On Being Empathetic, Honest, And Herself: Soleil Ho Talks Food

It’s an early Monday morning as Mazarine coffee connoisseurs line up for their artisanal caffeinated brews. It’s the hour of morning when eyes are still half-mast, the city does a salutation stretch. The sidewalks are rolled back out.

I sit outside enjoying a finally sunny day in San Francisco, a rare occasion that the weather permits. I’m crossed-legged waiting for Soleil Ho, 31—the San Francisco Chronicle’s newly appointed food critic. A seat that hasn’t been traded, swapped, or handed down in nearly thirty years. As a young journalist, I knew and wrote stories about Michael Bauer (the former “Chronicle” food critic) and his viewpoints of the SF culinary world.

“If you are an owner of an eating establishment, the name Michael Bauer should send shivers down your spine,” we wrote back in 2017 of his thirty years at the “Chronicle,” “whether he’s talking up the next latest and greatest or ‘pistol whipping’ his not so fave—this man can surely eat.” Bauer was known to play favorites, destroy those who didn’t meet his standard, and produce stories that would turn San Francisco culinary arts on their head.

Now, picture this: a position at the “Chronicle” that would have restaurant operators crying in the backs of their kitchens that has now been passed down to a new guard over a litany of equally qualified candidates. Needless to say, I’m excited to meet her. 10:10AM rolls by and a young woman walks up to me with a warm smile and a Parisian side hug-kiss. “It’s lovely to meet you” I respond, it’s Soleil Ho, the newly appointed food critic.

I dive in: “so how do you say your name? SoLEL, SoLEEL, SoLIEL?” She looks me in the eye, “Soleil, you know the circus.” I’m relieved that I didn’t make myself look like a fool, “It’s funny you know how Asian people in the US and dyaspora, you have a local name and an inside name, right?” Soleil tells me “and usually it’s JoAnn, Sam, or Joyce but my mom gave me a French name because [she] wanted to make my life really hard [laughs].” Judging from the side kiss-hug and a name like Soleil, there is a bit of French sensibility to her. Something effortless in her posture—something very cool.

Soleil is wearing a pair of khaki dress pants and a pinstripe blazer with cuffs that have intricate detailing and stitching. Her posture is up-right as we dive more and more into her life’s story. “Do you get that often I assume?” asking about her name still, it’s so unique. “[It’s] a name that Americans can’t pronounce,” she says, “or rarely they’ll try to pronounce it in a really Asian way because “Obviously it’s going to be an Asian name, I just don’t know.”

But who was Soleil Ho—my findings of her led me to a longstanding podcast called, The Racist Sandwich from which Google attests, “is an American food podcast hosted by chef and food writer Soleil Ho and journalist Zahir Janmohamed. The podcast focuses on race, gender and class within the food industry in the United States and abroad. The podcast debuted in May 2016 and airs bi-weekly on Wednesday.” The podcast has since been on hiatus due to Soleil’s new job prospects and Zahir’s move to Michigan to pursue fiction writing at the University of Michigan. She tells me, “I was a really frustrated line cook before. A lot of thoughts and no where to put them.” But her origin story goes deeper than that. “I started off as a server in a restaurant in college, so I was a history major and the entire time I worked in a restaurant in a small town in Iowa called Grinnell and it was one restaurant in town [at the time called, Café Phoenix] with table cloths and so I wanted to work there,” she exclaims to me as more and more people bustle pass and car horns go off, “being from New York city, this was the spot that had culture so this is where I wanted to be. I also had a hard time talking to people at the time, so I wanted to force myself to make small talk all the time at work so that was really helpful. So that was the beginning and my boss [Kamal Hammouda] was really into local foods, this was back in 2005—2006, so it wasn’t a big deal in the rest of the country so he was a pioneer in that.”

But her story doesn’t stop there—as a newly graduated History major, Soleil came into the food industry at an interesting turnpike of American history, “from there, because I graduated in the recession in 2009, I ended up working in restaurants because that’s all who was hiring at the time. I was cutting Parsley for free for awhile just to get my foot in the door and then I got a real job as a line cook and as a pantry cook, so I was doing that for the past decade and writing on the side. I was writing little pieces, starting to write for food magazines a little bit, everything was literally from the ground up.” She admits, “I didn’t know anybody, I interned, and I wrote the stupidest shit.”

Like any skill or trade, you only get better with practice and practice takes time. Finding new outlets to help express the feelings pent up inside often blooms from intense need—For Soleil, it hits quite close to home. “I didn’t really try to get into writing until I moved to Portland and became a chef at a restaurant, along the way I was writing these small pieces for random things but I was so busy doing 60+ hours a week but then I started a podcast called “The Racist Sandwich.” That came out of my frustration being in the restaurant world and being a queer woman of color, and not having a lot of models or mentors and I wanted to talk about that with people. So we interviewed a bunch of chefs, grocery store owners, winemakers, people in the food world, everybody about politics, the politics about being who you are in this world that’s not made for you.”

And Racist Sandwich started to turn the industry on its head, Racist Sandwich has hosted a variety of guests, including cooks like chef Samin Nosrat and baker Ruby Tandoh of The Great British Bake Off. The podcast has featured writers like novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, Liana Aghajanian, Nicole A. Taylor, Alexander Chee, Carmen Maria Machado, poet Hanif Abdurraqib and Omar El Akkad. The show has also hosted figures from the world of entertainment like Hari Kondabolu and Jenny Yang. The podcast is also nominated for a James Beard Foundation award. Again, winemaking, pastries, savories, sweets—the two hosts covered the gambit on what it was like to be a minority chef in a predominantly glamorized white industry. Accolades followed: write-ups and words stemming from The New York Times, Forbes, NBC and the like. Racist Sandwich had been telling the stories that needed to be told.

It feels like time is standing still as I converse with Soleil. I’m abask in her story like a sponge—she’s letting me into her world of food, identity, and expression and among the coffee go-ers, I’m solely in her world.

But how did a Portland, New York, and Mexico writer, chef, and podcast operator become intertwined with little ole’ San Francisco? Of course, a hub for food innovation and prestige—her San Francisco story starts with writing, “I came into reading the work of the [San Francisco] Chronicle through the work of Tunde Wey, chef, writer, provocateur, and he has a very occasional column with the Chronicle and it’s always very incisive, provocative, and just great thorough rigorous work,” she gushes, “and I thought, ‘Wow! This is in a newspaper, that’s so wild’ and I began to read more of the Chron but I didn’t live in the Bay so it wasn’t immediately relevant to my life because I was living in Mexico. When they [San Francisco Chronicle] announced that Michael Bauer would be retiring [as food critic] in the Summer of last year, I was still operating Racist Sandwich and we had a pretty robust social media presence—we publicized [the job opening] because we were like “someone should take this job, this is going to be the next big change.”

But her listeners, fans, and Racist Sandwich heed had another idea, “As an outsider, I viewed the job like “someone should get this role” and people started saying that I should do it. It’s weird right? You never want to become the story.” Soleil is a new guard in the Chronicle’s history of food criticism, “It’s so rare, you know?! He [Michael Bauer] literally started the job before I was born. It’s very humbling.” Though Bauer hadn’t been an angel on Earth in or out of the restaurant—with a long history of scandals, takedowns, and even wars with the lot of restaurant operators, no one thought he’d put the brakes on his career as food critic anytime soon. Quotes from the San Francisco Magazine about his power in the local food scene, “’Bauer is “the biggest game in town, period,’ says La Toque’s Chef Ken Frank. ‘There’s the Chronicle and everything else.'”

Soleil Ho photographed in front of the CJM, a half block away from the San Francisco Chronicles headquarters. Photographed by Anthony Rogers.Soleil Ho photographed in front of the CJM, a half block away from the San Francisco Chronicles headquarters. Photographed by Anthony Rogers.

Soleil Ho photographed in front of the CJM, a half block away from the San Francisco Chronicles headquarters. Photographed by Anthony Rogers.

San Francisco Magazine had even published a point-by-point story of Bauer and his longtime boyfriend, Michael Murphy, as they describe a “Hillary-and-Bill-type of relationship.” Writer Flint Marx who published the ‘Billary’ relationship piece stated clearly that “This fear, of course, has little to do with Murphy and everything to do with his relationship to arguably the most powerful man in San Francisco food. You can make fun of his writing or his taste, but the reality is that Michael Bauer still matters. A good review in his twice-weekly Chronicle column can lead to months of sold-out reservations and will in turn be read by editors at national food magazines who will then fly in their writers to try the restaurant, leading to more exposure, more business, and more national attention.” His word had such plutonium to it.

After 30+ years reviewing the swankiest, luxury, and one-percent seated restaurants, Bauer had announced in retirement from the industry. He told his homestay Chronicle, “In my 32 years at The Chronicle I’ve loved peeling back the layers of what makes San Francisco a great food city,” said Bauer. “But now I’m looking forward to the freedom of branching out with freelance writing, working on a book and pursuing other interests.” Garnering praise and effervescence from Editor in Chief Audrey Cooper, “[…] our readers know Michael from his consistent body of work,” said Cooper, “His colleagues know him in a much different way: A consummate gentleman who often arrived before dawn and finished his days long after sunset, carefully reimagining food journalism as the Bay Area became the epicenter of new world cuisine.”

Bringing it back to speed—Bauer out of chair, Chronicle reviews on a slight pause, and a young Soleil with a lot of questions to ask. “My editor Paolo Lucchesi talked with me a lot before I came into the role. He gave me freedom to pick through everything and question every single thing about the job. I didn’t have to inherit everything but if I wanted to take that on and keep certain things or get rid of certain things, I had to think it out and have a good reason. It was very freeing because I love to problematize and think about a variety of aspects to dining and restaurants.” And we asked, “Soleil, who are you?” She paused looking past my head calculating an answer, “I’m someone grappling with a lot of power and figuring out how to use it responsibly. But excited about the prospects” she says with an inflection.

But unlike her predecessor, who would often announce his arrival to the finest dining in San Francisco, Soleil is choosing to remain anonymous throughout her critics seat. In the age of social media, are any of us truly anonymous? To Soleil, no but it’s a step in the right direction of truly providing a thorough critique. “The certain things I do, to not announce myself, because I’m not that kind of person anyway,” she says with certainty, “there are other things that are really important for a critic and that really boils down to empathy. Not empathy for the person sitting across from you but having peripheral vision and seeing how other people are being treated. How long have they had dirty plates on their tables? What conversations they’re having with their server? All of that stuff matters to me as well. I notice what I get and what other people don’t get and that’s part of the story.”

The focus of Soleil’s job has her focusing on people of all walks of like in the restaurant space, and what is overlooked by a variety of critics, “that requires extra thinking also but also as someone who’s able bodied for instance, thinking about are there tables for wheelchairs, are there tables they can access? I don’t have a wheelchair but having to step aside and think about that every time I enter a restaurant space is really important to me.” But as a restaurant critic, you can’t know everything and for Soleil, that’s a constantly growing process, “I’m always in the process of improving my awareness because I don’t know everything, obviously none of us do. Those who pretend are… lying,” she chuckles about the question, “I have a set amount of things I consider, I try to bring a diverse pool of people when I go out, they all have different interpretations of the place that some degree depend on their identity, where their coming from, what their context is, so that’s really important to think about because I don’t want to bring out people who think exactly like me. Because that’s boring.”

But I was curious, as we dug deeper into the context of the restaurant critic—it reminded me of a story I published years back about a Yelp review that made cofounder of Boba Guys, Andrew Chau, respond with a retort of the century. It furthers the conversation about the modern day reviewer, the Yelp Elite who have their share of opinions. Whether stating something about the food, the service, the atmosphere, even the parking—nothing is sacred to the keyboard warrior sitting in their home behind a 1920 by 1080 screen. But I had to know Soleil’s stamp on the ever evolving landscape of criticism.

“The value of restaurant criticism is knowing that, and this is more or less true that, knowing that the critic is looking at the long view,” she tells me finding the right words to discuss on ‘Yelp Culture’, “going back to the restaurant multiple times and one bad day isn’t going to be the entirety of the review. And you don’t get that with Yelp. Rarely you see someone write a review after they have been multiple times and sometimes you’ll see a reviewer state that they have been twice, a follow up, but that’s not the structure of modern criticism. And it’s different from book criticism where you can read it once and have a strong opinion about it but for me Yelp is like reading the first chapter and then being like I’m going to write a whole essay on it.”

Take for example, Soleil’s recent review (as of publishing this story) of Isla Vida, Afro-Caribbean restaurant in the Fillmore. A thorough and out-of-left field stream of consciousness that entails a recount of the seating, the music being played over the stereo, and in her words, “spend[ing] an embarrassing amount of words on the restaurant’s metal chairs, which I hate, despite enjoying so much else about the experience of eating there.” But when reading reviews about Isla Vida, you’re greeted with too much, “me me me” and not enough observation of the critic sense. One reviewer writes, “Not to age myself, but it’s been a good number of years since I’ve been back home that I haven’t experienced anything quite like those guava ribs. Then one hopeful day I took a gander at the upcoming Isla Vida’s menu and saw “BBQ guava spare ribs”… my heart skipped a beat. Could Isla Vida fill this gaping hole in my heart?”

They go onto deem the Afro-Centric eats a 3-star, not amazing but not bad. “Again, I hate that I didn’t love Isla Vida; also because I was a huge fan of Farmerbrown (RIP) and this restaurant is their baby. I won’t entirely rule them out though because there are other items on the menu that sound alluring– Cubano, garlic shrimp, Jerk jackfruit (whaaat)—so the jury’s still out folks.” This ultimately doesn’t help anybody nor does it secure merit.

