Q & A With Joel Stein: The "Intolerable Foodie" on Organics, Foodie Culture + Man Food
Readers of Joel Stein's column in Time magazine may remember when Stein hobnobbed with the super-rich over bottles of wine valued at more than $5,000 each. The night he sampled dishes inspired by Escoffier's 1903 cookbook in the Alinea kitchen. Or the time he gobbled up KFC's Double Down sandwich, made with fried chicken instead of bread. Some may have read in Food & Wine about his culinary escapades, such as bar-hopping with Tom Colicchio.
In March, the L.A.-based humorist began divulging his food adventures and not-so-humble opinions in Los Angeles Magazine. His first topic? Sea urchin. "It's the new egg, folded into any dish to add easy umami," he writes. Or maybe scoffs. Next, cold-pressed juice. And his unwilling enjoyment of a drink made in a hydraulic press that tastes "like a sweet autumnal salad." No surprise then, that the column, published every other month, is titled "The Intolerable Foodie."
Meanwhile, Stein's first book has just arrived in bookstores and e-readers. Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity charts Stein's attempts at masculine pursuits -- firefighting, hunting, boxing, home improvement, the army -- via the immersion journalism and contrarian outlook he's known for. All in a freaked-out attempt to become the ideal father for Laszlo, now 3.
We talked with Stein about foodie culture, cooking, masculine meals and the male-dominated restaurant industry. Catch him discussing the book 7 p.m. on Saturday at The Grove's Barnes & Noble. Stein may be a foodie, but he's not as intolerable as he says.
Joel Stein, son Laszlo and a Lamborghini
Squid Ink: Do you consider yourself a foodie?
Joel Stein: If food is one of your interests, you're a foodie, right? Because some people just aren't that interested. I don't wear it as a badge of pride, it's just something I'm into.
SI: Some people think "foodie" is demeaning -- someone who's obsessed with food beyond reason and self-absorbed.
JS: That is totally me. And I'm intolerable.
SI: How do you explain "The Intolerable Foodie," the column name?
JS: Foodies can say horrible things, and be totally snobby. I wanted to take that to the extreme. And realize that I'm intolerable. Maybe make fun of myself and other foodies, go a little overboard. I was at a restaurant last night where I was offered uni risotto as a special. [The kind of dish he mocks in the first column.] So I feel like I'm being ridiculous, but not wrong.
SI: Any ideas for future columns?
JS: I'm sick of restaurants asking me, "Have you dined with us before?" And then it's always, "We do things a little differently here." It automatically puts the diner on the defensive. They do everything they can to make you feel insecure. It's a restaurant. You're gonna bring me food. Just tell me if I should order a few plates, or a bunch.
I need more things to be snotty about.
SI: Tasting menus?
JS: I can't do any more tasting menus. I think the whole culture feels that way.
SI: Are we tired of small plates?
JS: No, but I think people got wise to small plates quickly -- that it costs a million dollars to eat at a small-plates restaurant.
SI: Why does L.A. need another food columnist?
JS: Having lived in New York for 11 years, I feel like we're still behind in food writing and food. I think L.A. is still growing as a food town. Most of the country is.
SI: Is foodie culture -- fantastically expensive meals, celebrity chefdom, the foie gras obsession, etc. -- doing anyone any good?
JS: I think it's doing a small percentage of people a lot of good. Foodie culture encompasses farmers markets, it probably goes back to Julia Child and Alice Waters, so you get better produce. And so many different cultures have embraced fusion cooking. It's improved my life immensely. I don't know about others, though.
SI: Is foodie culture only for the affluent?
JS: Right now, I think foodie culture doesn't help most people. Most are eating what they can buy prepared at the supermarket, or fast food. But it certainly killed the middlebrow, it killed Friday's. People won't put up with that shit anymore. I'd rather have Chipotle than Friday's.
