A few years ago, I went outside my comfort zone. I contacted a stranger and asked to meet.
The stranger was John Birdsall, now a double James-Beard winning writer and essayist. At that time he was a restaurant reviewer for a local newspaper here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I loved his restaurant reviews.
John has since moved on to narrative non-fiction or personal essays, often about the intersection of gay culture and food. I know he’s already won awards and was published in prestigious places, but I feel like he’s just getting started and has so much more to offer us.
Here’s his take on restaurant writing, personal essay writing, and taking risks. He also has good insights about his former writing and the role of an editor. I asked him to write his answers (rather than me interviewing him), so you can get a sense of his style:
Q. How does your background as a restaurant and catering cook influence your food writing? Do you believe that people who write about food should have professional experience or culinary training?
A. For a long time I didn’t think it did: Cooking seemed a prelude disconnected from the present. I regretted I’d spent so much time in the kitchen (17 years) before taking up writing. Now I’m not sure it was all wasted time. Since I’m a writer interested in narrative nonfiction, I have a decade and a half of kitchen stories banked up, so there’s that.
I’m interested in writing about more than chefs, though. But the shittiness of a professional cooking life, the physical hardness of it, and the lack of reward in any normal reckoning (that is, money and real status) make someone who writes about the restaurant industry empathetic toward anyone who cooks or works a counter. That’s a good in itself, to make you a better human being.
But all you have to do is read Bourdain to know that working kitchen shifts gives you insight into the psychology of people who cook. You understand the brilliance, ego, hubris, and compassion of chefs. You get insights into the complicated reasons people turn to food to express themselves, and to deal with the world. You see through the PR lies and lazy media myths about chefs and restaurants, fake features about what chefs cook for their kids on Sundays. This can turn you into a cynic. It can make you really, deeply love chefs and restaurants, for what people actually manage to bring to them, in spite of all the difficulties.
Q. You evolved from freelance writer and restaurant critic to essayist. What drew you to the form?
A. I always loved essays, even when I did restaurant reviews. I tried to write those reviews like little essays. A lot of standard reviews are so boring: opener, paragraph about décor, description about first courses, entrees, desserts, drinks, sum-up, boom. Dull.
I tried to invent a thesis about the restaurants I wrote about, would only mention the food that fit the thesis. I challenged myself to play with the order of things I talked about. Desserts first! A bullet list of ten dishes that tell you everything about this place!
Lucky for me I had a really supportive editor in Nicholas Boer of the Contra Costa Times, who let me go for it, even though readers would sometimes get pissed. (I remember one comment that was like, “If you want to write a damn novel, write a novel. Just tell us if the pho was good or bad.” Hard to argue with that.)
It got easier to play with the format once I started reviewing for the East Bay Express, back when it was in the old Village Voice chain. Brilliant writers like Jeff Weinstein and Jonathan Gold had pioneered the essay form of the alt-weekly restaurant review, and current New York Times reviewer Pete Wells keeps it alive. I played around, trying to emulate my heroes, reviewing strip-mall restaurants in Concord and Richmond.
Later, when I saw the first couple of issues of Lucky Peach, and learned of the amazing support editors Peter Meehan and Chris Ying were giving writers, I felt like narrative nonfiction essays about food—pieces that didn’t have to fill some service function, like reviews or recipe features—were suddenly possible out there in paid media.
Q. Did you always want to explore food and gay culture? Is it because the material comes from your own experience, which is at the core of personal essay?
A. I never thought about writing about gay culture until I wrote my first pitch for Lucky Peach. It was a magazine that seemed to exist so far outside commercial food media. I felt free, somehow, to write something personal. For Lucky Peach’s Travel issue in 2013 I pitched this weird memory of an afternoon spent in the Yucatan with my husband, trusting a suspicious guide. Something about the absolute trust I felt in editor Chris Ying allowed me to open up in that piece, about ending up in a gay cantina eating chicken tamales. It was liberating, but also scary.
