Special Sauce: Soleil Ho on Her Journey From Quantum Physics to Racist Sandwich [1/2]

Like a great deal of food media in America, the world of restaurant criticism has a long history of hiring white writers and closing its doors to people of color.  So it was exciting to see the San Francisco Chronicle break the mold last year when it hired Vietnamese-American food writer and co-host of The Racist Sandwich podcast, Soleil Ho, to be its lead restaurant critic. If that wasn’t cool enough, Soleil also happens to be a fellow graduate of Grinnell College, the small progressive liberal arts college in Iowa that I attended a mere 40 years before she did. For all those reasons and more, I had to have Soleil on Special Sauce.

At Grinnell, Soleil remembers “having to petition dining services to leave soy sauce out for breakfast, and they didn’t understand why we needed it. And I had to make my case like, ‘No, soy sauce and eggs is a thing that people eat.’” Vocal as she was about food, though, she didn’t start out wanting to be a food writer. “When I entered college, I wanted to get into physics. I was really into quantum physics and was reading the History of Time and all of these other books,” she recalls. But cooking always had an undeniable allure. “Oh, I used to be so into Iron Chef when I was a kid. I loved the bravado of it, of peeling eels alive and all of that stuff. And that’s what really attracted me to that.” 

Learning to cook came later, initially from reading, watching TV, and dining out, and eventually from working in Portland as a line cook. It was during her line cook days that she started her groundbreaking podcast, The Racist Sandwich, with Zahir Janmohamed. “We wanted the show to be a reliable place within food media for people to find these stories that seems like they only ran on special occasions. You know, like you’d only read black stories in February during Black History Month, or you’d only read LGBTQ stories during June, Pride Month, those sorts of things. And we wanted to cover that stuff all the time and not feel like those stories were an exception or tokens or anything like that.” We covered so many interesting topics during the first half of our conversation we never even got to her San Francisco Chronicle gig. For that, you’ll have to wait until next week. In the meantime, you can check out her bylines for the newspaper right here.


Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.

Soleil Ho: When I entered college, I wanted to get into physics. I was really into quantum physics and was reading the History of Time and all of these other books.

EL: And then what?

SH: Got a job at a sandwich shop.

EL: Today we are talking to Soleil Ho, the new and groundbreaking restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Soleil is also the co-creator of the terrific podcast, Racist Sandwich. Is that still on the air? Or no, when you left?

SH: It’s in the works. We took a hiatus after I left, just because they had to figure out all their stuff.

EL: Got it, okay. Soleil’s also written a book called Meal, or co-written a book, I should say. Welcome to Special Sauce, Soleil Ho, a fellow Grinnell College alum. How many times have I gotten to say this on Special Sauce? Never.

SH: Thanks for having me.

EL: It was so much fun researching this podcast. Where do I begin? There’s so much I want to talk to you about. Can you stay for like eight hours?

SH: I do have to file a review today, so I don’t think so.

EL: Okay. All right, all right. You know, that’s what all the restaurant critics say to me. So tell us about life at the Ho family table.

SH: Gosh, it had so many iterations. But the main way to frame it is my mom was a single mother for most of my childhood. And so she would oftentimes allow my sister and I, my younger sister and I, to order from the array of takeout menus and delivery menus that we kept in this one drawer in the kitchen.

EL: Where were you living?

SH: New York City, in Manhattan.

EL: In Manhattan. Okay.

SH: And so she would fan them out and we would pick and my sister and I would fight over, you know, we want Italian this night or Indian or Thai or Vietnamese or Mexican. And that was often what we would end up eating because she was just too busy to cook.

EL: That’s weird because she’s a chef, right?

SH: Nowadays, yeah. She worked in fashion for most of my life. And then when she air-quotes retired, she decided to move to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and open a restaurant.

EL: Because that’s what everyone does who works in fashion. They air-quote retire, move to Puerto Vallarta and open a restaurant.

SH: Mm-hmm.

EL: So you mostly ordered takeout? That was what the Ho family table was like growing up?

SH: Yeah, mostly takeout. And you know, sometimes she would cook. And when she did, she would dip into the Gourmet Cookbook or … I mean, she had Aquavit by Marcus Samuelsson on the table, all of this sort of stuff. And she always would look at cookbooks and recipes in the magazines and stuff like that for inspiration.

EL: And she’s Vietnamese American, right?

SH: Yes.

EL: Were you one of those kids who just were naturally curious about food? If she was cooking, would stand up on a chair to watch her?

SH: No, I was a bookworm.

EL: That is quite a revealing confession, Soleil.

