By Anouk Jouffret
The New York air was damp and heavy as I waited for my lunch partner outside of Tacombi’s new venture, a Mexico City-style taqueria on the corner of E 12th and Third Ave. I fidgeted slightly in anticipation, locking eyes with the cashier, who must have clocked my nervous state. He should have been nervous, too. But how was he to guess that I was meeting Hannah Goldfield, writer of the weekly The New Yorker restaurant column Tables for Two, and that she might write up this restaurant?
These nerves subsided, however, and morphed into a more subdued form of reverence as soon as I spotted Goldfield, who gave an approachable smile from under her white bucket hat and led me to the ordering station. With the eager guidance of the establishment’s manager, we landed on our taco order: one Suadero, two Al Pastors, and two Vegan Milaneses, complete with one housemade “Maya” Cola and one Lupita Naranja, a zesty-if-flat tangerine soda. Following Goldfield’s lead, I leaned against the wrap-around counter and commenced the professional dégustation.
I was keen to probe Goldfield about her enviable career and to observe her tasting methods in real time, but she put my curiosity on hold. With the same consideration she gave to the food in front of us, she asked me about my life, my family, my ambitions, and only when these questions were satisfied could I reciprocate them.
From there, Goldfield and I discussed how she got her enviable job, her thoughts on The Bear, a peek into some of her favorite New York eateries, and, of course, her tenure on The Blue and White.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue and White: How did you get into writing about food?
Hannah Goldfield: I've told this story so many times now that it sounds somewhat apocryphal, but the story I've told myself is that I always loved and was always obsessed with eating from a young age. When I was in third grade, I remember I wrote a haiku and, for whatever reason, the teacher really liked the haiku and my parents really liked the haiku. It became this thing where I would carry the haiku around with me and read it out loud. That was when I was like, “Oh right, this writing thing is good. I could be a writer.” Looking back, part of me is like, why couldn't I have landed upon anything else? Because writing is so agonizing in some ways. But that was elementary school. I cemented my identity early as a writer. Then, when I was 10, I saw the movie My Best Friend’s Wedding which came out in theaters.
B&W: With Julia Roberts?
HG: Yes! And a very minor plot point that's introduced and then abandoned in the first two minutes of the movie is that she's a restaurant critic. It's a really absurd scene. She's having dinner with her agent or her editor, and they're at this very fancy, fine dining French restaurant. And everyone knows she's there. The kitchen staff is crowded around a porthole window of the kitchen, and they're waiting to hear what she thinks. Then, she makes this grand pronouncement out loud; “I'm writing it up as elegant yet restrained,” or something. It's just preposterous. But I was so taken with this. I don't think I knew that that was a job before that.
At the time, Ruth Reichl was the critic at the Times, so it seemed like a job for a writer who loved food who was also a woman and I must have said—I should ask my parents if they remember this–but I must have immediately been like, “I want that job.” They really encouraged me, and my dad would save the Times food section for me every week. And someone got me a copy of Ruth Reichl’s first volume of her memoirs, which is about her early childhood. I really identified with this kid being obsessed with food. So for years after that, if you asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would say I wanted to be a restaurant critic.
I sort of strayed from that in college. I remember getting to Columbia and realizing, “Wait, I'm not the only Jewish girl from the tri-state area who wants to write about food.” I remember feeling very threatened.
But I didn't lose interest in writing and journalism. I joined The Blue and White, which ended up being so important to my eventual career path. It was such an amazing experience of exposure to how a magazine works and I loved it. I think that kept me on this path of wanting to be a writer, wanting to specifically find a job in magazines. I stayed on that kind of track, and I actually took a year off after my freshman year and got an internship at The Paris Review, which was sort of insane in retrospect because it was a full-time unpaid job that involved some manual labor. I got paid in free seltzer. But I loved it. So that introduced me to the whole media world of New York really early.
My senior year, I got an internship with The New Yorker, which you can’t do anymore, sadly.
