Critic Soleil Ho: Are We Asking Too Much of Restaurants—or Not Enough? | Civil Eats

Critic Soleil Ho: Are We Asking Too Much of Restaurants—or Not Enough?

The San Francisco Chronicle’s food critic turned critic at large discusses food labor, restaurants as vehicles for cultural change, and the potential narrowing of the industry.

Soleil Ho, culture critic, San Francisco Chronicle. Photo credit: Celeste Noche

Photo credit: Celeste Noche

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Soleil Ho spent four years in the role of restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle before becoming a broader cultural critic for the publisher earlier this year. And while Ho, who uses they/them pronouns, did indeed visit restaurants and write about the experiences they had there, that was often where the similarity between their work and more traditional restaurant criticism ended.

Instead of stopping at the flavors, service, and ambiance, their columns often aimed to broaden readers’ awareness of everything from the intention behind the business and the way it treated workers, to the role it played in preserving or pushing cultural boundaries.

Although Ho—who founded Racist Sandwich, a podcast that delved into the politics, race, and identity within the broader scope of food and restaurants, before moving to the Chronicle—has had their gaze firmly fixed on the Bay Area the whole time, their influence has been felt beyond the region. For all these reasons, we figured they’d have some interesting things to say about the future, and the present, of the restaurant.

“A wide range of choices being made at all kinds of levels—from governmental to individual—manifest in food culture, and it says a lot about what we want as people, but also what we are told are the limits of aspiration.”

What made you want to work as a restaurant reviewer for the Chronicle, and what has made you want to expand that role to write other forms of cultural criticism in the last year?

I never planned on becoming a restaurant critic. It was just this thing that happened. From 2016 to 2019, I was really interested in meta-narratives about food. Having been involved in food media and in the restaurant world to a pretty big extent, I was really curious about how we talked about food and restaurants. And I certainly included restaurant criticism in that bucket.

I applied for the job at [the Chronicle] for the experience. I was surprised that they wanted to hire me, and I accepted the job because it seemed to be a really exciting opportunity to see how far I could go in setting certain guardrails for how I wanted to write about restaurants. I was asking: How do you do it in a consistently equitable way? And in a way that de-centers a lot of the a priori assumptions about who goes to restaurants and who’s interested in food media.

It was based on this idea that restaurants and food could serve as cultural texts worth decoding. A wide range of choices being made at all kinds of levels—from governmental to individual—manifest in food culture, and it says a lot about what we want as people, but also what we are told are the limits of aspiration.

So, all of that was included in my vision for the role. And I think it naturally expands to other things, because from the beginning, I was appropriating an analytical lens that has been more readily applied to other types of media and other kinds of material culture. I was zooming into foods, and applying other sorts of principles of analysis to something that had hitherto been maybe underexamined, in my view.

Now you are back to using that wider critical lens. How will your work continue to intersect with restaurants?

It will still intersect with restaurants on occasion. I recently wrote a piece about the first lab-grown meat being served at a restaurant in the United States, which happened to be at a spot in San Francisco, so I went and tried it. And I spent a lot less time writing about the service and the flavors and more time on the big questions about lab-grown meat, like why its funders aspire to recreate animal flesh.

I am still curious about the idea that a restaurant, or really any small or medium-sized enterprise, can be a vehicle for cultural change. Because I think that’s something that many people in food media have to take as an assumption. There’s so much coverage that centers around the restaurant as a locus for change, or as the canary in a coal mine.

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We saw that a lot with COVID and how we talked, and continue to talk, about the way people adapt. I’m interested in playing with that idea and problematizing it and finding new ways to talk about alternative modes of empowerment and sovereignty when it comes to food and economic and financial stability for people who generally are the most vulnerable in our economic system. I danced around it a lot when I was a restaurant critic, and I’m hoping to be more explicit in really thinking about the restaurant as a concept—not just restaurant concepts.

I often have thought of the food system—and restaurants as the most visible aspect of the system—in the same way that I’ve thought about real estate bubbles or tech bubbles. So much of the true costs are externalized—from the workers often needing to rely on SNAP to the costs of environmental destruction caused by conventional ag falling on the taxpayers. COVID was kind of like a bursting of the bubble in some ways. But I wonder if that bubble was going to burst anyway. Do you have thoughts about that?

This newfound or reinvigorated labor movement in the U.S. was so informed by COVID. I don’t think we would have had a hot union summer without COVID. Broadly, and then also in the food industry, I think people were fed up with being put at risk for, essentially, burgers and fries. I feel like the pandemic is so inextricable from how we understand labor and food now.

People have written to me, saying that if they had a choice, they wouldn’t think about labor. So, it’s through the efforts of people who are advocating for food workers and writing about food labor that readers have been reminded about the people behind the plate.

“There was such an apex of restaurant culture in the past 10 years, and I think that’s over.”

Given the rise in the number of fast-casual restaurants, and the shortage of people interested in working in restaurants after the pandemic, I’ve wondered: Is the idea of being served as it once existed an outdated concept? Or will it always be a product of the (growing) class divide?

I think it is very much a product of class. And, at least if TikTok and Yelp are any indication, we still have a lot of vocal people who care about service. But I wonder if the backlash to tipping, for instance, and automation are going to add to this sort of deterioration of old service models that require a human who wants to be tipped?

Eating in restaurants has gotten much more expensive than it was before the pandemic. Are you seeing more people get priced out? 

In the Bay Area, we saw a lot of restaurants close early in the pandemic. Some were older restaurants that were near the end of their long-term leases and I think they were kind of lucky for getting out when they did, because things are so hard now. I’ve heard from so many restaurateurs and cooks that raw ingredients are now so expensive. And there are so many ways in which that trickles down. Prices are crazy, and I eat out maybe once a week these days. For a lot of people though, the more relevant thing is grocery stores. Restaurants are a budget item that’s optional, but buying food for your home is not. And that’s the tough thing. There was such an apex of restaurant culture in the past 10 years, and I think that’s over. I think we’re going to see a major compaction in the industry that is only going to continue.

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What do you see as the best-case scenario for restaurants in the next decade?

Part of what will enable restaurants to thrive is a reduction in the overall number of them. There are just too many. And too many that were opened by people who just thought they were making easy money. It does feel like we’re headed towards more austerity, and maybe the positive thing is that more restaurants are going to have to have a clearer vision of what they’re supposed to be. I think that’s good for restaurants, because any sort of project that is done half-heartedly is pretty disappointing to experience.

Do you think restaurants can act as important third spaces as we’ve lost many other of those kinds of spaces?

There’s this really interesting tension there around whose obligation it is to provide third spaces. Restaurants have filled a gap because public infrastructure has been inadequate in the United States. Do third spaces where you have to pay admission count? Is that actually respecting the definition of the phrase? I don’t know. One of the virtues of a third space is it allows a place’s residents to rub up against each other. And I feel like restaurants can homogenize the people that are in the space, just by virtue of the culture they set and the price point. I think there should be more free third spaces. Private enterprise shouldn’t be the only option available.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Twilight Greenaway is the former managing editor and executive editor of Civil Eats. Her articles about food and farming have appeared in The New York Times, NPR.org, The Guardian, Food and Wine, Gastronomica, and Grist, among other. See more at TwilightGreenaway.com. Follow her on Twitter. Read more >

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