Beard Award winning food writer Robb Walsh recently announced a new gig: he'll be the food editor/restaurant critic of the brand new Houstonia magazine, set to launch in April 2013. Walsh, the former restaurant critic for the Houston Press, took a break from reviewing while he released some books (Texas Eats came out in the Spring of 2012) and opened a restaurant (El Real Tex-Mex Cafe opened in the Spring of 2011). Below, he talks about what's ahead for Houstonia, his distaste for the starred review system, and how "the public's perception of who should critique food changed because of the Food Network and reality television shows." Also: some intel on Walsh's upcoming cookbooks, Barbecue Crossroads and The Hot Sauce Cookbook, both out this Spring.
Tell me a little about Houstonia.
Well, I am not only writing but also editing. I was the editor of Chile Pepper Magazine way back when, and I swore I'd never edit again. But here I am doing it again, not only writing but editing other people. It's going to be exciting. So it's going to be food features, pretty much the same subject matter I've been writing about for most of my adult life: barbecue, Tex-Mex, food history, all that good stuff that I do all the time. I think there are two food covers planned for the first calendar year, so food should have a really big place in this magazine.
How will the reviews work? Are they going to be starred?
No, there are no stars. Yay, yay, yay.
Not a fan of stars?
No, I'm not. You know, it's funny, when I'm in France and I've got a Michelin Guide, then I'm a big fan of stars. Because I can't read French. [Laughs.] But you know, you always end up with these bizarre anomalies like you're giving the same number of stars to a catfish shack as you are to a very serious fine dining restaurant, and it's very difficult to explain that. The idea is to award stars for how well people achieve what they set out to do, but people don't always understand.
So I'm much happier without the stars. And I've noticed the other Sagacity magazines, the Seattle equivalent for example, they do a Best Burgers or a Best Seafood or whatever, there are a whole lot of interesting subfeatures, but they're not ranked. That's a really refreshing way to approach it. You could do a top ten list, but if they're not numbered one through ten, I don't have a problem with it.
It allows for a little more nuance.
Right. You have to read it to get what the recommendation is, it's not all broken down for you. I mean, if they're starred, you almost don't have to read the reviews, right?
Will you be the sole dining critic or will reviews be handled by a team of people?
No, I will not be writing all of the reviews. I'm supervising a crew, a very talented crew of food writers. And while I would love to start off with a great review of my own restaurant, El Real Tex-Mex, somehow that's considered maybe not a good idea. [Laughs.] We'll have other reviewers and we'll of course avoid any perception of a conflict of interests.
You were strictly anonymous when you were reviewing for the Houston Press, but photos of you have been published since then. How do you anticipate the reviewing game changing now that you're identifiable?
That's a good question, because I'm sort of interested to see myself what it'll be like. I think I reviewed restaurants for awhile when I wasn't very anonymous for the Austin Chronicle. I was writing books and freelancing in Austin, and there was a period there where I was reviewing for the Austin Chronicle and anonymity never really came up. Nobody asked about it. This was the late 80s or early 90s.
As most restaurant reviewers will tell you, the vast majority of places you go to review don't really care who you are anyway. Especially if you're eating in multicultural, ethnic restaurants, which is the kind of stuff that I love to do. You know, food trucks and Chinatown and taquerias. The places that care are high dollar restaurants, and they probably know who everybody is anyway.
When I was with the Houston Press for ten years, there was the Association of Food Journalists code of ethics for restaurant reviewers, and you're supposed to follow these rules and I tried to do it. Those rules have just gone by the wayside. My colleague Alison Cook at the Houston Chronicle was asked by the Chronicle to do some public speaking event. Eater Houston ran a photo of her speaking. If the newspaper brass are asking anonymous critics to come out of the closet to do public speaking, what's the state of anonymous restaurant reviews? Is there such a thing? It's become pretty much a rarity.
By the same token, I changed my Twitter avatar from a picture of me holding a pizza up in front of Vespaio down on Congress Avenue to a silhouette of me standing in line at a barbecue trailer. There's no point in wearing a name tag or anything. No point in going out of your way to be recognized.
Do you think becoming more visible is beneficial to a critic?
It's an interesting subject. It seems like the old model of restaurant critics were anonymous journalists at newspapers. But I think the public's perception of who should critique food changed because of the Food Network and reality television shows. The judges who are tasting the food on Top Chef and other kinds of programs like that aren't anonymous journalists, they're chefs. They're celebrities. So we created this world in which celebrities do the judging. You know, hopefully celebrity chefs or celebrities from the food world who have some basis to judge on.
From what I understand, that's sort of why the Houston Chronicle and other publications ask their critics to step out and do public speaking and so forth, because the perception is that a celebrity food critic is what the public is clamoring for. It's like Tom Colicchio, I think he's probably doing better now as a television critic of dishes on programs than as a chef. If you asked the public to name a restaurant critic, it'd be much easier for them to remember the judges on Top Chef than people who review in print.
