Francis Lam cares a lot about what people eat. The media multihyphenate (he's a New York Times columnist, a judge on Top Chef Masters, and the editor behind some of the best, most inventive cookbooks of the last few years) has spent his career unpacking the stories behind our food choices, in all their weird and wonderful forms. Lam was a guest on the Eater Upsell, dropping by for a wide-ranging conversation about the importance of the immigrant experience to America, how to spend three perfect hours at the Atlanta airport, and the weirdness of navigating the writer-editor relationship when you're both at once.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 2, Episode 18: Francis Lam, slightly edited for clarity, right here.
Francis Lam: [A writer's work] doesn't come out sui generis perfect, and if you're interested in improvement, you're going to have to take the edits that you don't feel improve the story. But you can push back and have a relationship and negotiate with the editor and be like, "No, this is why I think that doesn't really work this way," or, "This is why I think this works better that way." You can do that kind of thing.
Francis: But you have to do it from a position of confidence and professionalism. There are edits I take where I'm like, "I think that doesn't do service to the story, but I'm not going to fight you for it because I'm a professional and this is your publication and on some level, you're paying, I'm providing a service to you, so I have to have some customer service in me, too." But it wigs me out that there are full-on professionals who have done this for years who are like, "Don't touch my shit." Like, you never grew out of that?
Helen Rosner: I don't know — I'm going to make a universal sweeping statement: I think that people often become writers because they think they're correct. You become a writer because you think that you see the world in a way that is particularly clear, or particularly nuanced, and you also think that you convey that in a particularly clear way in your words. And if someone steps in, you're like, "What the shit? You hired me for my clarity of vision and my clarity of expression and here you are mucking with it." I'm not defending this practice.
Francis: Yeah, I would probably not agree with the blanket part of that's why you become a writer. But I get the idea that I'm trying to say this thing in this very particular way, so therefore, for you to interfere with that is to change the particular way I'm trying to say it. At the same time, it's not like you're solving a math problem. There's no right way to do it. If you truly love — maybe not the act of writing but writing the noun — if you truly love words, I don't see why you wouldn't be willing and interested in seeing what editors have to say about your work and how they would suggest you change it.
"If you truly loved words, I don't see why you wouldn't be willing and interested in seeing what editors have to say."
Greg Morabito: I always feel that's how I've learned the most, is just by taking note of what an editor removed or changed in something. That's the thing that's made me best improve.
Francis: Yeah. I've also had the real pleasure and honor of working really closely with who I thought was an amazing editor, Doc Willoughby, when I wrote for Gourmet. His style was to put almost no footprint in the story. He would go through and be like, "What is this doing? What is this doing? Why does this work? I don't understand what this is trying to do here." Basically he would point out weaknesses and flaws — or just soft parts — and be like, "Look, I think you can do something more here," or "Can you do something about this?" or "Can you strengthen this?" That was a process of training. That was the kind of thing where I never felt like, "Stop mucking with my shit."
Francis: But it made me have to really examine every decision I made for that story. I was thinking about this recently: I'm pretty proud of the writing that I do, but I think back to those stories — and maybe I was at a bit of a low moment, too, where I was like, "When's the last time I wrote something I truly loved?" — but I went back to a number of stories I wrote for Gourmet. It's not like those are the last stories I loved, because Gourmet went down seven years ago, so I don't want to say the last seven years of my life have just been, "Hey man, cash the check."
Greg: Before and after Gourmet, man.
Helen: Just an ocean of bullshit.
Francis: But honestly, I do think there was something to the editing process of those stories in particular that really made me do work that stands the test of time in my mind. I don't know how other people feel, but in my head and in my heart, some of those stories are among my favorites. And that was ten goddamn years ago.
Helen: I think that's a really good moment for us to introduce you to the people who are listening and chose not to read the name of the episode of this podcast.
Francis: Why the fuck would you be listening?
Greg: If you're playing Russian Roulette with your —
Helen: "Whose voice is this?"
Francis: I don't expect more than 17 people to listen to this, and if you're the 18th, who are you?
Helen: We're in the beautiful Eater Upsell studios with Francis Lam, editor-at-large at Clarkson Potter, which is one of the great cookbook publishers of our time, and also a columnist for the New York Times Magazine. And also, a lot of other things. Reality TV judge!
Francis: Yeah. Husband, dad, mom, wallflower. I don't know. I'm trying to do my bad impression of that Rob Delaney book title.
Greg: That was such a good title for that book.
Francis: It was like, "Turban."
Helen: "Warrior. Goddess."
Helen: Just a lot of nouns with periods after them.
Greg: Not to give you too much praise at the outside here, but for anyone who does not know Francis' work, I'd say that he's behind some of the most exciting cookbooks that have hit the shelves in the last few years.
Francis: Thank you.
Helen: By orders of magnitude.
Francis: Well, thank you.
Greg: And they're all different! They all have their own thing about them. When I learn that you've worked on them, I'm always like, "Of course." That seems to be the hallmark.
