Those of you who follow this blog have likely read my weekly Chef and Tell interviews, wherein I pepper local line monkeys with a syllabus of prying questions. We run a condensed version of their answers in print, while the entire interview runs over the course of two, sometimes three, days on the Cafe Society blog. The interviews are time-consuming -- really time-consuming -- for both the chefs and me, but their words give our readers a rare, intimate glimpse into the lives of Denver's culinary wizards. And while there's been more than one chef who's likened those interviews to homework -- or worse, the SAT -- the half-hearted whining disappears once they've read the interviews in their entirety.
But I imagine if I took those chefs off the line for two to three hours at a time, then condensed their 2,000- -- and usually more -- word interview into 200, they'd want to burn my ass with bacon grease. And with good reason.
Yesterday, during our weekly Cafe Society meeting, I mentioned to my editor that a local pub -- 303 magazine -- had interviewed me for its Denver dining issue: an interview that amounted to nearly thirty questions, took up a good two hours of my time and ended up being close to 1,700 words.
And, yeah, I expected the full interview to run in 303's dining issue, if for no other reason than I was never told it wouldn't. But when I picked up a copy, flipped to the page where the headline read "Food Critic" above my name, I was all, what the fuck? An obscenely, embarrassingly large, in-your-face black-and-white photo takes up three-quarters of the page, while my 1,700-word "interview" was reduced to scrap -- 300 words above a fat rectangle of white space.
To be fair, Frank Bonanno was interviewed, too, and there's a lot more white space below his interview than mine; and Lon Symensma, the owner and chef of ChoLon, who was also interviewed, looks swell, as usual, which may be why his photo takes up most of the space on his page.
In any case, during that meeting, my editor bribed me with beer in an effort to convince me to publish the entire 303 interview that fell by the wayside of the World's Largest Photo.
By the way, today is my birthday, so be nice. Y'all can tell me I suck candy canes tomorrow. When did you start writing? I've never done anything else. I think I learned how to write before I learned how to walk. I won a poetry contest in the sixth grade and was entering fiction stories to teen magazines when I was thirteen. At the time, I wanted to be the next Judy Blume. I started writing about food, at least professionally, in the early '90s.
How did you get your start writing about food? I graduated from college and applied for a job as the local restaurant critic for one of the first online restaurant review sites -- I think it was called foodline.com -- and from there, things just sort of took off. I was writing reviews for CitySearch and AOL City Guide and eventually landed a restaurant-critic gig at 5280. I started freelancing regularly for Sunset magazine, Colorado AvidGolfer and Gayot.com, where I'm the southwest regional restaurant editor, and I was the restaurant critic at the Rocky Mountain News for just over a year, until the paper closed.
Did you always love food? Truly, madly, deeply. My mother is an unassailable cook, and when I was young, I spent most of my free time standing on a stool in her kitchen with my nose over her stove. Her dining room table is still my favorite place to eat.
Do you find tasting food for a living gives you the ability to create new adjectives? I don't really taste food for a living; I write about food for a living. It's difficult not to use adjectives when you're writing about food, and it's a challenge and an obstacle to come up with new ones, but we all use them. It's really hard not to. The pool of adjectives to describe food, flavor and taste isn't a particularly large one, however, and using too many adjectives can be the death of a food writer. Food writing, especially restaurant criticism, is far more engaging when you're storytelling rather than resorting to a bucket of adjectives.
In your Westword column "Guess Where I'm Eating" you post pictures and vaguely describe the food you're enjoying or drink you're imbibing, hinting at readers your whereabouts. Do people usually know where you are? How do you choose your spots? Sometimes our readers know exactly where I'm eating or drinking, and other times, it takes a few days for someone to guess correctly. And occasionally, no one gets it right, which is when we start to give out hints. I eat out -- a lot -- and I photograph everything.
Best restaurant in Denver? Oh, hell, I have no idea. I have a laundry list of favorite restaurants - Rioja, Euclid Hall, Pho 95, Los Carboncitos, Z Cuisine, Fruition, Vesta Dipping Grill, Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria, Squeaky Bean, Bones, Café Brazil, China Jade, Olivea, Biker Jim's, the Pinche Tacos truck, El Paraiso...the list goes on and on.
Do you ever find yourself running out of ways/words/phrases to describe food and drink? I work hard not to. You do find yourself repeating words, but I try to read over my copy several times to make sure that I haven't written "flavor" or "taste" a million times, or used a really stupid cliché.
Best bar in Denver? I love Gabor's, the Kentucky Inn and the bar at Gaetano's.
Favorite meal to prepare at home -- assuming you cook: Cooking is my therapy, but I rarely have time to cook at home, mostly because I'm always in restaurants. They're my second home. When I do cook at home, it's usually something ethnic -- Thai, Indian, Brazilian or Vietnamese.
Favorite go-to cocktail: I don't drink a lot of cocktails. They scare me, thanks to a bad experience in high school that involved vodka and a pig, so I stick with wine or beer, both of which I consume readily. And I'm crazy about mescal, although it makes me very, very drunk.
