Jeff Gordinier, HUNGRY

Jeff Gordinier, HUNGRY

Zibby Owens: I’m via Skype today with Jeff Gordinier who’s the author of Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World. Jeff is the Food and Drinks editor at Esquire and a frequent contributor to The New York Times where he was previously a reporter. He is the author of X Saves the World and coeditor of the essay collection Here She Comes Now. He currently lives north of New York City with his wife Lauren Fonda and his four children.

Thanks for coming on my podcast, especially in this crazy time we’re in right now. Your book, Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World, was so great and made me salivate for something other than chicken fingers. Tell listeners what it’s about and what inspired you to write this book, please.

Jeff Gordinier: This book comes from a very different time which was a few years ago when we could go to restaurants and we could go out of our houses. I was working at The New York Times for the Food section. I was on staff for six years at The New York Times. I was in the midst of a divorce and living in a crummy little bachelor apartment, actually down the street. That very week that I moved out I got an email from a guy named René Redzepi, well, sort of through an operative of his. Nevertheless, it’s from René asking if I was willing to meet for coffee and talk about his new cookbook. I was just not in the mood. As a journalist, and particularly a food writer, my job is to meet with chefs like René Redzepi and learn what they’re up to, do my due diligence, but I was in a foul mood, to be honest. I didn’t want to do it. I just wanted to go home. But doing my job, I decided to meet him.

He’s almost like the Bob Dylan of food. He’s a person who’s completely changed the game. He’s changed the way chefs cook all around the world, the way they look at foraging, the way they look at fermentation, natural wines. He and his team have just innovated and innovated crazily for a decade or two. A lot of stuff you eat and encounter in restaurants has been influenced by Noma, René Redzepi’s restaurant in Denmark, even if you don’t know it. You’ve probably encountered some of his innovations, even just the ways things look on a plate. He’s a dynamic force. He is a real star in this world. I had never met him even though I worked for the Food section in The New York Times. I met him. In a word, my life was changed. Really in an instant, my life changed. It was like I was in The Matrix and I took the red pill or the blue pill or whichever one it was. Everything switched. He turned out to be this wildly charismatic guy, almost kind of like a cult leader, just really mesmerizing. He was like, “You and I are going to go to Mexico. We’re going to go on a trip to Mexico together.” I was like, “What are you talking about? Who are you? What?”

He didn’t really want to talk about his cookbook. He wanted to strategize this quest through Mexico we were going to do together, which I thought was financially impossible. Long story short, it ended up happening. I went to Mexico with him to write a story for The New York Times for T magazine, one of their publications. That led to a connection with René. As a journalist, you don’t necessarily become friends with someone, but I did feel a personal connection. I started to go to Denmark to eat at Noma. I started tagging along with him, shall we say, because I found him to be a very inspiring person, the kind of person you meet every now and then who changes your vantage point on life. I was down. I was going through a divorce. I was basically suffering from pretty severe depression. René was the cure.

Zibby: Wow. Don’t tell every therapist.

Jeff: I don’t think he intended that to be the case, but he was kind of my therapist. Yeah Zibby, exactly. Jokingly, a friend of mine, about a year ago before the book came out, when he read it in galleys, he said, “I love it. It’s eat, pray, eat, love, eat, eat, eat,” like Eat Pray Love with way more eating. I was like, yeah, it kind of is actually. I love Elizabeth Gilbert, so I thought that was flattering. Even if some of your audience is not into high-end tasting menus and the high stakes of gastronomy and all that, all of which I admit right now seems very far away, the book is actually really about reinvention and personal change. It’s really about how I changed and René changed in the course of these four years we spent together.

Zibby: Wow. Gastronomy, I took my husband who loves food to Per Se once for the big — that was our big splurge for our anniversary. I was like, “Uh, can I get the rest of this to go?” There was like fifty-seven courses. They’re like, “What? To go? That’s against the whole point.”

