David Kamp: The Serious Eats Interview

Editor's note: We've long been fans of David Kamp's work (author of The United States of Arugula and, now, along with Marion Rosenfeld, The Food Snob's Dictionary), so we turned loose Adam Roberts on him for a chat. What follows is the first part of a lengthy but entertaining interview. Read Part Two here.

Let's start with The United States of Arugula. How did the book come about?

I'm not a food writer by vocation, I'm more of a generalist culture writer for Vanity Fair and GQ. Basically, I love food: I found that it was my off-duty passion. Either cooking or shopping for food at markets or thinking about food and reading about food. Particularly, I noticed that when I was really in the unwinding mode, the thing that I found the most relaxing after a long, taxing day was doing food prep with some nice music on—shelling beans or trimming some haricots verts. And the other thing that I found incredibly relaxing is that moment when, if you're lucky, 30 to 45 minutes before you pass out in bed after an exhausting day, when you're actually reading in bed, I always found I was reading A. J. Libeling or M. F. K. Fisher. I realized this is something I want to write about more—how did we get to this point where we've gotten more savvy, more sophisticated, more knowledgeable about food than Americans from 20, 30, 40, and 50 years ago.

Were you always interested in food? Or did that happen later in life?

I come from a middle class family, but we were always a little more aware of food than others. I grew up in New Jersey, and my mom was a very good cook, and some of my earliest memories are—I was the youngest of three, so when the older two were in school, I was still in my toddler days, she would have Julia Child and Graham Kerr on all the time. Do you know who Graham Kerr is? You're young, I know.

Well, I read your book so now I know who he is.

He had a show called The Galloping Gourmet, and between that and The French Chef, there was a lot of watching those shows with my mom. My mom was a good normal cook who occasionally got adventurous, trying Julia Child's soup de pistou—I remember her buying the saffron, which cost a lot of money, to flavor the soup. Later on, my older sister, who's a crunchy organic girl, went through a Moosewood Cookbook phase. We were one of those New Jersey families that did everything the New York Times weekend section told us to do.

It's interesting because you describe that kind of family in both of your books—Arugula and your latest, The Food Snob's Dictionary.

I send up that kind of family, but it's an affectionate send-up; either that, or it's abject self-loathing. But we were that kind of family where we'd go to New York City to get an inoculation of cultured city life. And I remember vividly that there was an article in the New York Times in the 1970s telling you about this exciting new neighborhood called SoHo. And we went to the Dean and Deluca on Prince Street, and my memories of it are almost cinematic. I think of a camera panning across cases of prepared foods and amazing displays of stinky French cheeses that were not refrigerated, so you'd really catch the aromas, and then the smell of the coffee beans and the croissants and desserts in the baked goods section. It's a very vivid late period Bergman cinematic pan of a childhood memory.

What's interesting about that is your book didn't necessarily come across as autobiography, but as you share these memories from your childhood, it seems like you really did live a lot of the stories you write about.

You're the first person who's observed that, but you're right to do so. I only realized after writing the book how autobiographical it was. I mean, there's no I or me except in the preface. Another thing I realized after I finished the book is that my grandfather was a baker—he retired before I was even born—but he was by trade a baker. So maybe there is some strange ancestral genetic thing that was bubbling its way to the surface.

Growing up in this environment, watching these shows, were you starstruck later on when you got to interview the people you did for the book?

I wouldn't say starstruck, but it was immensely satisfying. Peripherally meeting people like Jacques Pépin and Andre Soltner; or the New York Times critics like Mimi Sheraton and Bryan Miller. And meeting Dean and DeLuca or Molly Katzen from the Moosewood Cookbook—it wasn't being starstruck, it was the opposite, the feeling of instant familiarity and comfort.

Were there any people who refused you?

