“I think about the ways I’m assuming a white reader and then try to stop myself.”
People are talking about Soleil Ho. Over the last year, whether I’m going to a reception for septuagenarian bibliophiles or a birthday party for tech bros, someone seems to have an opinion on San Francisco’s new food critic. Since her first review blasting Chez Panisse hit the digisphere, Ho has established that rarest of qualities in a restaurant critic: Relevance. In March 2019, Soleil Ho replaced Michael Bauer as the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle leading a new wave of young female restaurant reviewers in California. Ho’s eclectic pedigree includes a MFA in creative writing, her celebrated podcast Racist Sandwich, a decade of experience in restaurants, and a stint editing a literary magazine. It didn’t take long for Ho to stamp her vision on the genre. In her first month on the job, she abandoned the star rating system, announced she wouldn’t review places run by alleged abusers, and published an editorial on “words you’ll never see me use” that made every listicle author cringe. But this is not empty iconoclasm. Ho approaches food with both rigor and whimsy forging a unique style that's just as likely to quote an anthropologist as an emoji. There’s an exhilarating sense anything can happen in Ho’s criticism—all ideas and emotions are on the table when she sits down to write a review. Recent columns range from a review written as a 3-act screenplay to an essay on Le Colonial's orientalist decor with a guest appearance from novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. Across all her work, the unifying thread is a radical willingness to rethink the possibilities of the review. “I’m new to the genre,” Ho admits. “To be honest, my interest lies in popular culture more than respectability. The idea is to get more people to read the articles, and you’re not going to achieve that if you just mimic everyone else.” I met Soleil Ho at a Cajun restaurant in San Francisco’s Excelsior district, and we talked for two hours over gumbo and whiskey. The interview jumped across many topics from labor costs to the imagined reader. Rather than trying to streamline the discussion, I share our conversation in all its digressive energy and insight.
People are talking about Soleil Ho. Over the last year, whether I’m going to a reception for septuagenarian bibliophiles or a birthday party for tech bros, someone seems to have an opinion on San Francisco’s new food critic. Since her first review blasting Chez Panisse hit the digisphere, Ho has established that rarest of qualities in a restaurant critic: Relevance.
In March 2019, Soleil Ho replaced Michael Bauer as the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle leading a new wave of young female restaurant reviewers in California. Ho’s eclectic pedigree includes a MFA in creative writing, her celebrated podcast Racist Sandwich, a decade of experience in restaurants, and a stint editing a literary magazine. It didn’t take long for Ho to stamp her vision on the genre. In her first month on the job, she abandoned the star rating system, announced she wouldn’t review places run by alleged abusers, and published an editorial on “words you’ll never see me use” that made every listicle author cringe. But this is not empty iconoclasm. Ho approaches food with both rigor and whimsy forging a unique style that's just as likely to quote an anthropologist as an emoji.
There’s an exhilarating sense anything can happen in Ho’s criticism—all ideas and emotions are on the table when she sits down to write a review. Recent columns range from a review written as a 3-act screenplay to an essay on Le Colonial's orientalist decor with a guest appearance from novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. Across all her work, the unifying thread is a radical willingness to rethink the possibilities of the review. “I’m new to the genre,” Ho admits. “To be honest, my interest lies in popular culture more than respectability. The idea is to get more people to read the articles, and you’re not going to achieve that if you just mimic everyone else.”
I met Soleil Ho at a Cajun restaurant in San Francisco’s Excelsior district, and we talked for two hours over gumbo and whiskey. The interview jumped across many topics from labor costs to the imagined reader. Rather than trying to streamline the discussion, I share our conversation in all its digressive energy and insight.
1. THE REVIEWER IN SOCIETY
Ted Gioia: How do you define the role of the critic?
Soleil Ho: I grew up reading restaurant criticism—Gael Greene in New York Magazine, Ruth Reichl in the Times—and watched the genre evolve. Restaurants were a jumping off point for musings about life. Gael had this florid style that would talk about the social scene: Who was around in high society? What were they like? Ruth turned it into a literary genre and played with format in fun ways that you wouldn’t normally see in the New York Times. That was my foundation. Now, in 2019 people ask me all the time: What is the difference between what you do and what you read on Yelp? That’s a pressing question right now.