SH: Yeah, I was actually more interested in reading. But when we’d go to restaurants, I was so fascinated by the entire procedure.

EL: And did you explore the New York City food scape much?

SH: I did, yes. We lived in Midtown for a time and so we walked around the neighborhoods a lot. and I would always peek my head into restaurants and read menus, because they always had the menus like plaster in the window, you know?

EL: Did you like those Japanese restaurants that would actually have the dishes in plastic?

SH: I still do. Those are so cool.

EL: I do too. And there’s a name for that. I don’t know what it’s called. But I want a museum exhibit or a gallery exhibit of that stuff.

SH: Yeah. Actually when I was in Tokyo this past fall, I went to the street where they make all that stuff, which is called-

EL: Really?

SH: Kappabashi. These artisans make the plastic food and it’s … There’s so much work involved.

EL: So I read that when your mom did cook Vietnamese food, you were embarrassed by the broadly, weirdly fishy dishes. Is that true?

SH: Yeah, I would have friends over sometimes, and I just didn’t know how to explain the food to them. I didn’t have any Vietnamese friends growing up, so the other Vietnamese kids I knew were in my family. And so that was just what we knew. But having to articulate the difference was a challenge for me, and so I just didn’t.

EL: So you just hoped that they would ignore the broadly, weirdly fishy food.

SH: I had the attitude of like, “Oh, you wouldn’t like this.” So, you know, it’s okay.

EL: Which is the attitude you sometimes get in Chinese restaurants many, many years ago.

SH: Yeah, I would’ve been a terrible waitress as a child.

EL: So you ended up at Grinnell College, where you probably succeeded in escaping those broadly, weirdly fishy dishes, that’s for sure. Because there’s no broadly, weirdly fishy food in Grinnell, Iowa.

SH: No, I ended up making a lot of food for myself there, because sad to say, the food at the dining hall was not up to par for me.

EL: You know, I’m speaking about 50 years after the fact. It kind of sucked back then. It was probably a marginally better at least when you were there.

SH: Oh, I’m sure. But it just wasn’t enough. Like I remember having to petition dining services to leave soy sauce out for breakfast, and they didn’t understand why we needed it. And I had to make my case like, “No, soy sauce and eggs is a thing that people eat.”

EL: And so what did you do food-wise? First of all, did you teach yourself to cook? Or did you watch the Food Network? How did you learn to cook?

SH: Oh, I used to be so into Iron Chef when I was a kid. I loved the bravado of it, of peeling eels alive and all of that stuff. And that’s what really attracted me to that. But I learned how to cook … Gosh, I think from reading. And I think from … yeah, watching TV, and of course from eating things too, just eating out at restaurants. And so I had a certain palette that I carried with me. And so when I went to school, I just fended for myself a lot of the time.

EL: Let’s face it, the eating-out options at Grinnell, Iowa were really limited. Could you still get the donuts at the Danish Maid Bakery two in the morning?

SH: Yeah, yeah. You know, I didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, so that didn’t appeal to me too much.

EL: What about the loose meat sandwiches at the Maid-Rite?

SH: Ugh. It’s good for some people but not for me.

EL: So what did you do when you went out?

SH: Honestly, I had a really good friend who lived off-campus and I would just go to his apartment and cook constantly. And so I’d be there making pho and zucchini bread and breads and all kinds of dishes that I wouldn’t have space for in the dorm kitchens. And so, yeah, I would just bring my groceries to his place and just cook.

EL: And then you told me, I think, you worked at that one supposedly legit restaurant in Grinnell?

SH: Yes.

EL: As a line cook? As a server? What did you do?

SH: As a server. So the restaurant was called Phoenix Cafe, and it was really the one restaurant with tablecloths. And I went and decided that I would get a job as a server there because I wanted to learn how to talk to people. Really.

EL: A useful skill, I think, in life.

SH: Yeah, before that I had a really hard time approaching strangers. Like, in fact, I would ask my little sister, who was about five years younger than me, to order food for me at restaurants because I was too shy.

EL: When you and I had lunch, I didn’t think of you as shy at all. That was only a couple, a few months ago.

SH: Exposure therapy worked.

EL: Exposure therapy worked. So you graduate from Grinnell, I assume you’re still bookworm.

SH: Yes.

EL: And what did you think you were going to do after college?

SH: I didn’t know because that was when the recession hit, right?

EL: Mm-hmm.

SH: When I entered college, I wanted to get into physics. I was really into quantum physics and was reading the History of Time and all of these other books. But then I ended up being really interested in history. But of course when the recession hit, I was like, “Oh shoot, I chose wrong.” So I ended up working on a farm and trying to just wait it out to see what would happen next.

