Los Angeles restaurant critic Patric Kuh recently took a break from his usual days of amuse bouche scarfing and culinary nitpicking (we kid—sorta) to do something a little different: write a book. (It’s his second actually—his acclaimed debut novel, The Last Days of Haute Cuisine, came out in 2002.) His latest tome is entitled Finding the Flavors We’ve Lost: From Bread to Bourbon, How Artisans Reclaimed American Food. It features profiles of individuals who, whether it be through business savvy or bread baking, helped shape today’s American food culture for the better. (Check out our excerpt of the chapter on local nonprofit Food Forward, here.) We asked Kuh to untuck his napkin for a moment and talk about the process of writing, criticism, and why, after 15 years of anonymity, his own picture is on the book jacket.
What’s different about writing a book than reviewing a restaurant?
Patric Kuh: The beauty of restaurant reviewing is that it’s about what’s going on in one dining room. Book writing can go in many directions, and months of reading and interviewing may not even end up in the book. I tell myself that the process of having done it enriches the final result.
Why do you think we’re suddenly so fascinated with American food?
Because it connects us to something meaningful while still being contemporary and delicious. That may include heritage grains, or storied techniques like pickling and meat curing. Whenever I walk into a great new bakery I fill my lungs with the smell. It could have been something that industrial efficiency rendered obsolete, instead the great American bakery is back.
What exactly is American food?
There are so many elements. It’s as functional as a diner sandwich, warm as a family gathering and probably more open to new flavors than any other cuisine I know. That combination was formed by our history, of course. What the artisanal movement has done is make us aware this is a heritage we can really be proud of.
What was the toughest chapter to report?
The one called “To Work” about Brooklyn. I broke my cardinal reviewing rule to go in as a blank slate. Instead, I went there with pre-conceptions which I quickly saw were incorrect. Brooklyn is a place of real artisans committed to craft and quality, despite all the low-hanging jokes about bushy beards.
So, your picture is on the book jacket. How did you weigh the decision to do that with your anonymity?
I struggled with that quite a bit. Avoiding having my picture taken had become very natural to me. But I think people are naturally curious what the author of a book looks like. Showing my face officially gave me the opportunity to transition to a different form of food writing that allows me to celebrate, investigate, report, and occasionally chime in. I’m really looking forward to it, too. [Much more on the status of Patric Kuh’s anonymity here.]
What do you think the role of a restaurant critic is today?
To offer context and well-argued opinion. I’m not sure that will ever change. But the restaurant world is evolving so quickly we have to find new ways to make sure the criticism remains relevant.
OK, A Few Quickies: Taco or Burger?
I try and keep a pot of black beans in the fridge. I heat some and have them with a scrambled egg and coffee. If it’s been a late night, just the coffee.
Grilled Dover sole. It sounds fancypants but at a sidewalk table in Barcelona it’s perfect.
After reviewing restaurants for nearly 15 years, do you still find moments to simply enjoy food?
All the time. It’s nice to lock up the old professional toolbox and roll in to a place for the pleasure.