Q & A WITH INA YALOF
FOOD AND THE CITY
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE AN ORAL HISTORY OF NEW YORK CITY’S CURRENT FOOD SCENE?
It was more like who inspired me. I’ve always been a writer on the lookout for a good story and a good meal. One day I happened to pass the open door of a butcher shop on Amsterdam Avenue. I turned in and began chatting up “Shatzie” the owner. I found his riff on the difference between upper east side ladies and their west side counterparts, on how customers who insist on grass fed beef are crazy (but he sells it to them anyway) and how fast people at a cocktail party “walk away from you when you tell them you’re a butcher ” so fascinating and entertaining, I wondered: are there others like him around? There were. And thus the seeds for this book were sown.
DO YOU HAVE A BACKGROUND IN FOOD?
No. My background is in medicine and sociology. Accordingly, I am interested in people - who they are, what they do, and why they do it. For this book, I turned my lens onto those extraordinary individuals – chefs, butchers, bakers, restaurateurs, street vendors, purveyors , and others who drive New York’s inimitable food culture.
HOW DID YOU BECOME SUCH A DYED-IN-THE-WOOL NEW YORK FOODIE?
Really? Have you tried the pepperoni pizza at Denino’s on Staten Island? Have you sat down in front of a samsa at Cheburechnya, a Bukharian restaurant in Rego Park or inhaled the scented olive oils at Sahadi’s in Brooklyn? Have you indulged in a slice of wedding cake from Sylvia Weinstock or downed in one gulp the amazing dim sum from Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown? Case closed.
FOOD IS EVERYWHERE IN THE MEDIA, BUT YOU LARGELY SHY AWAY FROM “CELEBRITY” CHEFS AND THE LIKE IN FOOD AND THE CITY. HOW DID YOU DECIDE WHOM YOU WANTED TO TALK TO?
I first laid out nine specific assemblages, i.e those who started with nothing, those who inherited their businesses, those who occupy the front or back of a restaurant, those who cater our parties, and the like. From there, it was pretty much a hunt for people who exemplified these areas. My one stipulation was that they could not have an eponymous salad dressing or cookware line. Not yet, anyway.
YOU TRAVELED TO ALL FIVE BOROUGHS AND TO SOME OFF-THE-BEATEN TRACK CORNERS OF THE FOOD WORLD. HOW DID YOU FIND YOUR INTERVIEW SUBJECTS?
I did a lot of research, asked around, spoke to friends of friends, and often just plain got lucky. For example, one day I was on a busy street in midtown and I followed the strong scent of grilled onions which brought me directly to the most popular Halal stand in the city and its owner, Mohammad Abouelenein. Another day, I noticed a block long line on a side street in my neighborhood and followed it directly into Levain Bakery, home of America’s favorite chocolate chip cookie (and owners Connie MacDonald and Pamela Weekes). And so it went.
WHERE WAS THE STRANGEST PLACE YOUR RESEARCH TOOK YOU?
Hands down, the winner is Rikers Island. Being led by a pair of burly guards through the gray cement corridors, past several columns of inmates, and into the gleaming, hi-tech kitchen was something I’ll never forget. I also was completely entranced by Paulette Johnson, the petite Jamaican woman who is responsible for putting out 47,000 meals a day – every day –to prisoners and staff alike.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN WERE SOME COMMON DENOMINATORS AMONG THOSE WHO WORK IN FOOD—AT ALL LEVELS—IN NEW YORK?
Grit, guts, perseverance and above all, a passion for food. Without it, you may as well become a dentist.
DO YOU THINK NEW YORKERS ARE MORE FOOD-OBSESSED THAN PEOPLE IN OTHER CITIES OR PARTS OF THE COUNTRY? IF SO, WHY?
Absolutely! First, because this is a cutting-edge city where everyone wants to be in on the latest and the greatest, and nothing in New York changes faster than the restaurant business. Secondly, one no longer has to travel abroad to experience exotic or native food. It’s all right here - from The Cecil, whose menu is based on the African Diaspora, to the street vendors of Latin American fare in Red Hook. These days a metro-card will take you to any country you want to visit.
DID YOU HAVE A CHANCE TO SAMPLE A LOT OF GREAT FOOD DURING THE TIME YOU WERE PUTTING TOGETHER THIS BOOK?
Surprisingly, not that much. I did receive a package of divine Sucre Morte Pralines from Louisiana-native-turned-Brooklynite artisan Lauren Clark, and I got to do a taste test of wedding cake frosting while interviewing Sylvia Weinstock. Oh, and early in our interview, when Jonathan Parilla, night manager of Cafeteria, insisted that I sample four or five deep fried Oreo cookies , I felt it would have been so rude to refuse. Beyond that, it was pretty much all business.
WHOSE STORY SURPRISED YOU OR INSPIRED YOU THE MOST OF ALL THOSE YOU INTERVIEWED FOR THE BOOK?
I have to go with Ghaya Oliveira, a young Tunisian woman with a degree in economics and a dream job as a banker, who at twenty-four was summoned to New York City on an emergency and made a promise to remain here to raise her late sister’s baby. With no prior cooking experience, and speaking little English, she started cleaning restaurants and rose through the ranks to become executive pastry chef at Daniel. This theme - with different characters and different trajectories of immigrants doing well in the food business - runs throughout the book.
READERS WILL DISCOVER THAT WORKING WITH FOOD IS, MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, HARD, UNDERPAID WORK. WHAT IS THE ATTRACTION FOR SO MANY?
It’s true. The hours are long, for most the pay is minimal, there are no holidays, and if you're sick and don't show up to work, you'd better be dying. So, why spend year after year peeling potatoes or sweating through a dinner service for people you’ll never even see? Some say it’s the adrenalin rush of the kitchen in action. Others cite the sound of a sautéing piece of chicken. Still others love the challenge of the restaurant business. And I suppose there are those who are just drawn to the fire.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST LESSON YOU TOOK WAY FROM WRITING FOOD AND THE CITY—AND ONE THAT YOU HOPE READERS WILL ALSO LEARN BY READING IT?
When you’re part of the food world, and not just in New York, it doesn’t matter if you’re slicing a steak or selling it, embellishing a cake or serving it, raising a flock of ducks or lowering the price of olive oil, in the end – and here I quote line cook MacKenzie Arrington - “…you’re all there with the same mindset and drive and passion for food. That’s what comes first and that’s all that matters. The food, the food, the food.”