Tejal Rao May 2022
I always start my interviews by asking where you’re from and what did you grow up eating? I know you’re from a lot of places so I’m interested to hear what you’re going to say.
I was born in Northwest London but I grew up moving around a lot. I lived in Kuwait, Sudan and then in France about an hour outside of Paris for a few years. I moved to the US as a teenager and went to high school in Atlanta. I also spent summers with my grandparents in Nairobi or in Pune, in India. Everywhere we lived, there was a lot of food and a lot of time spent together, cooking it. It was seriously prioritized by my family. When I think about growing up and what my favorite foods were, it was things like warm ugali with butter and greens or ful with an excessive amount of olive oil on top. Both my parents cooked. My dad would make spaghetti with cream sauce if I was being picky. My mom would make daals, roti and these green beans where the beans were cut really tiny and fried with garlic and dried chili. On Sundays we usually had people over so we would cook some kind of roast with potatoes and parsnips or lamb biryani. My grandfather made a lot of whole fish. I also remember little luxuries like oversized coffee or pistachio flavored macarons from the pastry shop near my doctor’s office. Or my grandmother would make pea kachori when fresh peas were in season and we’re eat them hot out of the fryer with lemon. I could just go on and on.
Wow that’s a lot of good food. What was your favorite place that you lived growing up?
I remember all of those places as home but the place that is most vivid to me, the place I think about most often is France. Maybe because that’s the place where I started cooking, right when we go there and I was lonely, and I didn’t speak the language just yet.
Do you have siblings?
I do, I have an older brother who cooks a lot too. When I was little, in London, my mom had this awful back injury and for a few weeks she was just laying down. So during that time, my brother, who was eight or nine, did all the meal planning and cooking for us The grocery store had these recipe cards and he just made whatever was on the cards at Sainsbury’s. Things like tarragon chicken salad and jacket potatoes.
So you’ve worked in restaurants but you’re also a restaurant critic. Which came first, writing or cooking?
Cooking came first. After college I worked in kitchens for a few years. I did know that I wanted to write but I thought I wanted to write fiction or poetry, and I didn't know that journalism WAS a possibility until later on.
Did you study writing in college?
I studied literature so I wasn’t trained formally as a journalist.
I also studied literature! I wrote my senior thesis about a cookbook actually.
The Alice B Toklas Cookbook.
Oh I love that! I wrote a piece for the Book Review about falling in love with the intimate, powerful, direct voice of recipes It wasn’t about a specific cookbook although I do mention a few in the piece. They were just whatever cookbooks I found lying around my parents’ house, like the London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea which isn't a cookbook I’d recommend but it was special to me because anything I could get my hands on read was special to me.
So how did you get into writing?
I had to keep making money but I really wanted to try writing. So I started a supper club that I hosted on the weekends and then I cold pitched pieces to publications during the week. I also did some copy editing and translating jobs. It was very slow though. It was maybe three or four years of landing just a few assignments until I got a job at the Village Voice in 2012. That was my break into full time writing.
I’m interested in how your got your job at the New York Times, it’s a very specific job, California restaurant critic for the NYT.
It’s a job that didn’t exist. I came to the Times as a food reporter but I’d been a critic before that. I don’t know if it was their plan to make this a job. But after being there for about three years they asked me if I wanted to move to Los Angeles and get back into criticism which was a really dream come true for me. I love reporting and I try to bring that and essay form into the criticism and hybridize them a little bit. But yeah it was a dream.
I’ve read a bunch of your pieces this week and it’s funny because you write about a lot of the things I’m already interested in. I’m from Los Angeles so I don't have the perspective of to see what it’s like to view LA from afar and the influence it has on other places. But you do, and you also have this globally recognized platform to give these special community members an important shout out in a life changing way. So I’m curious how you think about the kind of power you have with your writing and how unique it is to people here.
You're right and I know that it's such a privilege to have this platform and at the same time I try not to think about that too much.
Too much pressure.
Yeah, I just do the work and find the stories I’m really interested in and figure out a way to do them justice. Like whatever the story is about, I just want to write really warm, true, intimate pieces. I want to write something that has precision, clarity and emotion and context and not think too much about who’s reading it or how many people are reading it.
I think you do a good job. Do you ever hear stories from the people you’ve written stories about? About how you’ve changed their businesses for the better?
Occasionally I’ll hear that a place will get really busy after a positive review – which is both good and bad because maybe the place isn’t staffed for the that. But it’s not really in my control.
Right it’s like Anthony Bourdain not wanting to share secret spots.
Right, I don’t think I have that same kind of influence but every now and then I think something happens and I’m really happy that a place is getting more business. But then I also feel really guilty if it’s an issue for them.
How did your bagel piece go over with the New Yorkers?
That piece definitely upset a lot of people and I still get emails every now and then from someone who’s really upset.