Would you consider yourself an honest food critic? I'm an honest and responsible writer, but criticism -- restaurant or otherwise -- is by its nature subjective. People can argue otherwise, but there's no such thing as objectivity.
What happens when you sit down to critique a meal and absolutely detest what you try? Do you tell the chef/manager right then and there? When I was a critic, I did my best to maintain anonymity, so the last thing I'd do is call attention to myself by speaking to a chef or manager on the spot -- about anything. If I was really unhappy with a dish that I'd eaten, or had questions, I'd make a phone call to the chef before writing the review.
How would you describe Denver's dining scene? It's wild, it's wonderful and it's exploding. There's never been a better time to eat out in Denver.
Are you usually alone when critiquing a new restaurant? I don't critique restaurants any longer, but when I did, I'd almost always have at least one or two other people with me. If you're dining solo, and order three appetizers, three entrees and two desserts, it obviously raises a few eyebrows.
How do you choose the food you try, or do you allow the chef to bring you a tasting menu? There's nothing I won't eat, or try, at least once. I even ate a tarantula a few years ago. The only food aversion I have is to eggplant; I can't get past the texture. If I'm in a restaurant on a slow night, then I'll sometimes ask if the chef will just cook whatever he wants. If it's something off the menu, that's even better, especially at ethnic restaurants. I love being surprised.
Favorite fast food joint? I'm not a fast-food eater. I strongly dislike American fast food, I'm not a fan of fried food and I never drink soda -- both of which are fast-food staples.
U.S. city with the best dining scene, outside of Denver? International city? I don't know if it's the best dining scene in the country, but my heart is in San Francisco. The quality of food products, combined with the integrity and passion of San Francisco's chefs, farmers, restaurateurs and winemakers, is unparalleled. As for the best dining scene in an international city, it's Paris, but I may be biased: I adore French food -- especially French cheeses -- and French men.
You had a long stint at Zagat; how accurate are their recommendations? That stint is still current; I've been editing the Colorado survey section of the Zagat America's Top Restaurant guide for the past seven years -- and counting. The 2011 Zagat America's Top Restaurant Guide was just released, and the forty restaurants that made it into the guide, as voted by surveyors -- a democratic collective of diners -- are certainly some of the best in the state.
In terms of online restaurant reviews, who is trustworthy? I'm a big fan of www.denveronaspit.com, a blog devoted to Denver's ethnic food scene. The guy who writes it has turned me on to some really amazing off the beaten path joints -- and he knows what he's talking about. Plus, he has a genuine fetish for al pastor tacos, as do I.
How are you different from a "typical" food critic? I've never used the word "tasty." Or "yummy." Or "yummo."
What is the best meal you have ever written about? Mizuna. I remember having dinner there the first night it opened -- something I rarely, rarely did as a critic -- and being just blown away by how astonishingly seamless everything was, from the wine service and Doug Fleishman's ease and grace to Frank Bonanno's food. I must have gone back another half-dozen times before I eventually reviewed it, and once I started writing the review, I couldn't stop. Writing that review was pure joy.
Which type of food is the easiest to describe? A food, or ingredient, that I've never had before.
If you were a food, what would you be? Cheese. Maybe La Tur, a bloomy, creamy, soft French cheese, or the Cypress Grove Truffle Tremor, or the Reblochon Merlemon.
Which Denver publication, aside from Westword of course, has it right when it comes to food and restaurants? There are plenty of food stories to go around in this city, and each publication with a food section is doing its part to spotlight Denver's really incredible culinary culture. I will say this: Denver Magazine's October food issue was a real pleasure to read.
Can healthy food be delicious? Of course it can, although I just read about a study that showed that rats voluntarily starved themselves when scientists gave them healthy food. They devoured the cupcakes, though. I loathe cupcakes, but I can't get enough of the kale salad at Tarbell's. It's one of my favorite dishes in Denver.
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How do you feel about restaurants boasting everything to be "farm raised and organic"? It seems to be trendy right now. I'm completely over menus littered with the name of every farmer, rancher, winemaker or local purveyor who supplies product to a restaurant, but I do applaud the efforts of chefs who genuinely -- genuinely being the key word -- uphold the eat-local philosophy. The farm-to-table, field-to-fork, pasture-to-plate -- whatever you want to call it -- movement is here to stay, and I imagine that we'll continue to see it magnified over the coming years. That said, there are a number of restaurants that claim to be hyper-local, but if you prod them, they can't even tell you which farms they work with. That irritates me. It's amazing how many walk-in coolers point to a very different scenario.
What is the worst meal you have ever had to write about? I once had to review a restaurant run by a tyrant chef who tossed me out of her restaurant because I sent a dish back to the kitchen. She was a fantastic chef with mad talent, but she was also ridiculously bitter, intolerant and egotistical.
If you weren't a food writer, what would you be doing? I'm fascinated by politics.