On this episode of “Extra Spicy,” Serena Dai, the new senior features editor for The Chronicle, talks about her first impressions of the Bay Area food
Fun fact: Dai, a veteran food editor and reporter, hasn’t eaten a single avocado since she moved here from New York City a few weeks ago, and she’s very concerned about it.
Listen to the episode by clicking on the player above, and scroll down to read an edited transcript of Soleil Ho and Justin Phillips’ full conversation with Serena Dai.
Here is a transcript of Soleil Ho and Justin Phillips’ interview with Serena Dai, edited and condensed for clarity. The interview was conducted on Sept. 23.
Soleil Ho: So you’re our boss. How exciting.
Serena Dai: Technically, yeah. I still find it weird to be called a boss. But technically yes.
Soleil Ho: You’re the overseer and we are just the cogs that execute your vision.
Serena Dai: Yeah. A hundred percent. That’s exactly how work goes every day.
Justin Phillips: Soleil, you have to clean up your act today. You can’t behave how you normally behave because the boss is in.
Serena Dai: Wow.
Soleil Ho: You can’t see it, but I did put on a shirt for this interview.
Serena Dai: I’m definitely really scary. You know, every morning I come in, crack things to go and have a lot of demands. And deadlines and stuff. So I guess that does make me the boss.
Soleil Ho: So you moved here for the job. What is your first impression of the Bay Area? As this new, with your life food editor eyes.
Serena Dai: I moved last week or so. I started working remotely before I came because of the pandemic. I came the week that everything was orange, the smoke was really bad. And my fiance and I visited like 16 apartments over the course of three days. And the air quality was super bad the entire time.
We luckily had an N95 mask from his work, and so we’re wearing that the entire time. So my first impressions were that it was smoky. Very, very smoky. But it cleared off shortly after, which was good. But from the food side, I haven’t eaten that much yet. I think I’m still feeling things out.
I have been eating out a ton and everything is new and exciting. So I came from New York and there is an idea of what California eating is in New York. New York has a very specific version of that. And it’s always light and breezy and airy. And, so many vegetables and avocados. And the design for these places are usually beige or pastels.
That’s the interpretation that had been offered to me in New York. But funnily enough, I haven’t been eating that much light stuff. I’ve had four different pizzas, maybe, since arriving.
All very good pizza. I had Cheeseboard Pizza last night and it wasn’t a super heavy piece by any means, but I’ve been eating pizza. I went to FOB kitchen and had like pork belly, which is not necessarily that light Delicious, but not late. Yeah, so I think it’s maybe just the nature of what’s around me.
There’s such a diversity of cuisines that I’ve already been trying, and it’s not necessarily this one-shot vision of California cuisine as a marketing term.
Soleil Ho: Have you eaten any avocados since you got here?
Serena Dai: I haven’t eaten a single avocado. I thought they would just hand you an avocado when you get off the plane. That did not happen for me.
Justin Phillips: So Serena, one of the things that used to surprise me when I first got here was how often people would tell me, “Man, it’s going to take a long time for you to understand Bay Area restaurants out here. It’s going to take a while for you to hit the ground running.” And in certain ways, for sure, that’s obviously the case. It takes some reading and talking with a lot of people to figure it out.
But for someone who has so much experience like covering the restaurant world, the food industry, what does it take to figure out a region’s dining style? Especially when you have to move to that place, what do you do to figure it out?
Serena Dai: Yeah. I think at a different time I would have just been eating out all the time. And I like to go eat out and have a normal dinner. And then at the end, when I’m done, like really chat up the servers and introduce myself.
But COVID is interesting. Obviously, restaurants are not open indoors. And so the ways that I maybe would have gotten to know food in the past are not as accessible to me. I might have done some outdoor dining. I feel like I’ve been more active than most of the people I know as far as going out to restaurants, even before I moved to New York. Because I was living in the city, so I was going out to eat and it has translated to here where I feel pretty comfortable doing outdoor dining. And so I have been doing that a little bit and just driving around or going to different places and going to new places a lot.
I don’t know how much people are aware of how food people eat. Like how restaurant reporters eat. But you have your list and I very rarely repeat restaurants. And it’s going out to eat. I always want to eat something delicious and I always want to fall in love when I go to a restaurant. The test for me is I mostly go to new places and if it’s a place I actually want to go back to, that’s a big deal. Just cause you only have a limited time to eat at places and you only have three meals a day.
