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An Interview with James Hansen
Unnecessary beef is just more cows to breed.
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Editing is the invisible art. There are exceptions of course ─ Gordon Lish infamously edited Raymond Carver into or out of existence, depending on whose version of events you want to believe. But Lish was a rare editor who wanted people to know exactly what he had done. Otherwise the role of editor is an eminence grise, orchestrating behind the scenes. Like a spin doctor, they only become visible if they’ve done their job badly.
2020 has been the year in food media where the editor has become visible. In what seems like years ago, but was actually just a few months back, Bon Appetit imploded due to the actions of its editorial team but particular those of the editor in chief Adam Rapaport, which were exposed by the writer Tammie Teclemariam (now immortalised via Wikipedia!). And a month later, again prompted by Teclemariam’s probings, Peter Meehan resigned as the editor of the LA Times food section a year after his high profile announcement. And as the role of editor becomes more visible, so too does the machinations of the job, and what is and isn’t possible to change. Bon Appetit may have made all the requisite editorial changes people demanded from it, yet it still has the capacity to implode when it feels like it.
As new ventures emerge from the ashes of the pandemic prompted by an adversarial relationship with certain editors or even with the act of editing itself, I thought it was high time to do an interview focused on the role of the editor. I’ve been lucky enough to have received amazing editing on all the articles I’ve written, and James Hansen has probably been responsible for most of those edits (even if a lot of the time, he’s just removing my more unacceptable jokes). Although I first got to know James as a writer, since 2018 he’s mainly worked as an editor ─ at Eater London and lately on his own food newsletter In Digestion, which surveys the week’s best food writing and teases out connections between them.
On a bitterly cold afternoon, we wrapped up and sat down at Flor in Borough Market to talk about UK food writing and editing, the limits of prestige, the differences in the US and UK model, and why unnecessary beef is just more cows to breed.
How has the last few months been for you and your work?
I'd characterise the last few months as less intense than the previous few, but therefore, ironically, more tiring. I started In Digestion right when the pandemic was at its most intense in terms of its impact on my work at Eater London, and some kind of food writing adrenaline and a sequence of significant events in the food writing world carried me through summer and early autumn. Since then, as London restaurants have been nominally allowed to open but with trade heavily restricted and without proportionate financial support, things have felt calmer, and with that has come this awesome wave of tiredness that has I think knocked me out for the rest of the year. I'll be resuming In Digestion in 2021, with the weekly round up and weekly interviews with who, I think anyway, are the most exciting writers and other figures of the moment. I guess, most recently on Eater, I've mainly been covering the government's inability to transform abstract policy decisions into reality, perhaps best reflected in the both funny and utterly tedious debate around the ontology of Scotch eggs.
You started In Digestion in March, pretty much the same time as Vittles and Alicia Kennedy going full time with her newsletter. And although they all do different things, I'd say one thing they all do (or in my case, try to do) is start conversations between forms of food writing that maybe previously weren't speaking to each other, and connecting ideas which before may have felt disparate, whether it's between the UK and US or academia and the mainstream. Is that something you consciously try to do when you choose which articles you want to promote, and who you choose to interview?
That's absolutely conscious and thank you for characterising it so thoughtfully. I think it's true that one of the effects of this year in the food media space is in making these dialogues feel easier to establish. Spaces for them have long existed but they tend to be events with high levels of either cost, exclusivity, inaccessibility, or all of those things attached, and the growth in dialogically oriented newsletters has only hastened them I think. I, personally, have long thought about and tried to enact the principle that food writing and food media and their various genres should be analysed interconnectively; the precursor to In Digestion was The Gannet Digest, which I started with Killian Fox and Adam Park at The Gannet five years or so ago and proved to be something that people liked to read.
I think discourses in food and the restaurant world can only, in the additive sense not the unique sense, grow more complex and mature if their frames of reference are more readily allowed to interact and be more porous, between like you say various disciplines, various genres, various medias. I think Alicia Kennedy, Korsha Wilson on a Hungry Society, Osayi Endolyn, Tunde Wey, Stephen Satterfield, Anna Sulan Masing and Chloe Rose-Crabtree at Sourced, Charlotte Druckman, Soleil Ho, Vittles itself, Rebecca May Johnson, Nicola Miller, Ruby Tandoh, Mayukh Sen — these are all writers and thinkers who are able to harness and complicate these interactions to build a more complete picture of how food and food media relate to the cultural world at large. I think that's when food writing is at its most impactful and its most alive. I think the "food writer" label increasingly feels like a misnomer for the ways in which restaurant writing, recipe writing, ecology writing, labour writing, tech writing, are all intersecting around food. This doesn't mean it's a bad label, or that people who call themselves food writers are "less"; it means that its richness and granularity is finally being addressed, whereas in the past I think it's felt the opposite.
To what extent do you think the “newsletter boom” has been a reaction to dissatisfaction with legacy media, and particularly editors ─ I’m thinking here about anything from “editors won’t publish me” all the way up to Glenn Greenwald’s “I keep being published but I don’t want to be edited”?
I think Substack's prevalence as a platform and its prevalence as a platform for a certain type of "whomst dares to edit me, A Great Writer" white, male, high-salaried figure has led to overstatements about its position within media, about its opportunity to save media, about it ever being possible for it to be oppositional to media's many institutional biases, aggressions, and disparities. A really prominent line of critique seems to be that about 5 percent of Glenn Greenwald clones are Fucking Smashing It and the other 95 percent of Substack people are absolutely loathing their lack of success, or Not Succeeding and feeling downtrodden. I think that critique needs some serious work, particularly in a food media year that has seen Peter Meehan, who was deified for building THE great alternative food magazine, Lucky Peach, shown to be utterly morally repugnant and harmful while the publication he edited, which was billed as having the next great food section, has been systemically underpaying Patricia Escarcega because her colleague has a James Beard Award. Is it any wonder people are looking elsewhere, for space to work and to think and to provide an alternative? Substack's been around longer than it feels like, newsletters have been around even longer than that, and terms like "newsletter boom," "success," and the metrics of those rarely get defined. Lots of food newsletters are excellent and are free! Does that mean they aren't successful?
*a single oyster arrives at the table*
Just for the record, Jonathan is being presented with single oyster
Look at this! On ice as well.
Anyway, I think, connected to the granulation of what constitutes food writing, is an increased attention to identifying not just with an individual, but with their value systems. I think plenty of people prefer individual U.K. restaurant critics for their opinions, but I think few could identify what they and even their food sections stand for — other than the correctness of their own opinions. What I see in newsletters in food is the harnessing of subjectivity in order to create focus and complexity and compulsion in arguments, instead of running away from it and toward false omniscience. I also see confidence in one’s own opinions being couched in value systems, in tradition, in context. It’s telling to me that a lot of great recipe writing is very much situated like this, revelling in the tension between subjectivity and authority, and has been for aeons. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the most prominent brilliant food writers championing new writing ─ Nigella Lawson, Dan Lepard, Nigel Slater ─ are a part of that space.
But I think it's actually difficult, if not rare, to be given the space, time, and capital to achieve that as a staff writer at a publication, let alone as a freelancer, and it's something I very consciously try to achieve in all of my writing and editorial for Eater London — being able to offer answers for why is this being published, what is it valuing, what is it identifying with, even with my silliest or most frivolous work. By contrast newsletters feel like a natural outlet for that kind of thinking and that's what I see flourishing. Even if they are not as new or as booming as some might say.
How have you seen the editorial remit of Eater London change in the last three years, and where do you see that going in the future?
For those who may not have timelines, Eater launched in Summer 2017, I wrote my first piece for them in July. Like you I was baited into writing by George Reynolds, the great connector of London food writing. I worked in various editorial capacities up into June 2018, then worked full time, then got formally hired six months ago. That’s fairly boring but just to give you context that Eater London is three and a half years old, and Eater as a brand has been around in the States since the early-mid 2000s. I think the main change would be this shift in, I wouldn’t say tone, but confidence and in going from being the new entrant to a relatively established group of food writers and food writing publications to being considered as part of an authority figure, I think the changes in perception and decision making, they come with that. I think that a good bellwether for this would be what happened with Som Saa in summer 2018, I think that was maybe the first time in my view anyway, that it felt like Eater was genuinely taking a stand on something in food media I feel like other publications didn’t or wouldn’t. I don't particularly want to ascribe “don't or won’t” to individual publications but it was striking to me that the Evening Standard, which is the only paper in the UK with a specifically London restaurant remit, chose not to cover it.
I think that was defining because it represented a sort of shifting. In that story, and ensuing stories about, you know, the review of Kaki by Giles Coren in the Times, they became stories for us not because we necessarily decided independently that they were a big deal. They were, but it wasn't a case of us being like “we need to make this an issue”. It was multiple people in the East and Southeast Asian communities in London, either directly to us, or on social media, made it very plain that both of those were extremely big deals. And that is the guiding principle for us in covering these kinds of things. That is why it is a big deal. It's because people in the community have been caused harm by these things which they are saying is a serious problem. That this makes them feel unsafe in restaurants that they would otherwise want to patronise. That this makes them feel the broader spectrum of London and UK food writing doesn't care about harm done to them, or about the pain they feel seeing these things play out in either restaurant kitchens or in food publications.
Yeah I find this idea very amusing, that Eater London, which is part of a media conglomerate owned by Vox, is some kind of second coming of Robespierre. Because what you’re proposing, and what Soleil says and what I’ve been saying, seem like fairly basic courtesies and should not feel ‘radical’ in any sense of that word
I think what was telling about Som Saa and Kaki situations was that even if to us covering those things felt necessary and the complete opposite of radical, the response in other publications and from other writers, was very much like it was radical. And I think that kind of illustrates how, in my view, behind the times UK food writing as a discipline is. I certainly don't think it’s radical to address what was very plainly racism coming from a chef in one of the most widely acclaimed new Thai restaurants in London. I don’t think it’s radical to address people's concerns about the representation of Chinese in a national restaurant critics column which has immense reach and power. Even if, as you noted in your essay on restaurant criticism, he and many other critics don't seem to take their roles seriously while feeling that they themselves should be taken seriously.
I think that is one of the ways in which Eater has changed. In the treating of these things as a norm, it has maybe lessened a bit of the confrontational/beefy nature of 2017/2018. I think it's become a little bit more sober. I think that's happened because increasingly these conversations about food being political etc are being taken more seriously and normalised — that must be happening because people like Adam Rapoport were rightly lampooned for claiming it — and it doesn't feel necessary anymore to have to make the point that these things need talking about by being spiky about it. I think it’s more powerful, and I credit my editor, Adam Coghlan, with driving this home to me personally as a writer but also as a general editorial vision, to just let what people are saying speak for itself. People can see what is and isn’t okay to say and they don't need a spiky food writer telling them so. You need to keep pressing home that these things are important and addressing why they're important but I think it’s less necessary to couch it in a kind of, I guess, meta-narrative of factionalism within UK food writing, which I've always thought is overegged for the sake of keeping parts of the debate in the realm of interpersonal digs and beef and stuff like that, rather than having a serious structural conversation about what broadly needs to change.
I think ‘show not tell’ has also been the best advice I’ve been given editorially, and also personally. That’s very much been behind a lot of my thinking with starting Vittles in the first place.
But apart from those fairly large flashpoints, what smaller decisions do you make as an editor on a day to day basis, especially as acting editor for a lot of this year, that people who read Eater might be unaware of?
So first of all, I’d say that editing and being edited are good. I think anyone who says otherwise is truly out of their mind no matter what the Substack-erati of Yglesias and Greenwald might think. I think in terms of editing other people's work I think the most important thing to do is to kind of attempt as much as possible to remove your own personal biases as far as you can and focus on hearing what a writer wants to say, addressing the places in which what they have written is preventing them from being heard, and then ensuring the gap between what they want to say and what the reader hears is non-existent, that there is no gap. Something which Helen Rosner, whose writing I admire, said is that it's like learning to look into a camera viewfinder and accept that what you see is what there is, not everything extraneous around the scene.
In terms of decision making, I would say that. I don't think that I am always consciously trying to write about places, which, for whatever reasons, are underrepresented. You do need to do that but I don't think that that's necessarily something which needs to be done at the cost of acclaiming places which are good, and people kind of know they are good. I want to say this because I think one of the most disingenuous arguments against broadening a publication’s remit is that it is somehow zero sum, that acclaiming one place means negging another; that a restaurant not being on a given guide or list ipso facto makes that restaurant shit. The world is bigger than restaurant guides and they need to acknowledge this, but also the world needs to acknowledge that they are never finished or set in stone.
I think what is more concerning is when you have such a homogeneity of perspective, like, again the only go-to example in the UK are restaurant reviews, where same restaurant is reviewed three or four times in a few weeks by nominally different critics because they've all been given the same PR invite or they've all been to a new restaurant by someone who was already a big deal because they are a famous chef. So I think the guiding principle is very much a combination of what Eater London staff and contributors think is interesting, balanced with ensuring that the net of what's interesting is kind of cast as wide as possible. Whether that be geographic, whether it be financial in terms of cost, whether it be geographic in terms of where the food is coming from. Whether it be in terms of the age of a restaurant, so somewhere that might be very new that someone's been around for decades. I think what unifies it is just trying to represent London in a way which we don't see elsewhere in U.K. food media, even international food media.
Trying to represent London in a way we don’t usually see was pretty much the reason I started writing. Why don’t you think we see much of it?
I think a key part of this is that unlike in the States: one, there's not really an alt-weekly kind of media landscape. The US one has been quite badly decimated in the last couple of decades but there was one, and it not only allowed for very locally driven food writing but also provided an avenue for food writing talent that didn't either want to or have the connections necessary to come up through the usual way. The second thing is the big ticket broadsheets are still tied to a city. However much they may be internationally resonant and significant, The New York Times is a New York paper, The Washington Post is still a Washington paper. The LA Times is still an Los Angeles paper, and so on. Whereas the papers that dominate the scene in London food writing, with the exception of the Evening Standard, are all national papers before they’re London papers. And while London still has an outsized place in coverage because it's the capital and it’s the biggest city, there's not that kind of bedrock of locally interested, influential journalism from which to kind of orient oneself in terms of how you write about a given city because the papers take up so much real estate.. But also to then create avenues for other smaller or larger publications to kind of spring off. So in LA you might have the LA Times and Eater LA but also LA Taco. In the US at large you have The Village Voice. In New York you have The New York Times you have Eater NY or you have New York Magazine.
And I think there's more healthily interested competition, and also, that bedrock of locally oriented writing, which I think there hasn't been here, with the exception of maybe Guy Dimond’s editing of Time Out and the feted Zone 2-3 explorations of Charles Campion. So I think one of the issues is that, maybe that vacuum has made the arrival of Eater and its viewpoint feel more factional and confrontational or whatever word you want to use, than it is. Because there's not really a reference point. And there's not really a collection of similar publications to identify with and orient oneself against. So what that creates is a mismatch between the Eater ethos and the broadsheet ethos, even though because of the reasons I just described, they're often not really on similar territories. Like I don't really think the viewpoints are all that comparable. And I think that's one of the reasons that it feels like the head butting or whatever has been overstated. It's not really a kind of straightforward comparison. I think there's always going to be that weighting of quite different viewpoints when you know you're talking about a publication which is dedicated entirely to London, and a critic, because of the way national media works is definitely oriented towards London, But it's not their beat.
What do you think the implications of this lack of beat is on the writing? And do you think there necessarily needs to be this disparity between UK and US restaurant writing?
In my view, the great majority of restaurant writing in the UK, currently, as in reviews, feels more closely tied to UK opinion writing than it does what you and I might just understand as food writing. If I were to sort of go through the arguments I've seen both from critics and their defenders, wait, not defenders ─ fans . So the first one is that critics sometimes believe that because of the tension between their national remit and their readership, that for many readers they are talking about restaurants they will never visit and therefore the review is almost incidental to the crafting of a fine opinion column, because ultimately they're never going to eat the food. And the second one is a kind of extension of that which is that entertaining writing, which is always posited as being opposite to informed writing - which is nonsense - will sell papers.
So firstly I would ask them to look at the subscription figures for the New York Times food section which I believe is either the most subscribed section of that paper or the one with the highest growth this year. And secondly. I think this is kind of what you're hinting about, that there doesn't need to be this disparity. You can write in a way which is entertaining for someone who doesn't necessarily care about a restaurant, whether because they're not gonna visit it or it's not the style of food they’re into eating, or they're just more there for the writer than the review.
And I think the success of Soleil for example in San Francisco is also a testament to that. I think that's quite a unique situation because her predecessor, Michael Bauer, was known for having exceptionally insidery and kind of chummy mode of reviewing and so maybe there's a sense of any change in that would have felt quite seismic regardless of who it was. But I think that would account for a very small proportion of why Soleil pulls in so many readers, because she's an exceptionally good writer and she writes about restaurants in a way which opens up the idea of the individual review to a plurality of experience and also opinion. Like in her review of a Burmese restaurant in San Francisco where she consulted MiMi Aye because she didn't know that much about Burmese food, or her review of La Colonial, the Vietnamese restaurant whose decor and vibe she very skillfully dissected. And these pieces generate a very large amount of online debate and discussion, and no doubt get an awful lot of traffic. So it seems very odd to me that the main argument against it is audience or readership numbers.
I guess if you see the food writing world as factional, then Soleil is definitely the person who could be perceived as being from one faction moving into that legacy media space with huge success. But I’m increasingly skeptical of how much change an individual can affect, given what has happened this year. I mean, just look at the editorial and personnel change that has happened at Bon Appetit, and then they go fuck it up again.
I think the piece of thinking I’d look to on this Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter On Prestige, which talks about how even when editorial change of personnel happens, the sort of overarching superstructure of acclaim, awards, adverting, money, and therefore I guess metrics like pageviews etc. is still both incredibly powerful and still seems to produce a very myopic perspective, I think, as we've seen with Bon Appetit it would be naive to think that tomorrow if five writers from, for the sake of the argument, the ‘Soleil faction’ assumed all the roles in prominent UK critical space that there would suddenly be a shift, because Soleil had had the backing of the SF Chronicle editor. And I think you only have to look at discussions that we had this summer ,like the Black Book talk on critics, which you took part in and Jimi from the Evening Standard took part in, that for individual writers even if you want to change the places you write about and the ways in which you write about them, you have to do that that in the context of a superstructure which still very much takes precedence over your own ideas a lot of the time. So I think that change that needs to happen is, one at least one level above, as in the editorial level. If not, higher than that. In terms of where publications are getting their funding from.
But the part of that which I think is editorial is the act of taking the huge numbers of steps to decentre the assumption of who your default reader is. There are lots of micro ways in which that happens, whether it be deciding not to translate words, deciding not to italicise foreign words in whatever language you're writing. In, like how the LA Times and Javier Cabral’s LA Taco have done, translating articles into the language of the communities they are writing about when necessary. LA Taco did an obituary of a person in an Angelino community with a specific Mexican dialect, I think he was a chef or a restaurant owner, and translated into that dialect So two versions are online. Recently Eater changed our fonts, so that different alphabet styles can be rendered properly without them jagging out when they’re published.
And then there's a larger thing which we talked about which is how you frame coverage of restaurants and cuisines and communities that aren’t yours as a writer or editor. I think basically the key guiding principle is ceding the floor. So either allowing someone from that community who is better placed to tell the story, to tell the story. Or including their voices as prominently as possible and ensuring that when conceiving of who an article is for, not kind of trying to subscribe to this false idea that any article must be for everyone. The way it’s always framed is “well, we don't want to write about this Black-owned restaurant because it's not for everyone” And it's like, well, who do you think all the articles about white-owned restaurants weren’t for?
Often you’re talking about restaurants here which are relevant to more people, that are more widely frequented than any restaurant in Mayfair. So the question for papers isn’t so much, “is this for everyone?” It’s “is this for everyone that we think reads our paper?”
But new people might want to read the paper if you expand out what you're writing about!
Leaving aside many of the not great reasons why editing has become more visible this year, do you think that increased visibility is a good thing?
I think one of the guiding arguments against various things Eater has covered, and one of the labels that has been attached to Eater is some variation of being ‘mean’ or ‘rude’. What’s most interesting about all of those criticisms, are the words chosen - mean, rude, unpleasant - are interpersonal words. People are rude to people, people are mean to people, individuals sre rude or mean individuals. But you're talking about a publication, which sure in London has two full time staff, but as part of Vox media has hundreds. I’ve been trying to figure out why so much of the backlash against some of the things that Eater has covered has been couched in these interpersonal terms. And I think the reason is that in the London restaurant space, for many different reasons, a lot of places, and people by extension, which are extremely influential may have power now but it all sort of originated in that crucible of 2008 recession, of late 2000s early 2010s, you know, kind of food trucks and residences and popups. Small, personally run, personally attached operations. So they weren't perceived as brands, they were perceived as individuals. I think what that forged is a very powerful, and, for those people, supportive, helpful, kind, encouraging, all these things, sense of camaraderie and interpersonal support. But many of these people then got positions of power and influence which are not interpersonal: like restaurateur, critic, public relations, writer, newspaper editor
I think what hasn't happened is that that sense of camaraderie and interpersonal support has matured in such a way that it takes account of the position of power it now inhabits. And therefore, when it is critiqued as a structure, ie. in existing as a collection of restaurants, a newspaper, or piece of writing, or even sometimes a discussion on social media, that critique which is meant as structural is taken interpersonally. And that's why I think a lot of the response is like: Eater London is mean, it’s being rude. And think what we've seen with editorial becoming, as I think you very accurately said, less invisible, certainly in the case of say Adam Rapoport or Peter Meehan, is that what's happened there, and has been, maybe more widely elucidated by reporting ─ for example, Megan McCarron’s piece about Peter Meehan’s tenure at Lucky Peach and the LA Times and the reporting in Business Insider by Rachel Premack on Bon Appetit, is that it’s illustrated that the interpersonal and the structural are intrinsically connected. Like it's true that structures and collectives and publications are often, if not always, more powerful than individuals. But they are nevertheless, composed of individuals who wield power, who decide who the ingroup is and who the outgroup is, who give people acclaim, prosperity, opportunity and deny those things to others.
So I think that it was a good thing that this year has even more fully revealed that connection, even if huge numbers of people already saw it clearly.. And I think what needs to happen in the case of the UK is for that connection to be more fully acknowledged. I think still whenever people try to draw those structural arguments out and explain what the kind of broader impact of individual choices and decisions and acclaim and harm are, they get critiqued only on the interpersonal level. Whether that’s questioning the logic of giving an award for food writing for unpublished writers to a published food writer. Whether that’s elucidating the power dynamics between a Masterchef contestant and Masterchef, the institution. Or in your case, when you’re writing about the homogeneity of restaurants in Soho. It gets taken as saying that this individual restaurant is bad or this person is a bad person, this person is this. When that's not really the point. This also never really was what those pieces or arguments are saying., I think the American reporting and discussion on these issues is quite far ahead of here, in terms of framing them as part of cultural, structural criticism. I hope that changes that people are able to sort of see beyond the idea that their individual restaurant or business are being pilloried on the terms of them being an individual. It’s about the structural things which create the capacity for these situations to happen.
Where have you seen British food media change this year, and where do you see it going in 2021?
