Russ Parsons Vacates L.A. Times Food Editor Gig to Focus on Writing

The longtime editor talks to us about his plans, how the L.A. food scene has changed for the better, and why we shouldn’t give up on fine dining yet

Russ Parsons announced on Tuesday that he’s stepped down from his longtime role as Los Angeles Times food editor, but he’ll still be an integral part of the newspaper’s food coverage as a columnist. Deputy food editor Amy Scattergood is taking over as food editor.

Parsons, who’s been at the paper for more than 25 years and had various stints running the food pages, most recently became food editor in 2009. Since then, he and the rest of the city have seen a new crop of bold chefs turn the L.A. dining scene into one of the world’s most respected. He’s seen new online competitors battle him for scoops. He’s seen social media turn into a never-ending stream of information being disseminated. And he and his newspaper have adapted well to all of this.

Parsons used Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about his personal news on Tuesday. The Times website is, in addition to being a place for breaking stories, a valuable resource for home cooks and a place where critic Jonathan Gold enthusiastically answers questions from readers.

On the afternoon of his announcement, we e-mailed with Parsons about his plans and how so much has evolved since he started covering food in L.A. three decades ago. What hasn’t changed: He’s still having fun, and he still gets a rush when he breaks a story.

Los Angeles magazine: What does your new role as columnist mean for readers? How often/how much more are you going to be writing? Is it a similar mix of restaurant news and cooking pieces? What else are you planning to actively cover?

Russ Parsons: I’m hoping that my new/old role as columnist will mean that I’ll be doing more of the same mix of restaurant news/cooking/agriculture/food policy stories that I’m doing now, and that I’ll have more time to tackle longer, more-reported stories. Food is at the center of culture these days, and there is so much that is interesting going on.

You mentioned on Facebook that this move had been brewing for a while. What made this a good time for you to step down as editor?

I had been talking to my boss about making this change for a while. When I reached out to Amy about the deputy’s position, I told her that it was my hope that she would become food editor fairly quickly. There was no single issue that prompted the change. I’ve always considered myself a writer first who can also do editing and managing. But I’d found that for the last couple of years it seemed like I was able to do less of what I loved most and was having to do more of the other. It’s been terrifically rewarding to manage such a great staff—Betty Hallock, Noelle Carter, Jenn Harris, S. Irene Virbila, Jonathan Gold, and now Amy Scattergood—and I’m really proud of how we’ve built our web presence and managed the transition from a standalone food section to being a part in the Saturday mix. But I really, really love to write.

I can imagine that being in the editor’s chair meant having a little less time to spend at restaurants and in the kitchen. Do you expect to be eating and cooking even more now that you’re no longer editing?
That’s exactly it. I was spending typically 10 to 11 hours a day either in the office or commuting. It really made reporting, writing, and developing recipes a lot more hurried than I would like. Even in the best of circumstances, I’m not a huge restaurant guy—I’m a home cook—so I’m not anticipating becoming Mr. First-Nighter, but I do hope to get out and enjoy many of the places I’ve only been able to appreciate from afar. I’ve got a little list. And I’m also looking forward to exploring markets and spending time cooking at home. That’s my first love.

A lot of people talk about the emergence of L.A.’s dining scene and point to restaurants like Animal as well as the Kogi phenomenon. But you’ve been covering L.A. food long before this new generation arrived. What pioneers/milestones stand out to you in your two-plus-decades of writing about L.A food?
The Los Angeles restaurant scene has gone through tremendous changes in the 30 years I’ve been covering it (I was food editor at the Herald Examiner before coming to the Times). But I’ve never seen it as flourishing as it is today. People talk about the good old days of the late ’80s and early ’90s, Spago, Trumps, Citrus, Michael’s, etc., but that was a lot more geographically and stylistically limited than it is today. We have good restaurants in almost every part of Southern California now; we no longer have to drive to Beverly Hills or Santa Monica. And we have good restaurants at every price point and from every cuisine. It’s a great time to be eating and cooking in L.A.

Jonathan Gold relinquished anonymity. Everyone in newspapers is competing against well-funded sites that publish posts all day long, not to mention prolific bloggers and tweeters. Sources announce news on social media. Is this all still even fun to you?
Of course. There is still a great charge from breaking a story or crafting a really well-researched and -written piece. And I would certainly argue that the Los Angeles Times is as well-funded as any other website. We’re not where we used to be, but who is? And I’d put our Daily Dish and Food homepage coverage up against anyone’s.

What are a few important trends you see in L.A. food going forward? Are white tablecloths mostly over? Is fast casual going to take over? Are people going to get sick of foie gras? What’s in your crystal ball?
I think traditional fine dining is pretty much over…until it’s not. I predict that within three to four years we’ll see a longing for quiet, white-tablecloth restaurants. I’m not sure they’ll ever dominate conversation again the way they used to, but I certainly hope we have room in our restaurant scene for a complete dining experience. There are all types of fun, and a luxurious dinner where you feel like you are being taken care of is certainly one of them.

What are you having for dinner tonight?
I’ve been testing recipes today, so a) I’m not terribly hungry and b) what we eat will be dictated by my next column—the travails of a columnist. So we’re having an old-fashioned really luxurious chicken liver mousse based on a Richard Olney recipe, and a tart salad of bitter greens.