I got to do a little fact-checking as well, and I really loved fact-checking. I mostly fact-checked Tables for Two columns because they were short, easy things to give to an intern at the time. They were shorter than they are now. A fact-checker took a leave of absence, so they needed someone to fill in for her until she got back. And that was the beginning of my fact-checking career.
I still feel like it was the best job I'll ever have. It was such an amazing entrée to the world of really incredible journalism. I worked so closely with the world's best writers and editors and was doing this really important but very clearly delineated thing. It's not really creative. I mean it's creative, but the bounds are very clear. It was helping to make sure that these incredible works of journalism were airtight. Then the person came back but someone else left, so they ended up giving me a job, and I finally quit my restaurant job.
At the time, Tables for Two were shared by staffers. Someone left who had held one of the slots. I had just made it known around the office that I was interested in food. And so they asked me if I wanted to try writing “Tables,” as we call it at the magazine.
I wrote it every two months for years while I was a fact-checker. I did six years of fact-checking, and then I left to be an editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine, which was not the best fit. So after less than a year there, I decided to freelance. I was writing mostly about food and design, ‘cause I had kind of gotten into that at T. Then The New Yorker decided to hire a designated food person and they ended up hiring two people. One was me and one was Helen Rosner.
So that's how I ended up doing it.
B&W: Considering you write your column weekly, is there any formula to the way you approach sitting down to write a piece? All of your pieces are distinct and captivating. How do you keep it creative and fresh?
HG: I think I'm always looking to tell a story. So part of the formula I've learned is that not every restaurant that you go to is worth writing about. I only write about a place if I feel like I have something to say about it. At this point, I can immediately tell if there's enough to say. The place we just went to, I'm not sure I'm going to write about that. I feel like it was fine, and the company is interesting on its own, but it just wasn't quite good enough.
There's so many different aspects to it because it’s service journalism, but it's also a kind of literary effort. Is it going to be interesting? Is it going to be useful? Am I going to be telling people to go or not to go eat somewhere, but also am I going to be entertaining them?
B&W: That leads into my next question. As a food critic, what is your responsibility to your readership? Do you ever go to a place that you don't enjoy but you still somehow find it interesting enough to write about or do you only write about places that you would recommend?
HG: Again, I think the first thing is, is this going to be entertaining? But also you don't want to be entertaining at someone's expense. I try really hard not to punch down. I look back at the second “Tables for Two,” which I wrote when I was a fact-checker. I gave a sort of scathing review to this tiny restaurant in a part of Brooklyn that wasn't really on the map yet. It wasn’t that good, but why was I telling people not to go to this place that they weren't going to go to anyway? It just didn't make any sense. So I quickly figured out that wasn't the right way to operate.
I'm trying to entertain the reader, but I'm also trying to provide service for people who are in New York and who are looking for places to go. And I would say especially post-pandemic, in this phase of Covid life, I feel like the restaurant industry was hit so hard, and I've mostly just been recommending places. Although there was a huge opening at this place called Le Rock, one of the places that opened in the Rockefeller Center and that was such a buzzy thing. They got so much press, and so I felt like I could be super honest about what I thought about that and I didn't completely love it. I gave it a very mixed kind of review. In that case, I felt like people are hearing about this restaurant they're hearing is amazing, and I want to give my honest opinion because that's ultimately what criticism is.
B&W: What would you say makes a good critic? Do most critics have any form of formal culinary training? I wonder, for example, if you're going to review a wine bar—I don't know if you are a sommelier…
HG: I'm not.
B&W: So then I'm guessing the basis of the judgment is a bit different, it's more about the energy. Do different critics pull on their own personal tastes and experiences or is there a pool of critics that do criticism based on training?
