Photographs by Brent Herrig. Using them without his permission is illegal. And mean.
I don’t easily get starstruck. Not when I was an actor and met incredibly famous actors. Not when interviewing famous chefs, like Daniel Boulud or Eric Ripert or Masiharu Morimoto, all who I’ve found to be incredibly lovely as I dove into their brains for stories.
But I was definitely unsettled before meeting James Oseland, the editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine.
Here’s why: I’m not a great writer. I love reading, and I love writing, but I fell into the arts because I thrive on collaboration. As a performer you work with a huge team of directors, designers and other artists before something is brought to an audience. As a playwright, I had workshops and rehearsals and pointed stories to tell. With my interview projects, the focus is on my subject, and my contribution is more of a mathematical breakdown of assessing what’s been written about the subject before and where the loopholes are that need to be filled.
But here’s the catch; I really want to be a good writer. And James is a good editor of one of the few print publications that I truly find joy in reading every month. My heart almost stopped when he said, “I like being an editor; figuring out what’s wrong with text to have somebody process the information in a better, more fluid, richer way.” And when he said that the core focus of Saveur is to “tell human stories”.
Because I just want to tell stories, and I crave collaboration in a field abundant in other somewhat neurotic writers who complete projects in the mess of their home offices without much input from their editors. Case in point – I’m writing this post because I have my first full national magazine print story due Wednesday and am (very temporarily) avoiding the thirtieth edit of the final draft, my brain awash in the (stellar) opinions of trusted writer friends and the little structure I was given from the approved pitch. I’m telling stories, but without the team.
So, that’s happening now. But this interview was taken a year ago. So, let me get back to that.
Where I had assumed we’d be obnoxiously eating away at his precious time, James could not have been more warm or generous with ours. Not knowing exactly where I was going to take the story, my questions encompassed the whole gamut, and he came along for the ride with concentrated thought. What follows below is the chunkiest version of what I whittled down, and says much about how the beautiful chaos of life can make someone fully ready for where they need to be when an opportunity opens to them.
In the Office with James Oseland, Editor-in-Chief of Saveur Magazine
Taken October, 2012
Let’s start at the beginning. What was your family’s relationship like growing up in the San Francisco area?
I was a product – honestly, there’s no other way to slice or dice this – of a pretty bland, almost kind of horrifyingly typical American childhood. My dad was an office product salesman. When he was around – which was, frankly, not very much – he would duplicate these great dishes he had eaten on his work travels. So really at my dad’s side was where I got fascinated by how this thing that we must do every single day could be wonderful and glorious and exciting. It made my very bland, dull world interesting.
As my mom was pushing the cart through the supermarket and I was trailing along, when we would hit the international food section – which in the late 1960s and early 1970s was, like, Roland escargot that came in these see-through plastic things – I was just, like, so unbelievably compelled. It seemed like that small section of the supermarket and the dishes that my dad used to make, replicating these fabulous continental classics that he’d eaten on the road, were a portal into something else – into another world.
It was essentially an escape. I started cooking on my own when I was 8 or 9 years old. I was inspired at first to really take the plunge by a Julia Child episode where she was making Cesar Salad and I had an aha! moment when I thought, “I can do that.” And indeed I did. And from there on it really always was my default –my fundamental comfort zone. There is nothing that sort of settles and satisfies me at the same time more than the act of cooking in my own kitchen.
Why didn’t you become a chef or something along those lines?
You know, it’s funny. I think one of my peccadilloes in life is that I didn’t want to commercialize or commodify this thing that interested me so much. It was something I didn’t want to corrupt or wreck by doing it professionally.
So instead of food you went for a degree in photography?
In film studies and photography.
What were your intentions? What did you want your work to be?
You know, there wasn’t much of an intention. I wish I could glamorize it more than that. I was a high school dropout. I was coming out of an incredibly wild punk rock youth in the late 1970s and had gotten connected to where I went to college – The San Fran Art Institute – through an ex of mine, and it was kind of very accidental that I ended up in art school. There was less-than-zero career plan or path.
What kind of films were you making?
You know, come to think of it, food always ended up being in my films. I remember in one project going to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where you could see this fresh, gorgeous, just-caught-from-the-Pacific fish in the fishmonger cells. I would buy whatever the most visually striking catch of the day was and I would photograph it with my Bolex 16mm camera in stop motion, one single frame at a time, in all these different lighting conditions and shoot the fish in various states of composition. I was staying with my mom at the time, and I don’t think she was too happy about that. But these were the kind of films I was making and the kind of film school I was going to. This was not a kind of junior George Lucas kind of film school; this was weird shit, basically
Then how did you end up as a proofreader at L.A. Weekly?
I needed a segue out of just making films with my Bolex of decomposing fish, so I moved to L.A. and worked in the movie business for just shy of ten years. It was a fabulous and amazing experience, but after a certain point felt also like something I needed to segue out of. And as a coincidence a friend set me up with a job as a proofreader at L.A. Weekly. I had no background in journalism or a burning desire to do that but I thought, “That sounds interesting, let me go check that out.” Which sounds random. And it was random. But I very, very, very, very quickly fell in love with it. I just loved it.
Your connection with photography literally translates into some of the pieces that you do, but what makes you so good at food journalism that you got here, to editing Saveur?
