Last week, the New York Times announced it had appointed Tejal Rao, a well-respected Indian American food writer and restaurant critic, to be the paper’s first ever California food critic. Rao will relocate to Los Angeles, where she will, in the words of the paper’s food editor Sam Sifton, “review restaurants and write about food and food culture in every corner of the nation’s most populous state, at places both fancy and not, wherever people gather to exchange money for food.”
The announcement comes at the time where California, arguably one of the world’s most diverse and rich regions for food, is lacking a leading voice on food. The San Francisco Chronicle’s longstanding food critic Michael Bauer announced his retirement in July, and the Los Angeles Times’ critic Jonathan Gold suddenly passed away a week later. The LA Times is reorganizing its entire food section and hiring several new critics, creating a unique opportunity to boost a new generation of critics.
Of course there are plenty of other talented critics and food writers in the state but being the food critic of a major paper lends a writer a level of influence and power that is difficult to replicate otherwise.
California is becoming a global food destination. “California cuisine” has become its own well-regarded cuisine, the San Francisco Bay Area has more three-star Michelin restaurants than any other region in the country and a wide range of international cuisines are well represented here (thanks in part to the state’s racial diversity, size and geography which allow for a wide range of fresh ingredients). A food critic’s role is to highlight the best and most interesting food and a food scene as deep as California’s can only get the coverage it deserves with a range of perspectives.
Janelle Bitker is the managing editor and restaurant critic for the East Bay Express. She says, “It’s a really exciting time to have this opportunity for people of color to finally get some of these positions… hopefully. If you look nationally, not just with critics, but with food writers in general, it’s a very white scene. I think there’s more Asian writers than Black and brown writers, and I think that’s a big reason why we’re seeing more national stories and interest in different Asian regional cuisines. Which is awesome, but we should be seeing that for so much more as well.”
There’s a lot that gets overlooked when a critic takes the more traditional route of only covering high-end restaurants, as Bauer was often criticized for doing. On the other hand, Gold built his reputation on exploring strip malls and small immigrant run restaurants for the best food and inspired diners to venture into less glamorous neighborhoods to order off of menus they couldn’t pronounce.
Los Angeles resident and avid diner Kevin Lin says, “He loved the mom and pop everyday kind of restaurants that highlighted the diversity of the city. His reviews helped a transplant like me discover the real, non Hollywood LA.”
The city’s network of taco trucks and strip malls are now considered an essential part of the community, thanks in no small part to a food critic who was willing to do the legwork and learn about cuisines that were unfamiliar to him.
And a critic can have a real economic impact as well. As Bitker says, “The restaurants that have PR teams that everyone reads about before they open, they don’t really need the restaurant review like a mom and pop or immigrant owned restaurant does. Those are the restaurants that could really really benefit from a critic finding them and writing about their food and telling their story.”
Prestige is at stake as well. Consider, for example, why diners don’t question paying $25 for cacio e pepe, a pasta dish made only of cheese, pasta and pepper and which can be made in under 20 minutes, but balk at paying more than $15 for a bowl of pho which is made of a complex balance of herbs, spices, noodles, meat and a broth that takes hours if not days to stew.
I shouldn’t have to scan the last names and photos of Yelp reviewers to find the best pan dulce, beef noodle soup, or naeng myun. Let’s hope Tejal Rao is just the first in a wave of high-profile reviewers willing to venture beyond the “Friday night date” restaurants and cover Californians are really eating.