the Dining In/Dining Out section of the New York Times from 1998 to 2001, and spent the last 11 months of that term writing and reporting. According to your gastropoda bio, "For 11 months I had the best job at the paper, until the Dining editor went west and the section went south." With the departure of Michaelene Busico, there was a definite change in the section's tone and content. How would you describe it, and do you think it had more to do with Sam Sifton, the editor who replaced Busico, or with more global changes at the Times and in the world at large?
To use a food analogy, the fish truly does rot from the head down. Even before the Dining editor decamped, the capo of the Style department was promoted and then resigned and what moved into his office was, shall we say, no John Montorio. Then, as the sections went national, they lost their way. There seemed to be a deadly misunderstanding of the outlanders, no sense that those readers might actually be sophisticated and, worse yet, might want some New York in their Times. When I finally wangled my way in to tell Howell Raines I was quitting, I blurted out something along the lines of: Food is so important, to me and to this city -- its culture, its life, its the second biggest moneymaker
after finance. And the Times is just dumbing it down. He stood up, shook my hand and drawled: Well, doan sound lahk you goan be happy here. I can only assume theyre still deliberately trying to be as lame as they wanna be.
7. Chefs have really been given an unprecedented amount of media coverage and adulation in the past 10 years - some of it warranted, some of it just grossly sycophantic. With or without naming names, who are some of the biggest and most overrated douchebags in the business?
If you read gastropoda.com, you have a good idea.
8. Dining trends of the last five years - what are some of the best and worst, in your estimation?
Best: Serious ingredients driving the menu more than chefs whimsies. Chefs working in harmony with nature, idiotically effete as that sounds -- the great ones really are attuned to the environment. Focused food, as in restaurants doing a few things really well (Pearl Oyster Bar, say). Fearless chefs maturing (David Burke, say). True Mexican. Adventurous restaurants opening in neighborhoods (everywhere but the taste-wasteland of the Upper East Side and the coke-hole of the Lower East Side). Better wines by the glass. Bigger wines by the glass.
Worst: Chain food. Theme parks posing as restaurants (can you say Spice Market?) Crudo, that adjective turned noun and insult to Italy. Other
Bataliesque Italian. Asian insanity. Bogus Spanish. Both tricked-up and toned-down Indian. Tequila-driven Mexican. Clearly, no one travels anymore. Manhattan is becoming Epcot Center.
9. What would advice you give a young writer looking to break into food journalism?
Educate yourself every way you can. Then go to the newsstand and find any publication that includes food and pitch it. Ten little outlets will make you a better writer than one big one that wants to force your words into its voice.
- Interview by Laurie Woolever