In case you hadn’t noticed, California’s food is having a moment. Whether this is part of a cycle of obsession and pointed indifference on the part of the food world or a true sea change in how the national, largely New York-based media centers the story of American dining culture remains to be seen, but California’s culinary excellence is now unignorable. And why shouldn’t it be? The state’s agriculture feeds the country, its major cities and small towns nurture food traditions dating back hundreds of years and innovations dreamed up yesterday, and California’s endless influx of newcomers creates a sense of optimism that, while cut with exploitation and increasing inequality, results in a dynamic culture unlike any other. Where else would you go to learn how America will eat next?
The latest sign of California’s ascendance comes with the announcement that Tejal Rao will be the New York Times’s first-ever California critic, traveling the state to file reviews and continue her recent work as a feature writer; she will be based in Los Angeles. Pete Wells, the paper’s chief critic, will continue to file occasional reviews from California, according to the Times’s press release.
Rao is one of the food world’s most admired writers; she’s won two James Beard awards for restaurant criticism, first for her work at the Village Voice in 2013, and later at Bloomberg News. Since joining the New York Times in 2016, she has written features and columns about a wide range of subjects and personalities, from a day in the life of a halal cart vendor to a piece shadowing chef Pim Techamuanvivit as she takes the reins at Bangkok’s internationally acclaimed Nahm. Rao’s recent work focuses on the people — women of color, immigrants, working-class restaurant and food-cart owners — left out by food media’s myopic focus on white male chefs and the restaurants they create largely for white patrons of the middle and upper class. These are the people who have long shaped how America eats — more so than any white male graduate of the CIA with a fine dining pedigree and a Michelin star or 10 — without receiving their due credit.
In other words, Rao’s perspective is needed all across food media, but most definitely in California, a state shaped by its Mexican history, its deep-rooted black communities, and its multilayered immigrant communities — a place where everyday food is constantly reshaping the state’s palate. California media, which, on Twitter, sometimes makes sport of dunking on the New York Times, has greeted her hire largely with excitement.
“California is it right now for food in the United States,” Gustavo Arellano, an opinion columnist for the LA Times and editor at large at L.A. Taco, as well as a longtime editor-in-chief and food critic for OC Weekly, said when reached on the phone. “That the stately New York Times realizes this, and that they’re sending one of their stars to come out here — I’m optimistic.”
“In a way, I’m almost surprised it’s taken this long for the Times to get a California critic,” says Mara Shalhoup, the deputy editor of Atlanta magazine and former editor in chief of LA Weekly, which, until its gutting by Semanal Media, was a key player in the city’s food conversation. “I love the alt-weekly background, for obvious reasons, and those sensibilities really work in Los Angeles in particular.”
Shalhoup and Arellano left LA Weekly and OC Weekly, respectively, after the publications were hollowed out by their owners; the OC Weekly’s weakened state, and the LA Weekly’s zombie shambling, speak to the weird, unhealthy, and downright tragic state of local food media across California right now. The New York Times’s first California critic will be entering — at least temporarily — a profoundly quiet conversation. In San Francisco, one of the state’s two centers of restaurant culture, criticism is in a state of major transition. The San Francisco Chronicle’s longtime critic, Michael Bauer, who was beset by controversy, is retiring; the paper is seeking his replacement. Currently, restaurant criticism in the city is kept alive by Josh Sens at SF magazine, whose reviews run just once every other month; Peter Kane at SF Weekly; and Eater’s Rachel Levin. (The East Bay Express, which also publishes restaurant criticism, is currently in turmoil after allegations of misconduct and racist remarks by the publisher.)
In Los Angeles, the situation is much more dire. The LA Weekly’s new ownership decimated the paper’s staff, including Shalhoup and food editor Katherine Spiers. The Weekly’s open critic position, which was recently vacated by Besha Rodell, has been eliminated. Los Angeles Magazine has also seen its food section shrink, and since the departure of Patrick Kuh it has ceased to run restaurant reviews. With the recent death of Jonathan Gold, a critic whose work not only highlighted the city’s food but also helped define the vision of Los Angeles that national publications are now so keen to embrace, LA is temporarily bereft of any critical voice. Arellano observed that right now, the longest-serving critic in Southern California is one who is often overlooked, OC Weekly’s Edwin Goei, who has been filing reviews since 2006.
Times food editor Sam Sifton’s announcement of Rao’s move notes that the publication has more regular readers in California than anywhere else besides New York. Certainly, a great deal of that has to do with the quality of the paper’s journalism. But it also says as much about California, especially Los Angeles, and the impact of the continued gutting of local media. “The New York Times can afford a critic who takes on big, expensive eating assignments,” Shalhoup says. “Of course the LA Times can afford it, too. But the smaller outlets, like the Weekly, where I was, I fought really hard to keep that position and keep the dining budget intact because I knew how important it was to the culture of LA.”
In a welcome development that bucks the trend of media contraction throughout Southern California, the Los Angeles Times recently reworked its food section and announced its intention to hire critics, plural. This staffing up, which is occurring across the paper, is a continuation of the unlikely and inspiring upswing at the paper since it was bought by Patrick Soon-Shiong earlier this year, after the paper’s successful union-organizing effort exposed widespread pay inequality and other mismanagement by its former owner, Tronc. Transportation reporter Laura Nelson recently tweeted, “Seeing these job openings after all the layoffs and attrition and misery under @tronc is like glimpsing an oasis up ahead after years in the desert.” And in response to Rao’s shift to California, the Los Angeles Times’s national correspondent Matt Pearce tweeted, “I am here for the coming California turf wars between LAT and NYT food writers.”
Arellano sees the New York Times’s commitment to covering food in California as a useful barometer, and maybe a bit of a wake-up call for in-state media. All too often, the Times has gotten the state wrong in somewhat high-profile ways, despite the newspaper’s growing importance to California readers. A classic example of this dynamic occurred shortly after Gold died, when the New York Times published a travel story by a novelist that mischaracterized the city and was “dismissive of Latino culture,” according to the apology issue by the Times.
But as the New York Times begins to invest in its California audience with dedicated criticism and reporting, not just occasional parachute trend stories that often miss the actual trend, it’s also an invitation for local publications to step up. “Right now, Jonathan’s loss is titanic and it’s tragic, and all of us are still in our mourning phase,” Arellano says. “Of course, Jonathan would be the first person to say, ‘Find that next great critic, and don’t judge him or her by my standards. Allow this person to be themselves.’
“I don’t think it’s bad for New York to come in and put a food critic in our midst. If anything, that’s a message to food culture and food writing in California saying, ‘Look, we have reached our moment, our heroes are gone, and it’s time for that next generation to step up.’ Video and food porn does not cut it.”
This is a lesson Los Angeles in general may be in the process of learning. After a decade of Californians speaking compellingly and clearly in their own culinary voice, out-of-town chefs, especially New York chefs, are opening restaurants in massive, tricked-out spaces meant to anchor major developments across LA. These new arrivals have mostly been greeted with excitement. But these outside chefs are coming because of what Los Angeles was already doing well, something they are the first to say; now that the money is flowing in and the spotlight has swung around, California must define what’s next.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent. She lives in Los Angeles.