The time that I do spend going out to eat, it’s really to look at, “What are they serving? How are they serving it? What is the story they’re trying to tell me? What are different things that they’re doing with their layout? Or the kinds of things they’re serving. Or the way they’re talking to me?” Or even like what music is playing in the bathroom and what does that say about what they’re trying to do?
And I love those details. I really miss restaurants in general and indoor dining, because, for me, it’s so much more than the food. It’s so much about being in a place and having a sense of place and understanding where the restaurant wants you to be and how they want to make you feel.
And so I do miss that a lot, and it’s a lot of how I got to know food in the past and was excited to do here. So it’s definitely very different because things are mostly takeout and delivery. I still am trying to do takeout versus delivery, if possible, so I can see the space and see the area around it.
I think that neighborhoods that restaurants choose to be in always tells something about it as well, and who they’re trying to reach. And how they’re trying to be a part of their neighborhood. Restaurants and food in general is something it’s such an inherently local beat to be on, because most people don’t want to read about food that they can’t eat.
Food media in general I think that the big thing is that people who read it love to eat food and want to learn about food and ultimately are going to want to eat it.
Justin Phillips: Can you explain to people why food coverage is important, even at the craziest of times? If you go all the way back to November 2017 to the wildfires in the years after. … When the world felt the craziest people still came to read good restaurant stories. So why do you think that is? Why does that resonate with people, no matter the situation?
Serena Dai: I think that during the pandemic in particular, food is this essential service. But it’s also something that has really rooted people even when everything else is falling apart. Food is something that you still have to eat. You still have to eat your meals every day.
The way we eat has changed because restaurants are closed. Grocery stores became more packed and delivery for groceries became more difficult. And so a lot of food coverage around that point was service. Is helping people figure out how to navigate that. Cause they still needed to eat, but all the systems were different. So how do we eat now? I think that part was really important.
And as far as reading about restaurants, I think having dining rooms be closed for a lot of people showed them how much they cared about restaurants. And how important restaurants were to their neighborhoods and the reasons they love the place that they live. And what a critical part of their lives it was.
You see all these people leaving San Francisco and a lot of his quotes are, “A part of the reasons I really love living in San Francisco was the restaurants and the dining scene, and that’s not as accessible to me anymore.” So they felt more comfortable leaving, in part because of that.
And for the people who are still here: “It’s OK, my neighborhood place, I really want that to survive. Cause I live here. And once this is over, I still want to go back. I’m feeling obligated to go and buy gift cards or contribute to a GoFundMe for their employees because I had met the person.”
I think, especially in more urban areas there, it’s a way of building community. Going to a restaurant and getting to know the place that you live. And so I think it really has accentuated how important it was for people. Cause it’s not as available anymore.
Soleil Ho: Yeah. I wanted to bring this around to a topic that we all have been working on a lot, which is how do you deliver accolades or criticism or any sort of judgments on restaurants in the scene right now?
Justin, you worked on a story about Michelin and the James Beards and how the guide and the Beard awards were all part of this growth of fine dining here. But of course, fine dining can’t happen in the same way right now. And then I, of course, have been thinking a lot about the James Beards and also about the Top 100 and just what the point of it all is.
This example feels so pertinent. We could have easily just not done any sort of Top 100 We’re certainly skipping over a few of the annual awardee-type things that we do, but I think it might be interesting to hear Serena’s take on why it matters to award restaurants at this moment. When there’s a risk that any of these projects that we do might just arrive on the scene with no notice. With tumbleweeds. Crickets.
Serena Dai: Oh my God. Soleil, don’t curse us! Knock on wood over here! For me, the Top 100 is interesting because in some cases it feels like an accolade. And for the restaurants, it’s a great honor to be on that list. And it still is, I think, but for me, our ultimate reader is not the restaurant, but people who love to eat.
And the people who live in the city and people who live in the Bay Area, in general awards are a way to less assign value, but give people some guidance.
Food coverage is ultimately service coverage in many ways.
There so much going on and our job is to help people understand the world and also help people understand how to spend their money. So in one case, the Top 100 is a great honor for a restaurant to be on. But also guidance for people who are eating in the Bay Area.