Jeff: It’s too much. It’s funny you say that because I happen to live — I’m here in the Hudson Valley. The Hudson River’s right there. I’m about fifteen minutes from Blue Hill at Stone Barns. It’s like the Noma of New York. It’s one of the great restaurants in the world. On Friday, I found out they were selling these fifty-dollar dinner boxes with a Blue Hill at Stone Barns meal for fifty bucks for the whole box. I ordered one and went over and got it, wrote about it for Esquire. Lauren and I had a quarantine date night here. It was really interesting to think about. In this case, it was basically one course, this giant hot pot, this soup. You heat up the soup and you pour it over these meats, charcuterie, vegetables, eggs that they had provided. It was really great. It was really delicious and distinctive, and it wasn’t too much, to answer your point. It wasn’t that thing where you feel like, okay, we’ve been here for four hours. I know we’re very spoiled, but can we leave now? This is too much. This was actually perfect. It was a perfect meal. It was nourishing, extremely delicious. Each ingredient at a place like Stone Barns is going to be the best you can ever find, the best cabbage, the best carrot. I thought, I wonder, in a way, if restaurants like Noma and Blue Hill at Stone Barns will change a bit after this crisis. That sense of indulgence is probably going to feel a little tone deaf after all this. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of them shift to something that’s very communal, like altogether you have a stew, you have soup, bread, fruit, wine, something very elemental and beautiful. I would love to see that anyway. It’s a little bit of a tangent there.

Zibby: That’s okay. I was just going to follow it up. There’s a restaurant in New Jersey that actually my husband’s cousin opened. He does all the foraging, high-end, all of that. They actually have opened a market. They’ve taken all of their stuff, and people just come and take all the ingredients like you were saying. You can just go shop there.

Jeff: A lot of that stuff would just go to waste.

Zibby: I actually have been wondering, what do you miss most about the restaurant world? I actually feel like going out and getting food outside of my house, which I haven’t done at all, is one of the things, and this is a first-world problem, but is one of the things I miss the most, is being able to eat out or get somebody else’s cooking, not that I don’t love my husband’s cooking. When you stop life, I feel like restaurants, and this is your whole beat, are one of the most central things to what we do today.

Jeff: Put it this way, I’m a guy who’s obsessively in love with restaurants and bars. I’ve basically spent twenty-five, thirty years compulsively traveling around the world. I really love privacy. Being cooped up in a house, I’m being honest with you, this is very new for me and kind of hellish. As much as I love my family, and I do deeply, it is sheer hell for me. I’m cooped up. I am not the guy who understand this. I’m not the guy who’s like, I just want to be home by the hearth. There are many positives. It’s really quite delightful to hold my twins in my arms and be with them, really be present in the way we are now, but man, I am missing restaurants. What I am missing is that sense of escape and romance. It’s people taking care of you. Last night, actually at random — I don’t really understand Twitter. I never seem to tweet anything that’s popular. No one laughs. No one likes it. Last night I went on Twitter and just at random said something like, suddenly, the idea of walking into a bar and sitting down and ordering a cocktail feels like the most luxurious thing in the world. I looked this morning and it had like five hundred likes, my first successful tweet after a decade. I think it’s because that really resonates with people right now.

You realize that we are so lucky to have bars and restaurants, not because of privilege or spending a lot of money, just the delight in self-care of sitting down and having something really beautiful made and presented to you, whether it’s a cocktail or a taco or a rice bowl or a tasting menu. It’s not about it being fancy. It’s about that gesture. It’s also about community. My favorite restaurant is Via Carota in the West Village on Grove Street. It’s owned by Jody Williams and Rita Sodi who are romantic partners. They’re married. They’re also business partners. Lauren and I had our first date there. We got engaged there. I had my fiftieth birthday party there, which was small, but nevertheless. It’s the kind of place, Zibby, where I will wander in on a day like this, on just a lazy spring day or a rainy day, and get a bowl of pasta and some roasted vegetables or a salad by myself at the bar and feel so good, nourished, happy to be in New York, or happy to be in a place with this high quality of food and care. I miss that. I miss it a lot.

