An Arbiter of Taste

Janelle Bitker on Dishing Up the Local Restaurant Scene

By Adam Mann

Growing up in the Bay Area, Janelle Bitker has watched a lot of things change over the years. A devotee of local food writing, she waited for years to cover the culinary renaissance unfolding in the place she grew up. After attending University of California, Davis and writing for Sacramento News and Review, Bitker, in 2017, saw her chance. She returned to the East Bay to write about the exploding food scene, and became the restaurant reviewer for the East Bay Express, filling the shoes of former food writer Luke Tsai, who left the Express for San Francisco Magazine in the same year. Bitker is now the managing editor for the paper.

Since Bitker started, her reviews have guided the dining habits of anyone who has picked up a copy of the free alt-weekly. Her evocative language, replete with “gurgling stews,” lamb shank “falling off the bone and covered in a thick, tomato-and-onion sauce,” and sandwiches bedecked with “a thick slice of frittata, teeming with marinated shiitake mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and caramelized onions,” leaves readers gripped by hunger pangs.

We met up at a coffee shop near her office and spoke about how she got into food writing, the logistics and considerations of being a restaurant reviewer, her thoughts on preparing and judging foods from other cultures, and what it takes for budding journalists to establish themselves.

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You were born in Oakland and lived in Alameda. It seems like a lot must have changed with food in the East Bay over the last few years. Or has it just been getting more attention now that more people have moved out here?

It’s changed so much, it’s crazy. When I think of Alameda, growing up there, we had one Indian restaurant, one Thai restaurant, one Italian restaurant, one Japanese restaurant, and that’s where we went all the time. We’d come into Oakland to eat in Chinatown and get Vietnamese food, but there wasn’t much “destination food” happening.

I don’t know if you’ve been in Alameda recently, but there’s a real food scene there now. It’s not amazing, but there’s a lot. There are a lot of Oakland restaurateurs moving in. Now, the SF Weekly food critic keeps coming out to Oakland and stealing my stories [laughs]. It’s super annoying. I think it just speaks to how much better the food is now.

Why did all that happen?

Overflow from San Francisco. I used to intern for the San Francisco Chronicle food section in college, and at that point there was good food in Oakland, but there weren’t places that were going to make Michael Bauer’s Top 100. Talking to the food writers then, they were like, “Now is the time.” Right at the time when the rent in San Francisco became insane, that was when, suddenly, lots of people came over. Even now, I feel like half the restaurants I write about are San Francisco restaurateurs moving over.

When did you know you wanted to be a food writer?

I wanted that as early as high school. I didn’t think it would be possible, though. I would read the East Bay Express food critics in high school every week. I loved them and loved reading the Chronicle’s food section. I wrote restaurant reviews for my high school paper, and then kind of quickly decided, “This is never going to happen. It’s too competitive.” And then somehow it happened.

Back then, there were so few food writing jobs. Now there are actually way more opportunities. There was no Eater then. You moved to New York for one of four elite food magazines or you were the one critic at the one paper. So it just seemed very unlikely.

Do you wish you could just stick to writing about food? Or do you like being an editor?

I like doing both, and that’s the hard part. During this past year-ish that I was just writing about food, it’s been really fun and rewarding in its own way. But back in Sacramento I was the arts editor, and I loved working with young writers and cultivating them and watching them get better and better — it’s rewarding in a totally different way. So I’m trying to do both right now, but I might die [laughs].

Your longer reviews are around a thousand words, have menu recommendations, and will say whether you recommend the restaurant. How do you decide which places to review, what is your process like, and how long do reviews take you to write?

I’m constantly monitoring what new restaurants are opening and deciding which ones I might want to go to, because obviously there are way too many to go to all of them — it’s impossible. I consider whether it’s a chef that’s kind of buzzy, or if it’s a cuisine that’s hard to find, or if it’s a location that everyone’s going to be interested in just because of the location.

Once I decide what I’m going to write about, I go at least two times, sometimes four times, to the restaurant, if I can afford it. I take notes after each visit, and then I try to interview the chef or owner. Sometimes we just talk for ten minutes, and it’s like, “What was in this sauce and how did you prepare this?” And then sometimes we talk for far longer. There was one restaurateur I talked to for an hour because they just wanted to talk. For the writing, it sort of depends, but it usually takes around an hour after all that’s done?

Do restaurants know you’re coming in?

No. I’m not anonymous like some critics are — you can see my photo online. Most progressive critics these days don’t bother just because it’s not realistic. Michael Bauer is anonymous, but every restaurant has a picture of him in the kitchen. So, if anything, it’s kind of unfair to the smaller restaurants that don’t have the money to pay a PR person to give them a photo. But I don’t make reservations under my name or announce that I’m coming or anything like that.

What name do you use?

Not telling [laughs].

Where do you get ideas for your stories? Are there people you work with who have leads, or is it all the connections you have from doing this for awhile now?

It’s pretty easy to track restaurant openings because there are so many different writers covering restaurant openings. So, I just have a huge spreadsheet where anytime someone writes about a restaurant, I put it in — date it opened, what it’s like, if it’s buzzy or not. Once a month, I sort of go back through it and read Yelp reviews and other things, and look at lots of pictures to decide if I want to write about it. For food news stuff, you just build connections, basically. I’ve only gotten one scoop from looking at alcohol licenses, because usually places end up reaching out to the media before that point to try to build a buzz. So usually it’s driving by a sign or hearing about it from people in the industry. Once people know you’re covering restaurants, they start talking to you.

Do you ever get angry emails or other correspondence from places?

