The Dyke Kitchen is a bi-weekly series about how queerness, identity, culture and love are expressed through food and cooking.
In addition to having been a writer, podcaster and chef, Soleil Ho is the restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, a position she began in 2019 and immediately ignited a much-needed political discussion on food and the restaurant industry in the Bay Area. She’s part of a contemporary wave of food criticism across the country that’s asking larger questions about the kinds of dining experiences that have been historically valued and why. Her writing highlights the multiplicity of stories that are expressed in a dish, meal or dining establishment, and I wanted to talk to her because I know she spends a lot of time considering not only what makes something delicious, but what makes it worthy of the investment of our collective time, money and attention. These are the questions that are integral to my dyke kitchen, and I was curious to hear what does seem important to her, right now.
I talked to Ho from my couch earlier this week, after what had been about a month of sheltering in place in California. It seems fitting that we discussed the various kinds of collapses in our midst. The first: her profession. “I’ve entered food criticism at a decline,” Ho said. She’s the one full-time restaurant critic in the Bay Area, which I can imagine seems grim, but does leave her with a certain kind of power. And the vision that Ho brings to the role of the critic feels perfectly timed. “My goal, if I were to name a narrative, is the idea that we can read food as a text. It’s banal and demeaned, we actively depoliticize it when we engage with it, and teaching people to read food is my task. It’s so tempting to think that everything has just one story, and I’m inviting people to look beyond the one they know.” While we quarantine through COVID-19, Ho worries that she doesn’t have anything to contribute — “I’m not super relevant right now, I’m doing other stuff, I’m writing movie reviews” — but I find her close reads more relevant than ever.
One of the more jarring effects of COVID-19 is that it has exacerbated and further strained many tenuous, haphazard systems that were keeping peoples’ livelihoods in place. What is coming out now, what’s being revealed in nearly every industry — and even in our own personal lives — are the stories beyond the ones we already know. In the case of the restaurant industry, the swift devastation has made it even more abundantly clear that the traditional model was never terribly strong to begin with. “Do we actually want restaurants to go back to normal?” Ho asks. “A lot of restaurants don’t have the money to pay fairly for labor and health coverage, while serving their menu at the price point the market demands. Do we need restaurants to be healthcare providers? Without universal healthcare, the only places able to survive are Shake Shacks and McDonald’s and Applebees…As a restaurant critic, I think I have to be open to a radical reformatting of not only restaurants, but society and what’s possible within it.”
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I think regularly on this theme: about what would be possible if we didn’t have to contend with the impossible pathways to survival imposed by capitalism. In the context of food, as not just sustenance, but an art form, a cultural expression, a social exchange, it is indeed limiting to believe that its best form, its most sublime heights can be reached within the realm of a profitable business model. But even if we’re thinking, as Ho has proposed, of the artistry of food as the collection of stories meeting on a plate, there are so many more that we just haven’t seen yet. I wanted to know what risks she wants to see people take to get there. “I really would love for restaurant investors and owners to invest in people who aren’t traditionally backed for these roles — that’s how you get new ideas and freshness. It would be really cool to see someone given a chef position whose food has been sidelined, and for them to be given the recognition they deserve.”
When it comes to the forms of these fresh takes, I find Ho well-positioned to note what is striking and extraordinary. There is a particular kind of openness and ambivalence that she carries into her racial, sexual, gender, and probably other parts of her identity. It allows her to be a perpetual outsider looking in. “There’s a lot about me that is not the gold-star perfect version of my identities, I’ve never been secure in them,” Ho told me. “I’m a Vietnamese person who doesn’t speak the language, I’m a person who can’t speak to my grandparents, and I’ve struggled with the expectation that I should feel ownership over that culture.” She’s written and spoken extensively on the podcast she used to host, Racist Sandwich, about cultural appropriation and her discomfort with assigning authenticity to dishes, but also with ignoring the context from which specific dishes or cooking styles originated. I’m known to be drawn to the mindsets of people who occupy undesignated cultural spaces, who don’t have ownership over any culture they didn’t make themselves — but I think her uncertainty makes Ho better qualified to be a food critic. She’s attuned to understanding that nothing is clear cut, and so she’s willing to question the seeming differences between a new wave of assimilation food and purely accessible whitewashing of a food culture. In so many ways, the new stories that could be presented by a new wave of chefs, not made in the mold of “cool” successful white dudes with franchises, would be meant for her to read: complicated, unfamiliar, subjective.
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“I want to be surprised,” Ho says, when I ask what impresses her. She tells me about a kiwi she had at the Restaurant at Meadowood that was treated like hoshigaki, a Japanese preserved persimmon, and the new experience of the fruit it presented to her. “I understand the importance of being open about who I am and what I am, but I know there is a lot of projection. I’ve become pretty divorced from the desire to control what other people think and expect of me.” It’s this ethos, that I recognize in the layers of legibility that Ho surfaces in her writing. It exposes many of the unchecked expectations that everyone brings to their dining experiences. “I don’t care about representation,” she says, and which I believe. But as someone who has always found solace in Japanese curry as a perfect picture of my relationship to my own ethnicities, I know I can still find representation in the values served in a dish, even if not in a dish as an object. And I think if that’s the place where Ho’s writing can begin to illuminate this new society for us to believe in, from which will spring forth many new beautiful kinds of stories, food and restaurants — let alone livelihoods — I’m inclined to believe that the field of food writing is not in decline, just in a deep, meaningful transition.