"I want to inspire people to let go of the map when they're thinking about eating."
In 2007, Layne Mosler hailed a cab in Buenos Aires and asked the driver to take her to his favorite late-night haunt. So began a series of food-seeking adventures that took her all around that city, and later to New York City. By following the advice and tastes of her taxi drivers, Layne learned about hard-to-find but truly delicious food, and began writing about her travels and experiences on her blog, Taxi Gourmet. I talked to Layne about her awesome new projects, her unique pursuit of a great meal, and some lessons she's learned from years of both riding in and driving cabs all over the world.
Talk a little bit about your background. What sparked your interest in food and exploring new cuisines? I grew up in Southern California. Restaurants are more spread out there, but flavors are about as vast and varied as in New York. Also, I come from a family of butchers, bakers, failed farmers and great cooks and started traveling and working in restaurants at 17 with the idea that someday I was going to open my own. I figured out that I loved eating in restaurants, and writing about food, more than running them. But I still fantasize about making empanadas for a living. There are a lot of bad empanadas in this world.
Your original taxi adventures took place in Buenes Aires; what prompted your move to New York City? I ran out of adjectives to describe beef. Most Buenos Aires cabbies are from the city proper or from other Argentine provinces. Their favorite foods are, almost invariably, steak, pizza or pasta. Thanks to them, I stumbled upon some wonderful off-the-radar spots (I haven't found a steak that's come close since), but I wanted to see how the taxi adventures would translate in a city where drivers, and food, come from all over the world.
When I hop in a taxi here, I have no idea who might be driving or what I'm about to eat. Indian-Chinese in Elmhurst? Ghanaian in Fordham? Soul food in Jamaica? It could be anything, and it's not always directly correlated to the driver's home town.
Why did you decide to become a licensed taxi driver, instead of just a taxi passenger? I'm an anthropology major. It's a discipline with a lot of wacky ideas, but one that always stuck with me was that you can only understand so much about people, places or culture when you limit yourself to observing. At some point, you have to participate, jump in, engage. The best part is when I tell other cabbies that I drive, too. Their faces change. Our exchanges become less like interviews and more like conversations.
What insights have you gained into the world of taxi drivers in New York as part of your sociological and gastronomical experimentation? I've discovered the resilience required to do the job—if you've had a rough, sleepless night, there's no way you can drive a cab around New York City and avoid calamity. As far as eating while driving, there's a huge difference between where a cabbie eats while on duty vs. where she eats off duty. On duty, it's got to be fast enough to outrun a Manhattan meter maid, cheap enough to make up for the fact that we barely make $10 an hour, and tasty enough to get us through a minimum of 10 hours on the road. There aren't too many places that fit that description—that's why you see cabbies crowding the ones that do.
How receptive do you think New Yorkers are to the kinds of ethnic fare you're seeking out? When it comes to food, New Yorkers aren't just sophisticated—I'd bet that they're among the most adventurous eaters in the world. It takes a lot to wow a New Yorker food-wise, and most of the food lovers I've met here are yearning to be wowed. They're craving spectacular flavors, and they're open to new things. But not everyone is willing to ride an hour or more on the subway to taste something sublime—I think the biggest barrier in New York is sometimes the distance you have to travel for something new and outstanding. But there are so many places that merit a pilgrimage!
Currently, you're starting a new Taxi Gourmet adventure in Berlin. What's your plan for this next stage of your journey? It's only been 20 years since the Wall came down, and Berlin is still coming to terms with the fact that it's no longer a divided city. It's also starting to embrace its identity as a cultural capital of Europe. I want to trace that evolution via the city's cabbies and its food. Berlin used to be a place where people avoided eating out. Now people are actually coming here to eat. And if the kunefe that the cabbie from Konya (Turkey) led me to last night is a fair indicator of flavor here, I can understand why.
What's in the future for TG? What are the broader goals and expectations you have for this innovative project? I'm in the process of transforming the blog into a book that will draw inspiration from taxi adventures in Buenos Aires, New York, and Berlin (and possibly Istanbul and/or Beirut). I also want to bring in additional Taxi Gourmet correspondents/readers to share dispatches from places like New Orleans, Montreal, Tokyo, Paris, and Melbourne. I want the blog to become an interactive website where adventurers share stories—via podcast or video or whatever medium they like—that begin with a craving and end in an unlikely place.
I want to inspire people to let go of the map when they're thinking about eating somewhere, whether it's in their home town or a city that's new to them.