The experience helped me find a voice untroubled by telling a story I thought seemed acceptable. It let me veer away from the conventional—that voice in my head telling me what I wrote had to have the polish of a Saveur piece, or the utility of a New York Times travel story. That story gave me the confidence to mine personal experience for “America, Your Food Is So Gay,” and last year’s “Straight Up Passing” in Jarry, a gay food and culture magazine. [DJ: Both of these won James Beard Foundation awards.]
Even the profile of the chef Jeremiah Tower I did for Eater in 2014, “Jeremiah Tower’s Invincible Armor of Pleasure,” I rooted in gay experience. For me, it’s not possible to do personal essays without having really deep trust in an editor. Once I had that, it broke open my writing.
Q. How do you make yourself vulnerable, and why is that important?
A. For me, staying vulnerable in a piece keeps it emotionally honest. Memoir has to risk something. The writer should feel exposed, uncomfortable. This gives a narrative power. It draws a reader in, tells them you have something at stake.
This is a little embarrassing, but unless a piece I’m writing makes me cry, I know I’m not really hitting it. I admit I’m a pretty easy cryer—almost anything expressed intensely takes me to a place where I want to tear up. Still, it’s kind of a gauge for me: Am I writing through all the mundane stuff to get to the rawness around an idea? I think getting to that unsheathed core in a piece is essential.
Q. How do you create such vivid scenes in your essays?
A. I grew up in a family of natural storytellers. My grandfather used to spin stories about gambling (he spent a lot of time playing the horses) and San Francisco in the old days. I grew up hearing my mom’s stories about characters from the racetrack who’d babysit her. Knowing how to set a scene is a family trait.
Beyond that, being really attuned to even small gestures is crucial, trying to read around a scene, noticing a subject’s body language, expression, the way they interact with the environment. Almost everything that happens in an interview can help tell a story about someone. Noticing things is as much a part of being a writer as knowing how to put together a sentence.
Q. Who are your food writing mentors? Did you approach them or did they find you? Why is it important to have them?
A. Active mentors, they’ve been editors, people who’ve encouraged and corrected me. I mentioned Nick Boer of my old Contra Costa Times days. I used to write so densely, trying to cram as much voice and intensity into every line. Nick had this way of telling me to go for it but letting me know my writing had to breathe more, had to know when to be intense and when to give the reader a break. Jan Newberry, former food editor at San Francisco magazine, poked me when I got lazy and wrote in clichés—“hipster” and “foodie” were among the words Jan would slash, and force me to clarify my thinking, not rely on easy stereotypes. Chris Ying of Lucky Peach is like a conductor, telling me to expand here, explaining why he squelched me there. Kurt Soller, features editor at Bon Appétit, has helped to pin me down to the logic of stories, make sure I’m not indulging in flashy writing but losing the line of an argument.
The relationship with an editor can be brief and sporadic, but as a writer you have to feel that an editor loves you enough to let you go and hold you back, challenge you to be better.
Q. What can you tell people who want to write personal essays who are terrified?
A. Find the small shift in a situation and try writing about that with focus. Momentous things in your experience are almost always impossible to write about. It’s easier to write about small gestures that reveal a bigger story, a single dish or an afternoon that reveal character or the truth of a situation. Write about almost anything with enough detail and it’s going to be interesting.
Oh, and find an objective editor (not your boyfriend, not your mom) you can trust to give you feedback, tell you if you’re revealing too much or not enough.
Also: Read, something I don’t do nearly enough of. Excellent places to start are Holly Hughes’s annual Best Food Writing roundups, any list of James Beard journalism nominees, and Molly O’Neill’s American Food Writing: An Anthology.
Q. Something I want to know… In this cookbook you’re writing, will it be in the chef’s voice? You have such a strong voice. How will you submerge it to write in his?
A. Yes, the book is largely a memoir of growing up in Oakland’s Lao community and rediscovering his roots in the food of his mom and aunts, so it’ll be in James Syhabout’s voice. James and I have spent hours and hours together (including during two long trips to Southeast Asia), so I’m steeped in his voice. Plus he’s written tons of memoir. For me, it’s a matter of finding the narrative thread, crafting James’s personal experience and reflections into a story.
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Here’s more to read by John Birdsall: