"There is nothing that settles and satisfies me at the same time more than the act of cooking in my own kitchen."
In conversation, James Oseland is quick to point out that a lot of his opportunities and experiences sort of just happened: like going to college for film and photography after having dropped out of high school after his punk-rock youth in the 1970s. Or getting a job as a proofreader for LA Weekly. Or a trip to Indonesia that turned into a life-long love affair with the culture and gave birth to his food writing career.
Most of these accidents he can attribute to help or inspiration from friends and his natural, constant, intimate relationship with food. He's also prone to modify sentiments with "very, very, very, very" and to make sure it's understood how much he loves and appreciates what he gets to do and who he gets to work with.
And, indeed, Oseland has done a lot. Along with being the editor-in-chief of Saveur—which just celebrated 150 issues and has achieved 25 major awards during his tenure, including 8 James Beards—he's the bewilderingly smiling judge on Top Chef: Masters, has authored two much-beloved cookbooks, and continues to shoot stunning photos both for his personal website and for Saveur.
And he doesn't seem to be slowing down any time soon: "It just never goes away. That, like, really, really precious moment of finely crafted, beautiful to look at, incredibly delicious food—there is no greater high for me than that."
Let's start at the beginning. What was your family's relationship with food like growing up? I was a product—honestly, there's no other way to slice or dice this—of a pretty bland, almost kind of horrifyingly typical American childhood. My dad was an office product salesman. When he was around—which was frankly not very much—he would duplicate these great dishes he had eaten on his work travels. So really at my dad's side was where I got fascinated by how this thing that we must do every single day could be this very wonderful and glorious and exciting and interesting thing. It made my very bland, dull world interesting. It seemed like the small international section of the supermarket and the dishes that my dad used to make replicating these fabulous continental classics that he'd eaten on the road were a portal into something else, into another world. It was essentially an escape. When I was 8 or 9 years old I was inspired by a Julia Child episode where she was making Caesar Salad and I had an aha! moment of, "I can do that!" And I did. From there on it was my default—my fundamental comfort zone. There is nothing that settles and satisfies me at the same time more than the act of cooking in my own kitchen.
Why didn't you become a chef instead? I think one of my peccadilloes in life is that I didn't want to commercialize or commodify this thing that interested me so much. It was something I didn't want to corrupt or wreck by doing it professionally.
So instead of food you went for a degree in photography? In film studies and photography.
Did food play any part in your studies? Come to think of it, food always ended up being in my films. I remember in one project going to San Francisco's Chinatown, where you could see this fresh, gorgeous, just-caught-from-the-Pacific fish in the fishmonger cells. I would buy whatever the most visually striking catch of the day was and I would photograph it with my Bolex 16mm camera in stop motion, one single frame at a time, shooting the fish in various states of composition—I was staying with my mom at the time, I don't think she was too happy about that. But these were the kind of films I was making—weird shit, basically.
"I've always been fundamentally interested in the world of food, the craft of cooking, and what food can tell you about a place or person."
Your connection with photography literally translates into some of the pieces that you do, but what makes you so good at food journalism that you got here, to Saveur? I still feel surprised at what I do, and grateful. But maybe there is a little kind of perfect storm - I've always been fundamentally interested in the world of food, the craft of cooking, and what food can tell you about a place or person. And I'm an intensely visual person and started taking pictures in my early teens. And I also write and have always been an avid reader. In some ways, even more than writing, I like being an editor—figuring out what's wrong with text to have somebody process the information in a better, more fluid, richer way. So, I don't know, it's just this crazy confluence of (maybe) natural skills and natural interest.
A lot of your work and passion has been focused in Southeast Asia. How did that come about? I had a schoolmate in film school who was Indonesian and she invited me for a summer. I was so immediately and instantly and intensely blown away by the place that what was supposed to be just a couple of month trip turned out to be the better part of a year. And since then Indonesia in particular has become a second home. I don't feel that I'm fully me until I'm there. I love New York and I love my life here and everything but I always feel kind of only partial here. When I get off the plane in Jakarta I start to feel fuller. More like who I think I am. Smarter, funnier, more interested, more comfortable... just more me.
