Special Sauce Live, Ed Levine Edition: A Serious Eater Is Born! [1/2]

At the end of every week, Ed Levine- a.k.a. Serious Eats founder, a.k.a. Serious Eats overlord, a.k.a. “missionary of the delicious,” a.k.a. Ed “The Good Ones Eat Through the Pain” Levine- hosts intimate conversations with food lovers of all kinds, diving deep into the ways in which eating and sharing meals has shaped his guests’ lives.

For this and next week’s episodes of Special Sauce, we turned the tables on Ed and had Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and Ed’s longtime friend, grill Ed in front of a live audience at Rizzoli Bookstore in Manhattan. The event was held in part to celebrate the release of Ed’s memoir, Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption, named one of the best cooking, food, and wine books of 2019 so far by Amazon.

The evening started off with a bang, as Meyer admitted at the outset that he was going to be a combative interviewer. He noted that he’d been hankering for a chance to interrogate Ed about his business decisions, in much the same way Ed questioned the integrity of Meyer’s business when he wondered, quite publicly, about Union Square Hospitality Group’s inability to make good French fries. Or, as Ed so diplomatically put it at the time, “Why Do the French Fries at Blue Smoke Suck?

Despite saying that he should “have his head examined” for helping Ed sell his book, Meyer did a fine job filling in for Ed, asking him all the questions that Special Sauce listeners have come to expect, such as “What was it like at the Levine family table?” Ed revealed that his grandmother’s cooking was what sparked his intense love of food, and he identified the source of his missionary zeal as his parents, who originally met at a Communist Party meeting and bequeathed their passionate intensity, if not their politics, to all their children.

Part one of the conversation begins with Ed’s childhood and ends with his college years, when he discovered a love for music that rivaled his love for food, even as he dabbled in a life of petty crime with an associate who will forever be known only as “Jerry Garcia.”

To find out what that means, and to hear the origin story of the man who would go on to create Serious Eats, you’re just going to have to listen to part one of this Special Sauce interview with Ed Levine. (Or, of course, you can buy a copy of Serious Eater for yourself!)


Ed Levine: So here we are at Rizzoli’s Bookstore in New York City before an audience of voracious readers and eaters. Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to someone of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike. This week my guest is … Hey, wait a minute. It’s me. It’s Ed Levine, Serious Eats Overlord, because I’ve just written a book entitled Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Path to Pizza and Redemption. And performing host duties tonight, as he does for his guests at the Union Square Café just blocks away, is Danny Meyer, my longtime friend. So welcome to my spot, my chair, man, Mr. Meyer.

Danny Meyer: I cannot wait for the opportunity to grill you because you’ve been doing this to me for a whole lot of years, even before you had a podcast.

EL: That’s true, that’s true. I’m not sure, did you ever forgive me when I titled the … what was the title of the post?

DM: “Why Can’t Danny Meyer Figure Out How to Make Good French Fries?”

EL: No, that was the G-rated. I think it was “Why Do the French Fries at Shake Shack Suck?”

DM: And I’m the chump that’s sitting with him right now, helping him sell his goddamn book. I should have my head examined. I do want to say, Ed, and I think you want to go next, don’t you, because you don’t know how to not be the interviewer.

EL: No, go ahead, man. It’s you.

DM: I do want to share with everybody, Ed and I have known each other for a really, really long time; so long ago that I remember a meeting on Table 67 at the original Union Square Café, before there was a Gramercy Tavern, that’s how long ago it was. And Ed came up, and he talked to me about a cockamamie idea that he had. He was going to get underwriting from American Express. He was always trying to figure out who to fund everything, and I said-

EL: Some things never change, man.

DM: Forget about the funding part of it, what are you doing? He said, “I’m going to write a book where I’m going to tell everybody in New York where they could get the best version of every, single thing that I love to eat.” And I said, “That sounds pretty cool.” And going back that far, we weren’t using the internet. I don’t even know that we had the internet.

EL: There was no internet.

DM: There weren’t things called influencers. There certainly weren’t verified Twitter accounts or anything like that. But Ed wrote this book, and this book for anybody who truly loved food in New York City became the gold standard not only for eating, but I think for exploring the city, and for learning about how different neighborhoods organize themselves around culinary traditions. And I can remember many, many a Saturday with our four kids, and we would take trips and we would use Ed’s book. We would take trips on the subway to different countries using Ed’s book, and it always had a happy ending.