Soleil, though, agrees that Yelp creates a sense of peer-to-peer that’s inherently more intimate, “And that’s the flip-side to anonymity, Yelpers are the anonymous reviewer, they are the every man. And it’s important but they should be taken as a grouping. I don’t think a restaurant should contort themselves to every single restaurant criticism because that’s not great for the mental health of your staff or the owner. Yelp can dictate trends: if every person on Yelp is complaining about the bathroom then maybe there is an issue that needs to be looked at, it’s like a survey, it shouldn’t be taken like the word of God. I’ve been on the other side of it, yes, where the owners would read single Yelp reviews to the staff everyday and say, “this person didn’t like the spaghetti, we should change the recipe.”

I don’t think empathy is the be all end all of making a better world but I think it’s a start if people can visualize how to see a restaurant like me maybe they’ll have more empathy for that.

— Soleil Ho

But we’re at current day Soleil Ho, she has held the seat at the SF Chronicle for a couple of months now. I was curious, who does Soleil Ho want to be, she answered with optimistic intent, “Someone who hopefully shifts the opportune window of what is acceptable in food criticism and gets people to think more broadly about what’s on their plate. Because we’ve been thinking about it that way for a long time but I think there is a certain segment of the population who’s not use to that and they need to start getting use to that because it matters.”

When I asked about shifting the paradigm further, Soleil brings up an outstanding reference to Joan Livingstone from the New Republic, “There is a piece by Joan Livingstone that just came out in the New Republic about foodie culture in the US and in Europe. You can’t undo something [food culture] once it has been made, it’s very hard to change it but we can apply a rigorous mode of analysis and say “ok, this is what I see happening and this is how it’s relevant to the real world.” I don’t think empathy is the be all end all of making a better world but I think it’s a start if people can visualize how to see a restaurant like me maybe they’ll have more empathy for that.”

How do we come to terms with the fact that our food is made, tested, and served by real people trying to make a living in an industry that tries so hard to push for automation? An industry that feels like it’s a snake eating it’s own head? In episode 48 of the Racist Sandwich with Francis Lam, author and food writer, the two discuss the business of glamorizing food. How regular people can come expecting the fanfare of the restaurant industry when on the flip side, it’s a business that supports livelihoods and sometimes is the only route people take to survive. “The tension between how much we valorize food and how much we’re into food as a cultural product,” Francis explains, “ there is all the glitz and all the ‘foodie-ism’ and all the cool stuff around it which I also believe in but it’s under-graded by stories about […] people who work in it until they can’t work anymore, people work in it not because they want to, because it’s the only thing they have to do. and those people are invisible, their stories aren’t glamourous.”

This story made me think about my mother, a red-headed women at a 5’9” stature who’s been behind the grill of our hometown’s bar & grill for 30+ years. Remembering myself when I said “I wanted to be a chef like my mom” and seeing her often not seen tears falling silently to the floor in my childhood bedroom. It wasn’t until later in life (when I was halfway through college) that my mother confessed that it was her worst fear for myself or my brother to work in a kitchen and follow a life pattern similar to her. She wanted us to get out of our small town and live a life of fruitfulness, not bearing the emotional burden of manual labor. Soleil has to think about the amazing, the good, the bad, and the ugly realities of restaurant ownership and food as a product of sustaining life not only in our bodies but in our everyday lives.

Though Soleil attests to the want of better every single day, “there is a lot to consider, I’m not a master but I’m taking time to consider everything as humanly possible. I welcome that, I look on how to improve and I don’t take offense to it. The big thing I’ve been grappling with at the beginning of this job was subjectivity vs objectivity and understanding my own subjectivity as something that’s not shameful. I think a lot of people put a lot of weight, and this goes back to the star system question, onto the food critic’s ability to quantify the experience but I feel that it’s impossible. Numbers make you feel like things are objective, whether it’s the number of stars, decibels, or thumbs up, but there is so much other stuff that’s contextual and it’s important to bring those to light. I really want people to read what I write instead of just going to the section where I put a subjective star rating. That’s not the most interesting thing, I think.”

And going forward Soleil wants you to consider the nature of politics in food, something often not discussed enough in modern day society, “Because we’ve been thinking about it that way for a long time but I think there is a certain segment of the population who’s not use to that and they need to start getting use to that because it matters. When there are food shortages because of climate change, it will start mattering. Sorry to end on a dark note [laughs]. Though, a dark note is totally on brand.”

“Thank you so much for taking time to do this,” I say as I cut-off the recorded portion of our interview. We both get up from the metal Parisian chairs and make our way back to SF Chron’s office where Soleil will start to change narratives of food service one keystroke at a time.

// Photography by Anthony Rogers, follow Soleil on Instagram and keep up-to-date on what she’s up to. Or Twitter for a more one-on-one approach. You should also read more of Soleil’s write-ups around the Bay.

On Being Empathetic, Honest, And Herself: Soleil Ho Talks Food
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