Francis: "Because it's not like the other shit that he does."
Helen: "Those crap cookbooks."
Francis: "He can't keep his head together to do two things that look like one another."
Helen: It's super interesting to talk to you about writing, and especially writing in the context of the writer-editor relationship, because you are both a writer and an editor. Contractually. For different people. It's a weird duality to live within, I would imagine: To be assessing other people's writing and then sitting back and taking it while other people assess yours.
Francis: You know, it's funny — well, first of all, I think we just lost all the listeners because who cares about this, but —
Helen: Oh they care, they totally care.
Helen: You all care. We're going to get to the dick jokes soon. Just stick around.
Francis: We're going to make you care. We're going to make you care. Please care? It's funny you say that, because people in both worlds have said something along those lines to me, and I've never really felt like they were that — I'm not going to say they were not different, because obviously they're very different. But I never felt like there was such a divide between the world of the editor and the world of the writer. I think it's because I approach both, or approach parts of both jobs, the same way. I approach them both from the position of someone who loves words, and loves stories, and wants to look at what's on the page, or what's on the screen, and do it without too much ego. I try to do that as a writer, as you were talking about, when I'm receiving an edit — edits that I love, edits that I know have made the story better, edits that I feel I would want to push back on. I always try to look at the edit without a sense of ego, and I try to be objective in terms of, "Okay, what is this doing to that sentence? What is this doing to that story?" I think the process of doing that as a writer — and I've been a writer much longer than I've been an editor — really prepped my brain to be able to read other people's work that way. And it's harder, because there's a reverse ego thing. There are some pieces that come in where I feel like, "I don't know if this would work for me, but I respect this person, I respect what they do, so maybe it's just over my head and that's okay."
I was talking before about the editor I really loved working with who tried to not touch the story, and just made me work on it over and over and over again. That person made me grow up both as a writer and as an editor. I have a strong sense that when I'm editing someone, I never ever want what they write to end up sounding more like me and less like them. So there are times when I'll let things slide, or I'll let things go that other people reading are like, "Why the hell did you not — There's no verb in that sentence." And I'm like, "Yeah, but I kind of felt them in it." I don't mean to get crystal-woo-woo over it, but if I can hear them saying that, I think that's them, and I think the right choice for me as an editor is to let that voice shine.
Helen: In cookbooks, I would imagine that's a uniquely important thing to do, especially in the kinds of cookbooks that you do, which are not, like, 47 Easy Weeknight Crock-Pot Recipes where the author doesn't matter. You do these very chef-and-recipe —
Francis: I am working on a Crock-Pot cookbook, but it's not —
Helen: But it's not a bargain bin aggregation of Pinterest recipes.
Francis: Sure, they're voice-driven, they're personality-driven. It's driven by the author, yeah.
Francis: Sorry, go on.
Helen: That's exactly what I was going to get at. As the internet has become an endless source of infinite recipes, you have to buy a cookbook for a reason beyond needing a recipe for Crock-Pot chicken.
Francis: Yeah, you nailed it. That's exactly how I think about books when I'm acquiring them. I'm not going to say the cookbook purely as a collection of recipes is dead, I think that's really overstating it, but the cookbook purely as a collection of recipes has less and less of a reason to exist as, hey, it's Thursday, or hell, it's even Saturday, and I've got people coming over — those are the two classic scenarios. "I need dinner on the table in 30 minutes," or, "I'm going to spend all day and cook and I want to impress people." If all you want to do is make something that's amazing, that's going to blow your head off, and it's going to be with Alaskan king salmon — you've got Google for that. You don't need to go to your book, even if you bought the book, which, frankly, that's all we hope for. But you don't need to walk to your bookshelf and find the right book you were thinking of and pull it down from the shelf and flip through it — you've got Google for that. So the way I approach the kind of cookbooks I'm going to work on and think about what books I want to acquire is, what is this book? The book has to be a great book. And that can mean any number of things. It doesn't mean I'm going to buy a novel and call it a cookbook. The very first cookbook that I acquired that came out — it wasn't the first book I acquired, but for scheduling reasons [it was the first to come out] — was Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman's Tacos: Recipes and Provocations.
Greg: Huge book. People loved it.
Francis: Thank you.
Helen: Best subtitle ever.
Francis: Thank you.
Helen: "Recipes and provocations."
Francis: Thank you very much.
Helen: I understand you had something to do with that.
Francis: No comment. But I love that book because of the provocations part of it. The book was a super duper collection of really smart, interesting, delicious recipes. That was it's core. But all around it was this series of questions and essays and narratives that wove together to ask the world, "Why is it that we value certain ethnic cuisines, like French cuisine and Italian cuisine, in this high way, and we don't necessarily value other cuisines, like Mexican food, in the same way?" To the point where we will literally pay more for the same dish if it's in a French restaurant than we will if it's in a Mexican restaurant. So I thought, that's a great book. That book asks a vital question, and it asked it in twelve different ways. It asked it in certain stories, it asked it in certain essays, in certain headnotes, and it asked it in certain recipes. You can approach it as that kind of book — you can approach it as a great read simply because it's really well written — or you can approach it as, "I just wanted to make that killer kale and chicken taco." So that's how I approach the books. And that being my standard means that the books I work on can look very, very different. It's really a matter of how fully formed they are as their own thing. I have two books, one that came out earlier this summer and one that's coming out later this summer. On some level, they couldn't be more different, but I love them. I love them so deeply. One is Tyler Kord's A Super Upsetting Cookbook About Sandwiches.
