Soleil Ho, Restaurant Critic – XOXO Festival (2019)


[Applause] [Cheers]>>SOLEIL HO: Hi! Hey! Cool! Can you hear me? Hi, hi everybody! I was really nervous about defaulting to gendered
words, so I was going through, like— “Comrade” is nice. “Fuckos” is better, but maybe not as nice. [Laughter] R.I.P. Carrie Fisher. But yeah, hi! I’m Soleil Ho. No, I’m not going to be singing karaoke this
afternoon, wait until Punch Up the Jam gets up here. [Cheers] Yes. I’m going to talk to you today
about what’s going on with me, if that’s cool. I’m a restaurant critic and I’m in a really
awkward time in my life. So, this is my third time coming to XOXO. During my first one, I was a chef at a restaurant
in Portland but I was admitted to the festival based on the podcast I did on the side called
Racist Sandwich. Some of you are familiar with it. Thank you for listening, if you have. In early 2016, my friend Zahir Janmohamed
and I met at a dinner party here in Portland and had a conversation about diversity in
food media. Stories like ours didn’t feel so common
back then, stories that centered us as children of refugees and immigrants, as queer people,
as people who weren’t the hegemonic white cis rich person who normally read food media. We noticed that food journalism in those days
often catered to people who thought the dishes and foodways we grew up were bizarre, exotic,
or savage. Our food was something for other people to
discover and explain in simple English. And so the title of my talk, “(I Can’t Get
No) Satisfaction: What happens when you become the representation you’ve been fighting
for?” So here’s a mild example, this from a publication
whose name rhymes with “FuzzBeed.” [Laughter] This was normal. This was a piece about how hand pies are the
hot shit right now. “That’s right. We’re talking hand pies!” [Laughter] [Applause] I think a lot of us know what those are and grew up with them, and didn’t think of them as a trendy thing.. So you feel that unease when you see that. [Audience Groans] So not limited to certain
websites that, you know, whatever… This is the New York Times, the Business section
ran a story on bubble tea, really confused about what the tapioca was. And that was the piece. [Laughter] So, yeah! It makes you feel like an alien, and that’s
how Zahir and I felt every time we looked at articles about food. So we talked about all of that in our podcast
for three years, I think 70-some episodes, pushing for more diversity in food media,
more stories by and about people whose foodways and livelihoods had been marginalized and
undervalued by a white supremacist, ableist, heteropatriarchal capitalist culture. Our podcast existed as a rebuke to the establishment,
and we used the ideas of some cool people like Edward Said, bell hooks, Krishnendu Ray,
and others to inform our approach. And Mikki Kendall, who we’ll all hear from
tomorrow, was also a huge influence on the way I thought about the cultural value of
food. She came up with the hashtag #foodgentrification,
which is… [Chef’s Kiss] …amazing. Thank you, Mikki. All of these are thinkers whose ideas could
barely get a toehold in major food publications until fairly recently. These are some headlines that have come out
in the past couple years. The top one, “Breaking the Bubble of Food
Writing: Cultivating Diverse Stories” ran in NPR by Adrian Miller, @soulfoodscholar. These are all their Twitter handles, I will
not be offended if you whip out your phone and follow all these folks because they’re
very smart and very cool. “How to Make Food Media More Equitable for
Writers of Color.” That was an editorial that ran on the James
Beard Foundation’s website, and they’re a huge organization within the food media
and food world. “For Our Food Culture to Diversity, Our
Restaurant Criticism Needs To, Too.” So a lot of people have started talking about
this. They’ve been given platforms to talk about
this. We joined a whole bunch of folks like us who
push for better representation among editors, writers, and publishers. We’ve emboldened each other to demand more
from the industry that we love, all for the sake of telling better, richer, stories. I know I’m not telling you anything new. I know that many of you in the audience are
the only X, Y, or Z at your office. The feeling of wanting things to be better,
not just for you, but for all the potential yous who’ve been scared off before is a
familiar one. Representation matters, we say, over and over
again. In our fight, we always felt like outsiders,
lobbing rocks at fortresses, but then something funny happened last year. So last summer, the reigning restaurant critic
of the San Francisco Chronicle, the biggest newspaper in the Bay Area, announced his retirement. We were all SO excited. [Laughter] While we tried to encourage marginalized
people to apply for staff positions to get work elsewhere, getting someone in there would
be a huge deal. There are so many amazing qualified people
at the tops of our heads whose hiring would have made this a historical moment for the
food world. And I applied, too, for the hell of it. [Laughter] But then things got more serious! The paper asked me for an interview, and then
I got… hired? [Applause] [Woo!] [Yeahs!] Thank you, which brings us back to the title
of this talk. [Laughter] Thank you for laughing at my jokes,
I love it! [Laughter] So I got this amazing job at an
incredible newspaper, which I’m so grateful for. And, I mean, I get paid to eat food. How cool is that! All my relatives think that I’m running a
scam. [Laughter] And I don’t know how to explain
this to them, so I just let them think that. My friends in the food world were so thrilled,
not only for me, but for us, our industry, and what this meant for the future. In a very abrupt reversal, I became the story. So here’s a headline from a Washington Post
profile of me that ran around the time that I published my first reviews at the Chronicle. It says, “Soleil Ho…” (that’s me) “…is
a young, queer woman of color who wants to redefine food criticism.” It was a lovely profile. But, over time, I began to worry about what
people saw in me. Did my hiring represent a giant “Mission
Accomplished” banner? Were people, particularly people with the
power to change things, feeling perhaps a little too satisfied with this? As if everything we pushed for in the past
was now over? Is this anxiety what I was inflicting on everyone