In the course of reporting this book—and I interviewed maybe about 100 people for it—only one person turned me down, and that's John Mackey of Whole Foods. He was probably too busy blogging under his assumed identity, you know, complimenting himself on his cute haircut. The great thing I discovered is that part of the reason I knew going into this book that I could have fun with it is that food people are still, even at the very top, very accessible. I've been reporting for Vanity Fair on people who are in business, the music industry, the film industry, or politics, and you have to jump through hoops and go through layers of publicists to get to them. In the food world, it's still sort of wide open; the star machinery, the armor of publicists and guardedness is only just starting to happen. So I found that most people were A) really accessible, and B) thrilled to be interviewed in-depth, in more than just a Wednesday food section kind of way. To talk at length, expound at length, about what motivated them. And just the stories that Chez Panisse alumni told, stories that Molly Katzen and Deborah Madison told, were just wonderful, and they were thrilled to talk for hours and hours.

It's interesting—I think the one character from Arugula who you editorialize the most about in The Food Snob's Dictionary is Alice Waters. You talk about her belief in her deification and how people treat her like a god and how she sort of embraces that. Did you get that impression when you met her or was that over the process of learning about her?

There were certain people, like the aforementioned Molly Katzen and Deborah Madison, and because they're all in the hospitality business, they exude a certain warmth. And I kind of expected that from Alice Waters. I went into this with no knowledge of how divisive a figure she can be. In the Chez Panisse world, some people love her and some people really hate her. I didn't know that going into it, so I sort of thought she'd be this sort of lovable person, kind of how Molly Katzen is or maybe Julia Child. What I got was someone who has a politician's presentation, almost like Hillary Clinton. Someone who's scripted and a little more guarded and a little harder. And I have great admiration for her and her vision, but I also think she is unyielding and unpragmatic in getting her message across. I don't think she's a great messenger for her message, necessarily.

Do you think she's a polarizing figure because she's so staunch in her beliefs?

I don't think she's polarizing to the general public, I think the general public generally has a good impression of her. But within the food world, what I was surprised with was that guys like Rick Bayless and Tom Colicchio—none of them denied her brilliance, but they felt she's not realistic about how to effect change for the general public. They see her as too inflexible and too rigid in adhering to specific doctrines about local, seasonal foods; they see her as missing an opportunity for getting her message across in a better way by engaging people in a wider way, maybe engaging the corporate world instead of refusing to work with it.

After the book came out, did you hear from any of the people you interviewed? Did you have mostly positive reactions?

I had mostly positive reactions. Jacques Pépin liked the book. Alice Waters, I heard, through a third party—a mutual friend, actually—she didn't love a lot of the critical stuff some of the Chez Panisse people said about her but she was gracious enough to basically stay in touch through her assistant. They didn't object to anything explicitly in the book. To her eternal credit, she's a trouper—she didn't say "How dare you!"

What about people who knew Craig Claiborne? Were people surprised by how darkly you presented him?

I think people who knew him knew all too well this is how Craig Claiborne was. An inspired, trailblazing but also a very troubled man. I think what the people who knew him said is that someone finally told the truth about him. I think a lot of people who like this book like it because it presents people as three-dimensional figures. It doesn't sweep under the rug the fact that we're human beings—and we can be brilliant human beings, contrary human beings, divisive human beings and troubled human beings. The food world has generally been guarded by a certain set of rules: People don't want to know about the feuds or the sexual intercourse or the things that make food people three-dimensional human beings. A lot of people who write about food, they want to preserve an early '60s PBS precious vision of the food world. And I credit Anthony Bourdain with Kitchen Confidential for pulling back the curtain a bit—in his case, in a first-person way. I try to do that in a widescreen way; I wasn't hunting for scandal, but I was very eager to present food-world people as real-world people. The sex and drugs and alcoholism is pretty tame in The United States of Arugula compared to what it might be in a book about any given Kennedy or Mick Jagger or any historical figure like Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson. It's tame compared to that stuff, but for the food world, for some readers, I violated the etiquette where you can only write about food people as precious friendly smiley people in aprons. To write about Craig Claiborne as an alcoholic and a sexually confused troubled soul, that was germane to who he was and why he even became a food person, which is why it's all in there in the book. For some people, that's why it was offensive, for other people, they thought it was great to show the whole person.

I find it interesting that two of the three grandparents of the food movement that you point out—James Beard and Craig Claiborne—were both gay men. It's interesting because it seems that the fact that their private lives were so different from their public lives. Do you think these were men who, if they were around today, would have the same kind of careers? Were they products of their time?

