Food festivals are good for two things: eating food from a ton of different restaurants all at once and actually getting to hear chefs talk. This marks the second year that the LA Times has put on The Taste over Labor Day weekend and, while there was definitely plenty of food, there were also some pretty great panels.

Sunday’s sold-out Flavors of LA Event featured a full roster of restaurants hand-selected by Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic (and all-around ethnic food champion) Jonathan Gold. So instead of the usual PR-influenced line-up, there were actually representatives from all walks of the LA culinary community. There was also a panel called The LA Food Scene hosted by Gold along with Evan Kleiman, chef and host of KCRW’s Good Food program; Gustavo Arellano, editor of the OC Weekly; and chef Sang Yoon of Father’s Office and Lukshon.

The panel was packed. Eager foodies had snatched up all the seats in the tent well before the discussion started and a standing room only crowd formed in the back and on the sides. Perhaps the title of the panel was a bit misleading. It was less about the LA Food Scene and more about how the LA Food Scene compares to the rest of the country.

Mentions were made of the great ethnic food – specifically Hispanic and Asian – that the city has to offer and how LA can’t compare to New York in terms of fine dining, although it seems to have gained a leg up on New York and the other major food cities when it comes to more casual fare.

Arellano lamented that Orange County, just a short drive away, is a full five years behind LA in terms of food. While the discussion of LA’s place in the national food scene was interesting, there was a moment about halfway through the panel that was truly fascinating.

After talking about cooking sweetbreads in the style of mall food court orange chicken, Sang Yoon admitted to loving Panda Express. Then, Jonathan Gold, master of all things hidden and delicious, added that he, too, loved Panda Express. This prompted a discussion about how people are surprised to find out that chefs like fast food and food that isn’t considered haute cuisine, which led to this exchange:

Evan Kleiman: “How many chefs that you know do you think are foodies?”

Sang Yoon: “None. Well, not in the definition of foodie that we know.”

What an incredibly interesting notion in this era of food culture obsession. Do you have to be a foodie to be a chef? No. Of course not. Just as football players surely don’t agonize over stats the way a hardcore fantasy football owner does, chefs don’t obsess about food culture the way that we do. That isn’t to say that all chefs are not foodies. For the most part, though, they can’t be. It would impossible for a working chef to pour over the food blogs and hit up every new place in town. While you’re doing that, they’re behind the stoves cooking. This isn’t to say that chefs don’t care about food the way that foodies do. They geek out over beautiful pluots just like you do. They just do it in a different way.

As food has risen from craft to art, so too have the participatory elements of the culture. The trope about chefs today is that they’ve become rock stars, but perhaps it’s more accurate to compare them to professional athletes. As such, foodies are the people that fill the stands. So what is a foodie? A foodie is a spectator in the world of professional food; a collector of food-based information; an attendee of food festivals. Are chefs foodies? No, but it goes without saying that without foodies there’d be nobody to attend a panel about the LA Food Scene on a hot summer day.


More about Los Angeles on Food Republic: