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Will Write for Food: Lesley Balla (of Zagat, Angeleno, and more!)
A look at the local writers that cover the L.A. food and drink scene
Photograph courtesy Lesley Balla
We’re food writers… a dedicated group of hungry souls that have the right balance of passion, drive, culinary know-how, and sometimes even a bit of wit to boot. Oh, and did I mention luck? Yes, we’ve all worked hard to weasel our way into our gigs, but we’ll all be quick to admit, we’re lucky to have them.
While we’ve taken the time to introduce ourselves here at LAmag Digest, we thought we’d highlight some of the other fine folks that cover the awesome food and drink that fuel our mighty city. (Tough gig, but someone’s gotta do it.)
Full name (including middle), work title, and age?
Lesley Balla, Freelance Writer, yeah right.
Hidden talents or superpowers?
Tell me where you eat sushi and I'll tell you everything about you.
How long have you lived in L.A.? (If non-native, where’d you live before?)
This will be my 13th year in L.A. Amazing. I moved here from Portland, OR. And there from Key West and Martha's Vineyard, which I traveled between for two years. Before that, Baltimore. Before that, Ohio, where I grew up and went to college.
What path led you to what you’re doing now?
It was a winding one. I worked in restaurants for years, but I always enjoyed writing. At Ohio University one my English professors suggested I take some journalism classes, but I was too close to graduating. I just needed to finish. I landed in Baltimore on a whim, and did an internship at Baltimore magazine (my first food article was a 50-word blurb about rockfish in Maryland), and then NPR's "Talk of the Nation" with Ray Suarez in DC. I took a job at a very, very small community newspaper, which taught me a lot, and did a few articles for the Baltimore City Paper. But the whole time I was also working in restaurants as a server, bartender, barista, everything and anything, to pay the bills. But I truly fell in love with restaurants and the people. I learned about the business but also food and wine. I was kind of hooked - I knew the two, media and food, would meet somewhere down the road.
After Baltimore, I bopped around restaurants on the East Coast and in Portland, OR, where I decided to get back into writing. So while managing a couple of places (even cooking!), I started working at Citysearch. Because of my restaurant background, it seemed fitting that I work on the dining vertical. I learned so much about writing for the web, about restaurant reviewing (from former New York Times critic Bryan Miller), managing freelancers, etc. That job led me to L.A., and it's been a mostly online game for me since: Citysearch, LA.com, TMZ before it was even a thing. I launched the L.A. edition of Eater and ran that for a couple of years, and then did the same for Tasting Table. I was also freelancing for Angeleno magazine, and when the restaurant critic position opened up, my editor offered it to me, which I currently still write. I also write the daily L.A. blog for Zagat, which is fun. I'm very happy with my gigs right now. Freelance is great, but regular freelance work is even better.
Plenty of writers cover multiple beats, or write in addition to holding down a “day job.” Is this your only squeeze or do you have other work-related things that also occupy your time?
I've been a professional food writer, whether on staff or freelance, for multiple print and online publications for almost 15 years now. I've written about a lot of other things—travel, art, spas, hard news—and still do, but this has been my main beat for quite awhile.
What about when you’re not eating and/or drinking? What are some of your hobbies or favorite activities?
I see a lot of live music, walking and hiking with friends, checking out museums and galleries, exploring this vast city and beyond. I adore road trips (that's the Ohioan in me; we're drivers). But even when I'm not eating or drinking for work, I'm still eating and drinking, and too often annoying the people I'm with by taking pictures of everything. I can't help it.
Favorite part of your job?
That I get to do it from home or anywhere.
Least favorite part of your job?
Sometimes I'm just not hungry. Or I can't find a new word to describe "gastropub." Oh, and I wasn't blessed with a perfect metabolism, so there was some weight gain in the beginning. But I lost about 50 pounds over the last year or so, and just continue to find that life/work/food balance.
How are you in the kitchen? Anything you're particularly good (or bad) at making?
I'm a fucking genius in the kitchen. I love to bake. A lot of people don't because of the exact science and all the measuring. But that's why I love it. It's very soothing to have a recipe, to follow it to a T, and end up with some gorgeous cake, pie or plate of cookies. But I'm also an ace at looking in the pantry, grabbing a few things and making something utterly delicious out of it. My friends have described my food as "homey"—stews, chili, braises. I make a mean fried chicken, too. And I was recently gifted a Vitamix so now I'm juicing daily, but even that is a grab whatever and throw it in kind of thing. Does that make me a right and left brain cook?
What are some of your favorite places to eat around town?
Tough, tough question. I'll answer with whatever comes to mind first, which is painful because I'm very hungry right this second: Ricky's Fish Tacos, Animal, the Mozzas, Spice Table, Bestia, Bar Amá, Ramen Jinya. NONE of that is anywhere close to where I live. Torture, really.
How about places to drink? Cocktails, beer, wine, coffee, tea... pick your poison(s).
Well, here's me. I enjoy a well-crafted fancy cocktail, the kind with all sorts of tinctures and seasonal ingredients. But that isn't always my go-to choice. I like things straight and strong: gin martinis at Musso & Frank Grill, whiskey anywhere (but I like Thirsty Crow among other places), beer everywhere (I love the Pub at Golden Road for the beer and the trains). For coffee, I'm a huge fan of Handsome Coffee Roasters, both in their DTLA coffee bar or brewing it at home.
Any favorite markets?
I try to make it to the Hollywood Farmers' Market every week, or at least every other week. It is not my neighborhood farmers' market, but I love it. I have my favorite vendors, chat with other regulars. I have my routine. Oh, and speaking of favorite places to drink, I always get my Cafecito Organico coffee first thing at the market and then shop. After, a Schnockered Bloody Mary or Greyhound at the Hungry Cat if I have time.
What do you feel is the most exciting thing happening in the local food scene right now?
How so many young chefs are taking risks. And there's always a risk with that - young chefs can over do it if they don't know how to edit. But there are a lot of people just throwing it all out there, so we get places like those from Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (Animal, Son of a Gun), Bryant Ng (The Spice Table), Brian Dunsmoor and Kris Tominaga (Hart & the Hunter), Ori Menashe (Bestia) and Josef Centeno (Bäco Mercat, Bar Amá). It's food from the heart with influences from all over, it's soulful and bold but balanced. And the restaurants themselves have soul, even if they're as minimalist as can be. And god, we have this produce! We are so blessed in L.A.
What would you want your final meal to be? And what would you want to drink along with it? Any music playing in the background?
I don't know exactly what I would eat, but I know it would be meaty with lots of stellar wine. It would be amazing to have Thomas Keller cook it, but I would be just as happy with someone I love preparing a fantastic meal for me. I'm pretty sure Josef Centeno's queso will have to be there. Damn, damn, damn that queso. I hope that the day starts out perfectly breezy and sunny and warm, then turns to that magic-hour light, and then a cobalt blue sky and a crystal-clear full moon. It will all just flow and be wonderfully relaxing. Music: anything from Wilco or Yo La Tengo to jazzy, bluesy, sexy classics. Eh. I'm a Gemini. Don't make me choose. Just hit play.
On Twitter: @LesleyLA