Just when you thought that the culinary conversation had congealed into listicles along come the new voices to guide the conversation. The new culinary critics bring fresh perspectives that are the fruits of their youth and identities, many are female and come from a variety of backgrounds. And, it feels like they’re all pressing one another onwards not in competition but in conversation about our culinary universe. It’s really fascinating to watch and rewarding to engage with.
The change here in California is really stunning. It used to be that we’d all read the dear, departed, Jonathan Gold’s LA Weekly articles as guides but also as a shared fantasy of LA that wrapped the immigrant experience, culinary culture, and the city of strip malls into one massive confection. The idea that you could find an amazing meal that was the fruit of a unique cultural identity created by people keeping it alive at a reasonable price far outside of the cores of money and urban culture was captivating. Meanwhile the big voices at the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle and, when they deigned to pay attention, voices from the New York Times and Bon Appetit’s of the world were all focused on the big targets of the restaurant world – fancy openings, white table cloth places, self appointed trends – which is to say not anything you’d try for a casual lunch.
That all changed when Gold was appointed as critic for the LA Times in 2012. He brought his voice onto that stage instead being transformed by it. And the rest of the world followed suit. In just the past few years the New York Times appointed Tejal Rao as their California restaurant critic. The fact that they needed a critic here and that it was Tejal speaks volumes on where we are. She picked up right where Gold left off by bringing attention to Punjabi food served from a truck in Bakersfield or the possibility of running out of kosher salt.
Meanwhile the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer retired after 32 years on the job and was replaced by Soleil Ho who seems to have grown up everywhere. She came out of the gate swinging against Chez Panisse while really focusing on the smaller or less mainstream restaurants and major issues that used to be completely invisible in food sections. And, she was joining a team that already featured Esther Mobley and a variety of other writers and editors which put San Francisco’s paper on the side of generational change.
Rao and Ho address everything in the culinary world, the food, the ethics, the issues that pour over from everywhere else in our culture and have been joined by many others. The pivot in our conversation about food has been going on for quite some time in other fora, but now it’s moved into the mainstream. These are the debates that used to occur in Chowhound or on the pages of alt-weeklies, now they’re in the paper of record and its siblings in the media firmament. The good news, you can still get a start in an alt weekly. The bad news, alt weeklies may not be around for much longer. As Ho recently lamented, culinary criticism is under threat. At least we have strong voices pushing forward.