Soleil Ho took the job as food critic at the San Francisco Chronicle knowing the knives would come out. For one thing, she’s young, only 31, and known to have a bit of a chip on her shoulder. She also has strong opinions. In her first week on the job last March, after she published five restaurant reviews simultaneously, Mimi Sheraton, former food critic with The New York Times, complained she was “too full of herself.” Ho was expecting the backlash and, in fact, seems to revel in it.
For the New York native, no topic is taboo. She chooses restaurants to review based on their Average Joe accessibility – not their pedigree. And her focus isn’t just on the food but on race, gender, cultural appropriation and politics. Asked why she ditched the star system, she says it was to level the playing field. Here, she talks to The Globe and Mail about social media and food criticism, and appreciation versus appropriation.
What’s the role of the critic today, given that, thanks to social media, everyone has multiple outlets on which to voice their opinions?
Critics are obligated to consider the long view when writing about restaurants: What are the greater patterns they see? How does a restaurant reflect a given time and place? Critics ideally have the means to compare apples to apples. For example, I can go to all of the restaurants in the Bay Area that have three Michelin stars and compare them against each other. On the contrary, “everyone” on social media has opinions that are valid, yet people are not encouraged to include context.
There are ethical guidelines I’m held to [as part of the newspaper] that an online reviewer is not. As long as those standards remain intact, we will be.
Your predecessor, Michael Bauer, was on the job for decades, and you’ve scrapped the star system. Tell me about that decision and how are you doing things differently.
It didn’t seem fair. The star system feels like it’s slanted toward people in restaurants who have money to spend on things that merit “a star.” By that, I mean the fine-dining aspect of eating. By getting rid of it, I can go to a wide range of restaurants without worrying about class differences. I can go for tacos one week and Michelin star fine-dining the next, and I don’t have to pretend I’m evaluating them on the same metric.
I have a different point of view [than Michael] and a different perspective on what matters. I’ve grown up in an age where we take the political aspect of food for granted. We owe that a lot to our predecessors, like [food writer, author and editor-in-chief of now-defunct Gourmet magazine] Ruth Reichl. We’re building on that now.
What do you mean by the politics of food?
Thinking about how food stories fit into race relations, colonialization, gender politics, etc. All these larger conversations are now a part of food writing. The changeover started happening about the time Ruth took over Gourmet and started doing stories about farming and politics and mentioned tragic events like 9/11. You wouldn’t have seen that in a food magazine before.
How do you define the difference between showing appreciation of another food culture versus appropriation?
It’s a question I get asked all the time. Cultural appropriation, in itself, is not an inherently bad thing. In a vacuum – in a world where no one has conquered, massacred or enslaved anyone else – the practice of one person adopting the cultural practices of another is a benign act that seems like a natural thing that would result from any kind of meaningful mixing or interaction.
But we don’t live in a vacuum, and sometimes appropriation can be one way for global systems of oppression, like white supremacy or settler colonialism, to perpetuate themselves. It can be a way for an oppressor to control the food or dress or language of people they want to keep underfoot, by profiting from or mocking those things. As a measure of oppression, cultural appropriation is most useful when it indicates that wealth and intellectual property have been stolen from the people who produced it in the first place.
How do we fix it?
The real thing people with power should be asking is, how do I actively dismantle systems of oppression or, at a bare minimum, redistribute my own privilege to benefit those who have historically had less of it?
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