There are so many restaurants. It’s your job, Soleil, to eat at all these restaurants and understand the scene and know what the best stuff is. And so in some ways it’s helping people spend their money in the best way possible. Everyone can have their favorites, but you are actually an expert in this. You were eating at the places. You’re making judgment calls on it.
It’s celebratory. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, these are these really great restaurants who are doing really well. If you’re interested in food in the Bay Area, let this be your guide. if you are interested in learning about your city in this way and learning about your neighborhood in this way, you can come here.”
If you don’t know where to start with spending your money, if you don’t know where to start on what to eat, we can help you. And so the audience for us is the readers and the people living in the area.
And so that makes the Top 100 and our role a little bit different from something like James Beard, where James Beard feels very much for the restaurants and for the industry. And even though it also has this double effect of being for people who are really interested in food and looking for guidance on where to go, I can’t say for sure, but I bet Michelin would say the same thing that they are for people who are interested in fine dining and a guidance from them, but it has this double effect of being an accolade.
So there’s a mind-set in there. And I do still think there is a place for guidance and awards. And I don’t think that awards overall need to be completely tossed away. I think that in any situation where there’s so much information, people are always going to want a way to organize it, ’cause there’s just so much going on in the world.
And I think that it does provide a value to point people in the right direction on how to spend their money and how to spend their time.
And a lot of the conversation around awards right now is probably in the pandemic because so many restaurants are struggling and a lot of them may not even survive.
And so there are bigger issues going on right now because awards don’t matter if the restaurants aren’t even going to be open to give the awards to. And then also everything going on with racial equity. These conversations have been going on for quite a while now with award systems. From even before the Me Too movement because a lot of the people had been allegedly abusive within their kitchens. Do these people still deserve awards?
And to that I say the answer is no. I think there is a way we can change the value system where we figure out who we think readers should be sending their money to and enjoying their products. And I think, Soleil, that’s something that you had already started to do last year is stay relevant with this list and this guidance for readers that kind of doubles as an accolade. And it’s thinking, “OK, we’re gonna look at this more holistically.” And it’s not just about the food on the plate and it hasn’t been just about the food on the plate for many years.
Soleil Ho: How do you keep awards and accolades from being this compounding of aesthetic homogeneity? Especially for an accolade, like the Top 100, which is normally led by a singular person, one brain, and one set of values and aesthetic. Maybe that’s not something you can’t avoid? It’s a really complicated question because with the awards and that sort of thing, there’s an assumption of objectivity. But I think what we’re realizing now is that they’re not.
Serena Dai: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a really great point. You think about what is trendy, and it is a group of people which ends up being a little bit groupthink-ish at what ends up doing well, and what doesn’t. It’s really tough to say.
I think that the movements to diversify who is in food media and who does deserve a voice has been really helpful because, at the end of the day, it is all subjective.
A lot of dining is objective and people can have different opinions. And the more people are in it, and the more that different voices are celebrated, I think there can be a diversification of what is deserving of accolades as well.
There’s always things that somehow end up becoming these like food media darlings — and I’ve obviously contributed to it having been in the media for a little bit now — but from a personal perspective, I’m just going to a restaurant and deciding if I like it or not.
I think people have really good authenticity filters. And by authenticity, I mean seeing whether a place that opens and is building itself for the awards versus a place that feels genuine about what they’re doing.
An example might be natural wine. Natural wine is super hip now. All the new restaurants that are somebody will have natural wines on the list. And part of it is because that is the way things are trending for those kinds of restaurants. But I think going into a place, it doesn’t take that many questions to know if they are just throwing on a wine on their list and calling it organic, versus they are actually really invested in the movement.
I’ve written about this a lot where a natural line that doesn’t actually have a specific definition, and it’s more of an ethos of how people are making their wines and how people are treating their workers. And in general this more holistic approach to what it means to have a natural wine.
I’ll go into wine shops, for example, and ask, “Hey, do you have anything natural?” And they’re like, “We have these like two organic wines.” And I’ll ask a very simple question about that, and they won’t know the difference between an organic wine and natural wine and a biodynamic wine.
And it’s like, “OK. You’re just putting this in here because people are asking for it and you don’t really know the difference. And you’re not actually invested with the ethos.” And that kind of stuff is pretty easy to pick up on. Even if you’re not in food media.
I think it shows if what they’re doing with the menu and what they’re doing with their list feels authentic to what they’re actually interested in, versus, “I’m just following this trend because this is what the food media crew likes, what the James Beard committee people like right now.”