HG: I mean, it makes me think of my fact-checking career. One of the main tenets of being a fact-checker is never assuming anything. And I think there's a sort of connection to criticism there. You want to know what you're talking about to some degree, but you're not writing for people who are experts in restaurants, necessarily, just as a film critic isn't necessarily writing only for people in the film industry. You're writing for the average person who wants context and more information and to understand where whatever the object of the criticism is fits into the world. The way I see it is, I should be doing a lot of research, which I always do, and I should be showing my cards all the time, but I'm sort of just sharing the story of my experience in such a way that the reader will be able to orient themselves against my experience and understand if they would like it or not.
B&W: How do you choose which restaurants to go to?
HG: I pick them. I keep a really close eye on what's opening. I'm constantly reading The Infatuation and Eater and the Times. Then I'm trying to get all over the city. So I keep a running list of places, and I have columns for different boroughs and then neighborhoods within boroughs. I'm trying to keep a balanced mix of geography, type of cuisine, price point, casual versus formal. I have a real feeling in my head for what the right texture is. And it is not an exact formula. I'm like, well, I just wrote something about a Hong Kong-style cafe in Chinatown and I really want to write about this other place in Chinatown, but I need to give it a month or something before I go back to Chinatown, because not everyone is as obsessed with Chinatown as I am. And then something really big and buzzy like Le Rock or Torrisi is fun. Readers want to know about those places, and for me, I feel like there's a mandate to get to those places and give my official word.
B&W: As someone who does not write about food, being a food critic seems like such a pleasant job: experiencing new restaurants and tastes as work. Are there any unpleasant aspects of being a food critic that someone whose only reference is Anton Ego from Ratatouille might not expect?
HG: Yeah, don't get me wrong, it’s literally my dream job. But it is a job. There's a lot of pressure to do it at a place like The New Yorker, which has such a big readership. It's scary to be writing, especially because food is so entwined with culture. I don't want to inadvertently offend anyone. The New Yorker has a real system, because of fact-checking. There's a lot of copy editing. There's a safety net there. But I've definitely done things that I haven't meant to do. And that's a bit of a nightmare. I wrote about another Mexican restaurant semi-recently, and I included a line in Spanish. I was quoting something that the server said, and I got it totally wrong and somehow no one caught it. And there was a heyday on Twitter about, “What is this gringa doing?” It's all very low stakes, but that kind of thing is unpleasant, of course.
Writing a weekly column is really hard to me. It's been great having that engine of drive. But also, every time I finish a column I'm like, “Oh my God, I have to do this again right away.” And then sometimes too much eating. A friend recently described my job as athletic, and I was like, “Yeah, it's kind of true.” So funny and counterintuitive because it's the opposite of athleticism, but it does require a commitment to sacrificing your body.
B&W: People do refer to food eating competitions as an athletic activity.
HG: Well, yeah! Eating 85 hot dogs in an hour.
B&W: In terms of the writing itself, I can personally find, even though I love writing, that it is strenuous. Is there anything in particular with food writing that you find difficult?
HG: Yeah. Oh, it's strenuous, agonizing. But I think having to write every week has strengthened a muscle that I didn't have before. So I don't actually don't find the writing to be as agonizing as I used to, not for the column. Anytime I try to write anything else, I don't speak English all of a sudden. But the column, it's like writing a sonnet every week. I've said this before: there are only so many ways to say something is crunchy. And that’s a challenge. It's very descriptive, but that's the kind of writing I most enjoy.
B&W: Are there any people within the world of food criticism that you particularly admire? Are there any careers that you model yours after?
HG: Calvin Trillin has always been a huge inspiration for me. And Ruth Reichel. I used to say she was my idol when I was a kid, and she's had an amazing career. And then Mimi Sheridan. I was her fact-checker when I started out. She must have been in her eighties and was still writing about food. And then actually in the last year we became friends. I was visiting her up until she died. She was the first woman to be the food critic at the Times and just, very broadly, inspired by people who had been telling the story of New York City in particular through food.
B&W: Now, I have a few unrelated questions. Do you ever eat out casually or is it always a work assignment?