Only once [while at the East Bay Express]. The food’s so good here, I don’t have to write a lot of bad reviews. And if it’s a small mom-and-pop type of place, I generally try to keep it as positive as possible, even if I don’t love all the food, just because I don’t necessarily want their business to go under. But a place that charges a lot of money — I think those are fair game, because they have investors and they should be better.

But when I worked in Sacramento, I got a lot [of angry responses]. I had a bad reputation. When I was writing about food there, the scene was going through this really interesting boom period where tons of stuff was opening with a lot of money behind it, and every food writer in town was a booster. Some of it was great, but most of it was terrible and expensive, and had so much hurrah behind it. So I wrote a lot of bad reviews in Sacramento, and I got a lot of shit for it.

What are you judging a restaurant on when you write a positive review?

Context matters. What restaurants are presenting themselves as is just as important as what they are. The one really negative review I wrote here was about this Italian restaurant on Grand. It was presented as fine dining, the chef had a fine dining restaurant in San Francisco. Not only was the food not good, but the space was weird. It was too bright, they didn’t design it at all, the service was oddly stoic, the plates were wet still, they never brought us water. All these things I would forgive in maybe a small Burmese restaurant in East Oakland, but in that type of place, they matter a lot. What are they trying to be and who are they trying to get to eat here? Are they delivering on those things? Context matters.

I don’t care about service as much as I think other writers do. I acknowledge that there’s a terrible staff shortage here, and I think everyone’s struggling with that a lot.

Are there any restaurants that you’ve been really disappointed to see closed?

I was really shocked when Juhu Beach Club closed. And Hawker Fare — that was depressing. Those were the types of places where you expect them to survive, so it hurts even more. They were so set up to do well, and they were doing well in that they had tons of business, but it’s still so hard.

In the last few years, there have been a lot of conversations around cultural appropriation in cooking and restaurants — about who is allowed to make certain types of food. How do you relate to that conversation? Has it come up in your writing for the East Bay Express?

I ask people about it when it’s appropriate. I think a lot of chefs are sick of talking about it at this point — I think that was a very 2016 conversation, where it was kind of new and people were interested in hashing it out more. Some chefs are going to always want to talk about it, like the Juhu Beach Club chef. Also, I feel like we’ve kind of gotten to an understanding where most chefs feel like the white chef, who is cooking a food not of their culture, but is doing so respectfully and with knowledge and intention, is fine. I think probably 90 percent of chefs would agree, including chefs of color.

Most recently, this came up with the chef at The Temple Club. The chef is a white guy who moved to Vietnam for 16 years and came back and opened a Vietnamese restaurant in a Vietnamese neighborhood. And I think a lot of people agree that, yeah, he put in his time — of course he can open a Vietnamese restaurant. And it’s a very good Vietnamese restaurant. But I think he’s gotten upset about how it’s come up so much in writings. In most reviews, there’s at least a paragraph about [his origin] — including my review. But it’s sort of the elephant in the room.

The other side of that coin is, do you ever feel that you’re not qualified enough in terms of knowing about a particular cuisine to review it well?

Totally. I think interviewing the chef and owner and doing a lot of research, looking at a lot of cookbooks and recipes, is really important in that situation. One food I’d never had before, and have only had once at this one restaurant in San Leandro, is Liberian food. At the same time, how many people in the East Bay have had Liberian food? It’s the first Liberian restaurant here. If I’m writing for an East Bay audience, I don’t feel as bad for not knowing about Liberian food.

There’s a common starch in West African cooking called fufu, and Nigerian food has it too. It’s like a big ball of playdough. It’s a lot to eat. It’s not a texture I naturally enjoy, but I acknowledge that people in that culture do. So, I don’t critique it. I don’t feel comfortable that this place’s fufu is good or bad. I kind of remove myself from certain things that I don’t know. I think people who read my writing know that I know southeast Asian food pretty well and Chinese food, because I’ve spent a lot of time in those places. So, I’m more critical of those.

Do you worry about getting burnt out, or do you still get excited about going to new places?

I mean, I haven’t been doing it that long. I talked to the guy I replaced who had been doing it for five years. After five years, I understand if you’re eating out too much. But he wasn’t burnt out, his wife was burnt out on going out so much with the kids. I could see that happening — life circumstances changing and thinking, “Okay, this lifestyle isn’t conducive anymore.”

When I was in Sacramento, I was going to two or three concerts every week, and I got really tired of going out late so often and still having to work the next day. But, I think going out to dinner is different, because I would probably still be doing that, to an extent. But people do get burnt out on journalism pretty often. It’s a lot of work, and not a lot of pay. And it’s not stable.

Would you do any other kind of writing other than journalism?

Most journalists end up going into public relations work, which sounds terrible. It’s a tough situation. I have a friend who does copywriting for Sephora, and she comes up with the names of lipstick colors, which in a way sounds kind of fun.

Do you have any advice for people who are trying to break into journalism, who don’t have much experience outside of classes?

Internships. Internships are so important! I talk to a lot of students who say they understand that internships are important, but then have gone four years of undergrad and have never had one. I think if you don’t have an internship — at least one solid one — then you’re not going to get a job anywhere. No one is going to give you a chance, because as great as classes are and college newspapers, that real-world experience is so much more important. Real clips from a real paper.

I did four or five [internships] … I did a lot. And I didn’t have any trouble getting a job after college. I know people who were at the college newspaper as well, and were very good, who didn’t have the internships and couldn’t get a job and went to PR instead. So, get an internship. Or freelance at the local alt-weekly — that’s another good way.

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