EL: Well, thank you. And you know what’s weird about that, because when I was writing the book, there’s a woman in the acknowledgements I call my Book Therapist who’s sitting right there, Laura Tucker, and she actually said the same thing to me when we met for the very first time. She said, “You know, New York Eats changed my life.” And so that was the basis at which we worked together. When you write a book like that, it’s just one of those labors of love. I didn’t make a lot of money, but I was thrilled to know that I changed people’s lives.

DM: Well you did change people’s lives, and it was really great until you decided now I’m going to start writing about restaurants. And now I was on the receiving end of some biting criticism every now … and occasionally a nice word. But I will say this about Ed. He had then and has now a very, very unusual capacity to actually get along well with the very people he criticizes. And Vicky, I don’t know how you’ve done it all these years. You’ve probably been the one criticizing him from what I read, and holding him accountable, but it’s really a remarkable thing.

DM: I think journalists are mostly uncomfortable with having authentic relationships with the subjects that they cover, because from a journalistic standpoint you shouldn’t really get too close. But Ed found a way to have it all. He found a way by dint of his personality, his generosity of spirit, and I would say a really strong desire to hold his subjects accountable to do it even better that he could deliver criticism in a way that you knew he was actually on your side.

DM: I could have done without that headline you just read about why do the french fries at Shake Shack suck. By the way, it had an impact. And whenever Ed would talk about any dish, we would have a breakfast on an annual basis at a different one of our restaurants that didn’t serve breakfast, and the breakfast was an opportunity to catch up on real things that were really happening in life.

EL: Yeah, it was great. And we still do that.

DM: And also, you would let me have it about things that needed to get better.

EL: And you once, now if you remember, I was probably the only person who didn’t work for you. You actually opened Gramercy Tavern so that you and I could have breakfast.

DM: I also did that at 11 Madison Park, and I remember some of the best scrambled eggs we’ve ever had in our lives.

EL: It’s true.

DM: Remember that one?

EL: But that was a special breakfast.

DM: Then the chefs started … We did it at Union Street Café, we did it at Blue Smoke. The chefs started getting mad at me, so I decided I’d better open a restaurant that actually serves breakfast, and that became Maialino, so it’s a whole lot easier. Although I think Daily Provisions works as well, right? We did that.

EL: Exactly, absolutely.

DM: So Ed, I’m just going to tell … before we get into a bunch of questions, because we are here to make sure everybody knows about this extraordinary book, and it really is. This is a book that wants you to think about food, and it’s truly about life and love, and struggling and tenaciously triumphing. Can you say that? Triumphing.

EL: Triumphing.

DM: Whatever, emerging successful. You have done that, but I do have to just tell everybody the kind of impact that Ed’s loving criticism can have. Shake Shack does have an expression which we believe very deeply; we call it S-F-S-G, which is Stand For Something Good. And the goal is that when we do things, treat people in a certain way, buy products, we stand for something good. So the beef has no growth hormones or antibiotics; the eggs that go into the frozen custard are cage free. And we woke up one day, and after reading Ed’s lovely comment about the french fries, we said how in the world can a restaurant that stands for doing something good possibly think that frozen is better than fresh? And maybe he’s right.

DM: So we decided on that day to take our frozen crinkle cut fries and trash them because Ed Levine said they sucked, and we went through a very, very expensive six month odyssey refitting our restaurants; fortunately, the company was way smaller back then; to learn how to make fresh french fries to make Ed Levine happy. And when I tell you that we with though 50 iterations; you fry them twice; nope, got to fry them three times; got hang them between their frying, you’ve got to figure out the right oil, the right kind of salt. You’ve got to figure out how to buy potatoes, understanding that potatoes just like every other fruit or vegetable has a season, and yet Shake Shack’s open year-round.

DM: And we were so proud of ourselves for having said we’re going to change the whole industry by having fresh french fries so we can make Ed Levine happy. And we rolled out the fresh french fries, and if you got them on a good day, they were some of the best french fries. I invited Ed to eat them with me one day. I think it was on the upper east side, if I’m not mistaken.