Helen: Which is the actual title of the cookbook.
"When I'm editing someone, I never ever want what they write to end up sounding more like me and less like them."
Francis: This is the actual —
Helen: This is not you describing the book.
Francis: Yeah, the title is, in fact, A Super Upsetting Cookbook About Sandwiches. And it is hilarious.
Helen: It's so good.
Francis: It is truly —
Helen: It's so good.
Francis: I think it will go down as the funniest cookbook written in my lifetime. Which is not saying that much, but really it's saying a lot, because it's freaking hilarious. But then the other book, and the second funniest, is Chrissy Teigen's Cravings.
Helen: Which you also worked on.
Francis: Yeah. You see, I'm literally beating my chest right now. But that book is awesome because it's so Tyler. If you've ever met or spent five minutes with Tyler Kord, he will tell you four different stories and make you laugh six times. Truly the most open-hearted spirit. He's one of those people who's super funny and a lot of his humor is really dark and weird and screwy. But he's never the kind of person whose humor is about making other people feel bad about something. He has a very kind soul, so he has a very kind sense of humor. The only person he makes feel bad is himself, constantly.
Greg: He brings you in.
Francis: Yeah, and he's deeply fucked up, but he's able to laugh at how deeply fucked up he is all the time. So I felt like that book was such a beautiful ball of weird personality.
Greg: As someone who knows next to nothing about how cookbooks are edited and produced and made, how does one of these books start? Does it start as a proposal that lands on your desk? Does it start as you reaching out to someone?
Francis: It can start any number of ways. The traditional way is you as a writer, as an author, probably working with an agent, almost certainly working with an agent, will produce a proposal, and it lands on an editor's desk. We can go deep in the rabbit hole of how this works but I don't think that's super interesting, necessarily. Maybe there's a bidding war for it, or several houses are interested, so on and so forth. It's sort of transactional on that level. I mean, it's literally transactional because you pay money for it. But books can start any numbers of ways. Tacos, for instance. I had no doubt that Alex would write a book eventually, but I emailed him before I started my job. I'd been hired, it was a month or two before I was going to start, and I emailed him in that time being like, "I don't know when this is going to be, but I want you to write a book and I want to be the one working on it." So there is some level of trying to be proactive and trying to help someone find a vision that they're going to really be invested in and love working on.
From there, it really depends on how your cookbook comes to be. Certainly it depends on you, the author, but it also depends on the publishing house and the editor. By that I mean, the degree to which you go away and come back with a manuscript and photos and we just put it to press, on one extreme, to it really being a collaboration [on the other]. A product of sometimes daily work, where I'm talking to you, I'm working with you, we're figuring out what the order of things should be, we're figuring out what the recipe list should be, we're figuring out the stories you want to tell, and then certainly we're going to work on the language when we have the language in front of us. Tyler Kord's book is a great example of that, where that book was always going to be as amazing and weird and special as it was, but the particular form of weirdness it took was so much a result of us just cracking each other up when we were sending pieces of manuscript back and forth, and commenting on stuff to one another. And at some point he was like, "Dude, can I put your name on the cover of this book and we'll just print all the comments you're writing back to me?" I'm like, "No, do not put my name on the cover of the book, that'd be really weird."
Helen: Though he does talk to you in the book, which I think is hysterical.
Francis: Yeah, totally.
Helen: It's such a throwback to what I think of as a very old-school form of meta-humor, where in the headnotes of a couple of different recipes, he'll have parenthetical asides like, "Shut up, Francis."
Helen: Or he'll just be like, "I know what you're thinking, Francis." It's great. It really pulls back the curtain on this — I can only think of really doofusy words. The living, dynamic process of creating this book.
Francis: Oh, that's totally what it was. We were having such a good time. I was having such a good time reading what he was writing, it was cracking me up, and I would say stuff to him, and he would be cracking up. But eventually we were like, "Maybe this should be part of the book." And I was like, "I guess there's no rule against doing that. Sure, why not?" So there you go. Then all of a sudden, my notes to him like, "Dude, you can't say that," are now in the book.
Helen: Which is so great. There is some Latin word for this rhetorical device, right?
Francis: I'm sure, yeah.
Helen: Of calling attention to the thing by saying, "We're not going to call attention to this." But it does create a voice that is not a voice that you're used to hearing in cookbooks.
Francis: I would never say that we were trying to play with the form. It wasn't really a matter of, "Oh, let's be innovative about this." It was like, "This is cracking us up right now, and maybe someone else will think it's funny."
