Is culinary school worth it? Is there any good Hong Kong Chinese food in the States? Is there a food writing trend that should be banished? Find out the answers to these questions and more in this interview with Francis Lam, Senior Writer at Salon.com.
What’s the best sandwich in New York City?
It’s a big city, and I’m always happy to be proven wrong, but right now I’d say the meatloaf sandwich at Rye in Williamsburg. That sandwich is f#$%ing crazy. It’s the classic combination of beef, pork and veal, but then there’s also duck and short rib in it, with mushrooms. I had it in July and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Plus the chef there used to go salmon fishing in Alaska, so he really has my respect.
You attended University of Michigan. Which dish from what restaurant there do you recall most fondly?
There were a lot obviously—these were formative years. The falafel at Jerusalem Garden. Then there’s Zingerman’s. They’re a deli, but they have a great bakery. They do the best bread in Michigan as far as I can tell. They have their own creamery, they do their own cheese-making and they’re an incredible importer. But the single place I always go back to is called La Fiesta Mexicana in Ypsilanti. It’s the greatest Mexican restaurant of my life. It’s the place where I learned to eat Mexican food. They make their own tortillas. You give me a pile of their tortillas and whatever else they’re serving and I’m a happy, happy man. I would go there all the time and get the pork with salsa verde, or pork with salsa rioja. I would order anything remotely pig-related. They started calling me, “Chico de Puerco,” the Pork Kid.
You’ve said that you spent summers in Hong Kong as a kid, eating fishballs from street vendors, and wonton mein on mahjong tables covered with trash bags at dumps. Is there anywhere in the States that even remotely approaches the Chinese food you ate in Hong Kong as a kid?
I don’t know. You know I have a few favorite spots in Chinatown here in New York, and people in California say you can get awesome Hong Kong-style food there. But when you have something with such a strong memory it’s hard to find anything that can come close to matching it. There’s a chef in New Orleans, you may have heard of him, Adolfo Garcia. In one of his kitchens, you can peek inside and he has big paella pans on the wall. And people ask him, “Why don’t you make paella?” And he said, “Okay, well, why do you love paella?” And the guest would say, “I was in Spain once and we were lost and driving around, and we finally got to the beach and there was this stand there selling paella.” And he said, “That’s why I don’t make paella.”
Any one place in Hong Kong you visited as a kid that you were dying to get back to?
Fook Lam Moon. That was a real classic. I used to go there with my grandfather as a kid. But the interesting thing about it is that my grandfather was pretty successful financially later in his life and he was a regular so he received VIP treatment. And in Hong Kong it’s like that with restaurants. There’s a lot of VIP treatment. People will say, “Oh, I don’t know anyone there. There’s no point in going.” Anyway, I went to Fook Lam Moon and dropped a ton of money and it was just okay. And it was amazing when I was younger. We do that here too-- you get VIP treatment, but no one admits to it really. It’s kind of not cool. It’s almost seen as anti-American.
How’d you get into food writing?
Dumb luck really. Incredible dumb luck. I was going to culinary school-- I was there in 2002 and I was 25. I was totally that guy. A total nerd, notebook in one hand, knife in the other. And I’d get home at night and I’d write these emails to friends and family. They’d be these long messages filled with everything I’d learned in class, “Here are three ways to cut a fish, and then “someone handed me a donut.” Friends and family [laughs] I became an email forward. Then halfway through the program I got a call from an editor at the Financial Times, and she said I’ve been following your emails. I want you to write something for us.
Is there one adjective used to describe food that you wish people weren’t allowed to use anymore?
What’s the coolest thing about writing for Salon.com?
At Gourmet I had an audience that I could connect with using food as a bridge. And then the idea was that hopefully I could branch out and extend the idea to personal ideas and politics -- to see the world through food. Here at Salon it’s kind of the other way around. With a lot of our readers, we already connect in those ways, and through that I hope to broaden the conversation into food. Now it’s about bringing the larger world into the conversation about food.
What’s the food writing trend you most wish would go away?
I’d rather talk about that in another way. What’s great about food-writing is that you can see so much of the world through food. You can talk about so much about the larger world through food. It’s our job as food writers to take advantage of that. The new James Beard award guidelines are really exciting for precisely this reason.
Okay, so what’s the thing you’re most excited about food wise these days?
I can’t say. My philosophy, my take on food is to try to see the whole world through it.
Culinary school is a significant investment, kitchens don’t pay much, and there are a lot of food bloggers out there. A few years ago Kim Severson wrote a piece in The Times ('Top Chef' Dreams Crushed by Student Loan Debt) about the expenses involved and the low salaries available afterwards. You went to the CIA. What’s your take on the culinary school debate? To go or not to go?
I remember that article really well, and Kim’s fantastic, but I read that same article in that same publication years before. That’s a question people have been asking for a while. To go or not to go is a personal choice. I had an amazing experience. But I’m sure there are people who go who don’t get anything out of it. You have to have a sense of why you’re there. With education you’re only going to get out of it what you’re going to put into it. And yeah, you have to realize you don’t graduate into a high-paying profession. You have to want to go and know exactly why you’re going.
Wait, I want to go back to the other question, what’s the food-writing trend I’d like to see go away. I want people to stop writing about what they ate for breakfast. That’s the kind of writing that makes people think, “That’s what you do?” It’s the corollary to what I was saying before: Stop telling me what you had for breakfast and start telling me what matters about what you had for breakfast.
Certainly The Daily Meal [laughs].
Daily is weird. I don’t check daily, just because who has time to do it daily? I love Michael Laiskonis’ blog. Do you know Michael Laiskonis?
I’m obsessed with his egg dessert.
[Laughs] His blog is always, always so interesting. I love Cooking Issues, which is a blog that Dave Arnold and Nils Norén do for FCI. I love Orangette. Maybe you should put there somewhere that Michael Laiskonis and Molly Wizenberg are my friends.
You kind of touched on this before, but what’s the biggest challenge food writers face these days?
What you can do in food writing is so expansive; the challenge is recognizing that and taking advantage of that. And not being complacent. Some people write reviews of tasty things, and that’s great, I love tasty things, and it’s great to share them — that’s helpful to me when I’m looking for new tasty things. But there’s so much more we can do than just that.
Is there any one thing you wished you’d written that you’ve been scooped on?
That happens with things all the time, which I think is great. That means people are out there doing interesting stuff. One thing that comes to mind, not the only thing, was the last round of the Bocuse d’Or, when Andrew Friedman wrote the book, Knives at Dawn. I really, really, really wish I’d gotten to that before he did.
Who is the living writer you most admire food or otherwise?
Burkhard Bilger, Louise Glück, Jonathan Gold, and Ruth Reichl.
What non-food writer do you think would make a great food writer?
I want to say that a great writer is a great writer. And if that person focuses their passion on food then I want to read it. A great writer is curious. A great writer knows how to ask good opening questions. A great writer can communicate the things that they find interesting beautifully.
What’s your most coveted food wish list item? Your Holy Grail item?
I want my whole leg of Jamón Ibérico. That’s what I want.