On that Loco'l Review and the Perils and Possibility of Food Writing

Last week, the New York Times published a review of Loco'l, the self-described "revolutionary fast food" restaurant with locations in Los Angeles, CA and Oakland, CA. The review, by the Times' restaurant critic, Pete Wells, panned the restaurant, provoking a wealth of responses, both thoughtful and visceral. After bringing the review to our attention, NYC-based food writer and A Hungry Society founder Korsha Wilson engaged Soleil in a discussion about it on Twitter. Of course, there was a lot more to say, so Soleil called her up and kept talking. We'd like to thank Korsha for her time and labor; support her and buy some of her sweet tshirts!

Soleil: When I first saw the review of Loco’l that you sent via Twitter, I wasn’t really keeping up with the New York Times food section because I was like, wait, why is he even covering this? They’re in California! I guess the things that really stuck out to me were his descriptions of the decor. My favorite passage of this is: "Before noon on a weekday, you could hear Snoop Dogg advertising the health-giving properties of gin and juice. I don’t know of any other fast-food chain that has put street culture at the heart of its locations in this way. The closest most of them come to design that reflects the surroundings is a wall of bulletproof glass."

Korsha: Yeah. It’s not great. There’s just something so gross about that to me. But to back up a little bit, after I read it, I started thinking about the role of criticism like what it was and what it is right now and with a restaurant like Loco’l is it even fair to apply the same things that you would use to write up place like Per Se? Should you use the same rules or the same tone, in a review like that?

Soleil: Right! I think what's interesting about Loco’l too is that it's these two big-name chefs on the West Coast. Applying the innovations of haute cuisine to fast food and bringing these innovations to people is what attracted Pete Wells to the restaurant, right? And I think Wells’ review mirrors that in a way because he's applying haute criticism to fast food.

Korsha: I think my biggest problem with it is that it makes it all about Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, when the restaurant’s supposed to be about the community of people around it. He mentions in passing in the last couple of paragraphs about how it’s done a good thing and it’s great, blah blah blah, but ultimately that restaurant’s about community. But because he’s so not in that community and he didn’t get a lot of context, it’s just stripped of that.  So if you’d never heard of it before, you’d read this and think, oh, it’s about these two chefs who just decided to do fast food.

Soleil: And I think it's telling, too, that he goes to the Oakland location.

Korsha: That didn’t make any sense to me, unless they were doing like a whole spread, like a full-blown food section about Oakland, then that makes sense. But the fact that they didn’t go to the original Watts location is just crazy to me.

Soleil: Yeah he pointed out in the review that was where all the fanfare was, that that was sort of flagship. Instead of going to Watts, he just quotes Jonathan Gold’s feature on it. I think it's important to note that Jonathan Gold, the restaurant critic for the LA Times, he didn't review the restaurant. He did a feature on the opening, and talked about the context, the people who were there, why it existed.

Korsha: And why it matters. He did a radio interview yesterday about this review and he was talking about how he really likes the food. And the fact that it opened in Watts? There haven’t been new restaurants in Watts since the riots. It’s more than the restaurant, and that’s probably why he didn’t review it. I think he took a step back and said, this isn’t the typical restaurant that’s opening—it’s kind of bigger than that.

Soleil: Yeah and I think the subtext of that is also that applying the typical restaurant critique to it doesn't really work. And a friend pointed out that this location in Oakland where this Loco’l is is kind of ritzy, you know? There’s a lot of development, a lot of startup office space there—it's just really gentrified compared to Watts. So it just seems like a really bizarre context to put Loco’l in… for both the restaurateurs and the critic, I think.

Korsha: Such a weird decision. And just thinking about the readership of that section of the Times, I don’t quite understand the logic behind it besides, there’s these two big-name chefs, let’s see if it’s good and go. Just the idea of someone flying across the country, popping into Loco’l, and then flying back… he went to other places, he’s said since this review came out. That’s even more puzzling, that he would just hone in on this? And like we said on Twitter, you can avoid things like this if you diversify your team. This kind of thing would have been questioned by anyone from the area, from Watts—like “Wait a minute, I think that’s not a good idea.” That’s why diversity is the biggest issue in food writing. Because we’ve seen things like this play out before. Do you remember that whole Infatuation thing? About the guy who was reviewing a restaurant with Chinese food and pretty much shit all over Chinatown?