For me, the task is to introduce intellectual rigor and genuine cultural commentary into the review, while being transparent about why you’re doing what you’re doing in the way you’re doing it. I won’t write about restaurants in isolation. They all exist in a web with everything else. I know it’s very trite to say, “We live in a society,” but we do live in a society. Restaurants don’t exist in a vacuum. So it’s my job is to show people where things are connected.
TG: I was struck by a recent interview where you said you approach restaurants the same way you would read a text. You have an MFA and ran a magazine, among other literary pursuits. How does your background in literary criticism influence the way you write about food?
SH: It has a lot of influence. I approach restaurants the way someone like Manohla Dargis would approach film. Now, I’m sure Dargis knows a lot about Lacan, postmodernism, postcolonial theory, and how to apply stuff like that to literary work. So why can’t we think about all that when we think about restaurants? Restaurants take the shape they do because of politics and history. They are a product of so many people’s intentions, interventions, and labor. [Gesturing toward the restaurant’s wall decorations] You know this place exists the way it does because we have an idea of Louisiana, and have a projection of New Orleans as an exotic image. I am applying a different mode of analysis to a dining room whose goal is exposing everything that lies beneath the surface. Restaurants are a people’s topic of conversation—everyone wants to talk about them—so they are one of the most interesting and effective mediums to introduce these rigorous intellectual topics in a way that won’t freak people out.
TG: I have a similar approach to food criticism. When I left college, I was looking for new places to apply a critical intelligence, and food stood out as an area with a lot of fertile material for cultural commentary. My real interest is the way people make and share meaning in their lives. Now, more than ever, people find spiritual, artistic, moral, and political meaning through food. How you find politics in a plastic straw or religion in a fad diet. “Religion” might be the wrong word for San Francisco—"spirituality" is better.
SH: No, I think you’re right. There are very few places you can gather for free, so restaurants take on the burden of being a place where people can form an idea of themselves in relation to other people in a way that free spaces like the community square used to be. Church has that same function. But a restaurant is accessible to more people, and you don’t have to join a religion to get there.
2. NEGATIVE REVIEWS & THE ROAD OUT OF THE DARK
TG: You’ve established a reputation on the back of your standout negative reviews.
SH: [Laughs] I guess so.
TG: What is the role of the negative review in your opinion?
SH: Let me say this: I’ve worked in restaurants before. I care deeply about the people who work in restaurants, and don’t take that task lightly. I want to believe that everyone wants to improve. So I’m never going to talk shit about someone, but will only talk about their work. For me, it’s very much like I have a friend who has spinach in their teeth. It’s a kindness to tell them that it’s there rather than ignore it and say, “You look great.”
When I critique a restaurant, I try to give them help. "Here’s how we get out of the situation. Here’s my advice." I’m always speaking from my perspective as a consumer advocate but also a worker advocate—as someone who wants better food and wants our city to expect more from restaurants. When something goes wrong, I hope to be like a plumber who hears a toilet flush and can diagnose it. I want to have a bird’s eye view when I’m eating out and think “Oh the grill cook left this on a little bit too long and that’s why it’s slightly dry.” That kind of thing is more helpful.
TG: Do you approach writing negative reviews differently than positive ones? For example, your piece on Le Colonial seemed like you treated it as an opportunity to write an essay that reached beyond the food.
SH: Going into the Le Colonial piece, I had a gut feeling that it probably was going to be weird, but I wanted to anchor it in the real experience of the place. Otherwise it’s just me ranting off nothing. If there wasn’t anything beyond a weird feeling, I wasn’t going to write about it. One could argue that the colonial vibe is just a loose theme—whatever, it’s not hurting anybody. But when I saw the photos on the second floor I knew I had to write the piece. The photos were these 19th-century style pictures of brown people and Pacific Islanders standing there frowning with stiff lips. What is the purpose of these “decorations” in 2019 in this restaurant where we’re supposed to be having fun and feeling light and happy?