Helen: Yeah. You take a very different emotional tone with the writing that you do for the Times —
Francis: It's not funny.
Helen: It's not funny. It is often the opposite of funny.
Francis: It breaks my heart that it's not funny, but sorry, go on.
Helen: I'm sure there's room for humor in it. But this is a fairly long running column, right? A couple years now?
Francis: Almost two full years.
Helen: Where you cook with immigrants in their home kitchens, and talk about their culinary origins and how they've adapted to life in New York.
Helen: It's one of the most consistently bringing-me-to-the-edge-of-tears pieces of writing that appears in that magazine. Which, thanks for that, motherfucker. But how do you get into the headspace to do that, and to tell that kind of story?
Francis: These columns don't always feel like they're coming out of me super naturally. I've done it for almost two years now, so I feel like my brain has gotten better about it, but it's a more structured form of writing than I had traditionally done. It's a column, and there are certain expectations in a column. You have to introduce the characters, you have to introduce the dish, the story has to come back around to the dish. The magazine was very clear in wanting me to write about communities rather than just specific people. Obviously the two are related, and obviously one can speak to the issues of larger community in a way. But there are very definite things that you almost have to check off, and get it all done in 700 to 800 words. So the degree to which it's programmed that way means that my brain approaches it in a more workmanlike fashion. When I'm writing these stories, they don't always feel like they're coming out of me in this beautiful, flowing way, like I'm at one with the universe and at one with the story. At the same time — I have said for a long time, and I really mean this — as a writer, I feel like my greatest calling is to help tell the stories of invisible people. Of people who otherwise wouldn't have their stories told. And part of that means that those people have given me and entrusted me with their story. Whether they felt like it was a big deal or not, and probably most of them don't, I feel like it's a big deal, and I feel like it's a big deal for me to tell that story the best and most honest way I can.
Greg: Sounds like, tying back into what you were talking earlier about editing, taking yourself out of it a little bit.
Francis: Yeah. I'm always aware that I'm writing this. I don't feel like I'm channeling people, especially for the columns, because I don't spend that much time with these people. Usually it's an afternoon, it's a day. Maybe it's a couple days. I never say that I walk away from the stories I'm writing for the Times magazine and feel like I really know the subject. More than anything I feel like they've given some small piece of their time and some small piece of their life to me, so I need to take that and respect it and hold it. I want to put it out there. The thing with the beat is, I'm writing about immigrants. I'm writing about immigrants to the United States, and I'm the child of immigrants, which is not the same thing at all. I have a real advantage to the incredible sacrifices you make as a person when you're an immigrant. The degree to which you left everything and everyone that you knew. You left your whole way of knowing how to act and behave and be in the world, that makes sense to you, to come to a place probably because you wanted to make a better life for your kids.
Greg: Where did you grow up?
Francis: I grew up in New Jersey. My parents are from Hong Kong. And I look at the life my parents — I think they're happy, I think they're satisfied. They have three kids, their kids have grown up, we're starting to have kids now. We have careers, they're pleased. But I can't help but remember the moment when I was talking to a dear friend of mine who grew up in Pennsylvania, whose family has been on the same piece of land for generations. It's a farm, they come to it every year. She has this really wonderful tradition where they all go back during Christmas to harvest animals and put them in the freezer and all that stuff.
Greg: Is this a New Yorker?
Francis: No, she lives in Cleveland and grew up in rural Pennsylvania. And she's not romanticizing it. She says, "This is just our lives. A lot of us have left, the farm is in a tough way," all that stuff. But they feel such a strong connection to their place, and that holds that family and holds those people together in such an intense way. When she told me that story, I was almost in tears. I'm like, "That's such a beautiful tradition. It's so incredible. I love how much you love it." And it made me realize how much my parents not only never had that, but threw that away. So that they could come and do something for me and do something for my brothers. And the fact that we're in a moment in our society right now where we're talking about how immigrants are the scourge of our country and they're ruining our country and we're going to make our country great again by getting rid of them is just so opposite to what I think the promise of America is. It is absolutely the opposite of what I think America is all about.
I look at my parents, whose English is accented and who frankly do not even refer to themselves as Americans. Not as a political thing, but just because in their heads, "No, we're Chinese people, and Americans are white." In their heads, that's how that works. It's not even a grand statement of identity. And I think, "That's what makes America great." That my parents could come here and maybe they don't even speak the language as well as anyone, but they can make that life because that was the promise of this country. That's what this country promises the world. That I could be raised here and have a place in this society. That's what makes America great. So having the opportunity and the privilege and the responsibility of writing about immigrants every month through their food is something I take so, so personally and so, so seriously.
"The cookbook purely as a collection of recipes has less and less of a reason to exist."