EL: Where was the farm?

SH: It was in Minnesota, just outside of Alexandria.

EL: And what did they grow?

SH: Vegetables. So it was an organic CSA and so they would just-

EL: Oh.

SH: Yeah, distribute the-

EL: What’s the name of that program that college students go on?

SH: Oh, the WWOOF thing?

EL: Yes. WWOOFing.

SH: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yeah, it was part of that.

EL: You were a WWOOFer! Wow. So you did that for a year or so and then what?

SH: And then I moved to the Twin Cities in Minnesota and got a job at a sandwich shop, because that was what was around. And then I started interning for a magazine, an online food magazine called Heavy Table. So that was my first entree into food writing.

EL: So you were both writing about food and working in restaurants or sandwich shop or whatever.

SH: Yeah, yeah. I just kept working in restaurants, moving from place to place from there.

EL: Was your mother pulling for quantum physics at this moment?

SH: No. Although before I got a job-job as a cook, I did call her and just tell her, like, “How do you feel about this? Are you okay?” And she was really happy. Because she has always been a gourmand and loves the restaurant world, and so she was all for it.

EL: Sounds like you have a pretty cool mom.

SH: Yeah, I do.

EL: So you ended up writing, which I haven’t read a lot about. You ended up co-writing this book with, I guess, a graphic artist named Blue Delliquanti.

SH: Yes.

EL: Called Meal, which has been described as a graphic novel on culinary mentorship, queer romance and eating insects. Okay, you got to go through each one of those.

SH: Yeah, it’s a grab bag if you just lay it out in that way. But the narrative does bring it all together in a satisfying arc.

SH: And so it’s about a chef, or I guess like a young cook, named Yarrow. She moves to Minneapolis from Petaluma, California. And she’s chasing after this chef, this world-famous chef who specializes in insect cuisine and who’s trying to open a restaurant in Minneapolis. And so she tries to get a job at this restaurant but she gets rejected. And she’s trying so hard to be approved of by the chef. And along the way she meets some really cool people. One person in particular catches her eye and so there’s some romantic tension. And yeah, it all comes together in this really neat way.

EL: Before you wrote the book then, you were cooking in many other cities, right?

SH: Yes.

EL: So you ended up cooking in New Orleans and Portland, Oregon, and then eventually with your mom in Mexico. Tell us about that journey.

SH: I kind of had this idea where, as someone who’s working in restaurants, I wanted to learn as much as possible about all kinds of approaches to food. So I didn’t have a singular vision of what I wanted to specialize in, like Japanese cuisine or haute cuisine or anything like that. I just wanted to work at as many different places as possible. Which sounds kind of silly, but I did learn so much from all the places I worked at. I tried my hand at molecular gastronomy and making ramen and making bistro food, and all of those experiences taught me so much about how restaurants work and how many shapes and sizes a kitchen can take.

EL: And did you end up as a chef de cuisine or were you always just a line cook?

SH: I definitely moved up the ranks over time. Although managing people is just …

EL: Not your strength?

SH: It’s not fun. I find myself really invested in people, and so that can be hard when you’re trying to manage people.

EL: Where did you spend the most of your time cooking?

SH: I think-

EL: Portland?

SH: No. New Orleans, actually.

EL: New Orleans. Oh, I love New Orleans. And so where were you cooking in New Orleans?

SH: At a restaurant called Bayona in the French Quarter.

EL: Got it. So you worked for Susan Spicer?

SH: Yes.

EL: Who is sort of one of the founding mothers of contemporary New Orleans cooking, I would say.

SH: Absolutely, yeah. And at the time I think the restaurant was entering its 25th year of operation. It was pretty amazing.

EL: And did you then delve into sort of the Leah Chase universe and the Willie Mae Seaton universe? You know, I used to go to New Orleans all the time because I had an advertising client, Barq’s Root Beer, which at the time was owned by two young guys in New Orleans. And so it was the greatest gig ever because I got to just eat in New Orleans. Although it was often in August, when their bottlers’ convention was, but so what? And I got to know all these people. Did you explore all the culinary traditions of New Orleans?

SH: Yeah, I spent a lot of time in the Treme, a lot of time in East New Orleans too where the Vietnamese and black communities really melded together, and of course uptown. I just spent a lot of time all around the area and in Gretna, Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Charles. It was really fun. I remember one of my favorite memories of living down there was going mushroom-hunting in the state park north of Lake Pontchartrain, jumping off of the trail and dodging snakes while looking for chanterelles.

EL: So did you get to try Willie Mae Seaton’s fried chicken or Leah Chase’s gumbo?

SH: Yes.

EL: How could you not do that? In fact, I would have ended the podcast if you had said no.

SH: Yeah, I think that would have really slammed down any cred that I have.

EL: It’s true. And did you know my friend Lolis Eric Elie when you were down there?

SH: Where …

EL: Lolis ended up being a staff writer on Treme, David Simon’s television show. But he grew up in Treme and actually did a great documentary about the neighborhood. And his dad was a prominent civil rights lawyer in New Orleans.

SH: Oh.

EL: And yeah, his dad just died. He has a fascinating history, and now he’s a television writer. He also went to high school with Wynton Marsalis, and he ended up going on the road as his road manager and wrote a book, a great book about barbecue, called Smokestack Lightning.

SH: Oh wow. Cool.

EL: That if you’ve never read, you really should. It’s really a great book.

SH: I’ll check it out.

EL: What about Portland? What was that scene like for you?

SH: Oh, it was really interesting. Portland has a lot of middle-ground restaurants, not a ton of fine dining, which I found really interesting. But there are so much influence from San Francisco, the Bay Area of course, because there were a lot of transplants moving up there, and a lot of diversity in cuisine. Although, at the time I found it really interesting as a person of color moving in and kind of encountering the present dynamics, as far as class and race and just geography and how that manifested in Portland. I thought that was really a lot of information to take in, and so-

EL: Yeah, there has been a fair amount of pushback about sort of Andy Ricker being the face of Thai cooking in America even though he’s not Thai and … How do you make sense of all that?

SH: For me, what makes sense is it’s not about the individuals. It’s not about Andy. He’s doing what he does and what he loves to do. And the critiques should, and I think have been, more about media and who the media goes to for talking-head type stuff or for expertise and who they rely on to speak for all matter of issues. Those are political choices as well.

EL: Mm-hmm.

SH: So I think that is really the crux of those critiques, is yes, he’s great, but don’t just ask him for his opinion about Thai food, you know?

EL: Yeah, it’s interesting. I don’t know if you’re … Did you ever see Francis Lam’s piece about that in the Times?

SH: Mm-hmm.

EL: I don’t think it was on purpose, but we would all gravitate to the people who would give us the quickest and easiest quotes.

SH: Right, yeah. And as a critic, I find that yeah, it is more difficult to seek out people who aren’t media-savvy. You know, like they won’t let you into the restaurant to take pictures, for instance. Or they won’t want to get on the phone. But you really have to work hard at it. And a lot of times when you have a deadline, you don’t have the luxury of time to do that. I get it.

EL: No. So you’re like, “I need a quote about Thai food. I’m going to go to Andy Ricker. I have a cell phone. End of story.”

SH: Yeah.

EL: So was Portlandia true to life? Did you know the name of every chicken that you cooked?

SH: Definitely not. Although people did have a lot of questions. As diners, people were really well educated in that way. So yeah, there was a lot of questioning and a lot of inquiry.

SH: I think a lot of times it felt performative as well. Right? Because you got a lot of questions about the manner of slaughter but not a lot of questions about the labor and the people involved in making these things or harvesting these things. No one was asking, “So how much do your servers get paid?”

EL: Yeah. So you always saw food through this sociopolitical lens.

SH: Yeah. I mean, honestly, right? We live in a society, which is such a me, me thing to say, but it’s true. Everything that we do is contingent on these greater ideologies that rule everything around us, how we see things, how we phrase things, what even appears before us and makes it through the grinder of all the gatekeepers that lead up to the moment of consumption, if that makes sense.

EL: Yeah. By gatekeepers, you mean the chefs.

SH: Right. Chefs or even food writers, PR people … Like the whole system is interwoven. And if you think about it in terms of movies, for instance. Movies are mass culture and they tell us a lot about what’s acceptable in our culture. And they go through so many gatekeepers to appear in the form that we see as consumers.

EL: Yeah.

SH: And food is the same way.

EL: Yeah. You know, when I started Serious Eats in 2006, it was because, Soleil, I’d had it with gatekeepers. And by gatekeepers, as a writer, I’m talking about editors.

SH: Mm-hmm.

EL: I hated it. I spent more time pitching than I did writing. It’s a terrible thing. So how did you end up in Puerto Vallarta cooking with your mother?

SH: Well, she needed help. She wanted to open a restaurant that she wanted to actually eat at. Not to say that the restaurants in Puerto Vallarta are bad, but she didn’t have any Asian cuisine that she liked down there. So, you know, places that served pho and places that served really good food that wasn’t interpreted through a purely commercial lens. And not to say that that’s bad, but she just wanted something more, as someone who came up in New York and wanted a little bit of that.

EL: And she enlisted your help.

SH: Yes.

EL: And you dropped everything and went to Puerto Vallarta?

SH: Pretty much. I mean, how do you say no to your mom?

EL: I think that’s going to be the title of this podcast. How Do You Say No to Your Mom?.

EL: So how long did you stay down there?

SH: About two years.

EL: Wow.

SH: Yeah, so we really built the restaurant from ground up. It used to be a house, and so there was a ton of construction. And the restaurant still exists. She opened a place across the street too, which is really funny-

EL: Wow, she’s becoming a mogul.

SH: Yeah, a one-woman restaurant group-

EL: It’s the Ho Restaurant Group.

SH: Yeah, yeah.

EL: You came back. And is that when you launched Racist Sandwich? Or did you already launch Racist Sandwich?

SH: I launched it in Portland. I met my collaborator at a dinner party there, and-

EL: His name is Zahir Janmohamed.

SH: Yes.

EL: How about that for pronunciation first time out?

SH: Pretty good.

EL: Thank you.

SH: But yes, Zahir and I met at a dinner party. And he is like a bonafide journalist and was asking me all these questions about what it’s like to be a chef, what’s it like to be a chef who was a woman of color, all of this stuff. And he wanted to make a podcast out of all of those things that we talked about.

EL: So give us what would be a typical Racist Sandwich podcast, like who would the guests be?

SH: Sure. At the beginning they were all local to Portland. And so we would reach out to folks who we thought were doing cool stuff. And usually it was people of color, like Bertony Faustin, the first black winemaker in the Willamette Valley, was our first guest. He was great. And then we had Han Ly Hwang, who ran a Korean food truck called Kim Jong Grillin, just a few blocks away from where Zahir lived. And so on and so forth. And so, usually chefs, people who made stuff, people who worked in the industry. And then food writers. And then we expanded it to people outside of Portland because we learned how to use our mixer in that way. So the podcast really was … We grew with it because we didn’t know anything about the technology or the equipment or any of that stuff. And so, as we learned more, the scope expanded.

EL: So would you say that it was about a combination of sort of race, gender and class within the food world?

SH: Yeah, we wanted the show to be a reliable place within food media for people to find these stories that seems like they only ran on special occasions. You know, like you’d only read black stories in February during Black History Month, or you’d only read LGBTQ stories during June, Pride Month, those sorts of things. And we wanted to cover that stuff all the time and not feel like those stories were an exception or tokens or anything like that.

EL: Did you learn a lot doing Racist Sandwich? What did you learn?

SH: Oh my gosh. Yeah, I learned to always have a spare recorder.

EL: Okay. That’s a very key and important piece of advice.

SH: Yeah. I learned to always ask people to pronounce their names first before I said a single word.

EL: Yeah. My producer Marty Goldensohn, he taught me that early on, like back in our radio days.

SH: Yeah, yeah. And kind of an extension of why I became a server at a restaurant, but I really learned how to talk to people, strangers, because I had to do it all the time.

EL: And doing it in a microphone wasn’t scary to you?

SH: It was a little bit, but I think I took to it pretty well. Yeah, it feels natural at this point. It’s really funny how that happens.

EL: Let me guess. You probably didn’t make much money doing Racist Sandwich.

SH: No, although we had some pretty successful crowdfunding campaigns.

EL: You are just doing what you love to do. That’s what crowdfunding campaigns are, right?

SH: Right.

EL: Serious Eats was kind of a crowdfunded campaign. I just couldn’t tell people that. But then Racist Sandwich’s audience grew, right? Pretty organically but quickly, right?

SH: Yeah, we had a pretty niche subject. And so people came to us specifically for what we wanted to talk about and because we had straight talk about race and class and gender within food media and the food industry, which was pretty hard to come by at the beginning. But now I think it’s a lot more widespread in the mainstream publications, which I think is really cool.

EL: And did you also have non-people of color on Racist Sandwich?

SH: A couple of them, yeah. Some tokens.

EL: Token, I like that. I like that. Soleil, we haven’t got to your current gig at the San Francisco Chronicle. We have definitely changed things up, and we will get to that in the next episode. But we do have to leave it here for now. So thank you, Soleil Ho, for hanging out with me.

SH: Thanks, Ed.

EL: And we’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.