EL: Yes, 86th Street.

DM: And fortunately, I think we got a decent batch. But all of a sudden, we started hearing complaints. We heard complaints from Twitter, from Instagram, from mothers and fathers on the baseball field. “Why did you take away our kids’ favorite crinkle cut french fries? They’re oily, they’re greasy, they don’t retain their heat.” We started doing research and we figured that in one aspect in food frozen is better than fresh, and that is french fries. And the reason is that they are picked at their peak, they are flash frozen. When you do them fresh, it’s like eating an apple that I saw in the green market yesterday that was picked last September and October, and expecting it to taste great in June. It doesn’t. It changes the starch, the sugar, et cetera.The coating on the outside of french fries after they’re frozen seals in the heat, seals out the oil.

DM: However, I’m going to take it a step further. It got so bad that we printed t-shirts, sent one to Ed, and it said “Heard” with a big french fry on it, a big crinkle cut french fry on it. The criticism of our new fresh french fries got so bad that we almost went out of business at Shake Shack.

EL: See, and that’s the Serious Eats legacy. You just always creep right to that point of going out of business.

DM: So we finally … Randy Garutti, the CEO of Shake Shack, and I looked each other in the eye one day. He had gotten a pile of feedback from a mom at Little League. Jessica Seinfeld is tweeting at me saying, “Bring back the other french fries. We loved them.” And what we did, which was great, to save face we found a new way of doing crinkle cuts. So instead of just throwing away the fresh french fries, we found a crinkle cut that had no GMOs and no chemicals in the coating. So we could say, “Thanks to Ed Levine, our french fries that he used to think sucked, are actually much better and better for you at the same time.”

EL: And live up to your motto.

DM: And they live up to our motto. But you almost did it …

EL: I almost did you in, too.

DM: … and it’s all because we respect you so much. All right, I want to hear about this book you wrote, Ed.

EL: Yeah. People ask me why I wrote the book, and I wrote the book for a lot of reasons; mostly because I learned so much about myself and the world of food, and the world of business, and I wanted to share what I learned. And also what I realized, that my experience with Serious Eats harkened back to my childhood. I said wow, this is a pretty good yarn, and I think it can be both inspiration and a cautionary tale at the same time.

DM: Way before there were Serious Eats, there was the Levine family and there was-

EL: There was the Levine family, which-

DM: -there was the role of the table, the dinner table.

EL: Yeah, exactly.

DM: Talk about that.

EL: Yeah, yeah. That was interesting, and it’s why the first question on every podcast is ‘tell us about life at the family table.’ Life at the Levine family table was complicated.

DM: And this must be tough because some of those Levines are in the audience.

EL: Yeah, there’s two Levines in the audience.

DM: That means you’ve got to tell us the truth.

EL: And the only reason the fourth Levine brother isn’t is because he passed away, so I’m really on the spot. But his wife is here. Life at the Levine family table, first of all, and anyone who has spent any time with me knows, first of all it was really loud. It was just insanely loud, and I think in the book I talk about it was like Speakers’ Corner in London. You literally had to sing for your supper.

EL: My dad and mom met at a Communist Party meeting at city college. They both grew up dirt poor in New York. My father actually stayed a Communist all the way maybe ’til his death, to the point where my oldest brother, Mike, did a book report when was 11 or 12 on a Howard Fast book. I think it was Spartacus but I’m not sure. And the teacher asked him, this was right in the middle of the McCarthy era, the teacher asked him where he got that book, and he said, “From my parents.” That night, he came home and told my parents that story, and they hid all the books in the basement. So you know, it was a house full of passion; passion about politics, passion about everything.

DM: And were there disagreements about those topics at the table?

EL: I think that’s a rhetorical question. Yes, there were many, many disagreements. My oldest brother, Mike, had sort of become a, I would say and maybe his wife can correct me if I’m wrong, sort of a libertarian/iconoclastic thinker about politics. He was not a doctrinaire thinker. He was genuinely interested in the greater good, but he just thought there had to be other ways to achieve the greater good besides overthrowing the American democracy.