Oh my god really?!
I stand by that story though, I think there are people doing amazing work here and the bagels I wrote about are wonderful.
I’m personally proud to hear you say that. I also love the bagels here but I was sad that Belle’s wasn’t included in the piece.
That haunts me still. I really like Belle’s.
I’m curious to hear how COVID has changed the way your report, if at all?
Oh it definitely has. There was a period of time when I wasn’t going into restaurants at all. Trying to cover restaurants without being a part of them at all was really difficult. And then there was a period of time when I was only doing outdoor dining. I’ve gone through all these different phases and I think as things keep changing I just have to keep adapting. There’s no one way to be a critic right now.
We’re all adapting now. Have you been going back into restaurants now?
I am going back into dining rooms now but I’m actually reconsidering that. My colleague Pete Wells is still not doing stars at the moment, but I wasn’t doing stars to begin with.
How did you choose not to do stars?
I just felt like I had a lot more freedom with the form and could cover a lot more places if I didn’t have to give them stars. It just made sense to me; I’ve never wanted to assign them. It just felt like squeezing all the restaurants into the same system is too difficult for me, I don’t know how to do it.
How long did you live in New York and how long have you been in LA now?
I moved here in 2018, and I was in New York for 11 years.
So how do you feel about the food culture here?
I just love it here so much, even though most of the time I’ve been here has been during the pandemic. There’s still been so much going on; people have been working around restrictions and disinvestment. They’ve just found ways to make beautiful food somehow; it’s really amazing. I hope I can stay here forever.
I’m so happy to hear that!
Another thing I love about LA is that people are so willing to wait in line for good food.
Oh I definitely am.
Yeah me too, I’ve waited in many long lines. It’s part of my job! But I think it’s another example of people finding ways to build businesses in the margins – some people are standing in lines for food being made in a parking lot of or out of someone’s home. It’s of course not ideal and in some cases it’s happening because they can’t find retail space or investors. So I’m happy to wait in line. I think those businesses are an important part of the food scene here.
I wanted to ask you about your experience with losing your sense of taste and smell from having COVID. How are you doing now?
I’m actually doing great, both came back within a few months. I was extremely lucky. But the process of it happening was really frightening. The day that it happened, I knew what was happening and I sent my boss a frantic note. I thought I might have to figure something else out. Luckily I didn’t have to. But there hasn’t been a lot of research done about loss of smell so I got a lot of emails from people asking me for advice after I wrote the article about my experience. I did smell training but there’s no real way to know what worked for me because it’s neurological.
Does anything taste different to you?
No nothing tastes different but I’m a little more sensitive to tastes now.
Can you tell me a little bit about your newsletter The Veggie?
Oh yeah, it’s going really great! It has a lot of subscribers which is amazing because when we first thought of the idea we didn't know if there’d be an appetite for it. But I really wanted to do it and so did a bunch of people on my team because we love vegetarian home cooking.
Are you vegetarian?
No I’m an omnivore but I’ve been a vegetarian in the past. I was one for about a decade. I still love vegetarian cooking and I think it doesn’t get nearly enough attention and care in most food publications. Recipes for vegetarian meals are usually just sides or sad apology substitute for something else. But vegetarian food wasn’t that in my house growing up, it was a centerpiece, it was its own thing. And there’s so much creativity and deliciousness in vegetarian and vegan cooking.
Yeah that’s how I cook too, so I feel that same way. I subscribe to the newsletter!
Thank you! It’s the most fun part of my week writing that newsletter. I only get to cook a little bit SINCE I’m mostly out and about at restaurants. So I’m really choosy with what recipes or techniques I want to make or try. I’m not doing recipe development anymore, I was doing that when I wrote the Eat column for the NYT magazine.
Do you feel any connection to Jonathan Gold’s legacy or find any inspiration as a food critic in LA?
I’ve been so inspired by his work and his writing. This seems almost too obvious to say, but he was such a brilliant writer. The way he carried you through a story, the language he used, the pacing – just everything about the writing itself was so good. I aspire to that in so many ways even if I’m writing about different things than he did. His work was always a reminder FOR me that food writing doesn’t have to sound a certain way, and it can do so much more than people think it can do.
Well I think his legacy is uplifting mom and pop restaurants, street vendors and especially people in the San Gabriel Valley. And it definitely feels like you are writing about a lot of things he would have liked, just based on his lists.
Thank you that’s sweet of you to say.
So is there anything you’ve eaten or cooked recently that’s you really loved?
Sometimes you make something and then you want to make it over and over again. Right now I’m having this weird love affair with a snap pea salad. It’s just sliced snap peas and radishes with lemon and olive oil, mint leaves and ricotta either on a thick slice of buttered sourdough or next to the bread. I’m so into how such a small thing like slicing the snap peas changes everything about them. I’ll probably get over it in a few days, but right now I’m really into it.