In December, the San Francisco Chronicle announced that Soleil Ho would become the paper’s new restaurant critic, replacing Michael Bauer, who had held the role for more than three decades. In doing so, Ho joins a small cadre of new California critics, a group of writers who are reshaping the beat. (The Chronicle’s food editor, Paolo Lucchesi, was transparent about the fact that the looking for a new critic also meant reevaluating the role that the critic would play.)
Ho’s résumé includes plenty of writing and cooking gigs, plus serving as the host of the podcast Racist Sandwich — which aims to tackle food’s messiest race, gender, and class problems head-on — and her appointment was celebrated on social media. As she prepares to publish her first review, Grub Street caught up with her to talk about the new job and the way she sees food media changing.
First of all, congrats on your one-month restaurant critic anniversary. The Bay Area has a massive amount of restaurant ground to cover. Are you on a six-meal-a-day Hobbit diet?
Thanks! And yes, not even the Bay Area, but San Francisco alone features a constantly churning morass of restaurants. I think it would take years to sort through it all. At the same time, I believe it would be negligent for me to limit my scope to San Francisco alone, so that expands that number exponentially.
I don’t want to cut my lifespan too short by overdoing it, so I’ve been trying to keep the pace to about five or six places per week. I’ve gotten a lot of great advice from veteran restaurant critics, though I think time and experience are going to be the biggest teachers for me as far as my own routine goes.
What’s the best advice a veteran critic has given you so far?
Ruth Reichl told me the only things worth doing are the ones that terrify me. If it keeps me up at night, I know I have to do it.
You’ve told me before — and I think you were kidding — that you were going to take BART to the Bay Area’s farthest-flung stations, then eat your way back.
Ha! I’m committed to public transit, so that’s definitely how some of my days have looked.
Maybe as a teaser while everyone awaits your first review, can you describe how you’ll approach the format in general?
In the lead-up to my debut in the pages of the Chronicle, I’ve been doing a lot of reading: of Wesley Morris, Ruth Reichl, Hanif Abdurraqib, and others. What fascinates me about restaurants and the act of eating out is how molded the experience is by both the choices individual restaurateurs (or groups) make and the more meta-level influences of the culture at large. As a diner who is a product of your time, you bring a lot of your own baggage and social assumptions to a meal, and sussing out how that plays out in a scene is so much more interesting to me than pretending that the diner is an empty shell that simply absorbs everything a chef or restaurateur may throw at me!
Meaning that, conversely, chefs better build menus around more than Instagram and self-conceit, right? You recently penned a takedown of Lucky Cricket, Andrew Zimmern’s new Chinese chain that’s purportedly “saving the souls” of Midwesterners from bad sweet-and-sour pork. You called it “a Disneyfied vision of the East” that “mishandles building-block Chinese dishes.”
Chefs can do whatever they want. I see my task as sussing out how it lands.
Food media’s insularity has stirred up plenty of controversy in the last year. With critic jobs opening at the L.A. Times and the Chronicle, it was common to see pleas for “someone other than a white man” to take each job. How does it feel being handed that mantle?
The weight is heavy, and I feel compelled to do the best I can “for the culture.” What if I screw up and no one ever hires a queer woman of color for a role like this again? That’s what I think about late at night, but when I wake up I realize: (1) that’s very self-centered; (2) I trust that my freshly promoted West Coast colleagues — Tejal Rao, Patricia Escárcega, and Bill Addison — and my scrappy community of writers have my back. And vice versa. Mutual aid FTW.
You say that as one of your first pieces of business for the Chronicle, you’re tackling the question of how to review restaurateurs accused of sexual harassment, so I’ll ask a related question. Some readers don’t actually think it’s the critic’s job to wade into those topics. How much is your role to challenge readers’ mind-sets?
Honestly, I think it’s the other way around: readers of food writing have become more diverse and politically savvy, and the cadre of critics must shift to match them. I’ve already gotten so many missives from readers begging for more empathy for people who don’t match what has traditionally been considered the archetype of who reads this kind of stuff, asking me to thoroughly consider vegans, disabled people, and workers in my upcoming reviews.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s say you discover San Francisco’s most incredible tacos, but learn they’re cooked by a racist chef with a border wall GoFundMe. What do you do?
There may be no ethical consumption under capitalism, but we can do our best to lay all the cards out on the table to help others make the most informed decisions they can.