Words I wish I had written
This website is all about restaurant reviews, but I’ve been a writer (in various ways) long before I started this site. I know of two prime ways (just two) of becoming a better writer – write prolifically and read voraciously. This site is ample evidence of the former, but you wouldn’t know much about my reading habits unless you follow me on Twitter and can parse out the reading links amidst all the self-promotion, exasperated sarcasm and Simpsons jokes.
This article is thus an experiment – a collection of what I think has been some of the best food-related writing of 2016. Writing that is so good, I’m green with envy and wish that I had written it – if only I had the time, expertise, experience and skill. I’m not sure if I’ll repeat this reading list in 12 months time, but, if nothing else, I hope you’ll enjoy at least some of the following just as much as I have.
A few notes before we get started. First, I’ve deliberately decided to include only a handful of reviews on this reading list. Not because I think I’m the best restaurant reviewer ever to have donned a bib (that would be hubris of Trumpian proportions), but because that would make for repetitive and somewhat uninspired reading.
Second, the vast majority of the articles here are from American publications. This isn’t as surprising as it seems given that US-based websites, newspapers and magazines seem far more willing and able than their British counterparts at commissioning the sort of medium-length food writing you’d want to soak up while snuggled up in your favourite jumper and sipping coffee.
Third, some of the reading here is perhaps only tangentially related to the world of restaurants and food. That’s no bad thing though – the world of eating is often at its most fascinating when it’s connected in some way to our wider culture.
‘Citizen Khan’ by Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker
The story of an Afghan man named Zarif Khan making his millions, plus lots and lots of Mexican food, under the name Louie Tamale in small-town Wyoming would be an intriguing tale in the present day. But Khan’s life making tamales started in the seemingly distant year of 1909 and takes in an eclectic spectrum of issues from life on the American frontier, Muslim immigration to the US before it became a hot-button topic and Khan’s burgers to the convoluted racism of naturalisation laws in the Roaring Twenties and the rise and fall of a food trend in the first half of the Twentieth Century.
It’s breathlessly compelling stuff.
Louie was a local legend, and his murder shocked everyone. It was front-page, above-the-fold news in Sheridan, and made headlines throughout Wyoming, Colorado, and South Dakota. It travelled by word of mouth across the state to Yellowstone, and by post to California, where former Sheridan residents opened their mailboxes to find letters from home-town friends mourning Louie’s death.
Native review by Jay Rayner, The Guardian
Jay Rayner’s restaurant reviews in The Guardian need no introduction for most Londoners. I consume his words with as much relish as the food at Native, a superb restaurant in Covent Garden’s Neal’s Yard. I haven’t written a review of it though, because Jay has already written both the first and last word about Native. His review covers not only everything you could want to know about this restuarant, it also gives a succinct and precise dissection of foraging and why it’s possibly one of the most fatuous food trends to emerge in the West in recent years.
There’s nothing more of value that I could possibly add.
for my tastes they could also scrap the mission statement, partly because it’s bollocks but mostly because the vast majority of the cooking is so assured they don’t need it.
‘Is New York Too Expensive for Restaurateurs? We Do the Math’ by Karen Stabiner, The New York Times
‘Eating out is too expensive’, ‘This is a rip-off – I could make it cheaper at home’, ‘How can they get away with these prices?’ and the like is a common refrain heard among the naive, the unthinking and deliberate point-missers when faced with restaurant prices in London and other big cities. It is, of course, up to each individual to decide whether the cost of eating out is justifiable according to their own means and circumstances.
But restaurant prices are what they are because making money from catering hospitality is an incredibly tough business with thin margins. Whinging about prices, and thus the ability of restauranteurs to make a half-decent living, without knowing the full picture is weaponised superficiality of the highest order. Stabiner’s article prises apart the numbers behind a typical restaurant. It’s focussed on restaurants in America’s big gastronomic cities, but the same principles and similar figures and ratios almost certainly apply to London too.
The next time some half-wit moans about paying £9 for smoked spare ribs (or what have you), print this article out multiple times so that it fills out a thick ring binder. And then bludgeon them over the head with it until they see sense.
The costs of real estate, labor and food should add up to about 75 percent of its projected sales, leaving a profit margin of roughly 10 percent once smaller expenses are figured in.
A large restaurant group or chain may be able to skate below 10 percent because its volume is so high, but a chef who opens a starter full-service restaurant can end up in trouble if profits dip below that threshold.