I went to a restaurant called Veronika just before this lockdown, clampdown that we’re going through. It’s in a new photography museum in, I guess you’d say the Flatiron District. It’s a beautiful museum. They had an Ellen von Unwerth exhibition of her very sexy magazine photos and stuff. I went to the exhibition. Then I met my wife for dinner. Part of it was they made stuff like chicken kiev that you’re not going to make at home. They made lots of fancier old French and Russian and sort of Austrian dishes that are rich. I’m not going to cook that at home. I don’t have time. It’s too complicated. This is going to sound weird. Also, when we were leaving, the bar was packed in that New York way. It was humming. It was, oh, there’s Simon Kim, who’s a restauranteur. He owns Cote. It’s this great Korean steakhouse. Oh, there’s David Litman. He’s an advertising guy. I used to do some advertising work for him. We just saw friends. We saw friends as we walked out. We were hugging and high-fiving and catching up. It was social. It was that thing of like, wow, we’re really in New York. This a cool scene. Poof, it’s gone right now.

Zibby: I miss it.

Jeff: I miss that.

Zibby: I’m literally getting sadder and sadder as you’re talking, how much I miss — I’ve been trying not to allow myself to think about the things I miss and trying to be all positive and whatnot. There is something really special about all that. That’s why people are so interested, and interested in all the stuff you have to write about it, not just in your book, but in your columns. Even just the act of thinking about it makes people happy. This conversation, it makes me sad because it’s making me happy to think about the experiences of restaurants and food. How did you get started with covering this? How did this become your job? How did you get so lucky?

Jeff: It’s a good question because when you talk about being a food writer, everybody likes food, so they like reading about it. It’s kind of nice to write about something that pretty much everybody likes. Everyone has a relationship with food. Everyone comes from a culture in which food is important. Regardless of where in the world they’re from, food is almost inevitably central to the cultural expression of that place. Basically, I started as a pop culture writer years ago. I worked for Entertainment Weekly. I was a music/rock columnist in Santa Barbara, California, years ago. At Entertainment Weekly, I wrote about movies and music. I’ve interviewed David Bowie, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, Green Day, and lots of different filmmakers, movie stars, Julia Roberts, Sean Penn. It was fun. Honestly Zibby, I felt like I was kind of aging out of that at a certain point, particularly the music. I’m actually in my daughter’s room, my seventeen-year-old’s room. There’s Harry Styles back there on the walls, The Lemon Twigs, certain bands she likes. I actually like these bands. I like Harry Styles. There’s many bands, when you get to be fifty-three, I don’t know what the hell they’re doing. I can’t relate to it. I felt I was disengaging from music and I was becoming kind of an artifact. I was becoming personally obsolete in terms of what I could bring to music coverage. I think, really, when you’re in your twenties and thirties, you could connect with it. Then it changed. I love playing the old music now. I’ve got to admit it.

I started thinking, what’s the next step? It turned out that Pete Wells was my editor at Details magazine. Pete Wells, as a lot of people know, is the restaurant critic of The New York Times. His job has changed a lot right now. He went to The New York Times to be the food editor. He said to me, “Do you want to come over and profile chefs? Do you want to write profiles of chefs? You’ve done that with rockstars and movie stars, filmmakers, poets, etc., politicians as well. Would you want to bring that component to our pages?” I was like, yeah, that would be awesome. I still can’t believe it happened, but it did happen. For about six years, I did that. I also wrote trend pieces and recipes and news stories. You do everything at The New York Times, wrote for the Travel section, wrote for Book Review. I wrote for Style. I’m pretty omnivorous in that way. In the beginning, to be candid with your audience, I thought I knew a lot about food, but it turned out I was an amateur compared to all these professionals. I really loved eating it. I grew up in a family that really was obsessed with food. I grew up in Los Angeles. We cared a lot about where we went for tacos and Chinese food, Thai food. I went to Spago when I was a kid. I admit it. I went to Michel Richard’s restaurant Citrus. We would splurge. I grew up really caring about this stuff and reading Jonathan Gold and Ruth Reichl and people like that. Once I got into it, I felt like I was playing in the major leagues and could barely swing a bat. It was like, oh, wait, who are these people? What is that recipe? I had a lot of learning to do. I had a lot of ramping up.