And where were you when the editing position at Saveur happened? I had spent five years making this half memoir / half cookbook about largely my time in Indonesia. And right as I was turning in my third and final draft and was literally tapped out—I think I had 800 dollars in the bank and next month's rent to pay at that point—I got a call from Coleman Andrews (then Editor in Chief of Saveur). I had been a contributor to the magazine for almost seven years. He said, "Our executive editor is leaving, are you interested in the job?" I didn't want to play it too desperate, like, "Can I start this afternoon and is there any way we can do a fake back pay?!?!" But I was pretty much that pathetic at that point.
You plan out your magazine's schedule over a year in advance. Has there been a story in the past that you're excited about but then when it came into fruition you were like, "meh"? Usually we have ways of taking the temperature on things before that point. That's only happened maybe once or twice. An then in the once or twice it's happened we've done a "Saveur Save", and either sent the photographer back out or the writer back out or redeveloped the recipes in a radically different way or photographed stuff here in house.
Was there one you felt lukewarm about that ended up blowing your mind? No, I'm always super-psyched about whatever we assign. I wish we could assign out a thousand stories a year, but in reality we can only sign out a finite number. And so that finite number we've worked at and made sure that it's going to be all it can be.
"We strive, first and foremost, to tell human stories. Even if just a story about a specific dish or specific cooking technique, we're telling some aspect of what people all around the world do in their kitchens and at their dinner tables."
One thing I've particularly admired about Saveur is how the pieces often really connect food, family, culture, earth and god, because you cover a wide berth of cultures internationally. We strive, first and foremost, to tell human stories. Even if just a story about a specific dish or specific cooking technique, we're telling some aspect of what people all around the world do in their kitchens and at their dinner tables.
The United States is comparatively industrial when it comes to food. Have there been places in the U.S. that you've felt that strong connection of food with family, culture, earth and god? Probably. I mean... I don't know. I think that in America we have this kind of notion that you eat to work, and a lot of other cultures of the world have this sort of built in thing that you work to live and enjoy the pleasures of the table and your family. We're going to do a shoot in rural Kansas of a potluck where 25 people are coming together to make salads with locally sourced food. The other day my writer and I were making a list of all these mom and pop joints in that region—not like arty-farty food, but just good American diner food made by people and not from Ziploc bags. It's still out there—it's never been completely decimated, it still lives and breathes. But definitely there is a kind of upturn right now. And it's a very exciting time.
You lived for a long while in L.A. and are an advocate for ethnic food there. Who's got the leg up: New York or L.A.? I'm going to have to watch my back when I'm walking home tonight. Um, how do I say this diplomatically? I can't: ethnic food is better in L.A.
How so? One of the most fantastic things about New York is it's a great equalizer; after you've been here six months or a couple of years you're a New Yorker, first and foremost. In L.A. you can kind of keep living your life in a not-so-different way as you were in Kandahar, or Jakarta, or in Bangkok or in Moscow. For all intents and purposes, you can be eating a meal that is identical to a meal you'd be eating on the street in Morelia. Or eating in a restaurant a Muscovite meal that you'd be eating in Moscow. But it's not obvious in L.A; you have to do your work. L.A. is this weird mystical chart to try to figure out. You need time to figure it out. New York is much more obvious.
Two final simple questions just out of audience curiosity: what's something always in your pantry? My husband (it sounds so funny saying it but it's true! It's on paper!) is Brazilian. And I have a particular fetish for Brazilian pickled chilies. The range of flavors that these chilies have... you'll feel like you've never had a chili before. I cannot live without these. They basically invade their way into all of my meals.
Is there something else you eat every single day? Singularly unglamorous but we make homemade muesli once every four to five weeks, and eat it for breakfast every single day. And it should be plodding and stultifying after so many years doing more or less the same recipe, but it's not. I don't think I can live without it.