“Does the phrase food is the new rock make you feel uncomfortable?” I’ve posed this question to Saveur Editor-In-Chief James Oseland, a man who as a teenager dropped out of high school to hang around the seedy Bay Area punk rock scene. A man who later “stopped his life” for six years to decode the cuisine of Malaysia, an amalgam of Chinese, Dutch, Thai and Indian flavors that is the focus of his 2006 book Cradle Of Flavor. A man who looks slightly horrified about answering the question.
“It makes me feel uncomfortable and want to step out of my body,” he says, nervously laughing, while sitting in his narrow office near New York City’s Koreatown. “How could something so essential to human life be the new anything?”
It’s the kind of response that suggests Oseland, 49, isn’t one to take the bait for a soundbite on a bubbling trend. In fact, as he tells me, his magazine is “anti-trend” — focusing on stories that eschew top 10 sidebars and celebrity chef flattery. I asked him if an upcoming trip to Toronto would include a visit to one of the new, highly anticipated David Chang enterprises there. “It never crossed my mind.”
Still, Oseland isn’t a fringe food publishing character either. Even if you didn’t know how it was pronounced, you’ve likely picked up Saveur in the airport once in your life — the October issue is its 150th. And for the past four years, he’s served as the best-dressed judge on Top Chef Masters. During our interview, which touches on Kansas, shrimp paste and Julia Child, I found out how he negotiates it all.
I like that you dedicated an entire issue to Mexico. Why was that important?
As editor-in-chief, I’m not supposed to pick favorites. But I love that issue so very dearly that it just might be my favorite ever, including the issues published before I was editor-in-chief. It was important to do because Mexico is not getting a lot of love these days — and that does not seem like a particularly right or just thing. The editorial staff and I felt that we should bite the bullet and do it now – not that we would be impacting or shaping some international dialog – but we will be reminding at least a few people what an extraordinary place Mexico is, and what incredible food is there. I had not been to the country for over 10 years, and I was blown away all over again.
Did you find that people are still afraid to have their heads cut off while visiting there?
[Laughs.] There is no glossing over the fact that there is a really terrifically bad situation happening there right now – there is no way to spin that. What we were hoping to do with the issue is basically say to our readers, “You might be unlikely to jump on a plane or hop into your car to head south of the boarder right now, but you can access this place in another way – in your own kitchen – to celebrate what an incredible repository of food wealth is there.”
You’re a trained photographer and shot regularly for Saveur, which is rare for people at the top of mastheads. What are the benefits for a writer – from a blogger to a magazine editor – to actually knowing how to shoot a photo?
A lot of editors don’t actually think that way. They can’t even shoot a straight Instagram…
Taking pictures, in particular food pictures, is not the easiest thing in the world, but it’s not the hardest thing in the world either. In my experience, there is really a finite set of rules, and if you conscientiously adhere to those rules, you are likely to end up with a good picture. It’s no longer just enough to have a body of food knowledge or be a good writer or recipe developer – it’s much better to have these sort of renaissance skills.
Let’s talk about your television stuff. Do you consider yourself a hard or easy judge on Top Chef Masters?
You’re asking me?! I think of myself as an honest judge. I think of myself as a judge who cannot be swayed by – what am I trying to say – the lights, cameras, or trend of the moment. I made a pact with myself when I stepped into this strange parallel universe to try to strive to be as true and honest as absolutely possible. One thing that doesn’t necessarily come through on this program is that the person I am hardest on is myself. If people had any idea what my interior dialogue was like in my own kitchen. I am a perfectionist and want and expect the best, especially of myself, but also of the world outside of me. On one hand, I have a tendency to be intense in my criticism, but I will also eat anything and I basically love all forms of food.
How do you prep when you are judging?
I don’t. I strive to stay as in the moment as possible.
Do you think that Southeast Asian cuisine is having its moment right now?
No, I think it has been having its moment for a couple thousand years. We might be a little more conscious of it for a variety of reasons right now, but bring it on.
Do you see any Asian nation’s cuisine rising in the next couple of years?
That’s difficult to answer. I do think that we will see a better, deeper consciousness of a lot of the core ingredients that 10 years ago were fantastically unfamiliar. Now, belacan, Malaysian-style fermented shrimp paste, is entering the vernacular in a very interesting way, which is cool.
Are you seeing American restaurants using these ingredients, too?