I think they were very much products of their time. Bringing up their sexuality is totally germane to the story being told in the book because if you're a gay man in the 1930s, '40s, '50s and marginalized by society—especially if you were not pretending to be straight, entering into a sham marriage—there wasn't necessarily a place in society for you. You had to find a place. It was very telling that, because the food world was not yet prestigious or lucrative, it was a strange niche or a safe haven for their skills and talents and dreams. In many ways, the very reason they became food people—and they both came to it late in their lives, in their 30s and 40s—and part of that was that they were casting about, trying to find a place for themselves in the world as a gay man who loves food without being able to fit into society. They essentially created a place for themselves by helping to create the food world. That also applies to Julia Child, who, while obviously not a gay man, was an oddball and was in her 50s when she became a TV star. And I think it's very telling that they were all feeling their way, casting about for a professional and personal destiny and found it in this then-unprestigious unlucrative world of food. In doing so, they created a world that has since become a huge industry.

Do you think the fact that food TV is now so commercialized and overprocessed makes it harder for quirkier and more interesting food figures to emerge?

Absolutely. It cuts down on true iconoclasts. Part of why Claiborne, Beard, and Child—especially Beard and Child—got across is because they had an authentic oddball charisma. It's not just that they knew their food and were great evangelists for cooking well and eating well, but it was the sheer oddness of them. It was a charismatic oddness. Now you have much more palatable people on food TV: you have these people who are processed to be telegenic. Some people slip through the cracks, but now you see people trying too hard. Like Gordon Ramsay is the iconoclastic bad boy. He's such a talented chef; sometimes I wish he didn't try that hard.

Did you eat at many of the restaurants you wrote about over the course of writing the book?

I ate at Chez Panisse, I ate at the French Laundry. I ate at Moosewood many times as a child—not many times, but a few times. And Rick Bayless's places in Chicago. And Charlie Trotter's. And Zuni CaféJudy Rodgers's place.

Did it color the way you wrote about the people? Did it change your perception of them?

It changed my waistline. Naturally it does. It wasn't being dazzled by how virtuosic or how "gourmet" it was, it was more the application of how devoted they were to what they were doing and how much they maximized every last scrap of food. One thing I gained new respect for, in professional chefs, unlike home chefs; well we think of French chefs as being highfalutin'. But the profit margin of any restaurant is very thin, so making the most out of everything—whether a lobster or a chicken—they're not just going to use the meat. They'll use the bones or the shell for stock; they're going to get everything they can out of every ingredient. That somehow impressed me more than anything. That had a profound impact on how I cook at home. Waste not, want not. I'm so impressed at how they maximize the use of every ingredient. And also the penury in which a lot of them grew up. Many people who are chefs did not grow up wealthy. Especially the French guys. To see them get the most mileage out of everything is inspiring.

Wolfgang Puck's trajectory is fascinating—how he was shipped away when he was 13 or 14 to work in a hotel kitchen.

He was a miserable child, and again that's the other thing. There's a lot of epiphanies in the book. Claiborne was on a Navy ship and wanted to escape from his unhappy life; he was on a Navy ship in the Pacific saying, "I love food, I love writing." Lightbulb: Maybe I can make a living writing about food. In Puck's case—I have to go back and look at the book—he was whisked off to some professional kitchen, where he was treated like crap and basically abused and somehow loses himself in the rhythm of chopping and cooking and doing food prep and discovered, "Oh, my God. I have a talent for this. This can propel me forward" and finding solace in that. And this is a guy who at age 15 was on a bridge contemplating suicide. Now he's the last guy you'd ever think has any moments of self-doubt; that to me is really inspiring and touching. People want to think of Puck as this crass commercialist guy, and I was surprised at how touchingly vulnerable he was.

Did he talk to you about trying to kill himself?

A little bit. I think most people are used to being interviewed in a superficial way for the monthly magazines and food sections of daily papers, so they enjoyed the opportunity to open up and discuss their motivations and how the low points motivated the high points. But guys like Claiborne and Puck were all guys who hit really, really low points in their lives and found that food was their salvation. I like that kind of story, and it's an upbeat story, and the momentum of the book is really positive.

Continue to Part 2 »