Will the country's newest big-city critic go after a sacred cow like Chez Panisse in her very first set of reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle?
That's the question on everyone's mind this week — at least everyone in the local restaurant industry — as we prepare to meet (in print) newly hired restaurant critic Soleil Ho. It's been over two months since her hiring was announced, with Chronicle editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper saying the paper was happy to bringing Ho's "fresh and modern approach to food journalism" to the paper.
Michael Bauer's long-awaited retirement announcement was met with all kinds of glee and snark last August. But with Ms. Ho's approach to the Bay Area food scene still a big unknown, chefs and restaurant owners are right to be nervous.
But should they be, really?
We know from a Chronicle podcast on Monday that Ho will be publishing not one but five separate reviews in this Sunday's paper, including two covering longtime favorite Bauer four-star stalwarts, La Folie and Chez Panisse. The chances of Ho using her inaugural review space to take down a place as beloved and legendary as Chez Panisse are slim to none, but I'll just take a guess that she won't pull any punches when it comes to observing the restaurant's flaws — and it is most certainly not flawless. (Conventional Bay Area wisdom for years has been that eating upstairs at Chez Panisse Cafe is better and more fun, hands-down, than the downstairs prix fixe experience, but we'll see what Ho says.)
As for what else we know about her, and what else we know we can expect, this is what we've got so far:
1. Her reviews will not come with star ratings
It's bound to come as a relief that, going forward, the Chronicle won't be able to impact a restaurant's business by demoting it from three stars to two, as Bauer was wont to do on occasion. Ho announced the no-star news at a public meet-and-greet with Chronicle subscribers on Tuesday, and Eater recorded some mixed reactions to the news — including the idea that not awarding stars takes away some of a critic's air of authority, even though the late Jonathan Gold seemed to command plenty without them at the LA Times. But this leads me to the next revelation...
2. She will not be anonymous
I'm not sure how this is going to work, but in having that public meet-and-greet (which was attended by some industry folk), the Chronicle is being pretty bold in forever dropping the anonymity charade. It was well known in the industry that despite his avowed anonymity, Michael Bauer's face was easily recognizable — and restaurant publicists for years circulated photos of him to any new host or hostess. To be fair, Ho says that the decision was made for her given that the internet has been around all of her adult life, and she's been photographed often. As New York Times critic Pete Wells explained regarding that paper's policy last year, "Times critics try not to stand out," they make reservations under pseudonyms, "but they may be recognized, and often are."
3. She moved here from Minneapolis
It seems a little crazy that the person who's going to wield the Chronicle sword has never lived in the Bay Area and has only minimally eaten at SF restaurants. Ho says she visited Zuni Cafe on one of her first trips here as a "poor graduate student," so that's a promising start. She also says that she'd been looking for a way to move to the Bay Area for a while, and is therefore very happy to have landed this job.
4. She's done less writing about restaurants than she has about culture and racism
She's been a podcaster, both with her own podcast Racist Sandwich and as the host of Bitch Media's Propaganda podcast. And as Chron food editor Paolo Lucchesi says, "Criticism is not just thumbs up/thumbs down... In the Bay Area, restaurants are... a lens into our culture. And Soleil has already been a leader on a national scale in defining what food thinking can be, and thinking around food."
5. She hates lettuce, and she's unimpressed with It's-It.
Ho talks about a visit to Red's Java House, where she was thrilled to find they don't put lettuce on their burgers. "I hate lettuce," Ho says, "But I really hate hot lettuce." Chronicle podcast host Peter Hartlaub brought along a couple of It's-Its for Ho to try while on air, and she's less than in love. Also, she says, dairy is "Asian people kryptonite."
6. She almost became a physicist
She says she didn't think of herself as a writer until after college, and she wanted to pursue quantum physics. But following college, she had a food mag internship and became a garde manger and then later a chef — and because she came out of kitchens, she long had a lot of disdain for food criticism.
7. She is, no doubt, going to review a more diverse array of restaurants than Michael Bauer did
Following in the footsteps of the LA Times and other publications, the Chronicle seems intent on giving equal weight to small-scale, mom-and-pop, and ethnic restaurants as to the big, splashy luxury spots that have traditionally been the bread-and-butter of critics. It's no accident that Ho's first array of five columns will cover not just the sacred cows La Folie and Chez Panisse, but also a group of "pretty wonderful Chinese American restaurants," rising star Oakland Cambodian spot Nyum Bai, and Thomas Keller's new Yountville Mexican place La Calenda. The latter she visited by bus because she doesn't have a driver's license, which — she can't possibly think she's going to cover the entire Bay Area without a car or a very patient partner/friend who drives, right? That's crazy talk.
Photo via YouTube