EL: And so, yeah, there were frequent disagreements, but the food sucked. The food was really terrible, I talk about this in the book. My mother thought that cooking was counterrevolutionary because my mother was the columnist for the South Shore Record, which was a local paper. And I went back actually years after she died, obviously, and when it still existed, and I fished out all her columns. And they were these amazingly progressive feminist tracts written two years before The Feminine Mystique had been written. So there was always lots of discussion-

DM: So if the food sucked, was that your impetus to fall in love with food? And what-

EL: No, my impetus was my grandmother. My grandmother had at one point, at least by family lore, had a deli in the Bronx; sold pickles out of a pickle barrel on the lower east side; also grew up in abject poverty. My grandmother was a complicated package. When she took on a lover because her husband died, I never met my grandfather, she used to put my father in an orphanage. It’s like, that’s really not cool, right? But my father hated oatmeal; he couldn’t eat oatmeal because that’s all they served them at the orphanage was oatmeal. But anyway, they overcame that. She lived in the Bronx and she used to show up at our house on the weekends, and she’d cook up a storm. And she’d make potato pancakes, and she’d make blintzes, and she’d make rugelach, and she’s make matzo brei.

DM: So, was that the first time that the-

EL: That was it.

DM: -family table became in part about pleasure as opposed to just arguing and debating?

EL: Yes, for sure. And she would feed all of our friends. She just loved to cook for people, and it was the first time I saw that food was connected to love in this very primal way. And because she was a sort of typically doting grandmother, we used to sometimes, the four of us would go up to her one bedroom apartment in the Bronx. And because she grew up so poor, she used to serve us what she considered luxury items that she couldn’t afford; luxury items like canned fruit cocktail, and what she called Havana Punch, which was Hawaiian Punch because she couldn’t believe that syrupy, sweet water you could buy because you could afford it. So she’d say, “I have Havana Punch for you all.”

DM: I have another related question. One of the really neat things about the book, and we’ll talk a lot more about the arc of your story, which is really moving; I actually found myself crying a couple of times reading a book that I thought was going to be about food and it wasn’t. But one thing I didn’t expect was the, I should have because you and I have talked both at the Jazz Standard, which is our jazz club, and also for years at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party right here on Madison Square Park when we had music, Ed always knew more than the music director did himself. And I’m not sure I remember where your early interest in music came from. I don’t remember many books that have a soundtrack to each chapter.

EL: That’s true. It was weird because my mother used to play piano very badly. I have conductor brother who’s here somewhere, and he could probably attest to that. And she used to sing really badly, too, but she used to sing a lot of leftist folks songs, and they’d go to Paul Robeson concerts and that, and so there was always music. And my brother, Jess, who’s here also, introduced me to jazz at a very young age because he was a jazz fan. And my brother, Gil, started playing the recorder, then played the bassoon, and so there was always music. My father died, as you alluded to, when I was in seventh grade, then my mother remarried and she married this jerk.

DM: You liked this guy, number two?

EL: Yeah, I really hated this guy. We argued because I was besotted by pop music, and I used to go down to the basement and I’d play my singles on my little phonograph. I remember the first single I bought was Rhythm of the Rain by The Cascades, and then I bought the Jackie Wilson single, Work Out, Baby Work Out, which is an amazing song, by the way. Still to this day it is on the playlist. And Dion and all kinds of stuff, and so I think there was music all around the house. And when I got to high school, when my mom died, which was the last time I ever saw the evil stepfather, and we used to argue, that’s why I brought him up. We used to argue because I used to play As Tears Go By by the Stones and I would say, “That’s a great strings piece,” even though probably really in retrospect sucks, and he just couldn’t abide my interest in pop music. He was a real pseudo-intellectual.

EL: So when I went to live with my brother and his wife, who is here, they loved pop music and they also loved classical music too, but music sort of bonded us as a family because I didn’t really know my brother …

DM: And had food played that same role?

EL: Yes. When we moved to L.A., that was what got us through that year, 1968 through ’69, was our common love of food and music. People don’t remember, but L.A. was a great food town even in the late ’60s. The urban sprawl contained Korean communities, and Japanese communities, and obviously Mexican. But it was magic, and it was my-

DM: And it was already speaking to you.

EL: Yes. It was my solus. I can tell you about more bites of food that I ate that year than-

DM: So now you decide it’s time to go to college, or you sort of struggled your way to making that decision, and you said, “Now that I know how much I love food, I’m going to go to Iowa for college.” Help us understand that.