Helen: I was queuing up a question while you were speaking a few minutes ago that I was thinking might be weirdly confrontational. And then as you kept talking I was revising it in my head, and the question I was going to ask was: Why do you think that so many stories that are written about immigrants and particularly immigrant cuisine are tear-jerkers? Why are so many immigrant stories difficult or sad? And as you were talking I was thinking more about it, and I think you preempted it. You answered it, which is that when you move to the United States in particular, you're doing it for a reason. You're either giving something very big up, or you are running away from something that is very terrible. Even if you're very happy, even if your family is very happy, even if your life here is fantastic. That is a huge thing that I think so many Americans who are already here, Americans who are born here, Americans who might have that farm or that strong sense or piece of land, have never had occasion to contemplate the hugeness of —
Helen: The vastness of leaving your home.
Francis: Sure. It happens here, too, in a way where I don't think people — this is the classic cliché, you don't know what you have until it's gone, right? I developed a real strong love for and relationship with the Gulf Coast because I ended up spending time there, but even before I had ever set foot in Louisiana, before I'd ever set foot in Mississippi, anywhere on the Gulf Coast really, I remember after Hurricane Katrina, there were all these voices, particularly among elected officials and political leaders, saying, "It was a great cleansing." Like we got rid of all those people. And on the slightly less obviously offensive side, you had people who were saying, "Why do they need to live there? They don't need to live there. Why would you want to live there? Why would you want to live in these slums?" If nothing else, if you take all that obvious racial baggage away from that, there were people saying, "Why do you want to live in a place that's below sea level where it's going to flood every few years? Why would you want to live there?"
Helen: And it's not about want.
Francis: It's not about want. It's not about want. It's about the fact that that's where you live and that's where your family lives and that's where your people live. And you need your people. It's not about want, thank you, it's not about, "I just want to go back there, so give me money so I can go back there." No one is thinking like that.
Helen: No one is like, "I love the thrill of a house that could flood any minute."
Helen: "I just find it really exciting."
Greg: "I love the unexpected."
Francis: "That's why I live there, actually."
Helen: "It's dangerous and it's really exciting to me." No, man, you live there because that's where you afford to live, or you live there because that's where you are zoned to live, or you live there because that's where you were born, and that's where the people you love are, and that's where the businesses that will hire you are.
Francis: And probably it's some combination of all those three.
Francis: I think for people who have never been forcibly removed from where they live, or never had to make the choice to sacrifice where they live, it's hard to understand how important those things are. I can see where it's hard to empathize with people because it's a totally unimaginable idea, but empathy is something we should all work on.
Helen: And your column participates in what I think is one of the grand tropes of trying to make that a more understood thing, which is "connection through food."
Helen: I'm saying that partially in scare quotes, because I think the whole idea of, "Let's come together over a shared love of stewed chicken and rice," is such a cliché. But it's also so true.
Greg: Food brings people together.
Francis: I think it's true, and it's funny because I spent a lot more time in the last few years than I ever would've imagined actively working against that cliché of how food brings people together. A couple years ago, at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium —
Helen: I watched this happen.
Francis: Which you were —
Helen: I was part of it!
Francis: A wonderful part of it.
Francis: I was asked to do a presentation that was originally about food and shame. And then it turned into a bigger thing where it was about many different ways that food can be used not to bring people together but to drive people further apart. So I ended up doing this thing where I asked a bunch of people — really amazing people — to share with me their stories of a moment in their life where something about food made them feel some kind of way. I got very different stories from very different people from very different backgrounds, some of whom had really powerful stories of feeling out of place because of the food they ate, in a place where no one else was eating that food. Or in one case, I remember this unreal story of a Japanese-American woman who was doing research on her family and the interment camp that they were sent to in World War II in California. And discovering the menus from that camp and seeing the foods that they were being served day in and day out. At first she was like, "That doesn't sound that bad." Then she realized, "Oh, everyone in this camp is Japanese, and all they're being fed is non-Japanese food." And she realized that food is a weapon. The people had weaponized the menu to make these people remember every single day that you are not allowed to have the food that you think you want to have.
So I've been thinking a lot about this idea of how, in food writing in particular, we want to have this cliché of food bringing people together. That animates so much of the work in food media. I think that's a great thing, a really powerful thing. But we need to remember that anything that is powerful is in some sense value-neutral. It's not directional, inherently. So anything that's powerful in a positive way can be used to be powerful in a negative way. In the end, I come back around to doing the work I do as a writer and telling these stories re-energized, or at least having sort of gone through the gauntlet. Like, okay, it's not inherent that telling a story about someone and what they eat is going to make someone else feel any kind of empathy for them. It's not. It might be like, "No, what you eat is disgusting, therefore I find you even more disgusting than I did before." So I think it's always important to be aware of the power of what you're doing, or the potential power of what you're doing, and how you're doing it.
"As a writer, I feel like my greatest calling is to help tell the stories of invisible people, people who otherwise wouldn't have their stories told."
Greg: While we still have you in the studio, there's something I'm curious to talk with you about. You've been a food writer for a while now. You started in a more print-oriented food media and traversed all the different changes and are doing great things now. I'm curious: Over your career, what do you think has changed in terms of storytelling? Do you think that how things have trended, with much more online stuff, has opened things up?
