Here are Ms. Go Go’s absolutes for eating wonderfully and well: a sense of adventure, a determination to include food in every possible activity, and EAT: Los Angeles, the indispensable guide to all things gustatory.
Whether you need a Great Date Dinner, a Mom ‘n Pop Soda Pop Shop, or a Knowledgeable Knife Sharpener, editor Colleen Dunn Bates and her talented team of food journalists have scoured L.A. County to find you the best choices in every category, in every part of town. The writing is informed, accessible and fun. The “Good Food Neighborhoods” is an inspired feature that maps out ultimate foodie road trips…in your home town! The book is impeccably organized (with tabs detailing sections such as “Restaurants”, “Gourmet to Go” and “Services + Events”), compact (despite 56 more pages in the 2010 version), and addictively readable. (Ms. Go Go’s own copy is stuffed with torn Post-It strips marking Must-Visit and Must-Remember Spots!)
EAT: Los Angeles is a great gift for mothers, graduates, fathers, friends, or (hint, hint!) yourself! Go Go buy it now!
Colleen, who is also publisher/owner of Prospect Park Books and the L.A. Food Critic for Westways Magazine, gabbed with Ms. Go Go in between publishing, writing and dining.
(Win your own copy of Eat: Los Angeles! Details at the end of the interview!)
Ms. Go Go: In Eat:Los Angeles, you make a passionate case for Los Angeles as an exciting city for food lovers because of “ethnic diversity, prosperity, adventurousness and year-round access to high-quality ingredients.” So what’s with the lack of Michelin stars?
Colleen Dunn Bates: Good question! It’s true that we don’t compete on a broad level for the high-end places that typically earn stars, at least compared with New York, London and Paris. I think that’s a function of what our residents are willing to pay for, and perhaps too many Angelenos are willing to pay for scene over food. But we do have some top contenders: Lucques, Melisse, Providence and Spago come to mind. Where we really shine, though, is in the inexpensive and mid-range places, in Asian, Indian and Latin cuisines, and suddenly in what we call Drink & Eat places: wine bars, cocktail bars with food, and gastropubs. And of course now the food trucks!
You became a food critic soon after college. Did you always love food and aspire to be a food critic or did your first job shape your career?
Ha ha, it’s quite a source of amusement to my family that I became a restaurant/food journalist, because I was a terribly picky eater. Science is now learning that it’s a genetic thing, and my oldest daughter was also a terribly picky eater, who’s gradually getting better as she becomes an adult. (I now think it’s because I have very sensitive senses of taste and smell.) My second job out of college in 1981 was as an editorial assistant on the Gault Millau guides, the upstart competitor to Michelin and the champions of what was then called nouvelle cuisine. They were being launched in the U.S., and I quickly fell in love with that world and was soon promoted and writing and editing the books.
You’re a sixth-generation Angeleno. How has that influenced you as a food critic?
I guess mostly by making me very sentimental for the places I grew up with that are still around, like Philippe’s and El Cholo. Although we rarely ate out when I was a kid, because my parents had six kids in seven years, and they could neither afford the money nor the stress. I loved hearing their stories of going to Chasen’s and Trader Vic’s (they would bring us home those cocktail monkeys and umbrellas), and their adventures at the great, now-defunct Chinatown bar Ye Mee Loo and at Tom Bergin’s. My mom talks about her memories of eating at the Ambassador Hotel when she was a girl, and her mother would go on dates to El Cholo when she was at USC. My happiest childhood eating memory: CC Brown’s hot-fudge sundaes with my dad’s mother, or with my mother, after a movie at Grauman’s Chinese.
Being paid to eat sounds like one of the world’s greatest jobs; what career advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do?
Don’t expect to get paid much! It’s incredibly hard now, much harder than it used to be, and it was hard then. I’ve never made a full-time living as a food writer—it’s been part of my writing/editing/publishing mix. Basically, take it very seriously, but write with a light and humorous touch. Be ethical and don’t accept free meals. Keep it reasonably short. Look for the telling details. And don’t think you can be Jonathan Gold. None of us can—he’s in a class by himself.
Obviously, there are many contributors to Eat: Los Angeles. How many of the restaurants in the book have you been able to visit personally?
Sheesh, that’s hard to answer. We have a lot more than just restaurants in there: shops, coffeehouses, taco trucks, caterers, etc. The last book had about 1,230 listings. I probably have had some sort of personal experience at a few hundred of them, but that’s over some years. That’s why we need a team, to cover it properly and intelligently.
How do you maintain your anonymity at restaurants if you’re making notes and taking photos?
I don’t make notes—I did in my early days as a journalist, but I soon learned to pause and take mental pictures and notice details and tastes, and then don’t procrastinate writing it up so I don’t forget. As for photos, everyone’s a blogger or an amateur photographer, so now the vast majority of restaurants don’t bat an eye at diners shooting their food. Sometimes we have problems trying to shoot a shop or café where celebrities might be, but we usually get what we need without blowing our cover.
If you could pick and choose courses or items from different restaurants, what would be your perfect meal?
Wow, that’s hard—and menus at good places change so often! I’ll go with what I’ve had more recently. For a starter for the table, the tarte flambee with caramelized onions, bacon and Gruyere at Church & State downtown. For a salad, I have such a soft spot for the baby mixed lettuces with roasted peppers, eggplant and goat cheese at Celestino in my hometown of Pasadena. For a main course, the astonishing roast chicken at Bouchon Bistro in Beverly Hills. And for dessert, the butterscotch pot de crème with salted caramel and crème fraiche at Gjelina in Venice. I obviously have a bias toward French and Italian when it comes to serious comfort food, but I also love Chinese, Mexican, Spanish, Vietnamese, Argentinean and Japanese… but not sushi, which some might say makes me not fit to be a food writer. What can I say? It’s a seaweed thing. Can’t stand the stuff.
Does being a food critic translate to being a fabulous cook at home? Are you inspired to try to recreate favorite dishes?
Clearly you haven’t been over for dinner in a while! No, I leave it up to the pros, and I make very simple food at home. Every now and then my husband will do some more serious cooking for fun, but I’m the one who makes the basic roast chicken and green beans and rice, or the simple pastas. That’s what makes my kids happy.
What’s your next big project?
We’re hard at work now on EAT: Los Angeles 2011, and I’m working on, of course, an EAT: LA iPhone/iPad app. Stay tuned for that…. We’re also partnering with KPCC and appearing regularly on Off-Ramp, so that’s been fun. And in a non-food aspect of my publishing business, I’m publishing a terrific novel this fall, Helen of Pasadena.
How do you maintain your figure?
Not very well, but I’ve done better these last couple of years. Two ways: exercising regularly and once or twice a year doing a boot-camp form of the South Beach Diet, no carbs of any kind (including no wine!) for just two weeks. Oh, and trying at least sometimes to not clean my plate!
Win your own copy of EAT: Los Angeles 2010!
If you’re a subscriber of U Want 2 Go Go, you’re invited to share your favorite restaurant in Los Angeles*. Write a line about why you like it and post it as a Comment! (Example: “Chico’s in Highland Park! The garlic shrimp is so good I’ve never tried anything else there.”)
If the restaurant has been mentioned in Eat: Los Angeles 2010 or on the Eat: Los Angeles website (www.eat-la.com), the submission is awarded one point. If the restaurant has NOT been mentioned in either place, it’s awarded two points. Submit as many restaurants as you want before the contest ends on May 20th. The three subscribers with the most points will win copies of Eat: Los Angeles 2010.**
Exciting bonus! If your suggestion is included in Eat: Los Angeles 2011, you’ll receive a copy of next year’s version when it’s published!
*As defined in EAT: Los Angeles, the geographical boundaries are north to the Ventura County line, south to South Bay/South L.A., east through the San Gabriel Valley, and west to the sea. Any questions? Drop Ms. Go Go a line!
**In case of a tie, names will be drawn randomly.
Here are the deets:
1. You must already be a subscriber when you submit. 2. Each submission must be in a separate comment. 3. Submissions accepted up until midnight, 5/20/10. 4. Winners will be announced on Monday, May 24th. 5. If you’re a winner, we’ll contact you by e-mail for your address so be sure that your e-mail is current and that you check it often!
U Want 2 Go Go and EAT: Los Angeles look forward to your submissions.