Chef Ned Elliot: On Moving Food and Food Journalism Forward

Challenge:

Grab a piece of paper.

Write down the names of the first five (or ten) chefs that come to mind.

Now ponder: why do you know those names? 

I could start numbering chef names in the hundreds, and 98% of the time include the chef’s city and restaurant(s) as well. This concept is still relatively new to me; five years ago I didn’t recognize the name Jean Georges when a pastry chef friend told me that’s where he worked.

Food journalism is cyclical, and I’m largely embedded within it. When I have a new column starting, I reach out to publicists I’ve worked with before, scanning their client list around the country and connecting with ideas they throw at me; when you freelance and want to both produce content you feel about strongly and scrape a living doing so, you need to work quickly. But that means I’m often utilizing a limited pool of talent. Talented, yes, they very much are, and only one in the hundreds of interviews I’ve done has been with a horrible human being. The rest have been smart, dedicated, extremely hardworking, and obscenely talented.

But there are thousands more of those chefs out there that we – I and fellow journalists in the food field – don’t write about. Now and then I have a culinary meet-cute that sends my heart and palate a whirl, and I write about the chef afterward. But that’s far less often the case.

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Last week I interviewed Ned Elliot, chef/owner of Foreign & Domestic in Austin, for a Plate magazine interview. Our career concerns have some crossover. In asking him about his motivation for starting Indie Chef’s Week, which brings around 30 chefs from the U.S. and Canada into his restaurant kitchen for a long weekend of tasting dinners, he expressed his frustration with food journalism’s focus on trend lists and clichés, with piece after piece featuring the same group of names. His frustration with accolades from organizations like James Beard, Michelin and Food & Wine inspired him to feature younger chefs doing incredibly delicious things in their smaller, PR-independent spaces. As we discussed the limitations of what media opens or keeps shut for chefs, I confessed to feeling the same limitations with my work.

So how do we change this?

I don’t write for the major food magazines, for no reason other than my career hasn’t steered there yet. I love writing for Plate; my first feature for the magazine was in their first “30 Chefs to Watch” spread, where I got to work with the amazing, secluded talent of Justin Burdette at Rukas Table in Highlands, North Carolina, so even that was a fresh start into a more intimate dining scene. And I’m fortunate in that the editors I work with respect my focus on writing about people who happen to make food, rather than on recipes or food itself; not an easy niche in a recipe-laden world.

Slowly but surely, I’ve been committing myself to taking the time to find more obscure stories. I’ll soon launch an interview series with line cooks; the original idea I’d pitched for my first interview series that was signed on the understanding I’d write about famous chefs. I’m writing more about food politics and history. I hope to get to the many cities of chefs I’ve worked with remotely, to find out who they’re excited about and where they most love to eat.

And in Austin, San Francisco and Toronto, Ned will keep pulling lesser-known but fully-outstanding chefs to his Indie Chefs Week events. Slowly but surely, our worlds will broaden.

For the meat of the interview with Ned, including how he made the weekend work, what particularly excited him about who came out, and what the chefs accomplished this year, head over to Plate. And for more on our wordy, wandering conversation, read below.

Chef Ned Elliot

On Moving Food and Food Journalism Forward

What were your personal intentions with the first event?

I’ve been cooking since January of 1991, the second semester of my freshmen year of high school. One of my moms, Sandra, sends me a text message every year around that time to remind me. In doing it for 20+ years, working for Floyd Cardoz and Geoffrey Zakarian and the like, your eye is on the prize of having a Michelin-starred restaurant, along with the national accolades of James Beard, Food & Wine and Bon Appetit.

I opened up my own restaurant with my own money, cooking something totally out of the box compared to what I was trained to do. And then social media was showing these hard working, courageous chefs all over the country. It was then I realized how many chefs don’t get what they’re due. Unless you have a ton of money to spend on PR, you’re screwed in a lot of ways. When you open up the pages of these magazines it’s sort of like you’re seeing “here’s who was able to send out the most press releases in the past months before food writers went on their discovery trips.” So we needed something to give back to people who don’t make those lists.

How have those intentions changed?

I really wanted to create something that wasn’t a typical food festival that’s in every major city now. I felt like creating a dialogue; now it’s happened with the 55 or 60 different chefs who come and cooked with us. One of the things moving forward is to find more chefs who are women; that’s been a tough sort of line to tow. I love and look up to the chefs like Dominique Crenn and April Bloomfield, but they’ve already been made; their hard work has paid off.

Why do you think that is, from an organizer’s perspective?

Being a minority – I’m black and Puerto Rican, adopted by two white women – we’ve gotten a lot of gruff for not having more women participate. So this past January we invited seventeen women; only nine responded. I was sort of like, “Wait, what?!” The women I’ve worked with were always way more organized than men. Our of the nine who responded only five could make it. So we had five women out of thirty chefs.