Francis: Going into it technologically is a bigger ball of wax than I know how to handle. I will say this, though: I don't feel that old. I wrote my first story for the the Financial Times while I was still in culinary school, in 2003, which is 13 years ago. And that story was about being in culinary school. It was about, "Holy shit, did you know that when you're in culinary school, this is what happens?" It came out of emails I was writing to friends and family when I first started the program, like, "Oh my god, I just learned how to filet a fish, and did you know there are only three ways to filet a fish, and if you learn all three ways to filet a fish you can filet any fish in the ocean? Oh my god, holy shit." I was writing these super excited emails to friends and family and they eventually landed on the desk of an editor who was like, "Wow. This seems kind of fun, maybe he'd want to do something for us." And she gave me a call and I was like, "Oh my god!" So I wrote that story for her. And I realized — I was thinking about this recently, actually — that was my break. It was total dumb luck, someone forwarded these emails to an editor who gave me a call, and I was like, "Oh my god. This is unreal." I realize now that you could never run that story. Because what could be a more boring story in 2016? That story ran because — here was the tension. The story was like, "Here's this guy, he's in culinary school, he's got these funny stories to tell about culinary school." But really what the story was about was, "Can you believe that there are people out there —" Because I came from another career. Not a long one, I was still pretty young. I was 25.
Greg: What was the other career?
Francis: I worked in non-profits. I worked as a grant writer and fundraiser for non-profits. But I think the fundamental tension of that story was, "Can you believe that there are people who put away their career and go to a place where all you do is talk about food all day long?"
Greg: There was a novelty there.
Francis: That was the novelty. And that was the tension: The novelty. Now in 2016, no one has jobs anymore, because all everyone does is quit their job to go to culinary school. That tension doesn't exist anymore. It's like, "Oh. That's how far we've come as a food culture that's really made its way into the center of American pop culture." When I first moved to New York in 1999, all I wanted to do was go to bars with my friends and go see shows. We'd meet up at a bar after work, we'd go grab a slice of pizza, and then we'd go to a show. We'd go see a band. We'd go to the Mercury Lounge, we'd go to the Bowery Ballroom, whatever. That's all we wanted to do. And I'm a lot older now, so I don't really know what 23 year-olds are doing when they show up in New York, but I went on date night with my wife on Friday night. We went to Bâtard. Wonderful restaurant. High-end restaurant. And I don't know how old they were, but I think there was a table of six 23-year-olds next to me, and they were talking about the meal, and about the other restaurants they were going to. And I was like, "Oh, wow. That's not what I would've done at that age, fifteen years ago." So when you ask, "What's changed about storytelling in the food world?" I think what's changed is you have a fundamentally different perspective you're approaching food stories from now. You're approaching food stories now from a place of, "Oh yeah, everyone's heard that. Everyone knows about that." How do you write a story that people feel like is still a discovery? In some ways it was easier for me to write at that time. In 2003, again, not that long ago. I'm sure to a 23-year-old that's forever ago, because you were still in grade school. But at that time, there was so much that you could write purely as a matter of "Holy cow, have you ever heard of this?" And "Holy cow, have you ever heard of this?" is a really, really powerful way of telling a story.
Greg: Especially if your reader hasn't heard of it.
Francis: Exactly. Even at the time, I remember hearing some critiques from people who had spent careers in food being like, "What really annoys me about today is that I'm glad people are more excited about food now, but every writer who writes a story thinks that they're the first person to discover something."
Helen: Greg and I both get pitches from freelancers, and, yeah.
Francis: And that was going on 15 years ago, and that was going on 30 years ago.
Francis: But it's a little more irritating now that you've spent 30 years doing that thing. If I'm like, "Oh my god, did you know?" Like, "Yeah. Knew."
Helen: But there's something about how the ancient Greeks got to name the stars —
Francis: Yeah, yeah.
Helen: No one had named the stars yet. And they were like, "Guys, check it out." I'm sure some other culture beat them to it by thousands of years, but you got to do that. You got to get in at the point where you could just point to reality and the story was, "This exists. This thing that is everywhere exists." And now, pointing to reality within the food world is either really old hat, or you've got to dig really fucking deep to get to the reality that nobody has looked at yet.
Francis: Yeah, I think that's exactly it. That's where we come to when we talk about how storytelling has changed, in my head. Either you dig really deep, or you're really smart and inventive and thinking about the way to tell the same story but from a different perspective, or you take a story that everyone thinks they already know and you break it open and you take it into weird places where they would never thought it would go. One of my favorite writers is Burkhard Bilger. He writes for The New Yorker, and probably my favorite single piece of food writing is a story he wrote called "The Egg Men." It was for The New Yorker food issue, probably seven or eight years ago. It's a story about Las Vegas breakfast cooks, which already you're like, "Oh cool, I'm down, I want to hear about that."
"That my parents could come here and make a life is the promise of this country. That's what this country promises the world."
Greg: It's an interesting world already. There's a hook.