However I wanted to find a way out. So, I went to Formosa Cafe in LA to talk with Viet Thanh Nguyen about the context of such restaurants—but also about how we find the road out of the dark. A straight-up pan without any advice about where to go from here is disappointing at a reader level. Maybe it’s futile to offer advice because readers don’t remember that part. They never remember the hopeful coda at bottom of the box.
TG: Well, I really enjoy your endings. My literary spidey sense kicks in and says a lot of effort and craft went into this final paragraph.
SH: For conclusions, I try to zoom out like an essay. After all, I am a creative nonfiction writer by training—so I don’t just want to wrap it up but think, “What is the point and where do we go?” Maybe that’s very old-fashioned because a lot of newspaper readers won’t finish. They won’t even go past the headline for the most part. They’ll read the lead and then be done.
TG: So you imagine people are going to read your whole column? That’s revealing.
SH: I hope so. I think that was many people’s frustration when I stopped doing stars. They just wanted to go straight to the stars. They didn’t want to read the whole thing. The stars became the conclusion—but I want to write my own conclusion. I don’t want to just print three little icons and that be it.
TG: Dropping the star ratings is not the only way you’ve experimented with the genre’s traditional conventions. What do you think about exploring different, creative formats in reviews?
SH: I think the form has to follow the thesis. My review of Moongate Lounge took on the shape of a screenplay because it felt like such a place to be seen. It was so of-the-moment for what’s trendy with millennials posting on Instagram that the idea of being on display was very prominent. I wanted to talk about surveillance but play with the idea, so I turned it into a screenplay.
I’m really fortunate because I have the latitude to do that at the Chronicle. At other papers that might not be the case. I’m also new to the genre so I don’t really care about maintaining the status quo. To be honest, my interest lies in popular culture more than respectability. The idea is to get more people to read the articles, and you’re not going to achieve that if you just mimic everyone else.
3. REIMAGINING THE READER
TG: Do you have an imagined reader or audience? It sounds like you imagine yourself writing for workers as much as diners.
SH: A lot of the feedback I get is from workers. They email me and send me DMs on social media, so I know they’re readers as well. Yet there’s a interesting mismatch at play here. The imagined reader has historically been a bourgeois, upper middle-class, white person who is casually interested in food but wants it explained to them. They want a tour guide. But while the reviewers have changed in recent years, the image of the reader has not. I think about the ways I’m assuming a white reader and then try to stop myself. Obviously, I’m writing in San Francisco, one of the most diverse regions in the country. So why am I explaining a Thai dish and not a French one? When you ask “why” all these ideologies emerge like worms from the dirt. The assumptions we make can become toxic, especially for writers with a big platform, because we set the standard for what’s acceptable. If I start comparing Cajun dishes to Chinese food that’s assuming a different kind of reader than we’ve historically seen.
TG: What kind of reader feedback have you received? How do you handle it? Is there anything that stands out as particularly strange or moving?
SH: Well, I read it all. People have access to my email, and they will email me. I’ve had to learn to use less time responding to people. [Laughs] That’s the hard part. People email but don’t expect to reach a human so sometimes they’re total assholes. And often they don’t want a response.
TG: If you were to put a percentage on negative to positive what would it be?
SH: I think negative would be 40%. It increases with things like the Le Colonial piece, which really brought them out. People were like, “I thought you were a restaurant critic!!”
TG: I imagine that was a challenging review for some people.
SH: Yeah, it was funny. Very few of them are explicitly racist or sexist, but a lot of them are implicitly so. Of course, there was a lot of millennial chatter. We’ve already killed the power lunch and home ownership, so killing the restaurant review isn’t that bad. But it’s not hard for me because I grew up on the Internet. It’s only hard when it gets personal, when people who I assume should be smarter are not. People from the industry or other journalists. There was just an editorial published in the Marina Times about me. That’s a good example. Someone went through my entire oeuvre at the Chronicle in bad faith and just misread every single thing I wrote. My reaction was like, “Wow, really?”
TG: But you’ve also received a lot of positive feedback?
SH: A lot. Many people feel heard because I will reference things that’s part of their daily lives. I also don’t excuse things like misogyny or white supremacy in restaurants. For readers who felt like they haven’t been reflected in these pages, it’s meaningful. Now I don’t think I could do this job for 30 years like Michael Bauer. But in the process, if I widen the road a little bit, that’s significant.