A Conversation with Fuchsia Dunlop, hosted by Tyler Cowen
Although it’s debatable whether a roundtable discussion/interview counts as an example of food writing, it’s so compelling that I’m including it here anyway. Fuchsia Dunlop is one of the authorities on Chinese cuisine who writes in the English language. This interview, hosted by influential economist Tyler Cowen and available as a podcast and a streaming video in addition to a full transcript, covers an intriguing range of topics (admittedly in an inevitably truncated, potted fashion) from Dunlop’s experience as the first Western woman to train at one of Sichuan’s esteemed cooking schools and Pret sandwiches to the West’s relationship with Chinese cuisine and the reaction of a group of Sichuanese chefs to Western fine dining.
Whether you read, listen or watch this conversation, you’ll almost certainly come away having learned something new and intriguing.
Try to feel that slightly slithery, gelatinous quality, that little crispness in the bite. It’s like what I like to think of is edible oxymoron, this softness and crispness. Chinese love these sensory contradictions.
‘Farm to Fable’ by Laura Reiley, The Tampa Bay Times
While some British restaurants now love to boast about serving dishes made only with seasonal ingredients, their ever-changing menus are less likely to make a big deal about sourcing their foodstuffs from local farmers and suppliers. It’s still fairly common though and appears to be rife in some other parts of the English-speaking world. Laura Riley, restaurant critic for a Florida newspaper, questioned where some restaurants on her patch actually get their ‘local’ ‘artisanal’ produce from.
What Reiley’s investigation lacks in rhetorical flair, it more than makes up for in even-handed fairness. She presents the restauranteur’s answers to her inquiries in a matter-of-fact way, leaving it for you to decide whether they are to be believed or not.
“I forgot that was on the menu. I’m totally embarrassed. I’m literally taking it off the menu right now. Within the hour.”
‘The Death of Flair’ by Lisa Hix, Collectors Weekly
Minimalist restaurant decor is the order of the day, prompting at least some chintzy chain restaurants (but by no means all) to dump or tone down their artefact-strewn interiors. The story of how and why chain restaurants came to be ram-packed with so much visual noise is tied to the rise of TGI Friday’s in the 1960s and 70s and its roots as a trendy singles bar!
Most places we think of as “family-dining establishments” started out as “singles bars,” which later became known as “fern bars,” thanks their abundant use of house plants. The story harkens back to 1965—five years after the FDA approved the first birth-control pill for the U.S. market, just at the cusp of the sexual revolution.
‘The Most Exclusive Restaurant in America’ by Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker
Damon Baehrel’s eponymous restaurant in upstate New York is reputed to be one of the best in North America – and, apparently, the entire world. Every foodstuff is allegedly grown on the premises or sourced locally, with almost no staff beyond himself and a handful of friends or family members.
It’s incredibly hard to get a table. So hard, that there’s apparently a ten-year waiting list – an eye-raising improbability that prompted Paumgarten to look closer at Baehrel’s operation which revealed more incongruities, casting reasonable doubt both on the provenance of Baehrel’s food and just how popular his restaurant really is.
Much of Paumgarten’s evidence is circumstantial or suppositional, but it’s enough to make you question Baehrel’s enigmatic methods and motives.
They raved about the restaurant, but all of them, it seemed, had been there only for a special seating, either on a day he was usually closed or in a slot he’d shoehorned in between regular seatings. I wanted to hear from people who had been there recently when other parties were there.
Several months later, I’ve yet to find any. Within days of my visit, I talked to a range of people who, either after their own meals or after failing to get a reservation, had concluded that Baehrel couldn’t possibly be serving as many diners as he claimed, or be fully booked through the year 2025, or make do with what he foraged on his patch of land.
Sun Nong Dan review by Jonathan Gold, The LA Times
Los Angeles isn’t high up on my list of favourite cities in the world. I’m almost tempted to make time for a repeat visit though thanks to this review of Sun Nong Dan, a Korean restaurant apparently renowned for a pair of dishes – sullungtang and galbi jjim. I’ve read very few other restaurant reviews this year that do such an apt and succint job of capturing a sense of atmosphere and place, while making a firm recommendation on what to order and what it tastes like with such neat yet evocative language.
“What kind of cheese is this?’’ I asked.
“Cheese,’’ the waiter replied.
Happy New Year!
-The Picky Glutton
Thanks for the heads up on Tyler Cowen/Fuschia Dunlop dinner, I’m a big fan of both of them but I must’ve missed that, will watch now! 😀
You probably already know this, but if you like Jonathan Gold’s writing, you should definitely watch the “City of Gold” documentary. It’s on Netflix.