A Tasty Talk With Food Critic and Author Richard Foss

Wendy Westgate, Librarian, Exploration & Creativity Department,
Richard Foss wearing a top hat

Richard Foss has been a restaurant critic and food writer for over 30 years and has taught classes in culinary history and Elizabethan theater at UCLA Extension. He has authored articles for two culinary encyclopedias, as well as books about the histories of rum and of food in flight, from the zeppelin era to the space age. He's also a board member of the Culinary Historians of Southern California.

Richard will be moderating The Restaurant Revolution: How Angelenos Transformed Modern Food Culture at the Taper Auditorium in Central Library. This Chef's Panel discussion will feature Piero Selvaggio, Charles Perry, Akasha Richmond and Jet Tila. We wanted to ask Richard some questions before the event to learn more about him. He's a fascinating guy!

What book Is currently on your nightstand?

Two of them: Los Angeles Wine, A History From the Mission Era to the Present by Stuart Byles, and Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell. The latter is there because my wife just finished reading it and kept telling me how brilliant it is, and I want to see whether I agree. I’m just about finished with the Byles book, so will know soon what I think of Cornwell.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The book that leaps to mind was just called The Story of Flight. My father and grandfather both worked in the aircraft factories that were still in Los Angeles when I was a child, and one of them brought it home because we were interested in what they did. It’s about the history of the human urge to take to the skies, beginning with ancient legends of flying horses and magic carpets, continuing through the era of balloons and zeppelins, and then the history of aircraft from fabric-covered biplanes to the dawn of the space age. It was a big book with lots of pictures, and my twin brother and I looked at it all the time even before we could make out what all the words were. The other kids were learning that cows went moo and sheep went baa, and we were learning about ailerons and flaps. It was great preparation for being an aviation and science fiction nerd. My brother still has that book, and now that you have brought it back to my mind I want to go look at it again.

What is a book you've faked reading?

I have quoted the beginning of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in one of my lectures to illustrate how the smell of a food from childhood could trigger a flood of memories, and that makes people think that I have read the whole book. I hadn’t claimed that I read it all, but people assumed that because I quoted it. I actually made it only a little way in before losing interest. I probably should give it another chance.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Several of them! To pick three, I have read The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam at least ten times and found hope, comfort, and wonder in that poetry whenever life seems bleak. The third translation is my favorite, the one in which the messages and poetry are best balanced. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance changed the way I think about thinking, and the way I frame arguments, lessons, and presentation of ideas. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond upended the whole way I think about food and culture. Whether you agree with all of it or not, if you have any interest whatever in anthropology you must read it or your education is incomplete.

What is your idea of THE perfect meal?

The one that is made with loving care, and enjoyed with good company in a leisurely way. The other details may change depending on what day you ask me, but all perfect meals will have that in common.

What are some new areas of interest for you in the food world?

I am researching a book on food in Spanish and Mexican colonial California right now, and it has started me on a tangent about how explorers and colonists through history have managed the task of packing provisions for their journey to an unknown land. I think I’m going to read further on that when I have a chance. It also has me interested in food during the next phase of California history, from the gold rush to the turn of the century. Another thing I want to study is how food has been advertised and sold over the years. Many of those ads are beautiful and could cover my walls with orange crate art and old advertising posters for food. I’d like to look into what themes and ideas the growers and manufacturers pushed in both the print portion and the graphics, and how they made us associate their products with wholesomeness, flavor, health, or just being what all the cool kids were eating and drinking.

What was your favorite food as a child? Now?

My mother was not a particularly talented cook, but she made a casserole called Spanish Bake that contained noodles, corn, olives, beef, and onions in a mild chili sauce. That was the best thing in the house except for the occasional times when my Polish grandmother made homemade kielbasa. My brother and I have the recipes for both of those and still make them occasionally, and they’re still good. Now that I’m a grownup it’s pretty hard to pick a favorite item, but a good bowl of Chinese hot and sour soup is my comfort food.

Do you prefer to cook for others or have someone cook for you?

Since I dine out all the time as part of my writing career, the times when I have guests at my home for dinner are very special. I love cooking for people, and sometimes work from historic recipes or try to recreate particularly interesting dishes I’ve had in restaurants.

What did your parents want you to be when you grew up?

Something involving a regular paycheck – they were apprehensive about the fact that I wanted to be a writer and photographer. They found that frighteningly bohemian and though it was impossible to make a steady living in the creative arts. They were right to worry, but I’m still managing it somehow.

What do food/restaurant meal you wish you could discover for the first time (again)?

I was a teenager when I first dined at a Moroccan restaurant in Hollywood called Dar Maghreb. It was an Arabic palace on Sunset Boulevard, a fairyland of mosaic walls and ornamental fountains and servers in ornate costumes who brought course after course of food I had never heard of before. It was a magical evening of immersion in a culture while tasting new flavors, and when I walked back outside it was a culture shock to see the streets of Hollywood again. I wanted to live in that Moroccan fantasy world. I have had some marvelous restaurant meals since and would love to relive my first experiences with Thai and Korean food, but that’s the night that sticks in my memory.

What are you passionate about?

Continuing to learn for as long as I continue to breathe, and to teach such lessons as I can whether in writing or in person. Life is so short and there are so many exciting mysteries to solve, so many ironies and wonders to experience. I can’t understand how anybody can ever be bored when there is so much to learn all around me.

What effect will the recent passing of Jonathan Gold have on food criticism?

My answer may surprise you because I don’t think his passing will affect food criticism much, if at all. Jonathan Gold changed food writing so much that there is no chance that it will snap back to what it was before, pompously written pieces about white tablecloth restaurants serving Euro-American cuisine within a mile of Wilshire Boulevard. Other reviewers had occasionally covered the kinds of restaurants that Jonathan obsessed over, but only in minor alternative media. When such places were covered in mainstream media, it was generally as quaint “ethnic” experiences, and it was segregated from the serious restaurant coverage. Once Jonathan got mainstream attention to non-European food cultures and to unfussy restaurants in neighborhoods all over the place, it changed the whole culture. He could then settle into being the leader of the pack because every other critic measured themselves against him. He will be missed not just by those of us who knew him, but by millions who learned a questing attitude toward food and culinary culture from his example.