else that I was boosting? When you become the representation you’ve
been working for, you become very aware of all the agendas that intersect at your body. I’ve appropriated this Peanuts illustration
because it gave me anxiety to look at. [Laughter] So you get to look at it. I erased the fun saying on it because it was
trite. So. [Laughter] Every day I feel pressure to be
careful with my words, to not disappoint anyone who sees a revolution in me, to fix a century
of mistakes with my little weekly column. So many people are watching. People who have so much more hope in me than
I do, and people who are hoping to see me fail. I’ve been compared to Jonathan Gold (R.I.P.),
Ruth Reichl, another great critic, even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Some industry people have publicly fretted
that I’d spell doom for white male chefs, like I’d leap out of the pages of a newspaper and start cutting everyone’s dicks off. [Laughter] I’ve become a site of projection
for so many people, for good and for ill. And I’m complicit in this too. I have always been doing my day-to-day work,
but I’m also responding to heartfelt DMs and emails from writers, going on coffee dates
with people who want to learn from me, guesting on radio shows and podcasts to talk about
the future of food writing, and doing talks like this. And yes, I’m already serving on my workplace’s
diversity committee, you’re welcome. [Laughter] I spend so much emotional energy
and time on this other part of my job. I keep saying yes because I didn’t have mentors
when I was just starting out, just other people when I could commiserate with. So what good am I if I don’t pull other people
up with me? There’s so much that I’m bursting to talk
about through the medium of restaurant reviews: disability access, the racial wealth gap,
assimilation. But that also means that I have to work hard
to get everything right. To not just be able to articulate how and
why an $80 steak falls short of the ideal, but to also be able to share best practices
in things like trans inclusivity with restaurateurs. How can they be better? I need to know. [Laughter] [Applause] So these are all the
reasons I’m problematic. [Laughter] So, as any of my friends and family
can tell you, I’m as disappointing and problematic as anyone else. I don’t believe salads are food. I used an airplane to get here. Terrible! I still forget to clean jars before recycling,
I’ve never seen Cheers, my copyeditor was really mad about that one. And I hate horses, like, a lot. [Laughter] I’m not perfect! That’s the point, right? I still have so much to learn, and to quote
the chef, Jeremiah Tower, ”I aim for the crown, but I always know the guillotine is
in sight.” So go ahead and cancel me, I cancel myself. [Laughter] I don’t get to be just another
restaurant critic. I feel immense guilt every time I think, maybe
I’ll take it easy this week and review a pizza restaurant and just talk about how yummy
the crust is, like anybody else would do. I can’t just do the thing I get paid to
do. No, because this is what I asked for. This was, in the end, my monkey’s paw wish. I get to herald in a change, but I also get
to have insomnia about it. This is a quote from Animal Farm. “The creatures outside looked from pig to
man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to
say which was which.” This is extremely 16-year-old kid of me, but
I think about this quote from the novel Animal Farm a lot lately. In case any of you skipped class that day,
it’s the scene at the end when the pigs of the liberated farm enter negotiations with
humans to ensure the farm’s long term viability as a commune. The pigs wear suits, smoke pipes, and walk
on two legs. In short, they sold out. I’m terrified of being seen as a sellout,
of letting a little taste of power extinguish that “me” that was so angry for so long. But what’s worse than that, to me, is letting
a little comfort convince me that respectability can buy us all a seat. Representation and seeing yourself reflected
in your field and in popular media is a powerful thing, but you have to also be aware of the
danger of being commodified. If I’m not careful, it’s easy to let other
people decide who I am, based on what’s politically useful for them. It’s easy to forget who I am outside of
that cage. Right now, I’m trying to understand where
that middle ground is for me, in particular. How to maintain that power and platform, use
it to pull our culture forward, and allow myself the space to be the weirdo that I am. So, this is a burden. I carry it proudly. In a time when despair and powerlessness can
creep up on one’s psyche, when horrible awful things are just crouching in wait to ambush
you every second… I have anxiety, haha. [Laughter] Yeah…. The key that I found is keeping your eye on
something you care about, that you want very deeply to become better, and focusing on that. All I’ve ever wanted to do was to make more
space for people like me in my little corner of the world. For now, that’s what kept me going, through
recording podcast interviews before my restaurant job, enduring insults from people I once admired
as heroes, constantly batting the sad and angry thoughts that fly around my head at
night. If, one day, all of the stuff I’ve been
saying about race and class and gender comes up as obsolete or old-fashioned, my god, wouldn’t
that be a treat? If all of my labors manage to move the needle
even the slightest bit towards that future, maybe then I’ll be satisfied. But until then, at least I’ve got Fire Emblem
to keep me centered. [Laughter] [Applause] Golden Deer, yeah. [Laughter] So this is where the original version
of my talk ended, on this note that’s basically, I guess I’ll work ’til I die! [Laughter] But my sister told me that was
too depressing. So here’s something maybe a little less
sad, but still honest. I want you to think about someone whose work
inspires you, that pushed you to think harder, be better. Now when you feel up to it, I’d encourage
you to take the time to let that person know how they sparked a change in you. Tell them what their work means to you, and
what you’re going to do with that momentum, with that energy. That would do a lot to help them feel less
isolated. We are the grease in each other’s engines,
and we keep each other moving forward. Thank you for hearing me out. [Applause]

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