Francis: Yeah. It was great because it already started from a place like, "Ooh yeah." I never would have thought about those people, but the moment you mention it I'm like, "Oh yeah, tell me what it's like to flip eggs for a thousand drunken people at a time." It starts from there, and it goes into this larger history of how Las Vegas was built on cheap food, and at some point he talks to a neuroscientist about what the timer in their heads is like to make them remember, "I've got to flip that pan even though I've turned around to the other side of the thing — Boom. Bing. I have to go turn around and flip that other pan." How that works in your brain. And it goes into the bigger story of how the structures of Las Vegas were built. It just goes in a thousand different directions. It's so fascinating, every single one of them. Like, "Oh my god, I want to read more about this."
Greg: Food's the starting point, but —
Helen: That's my favorite genre of stories: It's about X, but it's really about Y.
Helen: Food as a prism. My take — this is why you're all tuning in, to know how I feel. But because the baseline is so well-trodden — because there is so little left that's just like, "You learned how to filet a fish in culinary school, holy shit!" — the things that are super exciting right now are the stories that use food as a lens for how literally the rest of the world works.
Helen: We're going to start with the eggs, but we're going to talk about neuroscience, and we're going to talk about real estate, and we're going to talk about the desert air and drunkenness. It's going to be actually about everything.
Greg: Everyone knows that chefs eat something called family meal and that they go out and party after.
Helen: Right, but how can we use that to make a big point about fragile masculinity in a macroeconomic —
Francis: I think that's totally it. In every pursuit, right? That's where things get interesting, when you start thinking, "Oh, it's about this. Okay, it's about this, but really it's about that." I think that's a perfect way to put it. That's how I think about my cookbooks. It's about taco recipes, but really it's about why we don't respect Mexican people.
Francis: It's about fried corn, but really it's about why we think that Appalachian people don't know what they're doing in modern society.
Greg: These are all the secret subtitles of the book.
Helen: Why don't we respect the group that this culture is about?
Francis: Yeah, yeah.
Helen: Why don't we respect Tyler Kord's sandwiches?
Francis: Yeah, it's about sandwiches, but really it's about why Tyler has beef with the entire country of Peru. Apparently Tyler is persona non grata in Peru because he once made a ceviche sandwich and talked about it on camera there, and he's really hurt by it. People in Peru hate him.
Helen: Oh man. Poor Tyler.
Francis: Poor Tyler. But yeah, "It's about this, but really it's about that" is really what you try to go for in any — In food! Literally in food. That pizza was supposed to be about the toppings, but really it was about the crust. That makes it exciting.
Helen: Well Francis, we have arrived at the part of the podcast that we like to call the lightning round, which is about asking you questions, but really it's about judging your answers.
Greg: Yes. So we ask everyone these questions, and you say the first thing that pops out of your head.
Helen: Or into your head.
Greg: Or —
Helen: Into and out of.
Greg: Yeah. Anyway.
Helen: The prepositional relationships here are really just very flexible.
Francis: Through. Just through.
Greg: Take your ego out of it.
Helen: I had to memorize all of the prepositions in alphabetical order when I was in 7th grade. Aboard, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, at — Nobody else?
Francis: That's heavy.
Helen: All right.
Greg: That was cool though.
Francis: That was cool. I don't know what the alphabetic order does for you, but I think that's really impressive.
Greg: The amazing mind somehow held onto that.
Helen: All I remember is the A's.
Francis: Can you recite the alphabet backwards?
Helen: No. I mean, yes, if I think about it.
Greg: So question number one!
Helen: Yeah, let's do this.
Greg: Can you recite the alphabet backwards? No, okay. So Francis, you are at an airport, you have an hour to kill, you have money in your wallet, what do you do? What's your game plan?
Francis: Just one hour?
Helen: Just one hour.
Francis: Man, if it's just one hour I'm going to go to the fucking gate and I'm going to sit there and try to do some work. That's boring.
Helen: Yeah, it is.
Francis: Now if it was three hours —
Francis: Then it really depends on the airport, but the ultimate— Okay, so if it's three hours, or even two, then you start thinking, "Oh, is there somewhere I can get a decent bite to eat in the airport?" And especially in American airports, it's pretty tough, but every once in a while you can find one now, and that's exciting. But if you've really got three hours, then it gets cool, because you can do things. At the Atlanta airport, you can exit the airport and walk to where all the cabbies wait. And all the cabbies in Atlanta are West African, and you can go find the place where they hang out and someone brings in lunch boxes, like Senegalese lunch boxes, and you can go get one and eat jollof rice with the cabbies and then go back in and get your Delta flight that's inevitably delayed.
Helen: That's a phenomenal hot tip.
Francis: Pretty cool.
Helen: That's pretty strong. Francis, what is one cookbook that you were not involved in the creation of that you wish you had been?
Francis: This is a weird one. Every once in a while people ask me some version of this question. And I break out the the The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook.
Helen: Shut up! I'm obsessed with the The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook!
Francis: Are you serious?