Yeah, that’s what I’m getting at. Maybe they are still more dabbling and flirting, but I think that the path has been opened in a way that it wasn’t before.
How much do you travel each year?
I wish that I could travel more than I do. I am an inveterate traveler – for me, the notion of travel was like a year and a half trip, but now I am lucky if I can take a week and a half trip because of the intensity of the work that I do. I’ll go out of the country three or four times a year and travel within the country another six or seven. I tend to be gone around two months a year, but for me that’s kind of a flirtation. My two favorite things on the planet are cooking in my own kitchen and traveling. The cooking I can do a little more than the traveling, which I miss a lot.
Is there anywhere you have been in the last couple of months that you were blown away by?
Interestingly, Kansas. I only glossed the surface of it during my travels in America, and I spent a good week there over the summer. It completely surprised me and I fell in love with it.
I know a lot of beef is raised there at massive cattle farms. What else?
There is a lot of beef, a lot of smart cooking, a lot of smart gardening and farming. Just a lot of smart people that live there doing really interesting things. Not only in Kansas City, which is technically Missouri, but also all over the state.
What do you think is the next country to blow up in terms of food crossing to America?
Why so? Do you think it’s going beyond those nasty steakhouses that most people associate with the country?
Oh yeah, absolutely. What you just described is just such a small and restaurant-y option of what Brazil has to offer. It’s a vast, incredibly complicated place full of these ingredients that blow our minds as cooks.
What about a food trend that you wrote about years ago that you got right?
We don’t do trends at Saveur [laughs] we are the anti-trend magazine!
What about implied trends – things you have written about that have caught on?
It sounds a bit corny, but I think that because we dance to our own tune here, we emphatically don’t really…
Can you talk about a city that needs a little more love?
I’m going to say Toronto. That’s a place that I have only passed through within the past few years, and I plan to spend some significant time there in December and getting to know it better. My experiences there in the fairly recent past, though, have been pretty tremendous. There is really amazing food there – very smart and intelligent food.
And Chinatown is pretty prominent in Toronto, I’ve heard.
Yeah! And not only Chinatown, but basically all these diaspora cuisines that are in Toronto. Not only is it Canada’s New York, but it’s its L.A too.
And we’re not just talking about the new Momofukus there?
No, that hadn’t even crossed my mind [laughs].
What did it take to write your book about Malaysia, Cradle of Flavor?
Six years. And a lot of blood, sweat and tears. I stopped my life for six years to write that book, and it was one of the most psychologically and physically demanding times of my life, but also one of the most rewarding. I love that book and I think it’s going to stick around for many years to come, and I’m not just saying that.
What advice do you give someone who is trying to write a book of that scope, with travels and recipes?
Stay really true. You’ve got to have the fire in the belly and you have got to believe it. If you don’t believe that you can work on this thing for years to come and basically make kind of crap money, then just let it go and abandon ship.
Give me an example of not staying true…
Compromising and trying to make a trend where there isn’t. Or trying to appeal just to a certain kind of readership and not creating the book that you the writer wanted to create.
For the 150th issue, you call out the 101 classic recipes of all time. How long did you work on getting your list down to the 101?
It was about an eight-month process.
How did it start? Did you have like a wall of 200 recipes and break it down?
More than that! We probably curated it down from about 800 or so. Also of note, there are an additional 49 for an even 150 that will be online and in the tablets.
Your contribution was a Caesar salad recipe, which you write is inspired by an episode of The French Chef with Julia Child…
That was the first real “adult dish” that I ever cooked, and it has stayed with me for 41 years and hasn’t changed a bit. If that’s not a classic, I don’t know what is.
You had a lot of guest contributors. Do you have a favorite?
Oh my gosh, there are so many. There’s Martin Yan and [Daniel] Boulud – but there’s something about Wolfgang Puck’s chicken pot pie recipe that kind of changes my life. The sweetness of the story that he tells and the recipe itself – it’s not your mom’s chicken pot pie; it’s far more elevated.
Is it labor intensive? I always assume your recipes are…
Not necessarily. I would say that it’s the same level of labor.
That’s good to know because people always assume that Wolfgang Puck elevated will take them hours and hours.
It tastes more elevated and actually looks more elevated because it’s a puff pastry. At its heart, it’s a chicken pot pie and quite possibly the most delicious one you have ever eaten.
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