I can’t say I’ve seen it change all that much. Certainly not at a criticism level. I think there's been some encouraging increases in the plurality of voices that publications are referring to. I still feel as with our discussion about the double edged sword of calling something radical that those pluralities are still being treated as a kind of pleasing diversion from normality. Which I think goes kind of hand in hand with the boom and bust in interest of Black-owned restaurants and businesses in the summer, which seems to have largely tapered off at the mainstream level. I think it's been encouraging to see people have confidence and speed to create spaces which create their own definitions of interest and excellence. I think that was one of the guiding principles for me behind In Digestion, to try to offer slightly different parameters for what is considered good and interesting. I think Vittles does that. I think Black Book did that in its talks and events. I think Melissa Thompson's column in BBC Good Food, Alicia's newsletter, Kevin Vaughn's Matambre. I think the change I've seen, which hasn't really happened in the mainstream, is not being too precious about one's frames of reference, about them needing to be in the UK or needing to be immediately legible to whatever the UK reader is, if that reader even exists.
But on the flipside I’ve just watched the lack of alternative ambition when it comes to, for example restaurant reviews when restaurants have been closed, which has been characterised by endless free meal kits and, you know, critics showing us their kitchens. Whereas I feel that was almost a free space for editors to try something different and offer a view on how difficult restaurants have been finding things for the past nine months - both at the ownership level and the worker level. It’s kind of puzzling to me that that didn’t eventuate.
So in terms of where I see it going, I think given by the swiftness with which critics returned to normal, as in doing restaurant reviews, after the first lockdown and in a couple of cases after the second one, I can't say I see a great deal of structural or individual change. I'm very interested in how, particularly the papers backed by Rupert Murdoch and Evgeny Lebedev, respond to Brexit, with its fast approaching with an impact on food supply chains and restaurant economics and restaurant labour, whether there will be any accounting for of that, or whether there'll be some sort of, you know, throwaway lines and reviews which are otherwise as they are now. Yeah, I wish I was more hopeful than I am, but I think that as Eater has been able to do that, I think that the alternative spaces which have found a growing readership this year are going to be able to continue to grow. And hopefully eventually to actually have a material impact on the general state of, not just UK food writing, but as we’ve been discussing, facilitating international conversation. And maybe they'll allow an influential network of publications which are more global, more dialogic than UK writing usually allows.
Utopically speaking then, how do you think things could improve?
Something in The Fence piece which was quite striking to me was I thought the most illuminating quote was actually Soleil’s when she said it should be fairly basic for people of colour and by extension, people from any given place or community or identity, to have a stake in conversations about those communities, identities, connected cultures, restaurants, foods etc, whatever it may be. And I think that when you present these things as essentially a microcosm or piece of source material of for petty argument between faction one and faction two of UK food writing, like that might be the case for some of the people cited in that piece, but the reality of it that these things are lived realities for the people who are either hurt or caused harm by them, and should be, in my opinion anyway, a baseline of thinking, like the most basic of baseline thinking, that these things are most important. The people who are caused harm should be able to lead that conversation, in terms of not just flashpoints like this but as a general rule of thumb. Lived reality is more important than abstract beef and I’m deeply concerned that this is still contentious to so many influential figures in the London restaurant world.
And that is the most interesting change, and most important change, I've seen in some publications, both here and abroad in the last four to five years. I just hope that drives people's decision making going forward. So I think once you have that, it becomes both easier and I guess genuine, to talk about food in a more frivolous and entertaining way, because you're coming from a baseline of respect. And then therefore I think there's then room to have your slightly more opinionated opinion columnist fun writing. As you observed in your article on British and American criticism, you don’t have to be super po-faced, you don't have to be super myopic and reverential and preachy. But I think one of the reasons that people lean that way is in a bid to really entrench that baseline of culinary respect which isn't yet there. The same conversations still happen the same way, over and over. When the respect is there, that is when you can have your fun. But you need to show the respect first.
James Hansen is a writer and editor based in London. He is an associate editor at Eater London and runs the newsletter In Digestion.