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.
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.