TG: What are the challenges in reviewing in a city like San Francisco?
SH: San Francisco is hard. Whether I review a high-end restaurant or an affordable one, I will be criticized for not catering to someone. But the truth is that expensive, 4-dollar sign restaurants are part of the city’s fabric just like the 1-dollar sign places. Every time you write about them you also need to think about gentrification, homelessness, wealth disparity. But you don’t want to hammer on that all the time because you run out of things to talk about.
TG: Price feels like a particularly befuddling topic for restaurant critics. What more can you do than write your perfunctory paragraph on unaffordable tasting menus?
SH: The real question is: Who do you stand for in the end? In that way, it is inherently ideological. Are you allied with the billionaires or the dishwashers? I try to mix it up. For my Top 100, I didn’t want restaurants where you have to pay more than $200 a person to make up more than 10% (and even that’s really generous).
At the same time, you don’t want to criticize people for charging as much as they do because rent is insane here. Labor is insane. Licensing and all the stuff it takes to run a business are so ridiculous. When you go too far in the service of the customer as a reviewer you can overlook the people who are making the food. Of course, restaurants should charge that much, and you should pay that much as a consumer. So that’s why pricing is hard. Employers should be able to give everyone health insurance, and if they have a charge twenty bucks for that then that’s the price you pay. Actually, I feel gross advocating for lower prices for food when I know that’s going to prohibit restaurants from buying better ingredients and paying their employees.
4. THE PROBLEM WITH TASTE AS PERSONALITY
TG: I recently had a conversation with one of your detractors. He’s a museum curator who casually remarked, “Oh, I hate the new Chronicle restaurant critic.” And I was like, “hate is a strong word.” We started talking, and he asked quite genuinely, “Why did she have to go after Chez Panisse. Couldn’t she pick a different target?”
Something occurred to me at that moment. Folks like this curator have devoted a lot of their life’s work and energy to preserving a certain cultural tradition. When they see an institution like Chez Panisse attacked—and I imagine it’s especially aggravated since you’re a woman of color—they feel almost like their entire world is under assault. The critique becomes a symbol for all these other simmering anxieties. Also let me add: I totally understand this guy’s point of view. Because I feel that way too at times as an English major who loves many classic novels that have been criticized as colonialist or sexist or what have you. That’s a tension many people feel uncomfortable with.
SH: I firmly believe that taste should not be personality. When people are over-invested in their taste being their personality that’s what leads to the truly virulent reactions. That’s where a lot of the angst came from when I wrote about Chez Panisse. People felt over-invested in that restaurant, in liking Alice and the movement. It was their personality on trial. But really, it’s just a fucking restaurant.
Here’s the other thing. Alice Waters isn't my friend. Thomas Keller isn't my friend. I want to be able to be honest about them because sentimentality is poison for truth. As James Baldwin put it, “sentimentality is the mark of dishonesty.” It’s inherently regressive. It prohibits any attempts at moving forward because it’s a tool to keep things the same. I deeply believe that’s not what we want in critics.
TG: I remember a line from your Thomas Keller review where you noted some people seemed to expect you to be a “cultural appropriation attack dog.” Do you feel pressure to work against those social-justice-warrior expectations as a critic?
SH: Well, it’s funny. Like I said before, there are a lot of people who won’t actually read what I write. So they’ll just project. On all sides—people who are self-professed social justice warriors and people who are antagonistic toward my values. In the end, I realized that it doesn’t truly matter what I do to undermine any of that. Because I have an academic background, I’ve read Fanon, Derrida, Said, and all those people whose analysis allows you to see the ways in which invisible, racial hierarchies organize our society. How do you translate that for people in a way that’s accessible and fun but also doesn’t undermine the seriousness of the topic? This is why I chose restaurant reviews. But to introduce those ideas feels like you’re adding piranhas to a tank of goldfish. People are just like FUCK! It isn’t the sort of placidity they’re expecting from a restaurant review because readers have always treated food as an escape.
TG: Yeah, the Food Section is viewed as a no-politics zone.