Now I know my stuff. This is a good twelve, thirteen years in it. I wrote a whole book about René Redzepi. I feel pretty confident now, but I did not in the beginning. I think it’s a way to write about culture and pop culture that’s not writing about music or movies. So much of the cultural conversation these days is about food. People like David Chang, René Redzepi, Dan Barber, Dominque Crenn, Gabrielle Hamilton, obviously we miss Anthony Bourdain greatly, these are cultural figures, great writers in many cases, great thinkers. They’re pushing the conversation forward in terms of talking about the environment, health issues, political issues, issues of how workers are treated. They’re also stars. They’re pop culture stars in that way. I thought, this is kind of a gold mine. I’m not the first person to realize that, of course. There are many, many great food writers out there, hundreds. I thought, wow, this could be fun. It’s kind of like being a Broadway writer. I’ve sometimes thought if you were a Broadway theater critic, wouldn’t that get boring? Night after night, the curtain goes up. Here comes the show. Some shows are good. Most are probably pretty mediocre. Don’t you just get sick of the ritual? Sometimes people ask me, “Do you get sick of going to restaurants?” It’s a ritual. You sit down, hear the menu. Do you want sparking or still? It’s like Broadway. No, I don’t get sick of it. I love every minute of it. It’s weird. I’m addicted.

Zibby: It’s not weird. It’s totally understandable.

Jeff: Even when the meal is terrible, it’s kind of fun.

Zibby: I agree. As you’re saying this, I’m thinking maybe I could somehow transform my house into a restaurant. Maybe I could pretend like my kids are going to be waitresses like Parent Trap. Remember how they made — maybe we’ll try to do that, like dim the lights and get a tablecloth on a play table or something.

Jeff: You could do a whole reality show.

Zibby: I don’t think anybody would care much. Also, I wanted to ask you about your interviewing because, as you mentioned, you have interviewed a bazillion people. Just scrolling through your list of the people that you’ve talked to is so impressive. What are your tips for interviewing? What do you think makes good interviewing?

Jeff: When I’m interviewing other people, I don’t tend to do this, which is I’m talking so much. My friends know me as somebody who blathers on and on. I’m sorry.

Zibby: I think it’s great.

Jeff: I’m a big talker. When I’m interviewing people — you’re doing a great job. You’re listening. It’s about listening and paying attention, you know that, and paying attention to the nuances of the conversation with genuine intention and genuine connection and heart as much as you can. It helps to spend a lot of time with the individual’s work, her music, her films, his cooking, as much experience as you can have with his or her work, really immerse in it. I remember when I interviewed Willie Nelson. I went on Amazon. This is when I worked for Entertainment Weekly. The budgets were pretty generous back then. They were pretty unlimited. I went on Amazon. I was like, holy cow, Willie Nelson has like two hundred albums. I didn’t know that. Most people have twenty. It was like, did he put out an album every week? He had theme albums. I went to my editors and they were like, “Just buy a bunch. It’s fine. Just hoard them.”

I bought like forty Willie Nelson albums or something. I spent a week just immersed in his music, also researching and stuff, but really, really listening to the whole range of his kind of music. Then when I got on the bus with Willie in Colorado — I think this story can be found online, which is not true of all my old stories. This one can. I really felt confident. I felt like I knew his stuff. If he referred to this period or that period when he used to be in Nashville before he went Austin, or Red Headed Stranger, I knew. That helps so you don’t feel like you’re treading water or you’re freaking out. You’re like, oh yeah, you know what song I like on there is this. The artist is going to have so much gratitude that you are respecting them with that. Yes, also with Willie, I partook. I don’t know how many people in your audience — Willie is famous for smoking weed, so yes, I did.

Zibby: I mean, you had to for the piece. It goes without saying.