So we can talk about standards and best practices and journalistic ethics and all that, but in the end what we're doing is creating a product for public consumption. And what the public is interested in is, in the end, going to define a lot of what we do.
Do you think that reviews are becoming more about entertainment than consumer advocacy journalism?
Well, first of all, if your restaurant criticism doesn't entertain the reader, you're not going to last long as a restaurant critic. Whatever it is, it has to be compelling to the reader. Now whether that's for entertainment or for information, the reader has to be engaged by whatever it is that you're talking about. When you start reviewing restaurants, you get feedback from the public. And the public thanks you for debunking this or that and exposing frauds and all the informative things you do, and the restaurant industry takes you to task for threatening their livelihood. So what is your responsibility towards the restaurant community and what is your responsibility to the readers? I've always interpreted my job as being an advocate for the readers.
But I tell you what, that gets a lot harder when you're not anonymous. That's the biggest change in the not being anonymous any more. I didn't meet or talk to people from the restaurant business before, I couldn't. So when I wrote a scathingly honest review, knowing that it would embarrass somebody, I didn't really have to see that guy down at the bar.
So how do you navigate that now?
Just make sure that whatever you write is true and accurate. And if you find that you've written something that's wrong, then you have to bend over backwards to make it right.
And then finally, you have two books coming out soon. Tell me a little bit about the barbecue book?
The barbecue one is going to be a little different. It's a little different than driving around to different barbecue places and pronouncing them good or bad based on the brisket that you got on that particular day. As I write in the beginning of the book, I've been doing that for years, and I just realized that's not really what I was most interested in. There were places I went that just really spoke to my heart. Maybe the brisket was a little bit dry, or you go to some brand spanking new place that feels kind of soulless, yet the brisket was pretty good. And I realized that it was the culture I was interested in, and not the rating and the ranking of barbecue places.
I hoped it was going to be a joyous journey of discovery, finding the oldest barbecue joint, the oldest barbecue pit in the old South, all the way from Texas to South Carolina. And sadly what I actually found was this tradition is on the verge of disappearing. But the good news is that just under the radar, there's this whole world of community barbecues where people are cooking barbecue they way people did a hundred years ago. They're going on all around us, we're just not paying attention. Fire station barbecue, VFW barbecue, and some of the most magnificent ones are the old German dance hall ones.
And of course it's a cookbook, so I learned how to cook whole hog, and I brought home a lot of recipes that just blew my mind like North Carolina mustard barbecue sauce. I can eat that stuff on an old shoe. The thing that people will notice first and maybe most importantly about Barbecue Crossroads is the photography by O. Rufus Lovett, the legendary art photographer. He's not a food photographer, he's really fascinated by, say, the hands of the people working at the pits. So it's a really different style of photography.
And then you have The Hot Sauce Cookbook coming, which is based on the Austin Chronicle's annual Hot Sauce Festival, correct?
The story is that my publisher, Ten Speed Press, had a real hot book with their Sriracha Cookbook. And so because of the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, they asked me if I would be interested in doing a book about hot sauce as a larger topic. I had a lot of fun with that one. There's a lot of history in there, you know, Mexican salsas, Caribbean hot sauces, the historic stuff. There's some modern international hot sauces that I talk about in the book. This one was photographed by Todd Coleman from Saveur.
But the last chapter is hot and spicy food by chefs. There's sort of a glance into that in an opinion piece I wrote for Zester Daily. Which is basically about: how come every chef I know loves hot and spicy food, but as soon as they put on whites, they go totally bland? So I looked around this country and got some of the real hot and spicy chefs — David Chang, Zak Pelaccio — and looked at what those chefs are doing.
I also had a hilarious dinner from chef Raj Dixit. He's a young chef, his father's Indian and his mother's Filipino. When he was cooking at the Inn at Dos Brisas outside of Houston, it's a Relais & Chateaux luxury resort. Anyway, he was doing incredible tasting menus with heirloom tomatoes, with like 12 different types of tomatoes. But I was out there for dinner and I was working on the Hot Sauce Cookbook and my wife was with me, and he asked me "Well, is there anything special I should know, anything special you like?" And I said yes, we love our food really, really hot. I had just toured his pepper patch and so I knew how much he loved hot food. And he kind of looked at me and crinkled up his face and said, "You know, I could do a tasting menu with tomatoes and" — it was summertime — "I tell you what, I'll give you a tasting menu with hot sauce on the side."
So for this eight course tasting menu, for the savory courses, he made a custom hot sauce to go with each one of them. It was just amazing. And his sauces, he combined a green Thai curry with Texas chow-chow that they made with stuff from the garden. Green curry chow-chow? Just out of this world. But he put together all these hot sauces, it's sort of the way a lot of cultures do it. You take a really hot ingredient and you combine it with something that's not, you know, with a fruit or another vegetable or whatever. The last chapter has some really innovative ideas about chefs and hot sauces.