Just putting your eyeballs on this sentence means you've walked into a big room labeled the L.A. Food Scene. And Besha Rodell is the elephant in it. Or, perhaps, it's all a theater stage, the drama playing out in real time for every dedicated food nerd in the city. After Jonathan Gold (this city's gastronomical golden boy) exited his LA Weekly post from stage left and reemerged to start his second (third? fourth?) act at the Los Angeles Times, former Atlanta food critic Besha Rodell was brought in to keep the curtain from falling.
Much more than just an understudy, Rodell offers up an outsider's eye and sharp wit to perhaps the most inventive food scene in America. Despite her hectic landing in L.A. and late nights soaking up the scene here, Rodell was kind enough to sit down with KCET Food at one of the city's most beloved burger spots: Apple Pan. In between hickory burger bites and the namesake apple pie, she dished on her new employment, remaining anonymous and what it really means to only search for "authentic" foods.
Farley: So how did you come into the much-coveted LA Weekly position?
Besha: I don't know, exactly. I applied for it on a whim, because it's a great job, and at first I didn't really hear anything. I was working as the restaurant critic for the alt weekly in Atlanta at the time, and had been doing that for six years. Then I got laid off, which was super shocking to me and a lot of people in Atlanta. When that happened, a bunch of different people approached me about doing different things, so I had to get in touch with LA Weekly and let them know that I had some other job offers, and to just let me know one way or the other. I didn't want to take a job and then find out they had been considering me. That started a ball rolling that was fairly quick.
It wasn't a super easy thing to do. I really love Atlanta, and had become very entrenched in the Southeast food culture. But this isn't really a job you turn down.
Farley: What is it that you love about the Southeastern food scene?
Besha: I'm an Australian originally, and I feel as though there's something about Southern culture that resonates with me. It's partly about how close family is tied to food there.
When I first got to Atlanta, it was very showy. It hadn't decided whether it wanted to be LA or Miami or Las Vegas. It was trying to be all of those things, but it doesn't have casinos, and it doesn't have a beach and it doesn't have the movies. In the six years since I moved there, it's really changed and gotten more into its Southern roots. It's really becoming the capital of the South.
Farley: How do your family and friends treat your love of food?
Besha: It comes from my family, actually. My dad was a fairly ambitious home cook. He actually befriended Julia Child for a while when we lived in Boston, and he would cook these fantastic French meals. And my mom is this wonderful American home cook. My love of restaurant culture was harder for them. I waited tables for eight years and cooked in kitchens for a bunch of years, and my mom didn't get it. I tried to explain to her that I just really love restaurants. I love waitresses, I love cooks, I love that culture. She never got that. She thought I was wasting my life, and it turned out to be my life.
Farley: How have you found the conversation to be about food in Los Angeles?
Besha: It's so big here that it's hard for me to even take in the chatter and understand if it's something that needs to be paid attention to, or if it's just a crazy little side thing. Amongst people who are into food out here, there's an obsession with finding "the best" something. There's an obsession with authenticity, which I find a little bit weird. I think it's kind of false. There's a little of that in any big city that has a lot of food, but it's THE thing here. Everyone wants the best burger, the best ramen, the best whatever. I find it almost beside the point. If you're looking for "the best," you don't necessarily take what's in front of you for what it is, and see what can be really great about it.
Besha: I think there's a place for that, but it's ultimately subjective. I have to be a critic. If something is technically wrong, if I feel like someone is coming at a dish from a place of cynicism, if they're not putting their heart and soul into it, those are the areas that my value lies in. I can be objective and subjective. But some people like salty things, or are going somewhere to be seen or just to have a cocktail, and if the food is decent but not mind-blowing, they should get to know that. Who am I to say someone is stupid for liking something?
Farley: How as the response been from the community since you've taken over for Jonathan Gold?
Besha: As always, there's a sharp divide between the people who email me and the people who comment online.
Farley: Of course.
Besha: Actually, that's not entirely true. The internet comments haven't been that bad, it's just that the ones that have been bad have been REALLY bad. I've probably had 60 - 70 emails in the past few weeks, all of them say that they love Jonathan Gold, they love his writing, but they're happy for something else too. I mean, if he left town, there would be a greater need for someone to come in and try and do what he did, although I doubt anyone could do it. But he's still writing here, so it would just be stupid to try to mimic that. I think that's part of why they hired me; I just have no interest in trying to be Jonathan. That's not my style.
Farley: What's the advantage to carrying on the mystique of "anonymous food critic?"
Besha: It's just a different vibe. You feel a change in the air. It's uncomfortable to me to feel like people are paying attention to me while I eat. It's robbing me of the experience and really making it worse for them. I think people know better than to try to comp things or send me things, at least. That used to happen to me, but it doesn't anymore, which is good.
It's just easier to do my job when I'm not known by the people I'm writing about. It's only small things they can do in the kitchen anyway. They're not going to become great chefs if they weren't, they're not going to become bad chefs if they aren't.
Farley: Any restaurant you've been surprised by so far in LA?
Besha: This is the "duh" L.A. thing, but it's really hard for me to spend any money at LA restaurants because the taco truck up the street is probably ten times better. Everyone here knows it; it's not even something that needs to be said.
Farley: Are you going to step away from the restaurant scene some and focus on things like tacos some?
Besha: I don't know. A lot of what there is to say about that type of food is being said really, really well by a lot of people already. If there's a small restaurant that's doing something interesting that deserves to be recognized on a bigger level, then absolutely. But it's more a thing for me to probably tweet about instead.
Farley: OK, unofficial review: How did you like the food here?
Besha: It's good. I liked the burger, although the sweetness of the hickory sauce bothered me a bit. Of course, I liked the apple pie a lot.
And with that, let the internet commenting begin!
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