Jeff: You have to. That’s just .

Zibby: I’m about to go move to Brooklyn just to be more authentic to all the writers that I interview. No.

Jeff: I always find it weird that so many live in Brooklyn. I think that a lot of it is about saying yes, which is kind of what my book, Hungry, is about. It’s just about saying yes. At so many crossroads in life, you’re presenting with that binary. Do you want to say yes to this adventure, or do you want to say no? Almost always, the sensible thing is to say no. Financially, logistically, it just makes most — you know what? I don’t know. I don’t really have the money right now. You know what? I really appreciate it, but I think I’m just going to stay home. It makes a ton of sense. Now that we’re all stuck home, you sure wish you said yes to that stuff. Hungry is really about René Redzepi coming to me for the Mexico trip, but then really after that and saying, do you say yes, or do you say no? If you say yes, we’re going to have a life-changing adventure. If you say no, deep respect. I know it’s not going to work out. There was one point when I had written about René Redzepi for The New York Times. When you write about somebody, you’re not going to be friends. You sort of think that’s it. Willie Nelson and I are not going to become buddies. René Redzepi emailed me afterwards. What happened was on my email, suddenly there was little bloop. It said, you have a reservation at Noma for lunch on Friday. Noma is impossible to get into. Literally, any given day when it’s open there might be thirty thousand people on the waitlist.

Zibby: I know.

Jeff: Also, it’s in Denmark. I live in New York. This was like, wait, what? What’s going on here? Why do I have a table at Noma for lunch? I texted René. I was like, hey man, thanks, but I think there’s been a mistake. Maybe there was a computer glitch because it seems like I got a reservation at Noma for lunch. It’s in Copenhagen on Friday. Right now, it’s Tuesday. It was something crazy like that. In true René fashion, he basically said, take it or leave it. I realized it was real. It wasn’t a mistake. He was actually kind of testing me. It was like, you could have this meal at Noma or not. We can find people to go, believe me. I was like, oh wow, okay, it’s a test. It’s like Tony Robbins and the hot coals. I went on Orbitz or one of those sites. I found a cheap flight, and I booked it. I just booked it. From an interpersonal relationship standpoint, that probably wasn’t so responsible. I probably should’ve run that by my ex-wife. I just thought, I’ve got to do this. Am I glad I said yes? Yeah, not just because I got a book out of it, because I had this transformative experience. I had a meal that I will never forget. It really was that good. To answer your question about interviewing, I think that part of it is also that, be willing to say yes to the moment. One of my stories that I seem to be still known for — there’s very few. To me, being a magazine writer is kind of like being a baseball player or something. In the end, people will only remember Kirk Gibson at the World Series. He had a broken leg, and he hit a home run. They remembered that. Kirk Gibson, they remember that. You work thirty years as I have, and people remember three or four stories. That’s fine. That’s cool.

Zibby: I’m sorry to cut this off, but I try to keep my podcast to like thirty minutes tops because I find that no matter who it is people just don’t have the attention span to listen much beyond that. Although, I feel like I could listen to you all day. If that restaurant in the West Village ever opens up, which sounds amazing, you have to let me know. Maybe we can all meet up or something.

Jeff: I’ve got an idea. Let’s go together.

Zibby: Okay, I’d love to.

Jeff: Via Carota, we’ll go. We’ll all have a night out. Also, I’m wearing a hat from Missy, which is one of Missy Robbins’ restaurants in Brooklyn. Missy Robbins was Esquire‘s Chef of the Year in 2018. Her restaurants as well, Lilia and Missy, those and Via Carota I’m missing so much. I’m missing that really good pasta and red wine and roasted vegetables. We’ll do that.

Zibby: Totally. That’s a meal of my dreams. Something to look forward to.

Jeff: Right on.

Zibby: Thanks, Jeff. I really appreciate your time. That was fun.

Jeff: Thanks, Zibby. I appreciate yours. See you around.

Zibby: Bye.

Jeff: Bye.

Jeff Gordinier, HUNGRY