EL: Here’s the thing. Maybe I can admit this for the first time to my sister-in-law. My brother told me about Grinnell, which is this great small school in Iowa, and so I went and it took a really long time to get to. So what I couldn’t tell my brother was the real reason I went to Grinnell is that it would be hard for me to see them. It was like, okay, I’m going to go to school in the Fiji Islands, only it was Grinnell, Iowa, and so the food was an afterthought. But the interesting thing is … I mean, I found some food there, but pork tenderloins. How many pork tenderloin sandwiches can you eat? What I found was a group of jazz lovers. Gary Giddins, who became the jazz critic of the Village Voice.

DM: You introduced me to him when we opened at Jazz Standard.

EL: My friend, Peter Keepnews, who’s now an editor at the Times, whose father was Orrin Keepnews, who produced many records we love by Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins. And so I met these people, and Peter’s always fond saying, “When I first met you, you told me you didn’t like jazz because it was too intellectual.” But I fell in love with the music and the stories behind the music, and so I became the concerts chairman, and I just thought it was the greatest thing in the world. You got paid to pick musicians that would come play at the school, but it was so great to me.

EL: And so, look, one of the things that I didn’t say, we all inherited the missionary gene from my parents. My dad used to get on a soap box about politics; my mother used to get on her soap box about feminism; and so I got on my soap box and I just fell in love with the jazz culture, and I decided I would come to New York when I graduated. I was going to save the jazz world.

DM: Tell us about the transition from music to food, and I guess I should make one other stop along the way. How’d you meet your wife?

EL: Don’t get me started on that.

DM: I am. I’m getting … come on. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

EL: I met my wife at a party because I heard that they were serving homemade ice cream. Kind of a lame idea, but …

DM: And how old are you at this point?

EL: You mean am I 10 or am I 22?

DM: Yeah, that’s what I’m asking. How old were you?

EL: How old was I? 26. And anyway, it actually was at the house of the publisher of Portfolio, interestingly enough who published the book. And so I went and there was this woman who I was just stunned by, and she’s here tonight. And I’d never met anybody like her. How could anyone so beautiful be so smart and just so present? And I was just bowled over. And she laughed at my jokes. That was the other thing that was really, really important. And she remembers that I told, I think I told the Sonny Rollins story that I tell in the book, which is Sonny was supposed to be casting around for his guest soloist. And so I called him one day and I was like, “Sonny, have you heard from Stanley Clarke?” this bass player who’s still alive; Sonny’s still alive, not playing anymore but … Sonny goes, “No.” I said, “Well, why don’t you call him again?” And then he goes, “Fuck Stanley Clarke and fuck you,” and he hung up the phone.

DM: We don’t talk that way at Rizzoli.

EL: So then he called my bosses. He said, “I never want to talk to that guy again.” And so there were only three people at the company, so they said, “Look, we need you to talk to Sonny to get this concert together, so you’re going to have to change your voice and pretend you’re a different name.” So I called myself Bob Scronson …

DM: So this was before Trump was calling himself different names?

EL: Exactly. Because Bob Scronson was my nom de pot at Grinnell. There was a story I do tell in the book of getting arrested because my friend used to send me pounds of pot from Albuquerque and then I was arrested.

DM: And you kept them in the car, yes?

EL: Yes.

DM: That was smart.

EL: And also his return address was Jerry Garcia. So when the cops busted me, they said, “You could do yourself a big favor if you tell us who this Jerry Garcia guy is.” Anyway, I told that story about Sonny Rollins and Vicky laughed. And so she says, and it was the night of a huge snowstorm and that we lived a couple of blocks from each other, and she still has not forgiven me for not walking her home that night, but you marry up and you hang on for dear life.

EL: Special Sauce theme music tells me that we are out of time for part one of this extraordinary edition of our podcast in which I, Ed Levine, am the guest, and the host is none other than the Prince of Hospitality, the King of the Shake Shack empire, Danny Meyer. Next time, more of our conversation emanating from the Rizzoli Bookstore on Broadway, when I will continue to shamelessly flog my new book, Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption. This before a live audience, who are somehow still awake. See you next time, Serious Eaters.