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Letter From The Editor: What I’ve Learned Interviewing 100 Chefs And Restaurateurs In 2020

A year of radical anxiety and transformation throughout the industry, and it's not done yet.

As of this writing, I just published my 100th interview on Zagat Stories—with Kim Prince of LA’s Hotville Chicken. She’s a great interview, and a great conversation, though she did most of the talking. The Zagat Stories “as told to” format is a Q&A minus the Q, and over time I’ve learned many creative, subtle, and sneaky ways to get people talking and keep them talking. But the most reliable way is just to listen.

By my rough math, I have over 3,800 minutes of interviews recorded so far. If I had to guess, I’m probably speaking for less than 10 percent of those minutes. That’s not because I don’t like to talk. But the intent of these interviews is to capture other people’s voices, not mine.

Launched on February 25, 2020, Zagat Stories began with three weekly features and videos produced entirely in-house while we developed our editorial focus. The pandemic accelerated our plans. We had published 20 features total by the day of the March lockdown in New York. By early April, I had 19 interviews scheduled in a single week, and a dozen more cooking with contributors. With restaurants shutting down nationwide, some closing for good, suddenly there were many people in the business who had urgent things to say, and plenty of free time to say them.

The pandemic has put the same existential problem in front of all restaurants, large and small, and very few people still in the industry believe that anything will ever be the same. They’re working their way through this crisis day by day and minute by minute, all the time.

I found myself listening to people caught up in moments of devastating personal and professional jeopardy. Many were hopeful, others despondent, still others resolute to make it through the crisis any way they could. Most had mixed emotions, highs and lows, sometimes in the same conversation. One owner decided, while speaking to me, that it was time to shut down his restaurant for good. Some experienced our conversations as catharsis. Anju Sharma, whose family has run Amma in New York for 18 years, wept openly and passionately about her decision to close down a restaurant that had been her livelihood and life for so long.

It can be a challenge talking to famous people who’ve been interviewed a million times, like Padma Lakshmi, who was doing the rounds to promote her new TV show, yet was still quite willing to talk about racism, bias, and the effects of the pandemic. In such cases it just takes a little time, patience, and encouragement to not only let famous interviewees speak, but to get past the responses they’ve been giving to other interviewers, sometimes for years—often because they get asked the same tiresome questions over and over.

On the other end of that spectrum are those who are a pleasure to hear even when (and especially if) they’re not famous at all. Like Riz Prakasim, manager at Gandhi Mahal, a restaurant burned down during the unrest in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd. Listening to his spirited defense of community and fellowship, it was no surprise to learn he’s also a pastor.

Sometimes I can lapse into saying almost nothing other than the occasional “mm-hm” for long stretches to acknowledge I’m present and listening. That can be enough to reach something really good—even profound—for the person speaking as they get deep into their own head and heart. In early June, I was talking to chef-owner Russell Jackson of NYC’s Reverence about George Floyd, including Jackson’s own experiences as a Black man and chef. While explaining why he choose to open a fine dining spot in Harlem, Jackson seemed to realize exactly the reason just as he spoke the words aloud for the first time:

I’m proud of who I am, and who I can continue to be, and how I get to represent myself and my family, my crew, my community. But there’s a core reason why I built a restaurant in Harlem, and not in the East Village or Southern California. I built it here not because the people here needed me. It’s because I need them.

When reading Jackson’s words in the story, I wish it were possible to hear his voice break with emotion as I did, or the long pause as we both sat for a moment with his realization in the air between us. It’s rare that you hear a beat land that firmly, naturally, and well.

Long talks allow room to explore lots of territory to find multiple possibilities for stories, where even the pandemic is just one facet. It took three lengthy interviews over several months to arrive at the published version of a conversation between Marcelle Afram and Rose Previte, chef and owner respectively at Washington DC’s Maydan and Compass Rose. That started as a dialogue about Afram taking over the restaurants, but it evolved into a globe-spanning multi-generational journey into family history, trauma, and reconciliation. It’s our longest story so far, but represents less than a third of the transcripts. Letting two people talk to each other makes my job even easier.

That doesn’t mean every conversation is easy, but difficult conversations can still make for compelling interviews. I might have been surprised at the hard-nosed pandemic cynicism of ice-cream maker Nick Morgenstern, but a broad slice of readers found his candor an invigorating call to arms. And Kenny Gilbert did not hold back about media and industry mistreatment of Black chefs, leading to one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever done.

I begin interviews with a ludicrously broad open-ended prompt to get the subject talking for as long as possible, to begin the process of making me invisible. It’s almost never a question, but rather begins with something like “Tell me about …” to get the ball rolling. These days it’s usually “Tell me what you’ve seen and experienced since the pandemic lockdown up to now,” which almost always gets a response like, “Ooof, well that’s a big question, and a long story.” I certainly hope so.

Most people who work in restaurants and hospitality got into the work because they wanted to communicate something, or at least commune with someone, or with everyone—even if not via words, exactly. I’ve learned how to speak less and less, how to prod with small words and vocalizations, and how to wait in silence when silence is best.

In addition to my own interviews, we’ve published dozens of stories from a growing roster of outside contributors. This brings in much-needed perspective and diversity of thought, since we’re always looking for new ideas. In the coming months we’ll be expanding our coverage, style, and formats to engage with more subjects and audiences in different ways, evolving as the world of restaurants and hospitality experiences seismic change. There are still a great many stories to be told. Thanks for listening.