SH: As we currently conceive it, food writing is apolitical. After the 2016 election, publications like Bon Appetit wrote these really tepid articles about how immigrants make America great with headlines like “Let’s celebrate each other at the table.” But what happens after that? Nothing. What we got were the same immigrant stories over and over that make everyone feel good. “Oh, we love Mexicans because their tacos are so good.” That is never going to change anything. So, I’m willing to introduce ideas like cultural appropriation but not in a shallow way.
TG: Personally, I’ve never understood the fixation on cultural appropriation. As a white guy, I feel like I’m not allowed to comment on the issue at all. But to risk online scorn, here’s my take. I think appropriation is a neutral technique that all societies use to create new types of art and culture. Pasta started because Sicilians appropriated Chinese noodle-making and applied it to local Durum wheat. Drag is appropriation to the extreme with gay men imitating every part of a woman’s body and wardrobe. How did modern art start? Picasso saw African art and applied it to Western painting—then boom, we have cubism. To me the real point is not to yell at the technique but to evaluate how it’s being used. But people just want a thumbs up or thumbs down.
SH: What really sticks with me about all these cultural appropriation debates is that people just want permission. “Yes, you can make curry.” Whereas the real challenge is to ask, “Why do you need it?” What relationships are you channeling? Where’s the money going? Stepping back to see that is much harder for people. That’s why I wanted to write about Thomas Keller’s La Calenda. People want the easy answer regardless of what they believe. Which is why appropriation got so muddled. It’s one of those academic terms that escaped and took on a life of its own. Critics weren’t keeping tabs and reminding people why it matters as an analytical tool rather than an inherently bad thing. That’s where you get these bad-faith arguments that waste everyone’s time.
To me, that’s the real tragedy: We’re all just wasting time on the radio and on newspapers going over the same debate. I’ve done so many interviews on appropriation where I feel like, “How do we get to the meat of this conversation?”
TG: This goes back to religion. Ultimately, America is a Puritanical country with virtuous guilt encoded in its DNA. I think a lot of white liberals feel a new version of original sin—just toward colonialism and slavery rather than Adam and Eve. And posturing about things like cultural appropriation is a way for them to show their purity.
SH: For many people, social justice and the causes they champion are just an extension of taste.
TG: That’s very interesting: social justice as taste. I definitely worry these “socially responsible” companies selling hyper-expensive vegan mayonnaise or sustainable whatever are trying to commodify morals. That seems dangerous to me—the idea that ethics are a purchasing decision rather than a choice to act.
SH: Yeah, I’ve written about the shallowness of this responsible consumption ethos. It is just an extension of the indulgences people used to pay at churches in the Middle Ages to make their sins better. We want indulgences for ourselves but don’t want to pay out reparations. What’s up with that? In the end, it’s very much in the service of yourself.
5. EVOLUTION IS NEVER EASY
TG: One last question: How do you think the role of restaurant criticism is evolving?
SH: Oh man. I think people are reckoning a lot more with the implications of what we do. Tim Carman, for instance, at the Washington Post recently got rid of his “Cheap Eats” column for economic-justice reasons. Rick Nelson, the critic at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, has sat in on workshops I’ve taught. These people are trying hard to be more thoughtful.
At the very least, these critics are listening to other perspectives that might make them feel shame or anger, but they still want to know. That’s the most promising development. Also, more types of people are reading restaurant reviews. The great part about social media is that it really dismantles the idea that your readers are just one demographic. From what I hear, more and more people are reading my type of work who don’t live in the Bay Area. They just want to read it.
TG: That’s a key point about restaurant criticism. When I read a review of something like El Bulli it’s not because I’m actually planning to go to Spain. But there’s an important idea or experience that you want to participate in from afar.
SH: Yeah, it’s a core part of the culture today. Critics even have their stans—their hardcore fans—which I did not anticipate before taking this job. I don’t know why anyone would be so enthusiastic about me as a person or a creator, but I realized this kind of attention is part of a critic’s career now. In that way, I’m also susceptible to being the object of taste as a personality, whether you like me or not. Professing to love or hate me can be an admission of your own values.