Jonathan Kauffman: The Chronicle’s Newest Food Critic

| April 14, 2014 | 0 Comments
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Critic Jonathan Kauffman likes taking deep dives into single subjects, such as where to find the best noodles in town. Credit: Kelli Bielema

Critic Jonathan Kauffman likes taking deep dives into single subjects, such as where to find the best noodles in town. Credit: Kelli Bielema

Oh happy day. It’s rare in food writing circles to hear some good news for fellow scribes. But a collective congratulations buzzed around social media channels a few weeks back with the announcement that the respected and well-liked (no, they don’t always go together) Jonathan Kauffman, former San Francisco editor of the site Tasting Table, was jumping ship to take a gig as as staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Food Section. The former restaurant critic for alt-newspapers SFWeekly, East Bay Express, and Seattle Weekly has won award nods from the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

The news was especially welcome in light of concern about the future of the Chronicle‘s Food Section. Late last year the New York Times reported that the Chronicle was shuttering the stand-alone section and consolidating it with other lifestyle sections, news that made serious food newshounds shudder. (Chronicle management have refuted the premise of the Times story in a cross-country food fight between the two competitors in arguably the nation’s top restaurant towns.)

More on that matter, which sparked the launch of a “Save the Chronicle Food Section” Facebook page, to come. The Chronicle is expected to unveil its new section soon.

Meanwhile, Kauffman, who starts at the paper today, shared some thoughts about his new post.

Tasting Table

How did the job at the Chron come about and why did you decide to take it?

A few months ago, I met up for drinks with Kitty Morgan, the new assistant managing editor for lifestyle, as she was soliciting perspectives from outside media on the Bay Area’s food scene. We found ourselves in such agreement that when the Chronicle decided to hire another staff writer, I jumped at the opportunity.

Do you have a brief on your new position as yet?

We haven’t settled on specifics. The Chronicle‘s food section has always worked very closely as a team, so I suspect my duties will change depending on where the need is greatest. But I’ll be primarily focusing on food features, with a sideline in hunting down those regional Chinese noodle houses restaurants and little-publicized pop-ups I most love discovering. I’ll also be contributing to Inside Scoop as needed.

Do you have a clear sense of what is happening to the Chronicle’s food section?

Too soon for me to answer this one.

Is it a good time to be a food critic here and is there anything challenging about being a food writer in this community?

Writing about food in the Bay Area is pretty much as gratifying as dining in the Bay Area: Given the breadth of the dining scene, the depth of talent, and our collective obsession with food, there are so many stories out there worth writing about. The so-called challenge–that the high-end dining scene is relatively small and rapaciously covered–means that anyone who looks beyond that scrum can see acres of open territory to explore.

San Francisco Chronicle Food Section

What do you make of, if anything, the fact that most of the food critics in the area are men? There’s you, John Birdsall at CHOW, Josh Sens at San Francisco, and Luke Tsai at East Bay Express. Even in the Chronicle’s own announcement about your hiring it mentioned you coming on board alongside Michael Bauer, Jon Bonné, Paolo Lucchesi “and the rest of the Chronicle food staff.” This in a field–and a newspaper section–that is overwhelmingly female.

I’m not sure why the announcement was worded like that, considering the majority of my coworkers–superstars like Tara Duggan, Stacy Finz and Amanda Gold–are women, as are my bosses all the way up the editorial chain. Your own list omits Anna Roth, Christina Mueller, and Patricia Unterman — and those are just the critics. I’d agree that straight men are a growing presence in food-writing realms, but the lineup you mention seems more of a historical moment than a movement.

Now, if you wanted to talk about the Caucasian near-monopoly on food writing in the Bay Area, I think we could have a more interesting, and troubling, discussion.

What subjects in food writing are you so over?

So-and-so always loved his/her grandmother’s X. After working in corporate accounting for 10 years, he/she decided to follow his/her life’s passion. Now he/she makes tiny batches of X with scrupulously sourced ingredients and sells X for $27 an ounce. What really gets me is when the moral of the story is supposed to be that you, O reader, are a more ethical person if you buy X. No, you’re not! You’re just buying a luxury product with a good story. I fall for the pitch every effing time.

Can you describe your former life as a cook and how it informs your writing?

I worked in restaurants all through college, from dishwasher on up to line cook, and then cooked here for a number of restaurants in the 1990s, aka the era of Tower Food. I was a sous chef at a couple of restaurants that are no longer in business. When I was working as an anonymous restaurant critic, I thanked my years behind the stove every week for training my taste memory–that ability to recall and recreate what you made the night (or week) before. Working in a professional kitchen also taught me to dissect what I was tasting and identify what was right and wrong in terms of seasoning and texture. As I move more into reporting and narrative story-telling, I hope that that experience will be a source of empathy for the people whose stories I’m telling.

What haven’t we seen from you (yet) that may emerge once you settle in at the Chron?

Features! Have I missed writing features, which was a big part of my job at the East Bay Express and Seattle Weekly. My M.O. as a critic is writing about food as an aspect of culture, not just a sensory experience. Searching out peak flavor experiences is a huge part of my M.O., but at the same time, we food writers spend so much time focused on what tastes great that we neglect interesting food stories that don’t necessarily result in transcendent meals. Do Vietnamese Cajun crawfish boils, Chinese all-you-can-eat shabu-shabu houses, and food-truck sliders tell us something interesting about how we eat in the Bay Area? I’ve always thought so.

A visitor to San Francisco wants to know where to eat: What do you suggest and why?

First rule: They’d have to answer more questions. How much do you want to spend? What kinds of cuisines don’t you get to eat back home? How out-there do you like your food? I’m not going to send you to Benu if you really just want cracked crab at Swan Oyster Depot. Me: I want both.

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About the Author ()

Sarah Henry hails from Sydney, Australia, where she grew up eating lamingtons, Vegemite, and prawns (not shrimp) on the barbie (barbecue). Sarah has called the Bay Area home for the past two decades and remembers how delighted she was when a modest farmers' market sprouted in downtown San Francisco years ago. As a freelance writer Sarah has covered local food people, places, politics, culture, and news for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, California, San Francisco, Diablo, Edible East Bay, Edible Marin & Wine Country, and Berkeleyside. A contributor to the national food policy site Civil Eats, her stories have also appeared in The Atlantic, AFAR, Gilt Taste, Ladies' Home Journal, Grist, Shareable, and Eating Well. An epicurean tour guide for Edible Excursions, Sarah is the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale and tweets under that moniker too.