Chew on this: John Birdsall on Berkeley’s food scene

John Birdsall. Photo: Roxanne Webber

John Birdsall knows his way around the Bay Area’s best food trucks, noodle shops, and unpretentious taco stands. Currently a senior editor at Chow, he was previously the food editor at SF Weekly‘s SFoodie site, and has done two stints as food critic for the East Bay Express.

Along the way he’s penned his fair share of food stories with Berkeley roots, including a profile of Alice Waters for Gilt Taste and an article on the relevancy of Chez Panisse at 40, as well as restaurant reviews, and nods to new food artisans.

Birdsall has a reputation for insightful and stylish — if sometimes provocative — prose. In the flesh he’s soft-spoken and mild-mannered. A professional cook for some 17 years, he switched to the food scribe beat more than a decade ago and, for the record, says cooking for a living is even more all-consuming than food writing.

Birdsall will moderate a panel of authors on Saturday as part of the Litquake Literary Festival‘s Berkeley Ramble (Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of Litquake’s Berkeley events.) In the mix: Julie Guthman, a UC Santa Cruz associate professor and the writer of Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism and Agrarian Dreams? the Paradox of Organic Farming in CaliforniaDan Imhoff, a farmer-scribe and co-founder of Watershed Media; Stephanie Lucianovic, food blogger, self-confessed picky eater, and the voice behind the recent book Suffering Succotash; and Barb Stuckey, a professional food taster and trend predictor.

Birdsall spoke with Berkeleyside last week.

That’s a diverse panel of speakers on Saturday. What do they each bring to the table?

All four authors are brilliant at dissecting one part of the modern food story, whether it’s politics, the science of taste, or the socio-economic impacts of our assumptions about the stuff that gets to our tables. What makes this moment in food unique, historically, is that we now need specialists to guide us through food. It’s all gotten so complex — we’ve never before had as many choices in our food, or such an awareness that those choices have huge impacts — that these authors are like guides through the wilderness. It’s a weird thing: we’ve never had so much information about food at our fingertips, but I don’t think it’s ever been so bewildering.

What do you think of the term “foodie”?

“Foodie” is a horrible word — I’m definitely with Alice Waters, who blasted it back in the ‘80s right after it was coined. Back then it seemed to trivialize food as something that upper middle class people pursued as a hobby, like scrapbooking. It seemed to come from the same place (and in the same decade) that “yuppie” did, something that described a lifestyle.

I definitely think it’s time for us to take it back, like the LGBT community took back the word “queer” as a mark of pride. And nobody else has come up with a better word to describe all the amazing things that people — especially kids in their 20s — are doing with food these days: trying to revive farming as a family livelihood, saving canning and food preserving from the backwater of American history, or giving small, inexpensive Asian and Latino restaurants the respect they deserve. If there’s no better word, then hell, call me a foodie.

Off the Grid has brought new life — and good eats — to North Berkeley, says Birdsall. Photo: Tracey Taylor

How has the local food scene evolved in the 10 years you’ve been covering it?

The whole landscape has been totally plowed over and rebuilt, which is an amazing thing. The way we eat out has changed enormously — a lot of us no longer think of the formal restaurant meal as the standard way of dining out (even the word “dining” seems like a dinosaur, a relic of a more formal era). Trucks and pop-ups — they’ve completely transformed the way a lot of us regard food, which is to focus on individual dishes or single tastes, rather than constructed meals.

We’re restless these days, we appreciate a big range of food styles, and we want an experience that feels “authentic” in some way, food that tells a story about the chef’s roots. At the same time, the Bay Area’s high-end restaurants have probably never been better, a reflection of how many wealthy people live here, but also an expression of the value we place in food — that is, how many of us are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a special meal. It shows how much we respect food and chefs these days.

The return of Sketch bodes well for Berkeley, says Birdsall. Photo: Courtesy Sketch

How would you characterize the current state of “dining out” in Berkeley?

Berkeley has struggled in recent years, it’s true. In 2006, when I started writing reviews for the East Bay Express, Berkeley was the East Bay’s center of interesting food and restaurants. But, in the past couple of years, that’s shifted to Oakland, first to Rockridge, then to Uptown and Temescal.

In a weird way, Berkeley got conservative — homeowners in North Berkeley probably got a bit older and less adventurous, and whether it’s a fair assessment or not, the City of Berkeley has had a reputation of making it hard for new businesses to set up, especially food businesses.

But I think there’s a new spirit in Berkeley—the North Berkeley Off the Grid food-truck event brought enormous energy. And the University corridor is stirring. It’s a good sign that one of my favorite ice cream makers, Sketch, decided to reopen not in Oakland, but in Berkeley.

What was your take-away from the few days you worked in the kitchen at Chez Panisse?

Oh god, I was such an idiot back in those days [the ’80s]. Chez Panisse is such an amazing engine of food education, both for diners and the many talented cooks who’ve worked there. I had this huge chip on my shoulder then, partly about being a vegetarian (which I was for a nanosecond), partly because I didn’t really know what I was doing and wanted to pretend that I did. That’s one of my biggest regrets — that I walked away from the possibility of working there.

Do you eat out in Berkeley and if so where do you go and why?

My husband Perry and I live in Temescal, so we most often just walk to a restaurant in our neighborhood. But we’ve had lovely meals at GatherComal is really promising. We’ve had delicious barbecue from Smoke (plus Tina, the owner, is very sweet), and Emilia’s Pizzeria is fantastic — whenever we can plan ahead.

What’s good about working in the Bay Area food media and what makes it challenging?

I still can’t believe I work in Bay Area food media. After I stopped cooking professionally in 2002, I just kind of blundered into it without having a plan — I’m not sure I’d have the courage to do that these days. Since then I’ve just kept my head down and tried to work hard. Honestly, every day I do it feels like a privilege, especially when things have gotten so bleak.

In a way, that’s the most challenging thing about it these days — not getting depressed about layoffs, slashed fees for writers. You just have to believe in yourself and do it. Fortunately, being in the Bay Area you have this daily inspiration from an amazing community of chefs and food artisans, a lot of whom are also working because they love what they do, not to build up a comfortable retirement. I kind of feel like I can’t let them down by being depressed about the state of media.

Details: Chew on This: A Fresh Take on Our Obsession with Food” is on Saturday, October 13, 3:00 pm, The Marsh Arts Center, 2121 Allston Way, Free.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Related:
Litquake to Berkeley: Let’s shake things up (10.04.12)
Sketch’s ice creamery returns to Berkeley’s 4th Street (08.24.12)
Comal: New restaurant takes a bet on downtown (04.30.12)
Alice Waters, Robert Reich talk up a delicious revolution (11.07.11)
The best pizza in Berkeley? Our readers have decided (06.10.11)
Crowds turn out for Berkeley’s inaugural Off the Grid (06.02.11)
Gather chef Sean Baker named best of the year (10.11.10)

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  • Ryan Tate

    Foodies need to get over being called foodies by other foodies, foodie. In no sense is that term comparable to the slurs hurled at the LGBT community. I have no problem calling myself a foodie but that doesn’t make me some kind of civil rights martyr. Come on, John, you big foodie :)

  • waynesmom

    I don’t much like the term “foodie,” for the same reason I don’t really like the word “veggies,” as both sound to me like babytalk. I prefer “foodist,” as it has a piece of political awareness, in that what we eat and how we eat it and what our food is and where it comes from is highly politically charged as we all are coming to appreciate.

    The word “veggies” reminds me of gummy bears, as if we have to trick ourselves or our children into eating vegetables because they’re basically unpleasant, which is just so not so.