Soleil: Yeah yeah yeah.

Korsha: This reminded me of that. It’s not as flagrant in its disrespect, but it’s kind of the same thing because it’s someone who is an outsider to the community going in and thinking they have authority and can judge and say, this is good, or this isn’t, and then drop back into their safe space. It just feels… gross.

Soleil: Yeah, no, it’s totally gross.

Korsha: It’s funny that you mention Jonathan Gold, because he covers so many different types of restaurants and he is so respectful of different communities, different cuisines… and I just can’t imagine him flying to New York, dropping in and writing a review… it’s just sounds silly. There’s this lack of, it’s like you said, there’s no context given at all.

Soleil: Yeah so I've been reading a lot about kind of travel travel writing and about the act of decolonizing and what that means and I think that food writing is really colonial. It’s very imperialist because there’s this explorer, this white man explorer, going into some of the depths of the unknown, into the exotic and then coming back and interpreting it for an audience who looks kind of like him. I don't think a lot of people in the food world have articulated this, but I think this is the underlying tension of restaurant criticism that this review is bringing up, you know, it's bringing to the fore that dynamic. And we’re so used to that.

Korsha: So I took a food writing course specifically, and I remember the professor say at its core, food journalism, and restaurant criticism in particular, is part of service journalism. To tell the reader where to spend or not spend their money. And I remember thinking it’s a little more complicated than that. And I think that this review shows how intertwined race, gender, and class are with food and restaurants. It touches all of those things.

Soleil: Yeah and it seems like that's a new idea though. Or at least it's a new thing for us to be talking about with restaurant reviews and food writing. I think it’s important for us to talk about the purpose of food criticism, and I’m glad you brought up your experience in class and now you're telling you that it just service journalism. Because it seems like recent reviews, especially Wells’ reviews, seem to be trying to access something deeper than just that, too

Korsha: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s getting more tricky because we’re becoming more aware. Because we’re all like, everyone thinks they’re a food critic and can tell you what their favorite restaurant is. Everyone feels like they know food and there’s so much food media. Everyone is just taking in more information about it. So I think it’s kind of tough for people like Pete Wells; there’s just a lot more criticism from readers because they’re way more knowledgeable now.

Soleil: And I mean, let's be real, there are a lot more people of color who are able to tackle these things in public, you know? We have access and we actually have like a means to put our thoughts out there in ways that we haven't really been able to before.

Korsha: Yeah, definitely.

Soleil: I think a lot of restaurateurs and chefs and food people talk shit about the democratization of food reviewing but it’s also a good thing in some ways. But I think it speaks to how food criticism has changed in who it serves or who it’s historically served. Who is the consumer?

Korsha: It’s true. You don’t have to get a newspaper delivered to read a New York Times restaurant review anymore and I think that changes who the consumer is. Historically, the readership of the Times has been more affluent. Now way more people have access to it on the internet.

Soleil: Yeah I mean when you think about the past roster of reviewers the New York Times has had, they’re all white, mostly men.

Korsha: We’re moving into a new phase of what criticism is and our relationship with the professional food critic because I think—do you watch Master of None?

Soleil: Yes!

Korsha: So you know in the episode where Aziz and the big guy with the blondish hair they’re like, let’s get some tacos, and they both pull out their laptops. They’re sitting there Googling reviews for two hours, looking for the best tacos in New York City. They’re looking at the Times and Eater, but they’re also looking at Chowhound and all that stuff. I think people are doing that more than looking to the gatekeepers.

Soleil: Right and it's kind of interesting dynamic where we have professional food reviewers versus the amateurs and there's sort of class and objectivity assumptions that are made about the two, like there’s this binary that exists. But I think that is what the Times and other mainstream publications like it represent: this professional, objective—and we know how loaded “objective” is—take on the teeming masses of restaurants that are out in the world. They are going to make sense of all the restaurants for you. It sounds very… I'm going to say it again, but it sounds really colonialist and imperialist to need, for something wild and unknown, to need an objective take on it or to need to have it interpreted for you within a that hegemonic framework.

I think it's telling too that Wells went to the Oakland location of Loco’l instead of Watts because maybe in a sense that's probably where his audience is going to go? Like obviously he is not writing for the people of Watts... I think that is clear.

Korsha: When the first location opened up in Watts, Food & Wine published an article about it being the best new restaurant of 2016. I remember thinking, that’s really fast! And that article definitely wasn’t written for the community at Watts. I think that a lot of people wouldn’t have paid attention to it if it didn’t have these two big name chefs behind it. And that really rubs me the wrong way. Like I remember thinking it would be really cool if people went to Watts anyway. But they’re not going to, and that sucks.

Soleil: Well, I mean, even if they did go to Watts, like what they do there? Would they treat it like a Third World vacation? You know what I'm saying? Like would they strike poses and take selfies in front of other human beings just trying to live their lives? Living in post-Katrina New Orleans kind of soured me to all that.

Korsha: Yeah, that’s true. I think that would make me mad too. So what’s the solution? I don’t know.

Soleil: It’s kind of interesting how it also begs this question of who is the audience of a food review and who gets to have restaurants that are vetted for quality? And this review and Loco’l are such interesting explorations of that question.

Korsha: If it was just another casual or fine-casual restaurant, sure. But it’s not. And there’s a lot of thought into the model, how it runs, and who they hire, so it’s like, is this restaurant above being criticized or can it be criticized in a different way or can I be criticized like any other restaurant? It’s interesting to see how it has played out.

Soleil: It seems like we've been talking a bit so far about this major food writing paradigm. And it's pretty standard, I think, across the board about objectivity and there’s even standardized ethics to some degree. I think what you're saying is important in that maybe there's some restaurants or maybe it would be beneficial to rework existing models of critique in order to provide a different kind of lens, you know? Something that's more accessible, more understandable, or less rooted in the fake idea of objectivity.

Korsha: Yeah, and less colonialism.

Soleil: But what do you think that looks like?

Korsha: I’m not sure what that looks like. You know, there’ve been a bunch of different types of apps and websites that try to make food criticism more objective. And there are sites that say, we’ll take a sampling of like fifty people and try to weed out their biases and try to really get an objective opinion about a restaurant. I don’t know if that’s possible but I do realize that the model we have of one person visiting a place and having so much power can be problematic. So, the New York Times, back in the day, their food section would send their writers to France for about a month or so.

Soleil: Wow.

Korsha: I don’t think they do that anymore but that set the reviewer up for a really Euro-centric idea of what’s good and what’s not. So I do think that that needs to change, but I don’t know what that looks like or how it plays out.

Soleil: So, food writing is, I mean, it's writing, and I think within in the literature world there's been so many—I think writers of color have had a lot more entrée into literature than in food writing and I think there’s been a lot more experimentation because of that. And I wonder if food writing or food writers could take a note from that, you know? Try to experiment more, or just try to be inspired by different sources of style or phrasing or structure.

Korsha: Speaking of structure, I immediately thought of the Michelin guides or even the Escoffier groups or the Dames d’Escoffier—so much of cooking in a professional setting is rooted in these old school structures. So maybe criticism has fallen into line with that and not with people who are saying and doing things differently.

Soleil: So, did you get a sense of that when you were in culinary school?

Korsha: Oh yeah. We were taught the brigade system, wore toques… chef coats had to be ironed and pants couldn’t be wrinkled. It was very, very structured.

Soleil: Was there anything in that curriculum that deviated from the European model or was it very strictly European?

Korsha: So I went to the Culinary Institute of America, and we had classes like Cuisines of Asia and Cuisines of the Americas, but it was still European centric, even as we were learning different cuisines. Well, there’s no way to learn an entire cuisine. [laughs] It was still like, here’s garde manger cookery and all of these different things that are rooted in French restaurants. So that was kind of the base of culinary school.

Soleil: Besides maybe the structural stuff when we talk about the nitty-gritty of writing and cooking, I know that you run A Hungry Society. Tell me about what you're trying to do here because we should talk more about potential solutions to the lack of diversity in food writing.

Korsha: So A Hungry Society is my attempt to promote chefs and restaurants that are more diverse. And there’s also an apparel aspect of it too: a portion of sales for each t-shirt that I sell goes to helping kids from underserved communities go to culinary school. That was something that completely changed my life. So there’s an aspect to A Hungry Society that actually has an impact for these kids. There’s writing something and then there’s actually giving to the community; that’s what A Hungry Society is about. It’s just a passion project of mine that I can do instead of writing about the same six chefs. I just want to talk about something that’s more inclusive; that’s my goal.

Soleil: So, what is your experience been as a food writer like have you experimented with form at all? Have you encountered any opportunity to do so?

Korsha: Hm, a bit. It’s tough because right now, the landscape of food writing is so digital: it’s all roundups, best ofs, listicles… a lot of easily digestible content that can be turned around quickly, and are super photo-heavy. But for me, one of my favorite things about food is that you can deep dive into it and do all sorts of creative things with it. The hard thing is trying to sell those pieces. [laughs] A lot of places are like, can you write this in a day or two?

Soleil: Great. And wonder if click thirst was part of the impetus for publishing a negative review of Loco’l, honestly.

Korsha: Yeah, it’s tough. When you write something, you want people to see it and share it, but for me, it’s not as satisfying as knowing you’ve written something that feels really good. Back in Boston, I wrote a column about hidden gems, the restaurants that are under the radar, that just don’t get talked about. Those small business owners were so excited about it.

Soleil: That’s cool. It does feel intoxicating, I admit—as someone who's done food writing—to be able to help people. I love that.

Korsha: Yeah, those pieces are absolutely my favorite to write. It’s just my favorite thing, to talk to business owners about their experiences and ask them why they love what they do.

Soleil: So, much I mean I think there's a layer of care that is really important to have in food writing: helping people who are obscure or who have something amazing that they’re not getting attention for. To me, that’s the ideal for food writing. It's not writing about the next time David Chang farts, right? Who cares, I'm over it.

Korsha: At least we’ve given Redzepi a break.

Soleil: [laughs]

Korsha: For a while there it seemed like everything written was about him. And then it turned into, we need more content about Scandinavia! I got it, we do not need to talk about lichen anymore. There’s so much more we could be talking about.

Soleil: Absolutely. This is just that’s probably what happens when everyone in the press room is the same, you know? They think the same… the perspectives they’re bringing aren’t… I mean, there's a reason why there's so much retreading.

Korsha: I have pitched articles about Caribbean or specific African cuisine and editors will say, oh, that’s too broad, or that’s too specific. Or they’ll respond and ask for a roundup of an entire region, like can you round up this entire country’s cuisine in one article? But I’ve seen so many articles about this obscure corner of France or this one corner of Italy. These other places are just as amazing, and they deserve attention, too. As a food writer, that’s something that I am incredibly passionate about. I want all of these places to be talked about, because they’re worth it.

Soleil: Yeah, I mean I can't even count the number of listicles about Africa that I've seen floating around like African food. Like what is that?

Korsha: It’s absurd!

Soleil: But when you have this sort of demographic sameness in these mastheads, you brought this up before, but there’s no pushback against these ideas.

Korsha: Yeah, there’s no pushback; everyone’s just like, yeah, that’s really cool. We need more perspectives for that.

Soleil: I would think that if there was one person in the editorial team at the Times food section who was from Watts, they would have put a stop to this, or at least questioned it.

Korsha: Yeah, I guess they could have had a San Francisco or Oakland writer tackle this, or could have done a joint review of the Watts and Oakland locations, just to get the big picture. I’m just still so confused about the choices they made.

Soleil: So I want to ask you, what concrete changes do you want to see in food writing?

Korsha: Hmm. I would like to see more food writers of color; more diverse breadth in terms of cuisine in the ways that we talked about, and not in the way of gatekeepers just dropping in and painting an incomplete picture of everything; and not just with food and cuisine, but more chefs of color, too.

Soleil: Yeah, that's a big part of why we started this podcast, too: to just bring out the names of these people who are doing awesome things and who don’t usually get covered.

Korsha: Right! I love the work you do: it’s so important, and it’s only going to become more important. But yeah, I think that’s why this review has triggered so many responses: it’s unearthing all of these things that kind of go unsaid in reviews that are always present. And I think we’re all starting to ask questions.

Soleil: Right, we've been letting this happen for way too long.

Korsha: That system is hopefully going to be questioned more now.