Roy Choi wants to replace fast food with foodie fast food. That's why he started the Kogi truck. Even A-Frame isn't that expensive. He's always trying to open places that are as quick, convenient, fun and simple as fast food, but with fresh ingredients, and more interesting.
SI: Do you have any favorites in foods, cuisines or restaurants right now?
JS: We tend to try one thing from each culture. Sushi, or ceviche. It's fun to see more parts of a cuisine. My son's preschool is deep in Koreatown, so that's an excuse to go to a lot of Korean supermarkets.
SI: How about Mexican food? Gustavo Arellano's book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America just came out.
JS: It really did [conquer America]. Fast, too. When I was a kid, I hated Mexican food. For the same reason I hated mushrooms and tomatoes -- I was given crappy versions. I had the hard-shell taco, with ground beef, taco sauce, bad cheese and iceberg lettuce. And the bad tomatoes. It wasn't until I started visiting L.A. that I got to like Mexican food. The taco has dominated. It is so convenient.
SI: So many gourmet trucks use tacos as their main food vessel.
JS: I think Roy Choi created the food truck trend, the taco-fusion trend. And tacos are like sandwiches -- you're not going to get sick of them.
SI: Do you cook?
JS: Even when I was a kid I would cook one day a week for my family. My mom's an OK cook; my dad can't cook at all. One night he tried to make lasagna from a package. It looked great. Then we tried to eat it, but he hadn't cooked the meat or boiled the noodles. The uncooked meat was OK, it kind of cooked in the sauce. But you couldn't get past the unboiled noodles. It was so sad for him. Now they make lasagna with noodles that you don't have to cook, for just that reason. I don't know how that works, it's kind of disturbing.
SI: How did you learn to cook?
JS: I made things a teenage boy would think are awesome. I made burger logs, which involved barbecue sauce and burgers shaped like hot dogs. I would make a lot of pastas. I would try stuff at a restaurant, then come home and try to cook it. I tried some good stuff in college. But I didn't understand food trends. When I worked at Martha Stewart after college, I was so proud of this thing I had made that I said, "I'm going to do you a favor, I'll give you my recipe and you can print it in the magazine." I was totally serious. It was a raspberry white wine sauce salmon. They said, "That sounds a little '80s." This was '93 or '94. I just didn't understand how it could be true. Now I know it was.
SI: What kinds of things do you cook now?
JS: Mostly salmon with raspberry white wine sauce. Fuck them, it's delicious! I don't care what decade it tastes like! No, actually I don't make any of the food I used to make. Right now, I cook a lot of fish. I made skate last night.
SI: Are you into the local food movement?
JS: I'm not. I like olives from Spain. When I was at the giant market in Barcelona, I was angry. We don't get those tomatoes or anchovies. Those sardines are not the sardines we get. They're all better. I get excited when local things are great, but also excited when I can get the things that I know exist out there in the world.
Joel examines manly grills in Houston.
SI: Sounds like a good column topic.
JS: I wrote an anti-local piece for Time, and it really pissed people off. I went to Whole Foods and purchased an entire meal with the most mileage I could on each ingredient. I like globalization. I like that we have access, and that I can find awesome, delicious stuff that's not from here and doesn't even cause more of a global footprint. Because your farmer is driving a Ford F250 to your farmers market. Meanwhile shipping from Japan is so efficient.
SI: What about organic foods?
JS: I don't trust organic. I'm fine buying milk that doesn't have hormones, but there's milk you can buy pretty cheap without hormones that isn't organic. All those labels, I worry about. Organic is the best of the lot; gluten-free is probably the worst. Packaged stuff upsets me. I'd rather eat all Monsanto-grown produce than eat anything packaged. We just planted a little garden in our backyard. So far things are growing. Basil, mint, sage. Not any better than what you buy in the store, but convenient. And they don't go bad in two days.
SI: Any food movements that you predict will become more popular?
