L.A. Weekly's New Columnist, Besha Rodell, Offers Greetings From the Nosh Pit
Los Angeles is not a love-at-first-sight kind of place. To an outsider, the wide boulevards and fierce jumble of humanity look arid and disorganized. The city is both overwhelming and confusing. At first the neighborhoods aren't easy to define, either geographically or in terms of personality. It's a distinctly weird place to move, out of the blue, from the other side of the country.
Of course, people do move here from the other side of the country all the time. They come for the work or just to be in one of the world's great cities.
And after a while, you realize there's much to love: that first glimpse of the sun setting over the Pacific, with the mountains in the distance; the realization that on any given day, there's more to do in this one city than in half the states in this country combined; the weather.
But for me, it began with a walnut.
Sitting at the counter at Pizzeria Mozza, I was brought a small bowl of radicchio salad. The purple-and-white slivers of radicchio held vibrant green cubes of avocado and fat walnuts. The entire salad was a thing of beauty, dressed so lightly as to be barely noticeable, allowing the sweet, creamy, bitter crunch of the ingredients to shine through. But it was the walnut that got me — a walnut wholly unlike any walnut I'd tasted before: smoky, woodsy, with something close to a barnyard funk in the background. What a walnut! "Oh yeah," my Californian friend sitting next to me said. "They're grown right up the coast from here."
The things that have struck me as amazing about Los Angeles may well be the things that residents take for granted. Because I'm a food person, most of what's made an impression is edible — the produce, the outrageous variety of restaurants, that walnut. This is both a strength and a weakness. As a new critic in town, I'm at a disadvantage. I don't know the history of the city's chefs and restaurants, and Google can't replace years of tasting and research. I haven't spent my life researching and driving and eating these streets.
And let's go ahead and say a hearty hello to the elephant in the room: I'm not Jonathan Gold. Which is probably a good thing, seeing as there's already a Jonathan Gold in L.A., writing the things that Jonathan Gold is so good at writing. Two of him would be redundant.
Rather than try to emulate the seasoned L.A. critics, I hope to use my outsider status to see things fresh. It's something I was able to do in my last job, starting as a restaurant critic in Atlanta with no prior experience eating in that town. It was exhilarating and scary and ultimately good for both me and, I like to think, Atlanta.
In reviews and blog posts to come, I don't plan to spend a lot of time writing about myself. But seeing as we're just getting to know each other, I'll give you a brief history. My culinary education took many forms: in the marketplaces and cafés of Melbourne, Australia, where I lived until I was 15; at the tables of my mother, an excellent home cook, and my father, a culinary Francophile who weaned me on pâté and cream sauces and chocolate mousse. In my 20s, I bummed around North Carolina and went to college in New York City, all the while cooking in restaurants and waiting tables.
I knew I wanted to be a writer, but at the same time I was unable to let go of restaurant work. I loved the culture, the sound of a dining room in full swing, the people who work in restaurants. I loved talking to customers about food and wine. In New York, my boyfriend and I struggled to pay our rent, but we ate our way through every important restaurant we could get to, as well as far-flung oddities and neighborhood staples. Devouring a city is a common hobby now — at the time, people thought we were insane to be spending our money on something regarded as frivolous.
But it turned out to be an education, and one that led me to a career. Through a series of life changes, determination, friends of friends and a ton of luck, I ended up merging my two passions. I wrote a little for Time Out New York, and then as a columnist for the Independent Weekly in North Carolina. From there, I got my most recent position, as restaurant critic and food editor for Creative Loafing, the alt-weekly in Atlanta. I was in that position for six years.
Being a restaurant critic is one of the most bizarre jobs on the planet, and my perception of the role of a critic has changed a lot since I began. I think most people want to be a critic because they have a lot of opinions about the places they eat — that was certainly why I wanted to do it. I felt that working in restaurants had given me special insight into why things did or didn't work. I obsessed about points of service the same way I had when I was a restaurant manager. My opinions hinged on things like whether plates were all cleared at once or whether the check was dropped when I was still halfway through dessert.
Of course, those things matter. But for the most part, they're painfully boring to read about. Over the years, I've come to care more about the context of a restaurant, what it means for a city, what it means for a neighborhood. I want people to read my reviews and know whether they'll love the place, regardless of whether I love it or not. I'm interested in what a restaurant is trying to achieve and whether it is achieving that thing, rather than holding everything up to one rigid standard. Food can and should be viewed as art, but it's also pop culture and anthropology and politics and love.
I'm a believer in the old-school theory of restaurant criticism, the one Craig Claiborne invented at The New York Times in the 1960s: I like to wait until a restaurant has been open for a month before visiting for review purposes, I visit multiple times, and I always pay my own way. I try to remain anonymous, and when that's impossible, I stay as under-the-radar as possible.
I'm also a believer in the new school of restaurant criticism in that a review should be fun and humorous, and that more than ever it's a dialogue rather than an opinion handed down from on high.
I hope you'll let me know what you'd like to see discussed and reviewed in this space, what you want to see me move with this Fork Lift. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know.
In the meantime, I'll be wandering the farmers markets, goggling at the produce. I'll be eating my way around the city, thunderstruck by how lucky I am to have this job in this town. I'll be eating walnuts, falling in love slowly.
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