I hope it doesn’t sound at all vainglorious, because I still feel surprised at what I do. Also grateful. But maybe there is a little kind of perfect storm – the fact that as long as I can remember I’ve been fundamentally interested in the world of food, the craft of cooking, and what food can tell you about a place or person. It’s kind of my natural born scientific interest, my fetishism, my Asperger’s. You know? And then there’s the fact that I’m an intensely visual person and started taking pictures in my early teens. And the fact that I also write and have always been an avid reader. In some ways – even more than writing – I like being an editor; figuring out what’s wrong with text to have somebody process the information in a better, more fluid, richer way. So, I don’t know, it’s just this crazy confluence of maybe natural skills and natural interest.
A lot of your work and passion has been focused in Southeast Asia. How did that come about?
I keep saying this, but it was completely by accident! I had a schoolmate in film school who was Indonesian and she invited me for a summer. I took her up on it and was so immediately and instantly and intensely blown away by the place that what was supposed to be just a couple of month trip turned out to be the better part of a year. And since then, Southeast Asia and Indonesia in particular has become a second home. I just love it there. I don’t feel that I’m fully me until I’m there. It’s just one of those weird things. I love New York and I love my life here and everything but I always feel kind of only partial here. When I get off the plane in Jakarta, off the tarmac, I start to feel full. More like who I think I am. Smarter, funnier, more interested, more comfortable… just more me.
India happened also totally by accident – I got a cheapie ticket and ended up staying that first trip for 6 weeks and on subsequent trips staying considerably longer, culminating in a trip where I stayed the better part of a year.
And how did the gig at Saveur come about?
I had spent five years making this half memoir / half cookbook largely about my time in Indonesia. And right as I was turning in my third and final draft and was literally tapped out – I think I had 800 dollars in the bank and next month’s rent to pay at that point – I got a call from Coleman Anders (then Editor in Chief of Saveur). I had been a contributor to the magazine for almost seven years. He said, “Our executive editor is leaving. Are you interested in the job?” I didn’t want to play it too desperate, like, “Can I start this afternoon and is there any way we can do a fake back pay?!” But I was pretty much that pathetic at that point.
Now on top of editing a print magazine you have apps and websites and vaults to be building daily. Is the extra content something that adds to the work load?
Honestly we have so much organic natural content that doesn’t see the light of day, so for us to be able to share this amazing stuff online and with the tablet is a great gratification.
You plan out your magazine’s schedule over a year in advance. Has there been a story in the past that you’re excited about but then when it came into fruition you were like, “Meh”?
Usually we have ways of taking the temperature on things before that point. That’s only happened maybe once or twice. And then in the once or twice it’s happened we’ve done a “Saveur Save”, and either sent the photographer back out or the writer back out or redeveloped the recipes in a radically different way or photographed stuff here in house.
Was there one you felt lukewarm about that ended up blowing your mind?
No. I’m always super-psyched about whatever we assign. I wish we could assign out a thousand stories a year, but in reality we can only sign out a finite number. And so that finite number we’ve worked at and made sure that it’s going to be all it can be.
One thing I’ve particularly admired about Saveur is how the pieces often really connect food, family, culture, earth and god, because you cover a wide berth of cultures. And I think that’s very prevalent and very unique to Saveur…
That’s very nice to hear. One thing that we strive to do is, first and foremost, tell human stories. Even if it’s just a story about a specific dish or specific cooking technique. Through that we’re telling some aspect of what people all around the world do in their kitchens and at their dinner tables.
The United States is comparatively industrial when it comes to food. Have there been places in the U.S. that you’ve felt that strong connection of food with family, culture, earth and god?
Probably. I mean, I don’t know. I think that in America we have this kind of notion that you eat to work, and a lot of other cultures of the world have this sort of built in thing that you work to eat – you work to live and enjoy the pleasures of the table and your family. We’re going to do a shoot in rural Kansas where 25 people are coming together to make salad with locally sourced food. The other day my writer and I were making a list of all these mom and pop joints in the region – not, like, arty-farty food, but just good American diner food made by people and not from Ziploc bags. It’s still out there; it’s never been completely decimated, and it still lives and breathes. But definitely there is a kind of upturn right now. And it’s a very exciting time.
You lived for a long while in L.A. and are an advocate for ethnic food there. Who’s got the leg up: New York or L.A.?
I’m going to have to watch my back when I’m walking home tonight. Um, how do I say this diplomatically? I can’t. I’m loathed to use the term “ethnic food” but it’s shorthand we all understand: ethnic food is better in L.A.
One of the most fantastic things about New York is it’s a great equalizer; after you’ve been here six months or a couple of years you’re a New Yorker, first and foremost. In L.A. you can kind of keep kind of living your life in a not-so-different way as you were in Kandahar or Jakarta or in Bangkok or in Moscow. For all intents and purposes, you can be eating a meal that is identical to a meal you’d be eating on the street in Morelia. Or eating in a restaurant a Muscovite meal that you’d be eating in Moscow. If you were eating in New York, not so much. But it’s not obvious in L.A; you have to do your work. L.A. is this weird mystical chart to try to figure out. You need time to figure it out. New York is much more obvious.
Two final simple questions just out of audience curiosity: what’s something always in your pantry?
My husband (it sound so funny saying it but it’s true! It’s on paper!) is Brazilian. And I have a particular fetish not only for him but for Brazilian pickled chilies. The range of flavors that these chilies have… you’ll feel like you’ve never had a chili before when you taste eight or nine different flavors. I cannot live without these. And they basically invade their way into all of my meals.
Is there something you eat every single day?
Singularly unglamorous but we make homemade muesli once every four to five weeks, and eat it for breakfast every single day. And it should be plodding and stultifying after so many years doing more or less the same recipe, but it’s not. I don’t think I can live without it.
- Saveur – Bonnier Corporation (itunes.apple.com)