JS: Molecular gastronomy techniques are going to become part of the average kitchen. It's going to get cheap, we're going to be sous-vide-ing stuff for sure. All the things you read on the back of your Twinkies? We'll find interesting things to do with them. A lot of it is getting ingredients to do things at temperatures that they shouldn't. The fact that José Andrés can make an olive that's actually just a chemical where you bite it and there's olive juice inside? That's just exciting.
SI: Some people say dishes like that are over-the-top. Maybe offputting.
JS: You're not supposed to go to El Bulli every night. Ferran Adriá's not interested in feeding you, he's interested in making you think. The same with Alinea in Chicago from Grant Achatz. That's what people are paying for -- paying a lot for. And there's incredible value in that. But no, the chef isn't eating that all the time. I worked in the Alinea kitchen for a night. The chef eats an egg sandwich with cucumbers.
SI: How about "Sound of the Sea" from the Fat Duck in England -- clams, oysters and sea urchins served on rice meant to look like sand, topped with sea foam-like sauce. Then diners are given an iPod with ocean noises to listen to while eating. The chef has explained that it's supposed to be entertaining, and fun.
JS: At a restaurant in New York, a chef who had worked at El Bulli served a dessert that was oceany, somehow. He sprayed coconut sun block in your face before you ate it. It was totally stupid and silly, but fun, too. It makes you realize that the things you like and remember about meals often don't have much to do with the food. There's so much memory and smell and other stuff involved. He was trying to bring you to the sea. Part of why you enjoy oysters is that you remember being in the ocean.
SI: Tell us about your new book.
JS: I'm trying to learn to man-up my son. So I went out and learned how to do man stuff.
SI: Did you research the connection between masculinity and food?
JS: I went to the barbecue competition at the Rodeo in Houston. I cooked with firefighters, and ate the most delicious meal with the crappiest ingredients, like Cool Whip, and cheese that wasn't cheese. They made chimichangas and Mississippi mud pie. So white trash and delicious. You can overcome bad ingredients for sure. In some ways, that's really impressive cooking. I also cooked with the Boy Scouts -- crappy food. And I talked with an ex-football player, Warren Sapp.
SI: What did you learn?
JS: I noticed that with "real men," every time they cook, the dish is called My Famous Pot Roast, or My Famous Pancakes. They only cook one or two things. I did not try Warren Sapp's My Famous Pancakes and Eggs and Cheese. Apparently it involves putting maple syrup and hot sauce over both. He told me a "real man" doesn't need to know to bake, because that involves measuring stuff and reading cookbooks. But a "real man" should be able to make a breakfast, for either a woman who sleeps over, or children. That seems true! My dad, who couldn't cook at all, could still make pancakes.
SI: It seems like L.A.'s food scene is pretty male-dominated, even with famous chefs such as Nancy Silverton, Suzanne Goin, Suzanne Tracht, Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken and others.
JS: Until recently, you'd go to culinary school, and if you were a woman, they almost physically pushed you into the pastry department. Cooking was too hot, things were too heavy, women couldn't do it ... they had a million excuses. So women chefs in general are pretty new. And try to find a male pastry chef; it's pretty rare. I think L.A. has more women chefs than other cities, for sure, even New York.
SI: Why is it such a male-oriented job? Isn't cooking, at least in the home, traditionally associated with women?
JS: Before restaurants, rich people had chefs in their homes. Women cleaned the house and men cooked the food. They took care of livestock, and butchered. I think it evolved from there. It was a more male job that way. Still is. It has family-unfriendly hours, and lifestyle-unfriendly hours. You're on your feet the whole time. The culture is very militaristic, with a strict hierarchy. You call the chef "chef"; everyone has titles. Not that women can't do well in those systems. But I don't think it's how women would have designed the restaurant world.
SI: Are you planning to educate your son about food?
JS: In the same way you educate him about everything else. He's around you. He stirs pots. He got burned a couple of times, once when we were making oatmeal. But it only hurts for a few seconds, and you learn something from it.
Get the Squid Ink'd Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly food newsletter, which features top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips and a link to our print review.