Soleil Ho: It reminds me of how, after 32 years of being the food critic, Michael Bauer had a very recognizable aesthetic that a lot of restaurants in the Bay Area knew, and they were able to anticipate. And in all the openings, they were able to say, “OK, this is a dish that Michael would like, so let’s put that on the menu.” Like that sort of thing.
And so it’s interesting to see that now. To see the kind of concrete lineage that he left in menus, aesthetics, staffing and that sort of stuff. And it’s humbling to think about how that might emerge based on what I do in these sorts of projects.
Serena Dai: Yeah, that’s super interesting. It’s all up in the air right now because of the pandemic and I think everyone’s trying to survive. So in that sense, it’s almost good. I hope everyone takes a good look at what they’re doing.
We’re in a similar business in that you’re not going to make that much money in journalism. So if you’re going to be in it, you have to really care about what you’re doing and really be passionate about what you’re trying to say. And I think for many restaurants it’s quite similar, where it’s a really tough business and most people don’t get super wealthy off of it. So figure out what you want to say.
Some of this stuff I’m already seeing. And a lot of it is good and there’s sometimes this correction of making sure people are treating their workers appropriately and having good kitchen culture. And these progressive ideas of what we want restaurants to be. And I think it’s really good that more people are thinking about that.
There’s a performativity element to this, and I think you’re seeing this as a lot right now, online. In particular, everyone is trying to be like, “OK, we are good. I care about Black Lives Matter. Or here’s this black square.” And it’s in some ways very easy to learn the performance of saying that you’re doing good by people.
There’s not a certification for paying your workers appropriately. And that kind of stuff can be really hard to find out before saying something. And the way to confirm it is … like Soleil, you have a lot of sources, people are emailing you, “OK. This person posted this square, but actually they treated me like shit back in the day. And so it’s not really true.” So there has to be checks on that.
But I think if that’s going to be our value, if that’s what we’re saying that this is what we want the restaurants on this list to be, I think that’s good. I do think that there’s going to be this inbetween stage where it’s going to be hard to tell who’s actually doing the thing that they’re saying, and who’s not.
Soleil Ho: Yeah. Workplace culture shifts are so slow. Do you fire everyone and then start over? Or do you sell the business and then go away? It’s really hard to tell what the right thing to do is with every case. And yeah, a lot of times too, people will ask me, “How do you find out about stuff?” And really, it’s just, I find out because people tell me. I’m not a psychic when it comes to that sort of stuff, because I’m not in the restaurants or in the kitchens all the time.
What I learned to appreciate was just how much I rely on sources and on the trust of people that I’ve never even met to tell me what’s going on out there. And in addition to going to the restaurants and eating at them, pre-pandemic, and just looking and listening with my own senses. It’s really interesting how that works.
Justin Phillips: Serena, what’s this Top 100 journey been like for you?
Serena Dai: It’s been an interesting thing. It has been one of the first big projects that I started the second day I was here. The moment I started, Soleil and I started talking about it. And there’s actually a lot of big changes coming to the Top 100. I don’t know, even if we should tease them or not.
Soleil Ho: I think we should tease them.
Serena Dai: It’s Top 88 right now, but coming forward, the number is going to get real tight. It’s going to be a little more curated. So in the past, Michael Bauer was doing it every year. And last year Soleil did it as well.
But we’re gonna have it be a little more active throughout the year. So this is kinda going to be the last version of this list as it exists right now. We will have some big revamp in January.
Soleil Ho: What are you most looking forward to right now that you’ve entered the Bay Area and you’ve entered this really high-profile job? What are you excited about?
Serena Dai: I just started meeting people. I haven’t started making connections within the world here, and I’m excited to hear what people are thinking. And what they think defines California eating right now. And I’m excited to eat much better produce, more practically. I have heard rumors that the produce is better here and I would like to check it out.
I feel like I’m on vacation a little bit. And I mean that where you go to a place and everything is so fresh and so new, and you’re seeing things through different eyes. And going to new places that you haven’t seen before.
And in some sense, it’s a sensory overload. Every single day is completely new to me. I have to have that fresh start, and I haven’t really been introducing myself to that many people in the industry yet. And it’s something that I am planning on doing, probably right after Top 100 comes out.
So I’m really pumped about that and just to see what people are looking for. And hear from folks on what the needs are for this region.
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