HG: It's almost always a work assignment, hence asking you to meet me at a taqueria. It's really hard to justify going out to eat if I can't write about it in some way. But I do cook, so that's not casual dining out, but it is a different kind of eating.
B&W: I was going to ask you about that. Do you cook? Is that enjoyable, extravagant, or is it out of necessity?
HG: It's both. I mean, I cook a lot for my kids and it's more preparing than cooking because they're both such picky eaters. It drives me insane. But I do still cook for myself and for my husband, and very occasionally for other people. I'm a pretty ambitious home cook. It's sort of strapped for time these days, so I'm not doing anything crazy. But I love grocery shopping. My grocery shopping is my favorite thing really.
B&W: How do you approach it?
HG: I like to stroll. I usually have a list, but I also just like to walk slowly down the aisles looking at everything. And I always end up buying way more than I need. My pantry is a nightmare. There's so many things in it that I have never used, sometimes inspired by my restaurant excursions. One of my favorite restaurants I've written about in the last couple years is this Persian restaurant in Bushwick called Eyval. They make amazing cocktails, including an orange blossom negroni.
B&W: I love orange blossom.
HG: Oh my gosh, me too, and so I bought a huge bottle of orange blossom water, which I have yet to open. I'm like, you never know when I'm going to need this. I could incorporate orange blossom water into my home life. And I have yet to do that. What do you do!?
B&W: Baking. My mom's favorite cake is a galette des rois, king’s cake. I make it for her birthday and often add some orange blossom. I also love making almond cake and I’ll add some in that too.
But I'm going to quickly pivot. This is a question that my fellow Blue and White writers wanted me to ask. Have you watched The Bear?
HG: I have! Well, I have a funny connection to it, which is that one of the producers is married to one of my childhood friends. So before it came out, he called me and said, “We have this show coming out, will you watch it and tell me if you think it’s good? We just want to know what to expect from someone who has an intimate knowledge of the restaurant world, is this going to pass the sniff test?” Not that they would've done anything differently if it didn't, but it seemed like he wanted to know. They were just bracing themselves a little bit.
So, I was actually, he claimed, the first person who hadn't worked on it to see it. And I loved it. I think they kind of nailed it. I'm sure people have quibbles with it, but I think it mostly falls into that thing that person on Twitter said, which is, it will pass muster with the expert, but also makes sense to someone who doesn't know anything about what it's like to open a restaurant. I've never seen anything that captures the drama of a restaurant in the way that it does, though actually The Menu was pretty good too.
B&W: New York City is a city of eating out, so to speak, and us non-NYC raised college students here are aware that integral part of experiencing this city is through food. And yet, we are students: We are on a budget. Do you have any top affordable eats to share with us?
HG: I mentioned I want to write about another place in Chinatown, where this very sweet, beautiful thing happened. There was this bakery that I've loved forever, since I was a college student, called Mei Lai Wah. They make the best pork buns in the world. They're so cheap. And so filling and delicious. Then there was this other restaurant called Wonton Noodle Garden that was a few blocks away that a lot of people think has the best wonton soup in Chinatown, and they lost their lease. I haven't quite figured out what happened, but I think what happened is that Mei Li Wah scooped them up and they went into business together. So now it's called Mei Li Wah Wonton Noodle Garden. Both of those places are just so good. I would say go to Chinatown, walk around. There's still so much good food to be had there. Go to Flushing, get on the subway, make the most of your $2.75.
B&W: My friends and I are going to Astoria tonight. We love Greek seafood.
HG: Have you ever been to Astoria Seafood? That's really fun because it's a fish market and you go and you pick out the fish yourself and then they just cook it for you. You fight for a table and then you pick up the fish, you tell 'em if you want it fried or grilled, then they bring it to you and it’s BYOB. It's really fun.
B&W: Thank you so much.
HG: You're so welcome.
B&W: That was so much fun.
HG: So much fun.