I think we’re going to see a change in the next ten to fifteen years. When I was was working from ’98 to ‘07 in New York, we only had three or four women at Tabla that weren’t in pastry. Einat Admony was one of them, and she now has a few of her own restaurants; I’d love to get her down here, but I haven’t seen her since I went to Ducasse in 2000. That’s one of the things that’s cool about all this; remembering chefs that you’ve worked and hung out with.

I think that we’re going to see a much bigger change, and while I don’t know if it will be 50/50 in my lifetime, I don’t think there’s anything holding anyone back. At least in a restaurant like mine, we look for whoever’s the best to get the job. I don’t think my generation of chefs look for gender to play a role.

What about being a minority? How has that affected you, when there are still very few non-white men in executive positions in New York?

I think that’s the bigger issue. When I first moved to New York, I wanted to work for Patrick Clark at Tavern on the Green, this bastion of grand New York dining. I never got to meet him; I got to New York two weeks after he had a heart attack. He was the media darling, and ushered in on his heels was Marcus Samuelsson. It’s like the media can have one black male chef, and that’s about it.

You have this whole socio-economic thing at play. Look at the major east coast cities like Boston or New York. If you’re going to work at Clio or Per Se, you have to have money! I worked 95-hour weeks at Ducasse and made $23,000 a year. I was lucky to have met my birth mother and my brothers from her, and they definitely didn’t grow up with the same life I did; I went to private school and both my mothers are psychologists, so they spent twelve years working on their education and considered my moving to New York my graduate school. If you go into those restaurants coming from a disenfranchised background, it’s novel. For a lot of people out there, there’s more at stake. Never when I was making $23,000 a year did I think this would be the rest of my life; I knew if things didn’t work out I could go back to college. So I think that’s one of the major things at play.

What can we do to move that forward?

I’m not sure how we combat it. At my restaurant I have a chef de cuisine, four cooks, a pastry chef, and a dishwasher. I don’t employ anyone at less than $12 an hour. It’s good for starting out, but I don’t think it’s fair overall for one’s career. One of my dishwashers just had a baby, and I slipped him $500 to help him out. There’s a lot that can be done to help get minorities into the upper echelon and executive positions, but I’m not sure what it is.

What were some of the discussions amongst the chefs this year?

I’m not the greatest diplomat in the world. I sat down with Food & Wine recently and was like, “This came about because we didn’t feel what your magazine is doing is representative of what chefs are doing as a whole.”

We talked about the “avocado toast tour” thing. We were like, “Man, you have guacamole on toast and you’re talking about it?” We talked about the matcha thing, and the ramen thing. It’s not that we’re sick of ramen, but it’s like, “Can we stop asking if this is authentic or not?” Flynn McGarry, the 16-year old kid in California, gets a lot of attention, so there’s a betting pool right now of what he’ll be doing when he’s 23.

We talked about hiring. We’re in this sort of Instagram, instantly-obtain-everything world now, and it’s difficult to find cooks. I’ll get a resume someone who has staged at Noma and a few months here and there, and he wants to be chef de cuisine. And we’re like, “You’re going to be on prep or fry for nine months.” I’m sure guys like Bouley said that about my generation, but it’s hard to find a real resume now.

People stage and then try to get a job. I’m going to stage for a week this year, but for me it’s the most relaxing and decompressing thing. I shut off my phone. I don’t check in at my restaurant. I did one last year, and it was awesome; they gave me eighteen pounds of peas, and I got to shuck, blanch, shuck them again, take everything and organic them by three different sizes, then juice the shells and the pods. It took me six hours, and it was awesome. It was great to be out of my restaurant and not doing a festival or an event. I wasn’t there to rip off people’s ideas; just to see someone’s point of view and touch some food. It’s like being a cook again. The younger generation is missing that.

There’s a young kid, 28, who worked a year here or there, and got turned down for a chef de cuisine place in Boulder, so he decided to stay here and open his own place. He was “tired of living in a shitty apartment.” I loved my time in New York. I loved working six days a week, living in a roach-covered apartment, going out till 2am, getting Chinese.

But we also talked about how right now is the best time to eat in the United States, and not from just a very high or low-end standpoint, but from an all-over standpoint. We’re all teaching each other, “How do you make a foie gras terrine?” Anything goes, as long as it tastes good.

You’ve said part of your motivation with the event was to “change the conversation about food in this country.” What does that mean to you regarding the conversation between chefs and eaters?

I think that it hits on a whole wide range.

For me, I have to take the time this year to road trip. To drive all over, and eat different foods that I normally wouldn’t eat. I want to drive through Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama and find the best chicken-fried steak; those are some of the chefs and cooks I want to have be a part of this as well.

And this extends to the dining public. Just get out and eat! I think Andrew Zimmern says that; he’s a really awesome dude. Get out and eat! Put down the magazine and newspaper, and just get out. Look for places that are busy, make a mental note, and go in one day. There’s only so much you’re going to get from what you see in magazines and newspapers. I take what we do very seriously, but at the same time, just get out and enjoy your dinner.

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