Meet the Real Star of Your Favorite Food Travel Shows (It's Not the Host)
Never heard of a food fixer? Good—then they're doing their job right. Fixers are connected culinary experts who know a region or cuisine inside and out, and steer everyone from in-the-know tourists to TV personalities toward whatever it is they absolutely need to eat. Thing is, no one wants to admit they use one. Fixers are experiential ghostwriters, setting up life-changing culinary experiences without taking the credit. "Everybody wants to be the expert," says fixer Kevin Cox, "They don't want anyone to know."
It doesn't seem to bother Cox, who has been working as a food fixer, culinary tour guide, and writer in Singapore for the past five years. After leaving his job as general counsel at Firmenich (producers of flavor chemicals) in the U.S. and moving to Southeast Asia with his wife and kids, Cox dedicated his time to wandering the streets (hence his blog's name, Foodwalkers) and "immediately began eating like a pig."
Fixing seemed to fall naturally into Cox's lap, given that the main qualification is a desire to know everything about your local food scene. Not long after he arrived, Cox began pitching food stories to a local magazine. His writing career started to take off, and soon enough, people were asking Cox if he could lead walk-and-eat tours of the city. His reputation continued to grow, and eventually he wound up working with some of the biggest names in the food business, though unfortunately he's not at liberty to say who they actually are. "I can't say it was accidental, but I didn't have a business plan for this," Cox says. "Fixing is not something, at least in Asia, you can really build a model for."
Fixing is daunting in a city that many consider an international food capital, but for Cox, who grew up eating around the world as the son of a UN official, food has always been an easy way to acclimate to a rotating cast of new environments. He learned to cook and hunt as a child, and as a result ranks high on the curiosity-about-food scale and low on squeamishness. Today, while he occasionally directs clients toward "bizarre" foods like insects or offal, Cox tries to focus on the dishes that represent the local culture best, be it monkey brain or noodle soups. "There are so many people who just want the notch in their pistol grip. That's not what this is about," he says. "Dig a little deeper."
Often, the most meaningful food moments involve a strong element of self-discovery (consider wandering down a side street into a random restaurant and unexpectedly finding the best sandwich of your life). Epiphany is the key to most food fixing —it's a major component on shows like No Reservations and features in glossy travel magazines. So what if a crowded dumpling house is nothing new to the locals who get lunch there every day? As long as it's new and revelatory to the person telling the story, the fixer has done their job. "Even if I orchestrated it a bit, that sense of discovery is so important—it's a magical experience that somehow makes the food taste better," says Cox.
When setting up a tour, Cox's first task is figuring out exactly what his clients want, and how far they stray from his own "low to the ground" tastes—one man's epiphany-inducing street cart is another tourist's stomach virus nightmare. "I've had very specific requests, like one company that was looking specifically for stir-frys; while other people just say 'take me to eat good food,' he says. Then there's the matter of figuring out if the restaurants and food stalls are up for being featured on camera or in print, which they typically are, given that Cox is bringing them business.
Occasionally, the venues being discovered can be too enthusiastic, and Cox has to scramble to get them to tone it down a notch. He recalls bringing a group to a restaurant for Singapore's famed chili crab, the cooking of which is already fairly dramatic. The chef, excited about his big TV break, took it upon himself to ham it up for the camera, flipping knives and shooting flames every which way. Cox was less than thrilled—when your goal is to provide authenticity, ideally you'd avoid the Benihana show.
So the fixer sets you up for a discovery, but what happens when the discovery has been made public? Do throngs of people rushing the aforementioned dumpling house because Anthony Bourdain ate there "ruin" it? "That's bullshit," says Cox, quite frankly. "There's good food and there's bad food, and everything else is bullshit. If it's good food, you want people to know about it because you want the place to stay."
Cox encourages travelers to get off the beaten track. "You'd be surprised at how many people steer clear of the local food," he says. But he recognizes that finding a great meal in an unfamiliar place can be a daunting task. He advises humility —make it clear that you're not an expert, but you want to learn. "I'm not afraid to ask stupid questions. I laugh at myself. I know most of the time when I talk about something I know what I'm talking about, and when I don't I'm the first to admit it." The Socratic paradox of food, if you will: true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.
Sometimes discovering the true local cuisine is an issue of fantasy v. reality—when you want the epiphany of finding a hole-in-the-wall gem, you run the risk of just finding a hole-in-the-wall that nobody's noticed for a reason. And according to Cox, there's no real way to know what's good and what's bad until you eat. "You have to be a little fearless," he says. "You have to be willing to eat some shitty food, to get lost, and maybe get in trouble. The more you do it, the more comfortable it feels."