Helen: I am!
Francis: The Dean and DeLuca — I don't know why I have it. I really don't know why I have it, but I own it, and I've owned it for 20 years. And I'll still flip through it for ideas, and everything I've made out of it is delicious.
Helen: It's a spectacular cookbook.
Francis: It's great, and I have read it so differently over the years. At the time I was like, "Oh my god, I don't know anything about these things. I don't know about nice balsamic vinegar, tell me more. I don't know anything about cherry tomatoes, tell me more." And now you read and it's this monumental achievement of early 90s, proto-foodie, bourgeoisie, New York food culture.
Helen: That's exactly what it is.
Francis: But the recipes in it are really frickin' good!
Helen: They're so good! It's huge. It's a doorstopper of a cookbook.
Francis: Yeah, it's before they put pictures in cookbooks. It was just run-in recipe after run-in recipe and 479 pages of them.
Helen: It is to the 90s what The Silver Palate is to the 80s, I think. It's a perfect document of the emerging culinary vocabulary of that era.
Helen: It's so spectacular. Oh my god, I love that answer. We have to go bond over this. The Dean and DeLuca Cookbook. I'm obsessed with it.
"In 2016, no one has jobs anymore, because all everyone does is quit their job to go to culinary school."
Greg: Moving through the lightning round, —
Helen: I guess I should shut up about this cookbook.
Greg: No, I'm sold on it. Do you binge-watch TV shows slash what was the last TV show you binge-watched?
Francis: Broad City. I was going to say there aren't really because I don't, but there's one. It's Broad City.
Greg: I blasted through that a few months ago.
Francis: I think it's the greatest thing on television since The Wire.
Greg: It was just a hoot.
Helen: I have a hard time with it because it's too real.
Greg: It's a real New York City show, I'll put it that way. Especially when it's really hot and they're talking about how gross it is.
Greg: I haven't felt that level of —
Helen: It feels like a documentary of my life ten years ago.
Francis: Your life is not that funny.
Helen: How do you know? My life is great.
Francis: Your life is fantastic, but no one's life is that funny.
Helen: That's true. But if you hybridize Girls and Broad City and also rewind it to 2003, it's way too real for me. I can't handle it and I have to walk away from it.
Francis: I'm older than that, it's fine.
Helen: Francis, our last and final question: If you could resuscitate from the dead any restaurant that is now closed for one night only, what would it be?
Francis: I know the point is to say the first thing popped in my head, but the first thing that popped in my head is not the right answer. But it's close to the right answer. You know, I would — fuck. Shit. Fuck.
Helen: Say it, we'll talk it through with you.
Francis: No, because there are real people involved in this one and I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. It's a douchebag answer, but La Pyramide, Fernand Point's restaurant in Léon. That's a fucking terrible answer, that's such a dickbag answer.
Greg: I think that's a good answer! I didn't see it coming.
Francis: It's a good answer. I mean it in that I would love to know what high-end French cuisine was like at the place where everyone says it came from.
Greg: Was it French nouvelle —
Francis: It was before nouvelle cuisine. It was in between Escoffier and nouvelle cuisine. Fernand Point was the first guy who really made the chef a personality. Escoffier was a personality that he was "the chef of kings and the king of chefs," which —
Helen: Speaking of dickbags.
Francis: Yeah, well, you've heard nine chefs given that title, but he was the one. But Fernand Point was the first one who, in real life, came out from the kitchen into the dining room and was this larger than life figure. He took food out of the Escoffier era and primed it for nouvelle cuisine to then take it and make it into what we think of as modern chef food. It's a dickbag answer because it's pretty obscure to most people. I do have this obsession with high-end French cooking that existed before the 90s. Before Jean-Georges made it so you want to put lemongrass in your French food.
Francis: Because I was sort of trained in it. I went to culinary school which in theory, the basis was French cooking. It was French technique, so I have this outside respect for it. So I would love to go to La Pyramide or an old version of La Côte Basque. Or La Caravelle, one of those grand French restaurants in New York City. I'd love to see what that was like.
Helen: That's a great answer. I don't think that's a douchey answer at all.
Greg: Well hey, Francis, this has been a blast talking to you. Thank you so much for coming into the studio.
Francis: Thanks so much for having me.
Helen: Yeah, if our listeners want to find you, where can they find you?
Francis: God, I hate to say it, but probably Twitter is the easiest place to find me.
Helen: That's the best social network.
Francis: That's where I live. It's @Francis_Lam. Francis spelt with an "I".
Helen: The boy way.
Francis: The boy way.
Helen: Yeah. For a long time when I was just reading you in Gourmet as a big fan, I definitely thought you were a woman. Which I don't know if I've ever told you before. Maybe I have.
Francis: But it feels fine.
Greg: Way to bury the lede!
Helen: I know, right? Francis Lam, actually a man, here on the Eater Upsell. Thank you so much for joining us.
Francis: Thanks so much for having me.
Helen: It was a real pleasure.
The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer: Kendra Vaculin