This is the sixth in a series of regular posts introducing you to the journalists who bring you the news.
Articles about food and drink are wildly popular all year round, but in fall and winter, reader interest is especially high. How do you cook a turkey? Where’s the best place to take visiting relatives for cocktails? What do you serve at a Super Bowl party?
Writers Tan Vinh and Bethany Jean Clement answer these seasonal questions and many, many more, every week in The Seattle Times. Recently, I sat down with them to talk about eating, drinking and the art of writing about both.
Lynn: What do you especially like and dislike about writing about food at this time of year?
Bethany: Every holiday food story has been written, it seems, and to come up with holiday food ideas can feel very un-holly-jolly. But then writing them — this might sound really cheesy — always ends up feeling really good.
Tan: The holidays are the only time we’re very European in our eating habits. You get together in big gatherings and spend two hours or more at the table.
Bethany: And you drink a bunch of bottles of wine and you oftentimes get to take a nap afterward. It’s very civilized.
Tan: In the U.S., we always need a reason to gather and eat: Like dim sum on Christmas Day. Or tailgating before a big football game. Or Thanksgiving. Any other time, we go back to our usual routines, eating lunch at our desks. That’s what I love about the holidays. They bring us together.
Lynn: Thinking about traditions: How did the food of your childhood shape your tastes and your writing?
Tan: I came to the U.S. when I was 6 years old, from Vietnam. The life-changing thing for me — and people always think I’m going to say “freedom” or “democracy” — was Doritos. My sponsor introduced me to Nacho Cheese Doritos and that was my first epiphany that America is the greatest country in the world. Even today, when I get a bag of Doritos, it’s like getting a ticket to “Hamilton,” the musical. That’s how happy it makes me.
Bethany: Doritos also hold a very special place in my heart and stomach. I think Nacho Cheese Doritos are magic … But I grew up here in Seattle, going to Pike Place Market before going to Pike Place Market was a thing. We used to get smelt there, and I loved the silvery fishes with the heads still on. We ate tons of salmon. My mother loved oysters; I hated oysters when I was a kid, which I think she encouraged, because it meant more oysters for her. … My grandmother had a very modest Angus cattle ranch in Eastern Washington, and we spent a lot of time over there helping her with the cattle and eating the asparagus that grew in the neighbor’s field, and enjoying the apples and the produce and the beautiful tomatoes.
Lynn: Obviously you have very different backgrounds, and now you’ve been working side by side for three years. What would you say you’ve learned from each other?
Bethany: I love how Tan talks about beverages. He has an immense and amazing vocabulary of adjectives to describe the sensation of a beverage, and he’s tongue-in-cheek about it as well, unlike wine people who can sound like they’re taking themselves too seriously — like when they say a wine has a “garden-hose nose” or something. Tan bends those conventions to his own purposes in a way that’s really helpful and revealing.
Tan: Bethany raises the level of food writing to a literary form. When you read her stories, they’re an allegory for something else — it’s always a big picture, ambitious, literary thing. It’s not just writing about, say, ketchup, but what ketchup means for our culture and our society. That’s what you get when you read a Bethany story. You get the bigger picture.
Bethany: This, from a man who just wrote a story about what cocktails meant in the world of Hemingway. Plain sentences, plain cocktails. … I should also say that visiting Vietnam at the same time as Tan was an incredible education and immensely fun and I only got food poisoning one time.
Tan: I took Bethany and her husband to Hanoi to eat food in the streets and she was puking for two days. But she was a good sport.
Bethany: I was ready to eat again as soon as possible.
Lynn: Talk a little more about how your work lives and actual lives overlap … and how they diverge.
Tan: I drink differently when I work. When I’m working, I don’t necessarily order things I like; I drink whatever is the bartender’s specialty. When I’m off the clock, I drink Rainier and cheap bourbon. And I go to dive bars where no one recognizes me. No one asks me what the best happy hour is. If I go to Zig Zag or Canon, people know who I am, and people always ask me where to go or what’s the hot new cocktail trend.
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Bethany: Tan wants to go where nobody knows his name.
Lynn: You drink Rainier? What else might surprise readers?
Bethany: I think people would be surprised if they saw my diet for a week. It’s not all going out to the hottest new restaurants. We have a separate restaurant reviewer, Providence Cicero, so Tan and I are typically looking at cheap-eats kinds of places and I’m cooking a lot and thinking about things like leftovers.
Bethany: Like trying a peanut butter and Walla Walla sweet onion sandwich. It’s not all glamorous. And we encounter a lot of food that is not that great, which is always, for me, a profoundly disappointing experience. As food writers, we’re forced to go to new places, whereas in some other life, I’d go to my favorite places over and over.
Tan: I never get to go to my favorite places.
Bethany: Sometimes we want to avoid writing about our favorite places so we can save them for ourselves, but we don’t do that, because we’re unselfish and we work for the people and their stomachs.
Lynn: Where would you go right now if you could?
Bethany: Is someone else paying?
Bethany: Altura. It’s probably the most expensive restaurant in the city.
Tan: Yeah, my cousin came with his wife from Silicon Valley and spent $847 there, between the prix fixe dinner, the Wagyu beef add-on and the wine pairings.
Bethany: At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s this place on the Ave called Xi’an Noodles and I’d like to go there right now because I’m hungry.
Tan: I’d like a big bloody steak. Bateau, maybe, or the Metropolitan Grill. Steak is one of those things that’s not very inventive. It’s hard to mess up. That’s why I love it. I know I won’t be disappointed — high quality meat, medium rare, salt and pepper. And I’m happy.
Bethany: And the chances of a steak making you feel sad are really low.
Lynn: Parting thoughts?
Tan: It’s a great time to write about food because we’ve entered this moment where, if you ask anyone, they can name five chefs. Same with bartenders. And they can tell you what they’re known for. Readers are just much more sophisticated than they were five or 10 years ago.
Bethany: We love what we do, and yes, it is the best job ever, and no, you can’t have it. … But really: Helping people find stuff they’re gonna love that they can literally engulf is super satisfying.
RECENT STORIES BY BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
Tons of openings, surprising shutdowns, a staff shortage — no wonder local chefs are uneasy. What’s going on? (Nov. 16, 2017)
With Tyler Florence, Michael Voltaggio and plenty of robots, Seattle’s Smart Kitchen Summit offers a strange vision of the future. (Dec. 7, 2017)
The iconic building is getting a major overhaul. But what about the food at SkyCity restaurant? (Aug. 9, 2017)
Seattle Times readers’ dining dilemmas, solved! (Oct. 26, 2017)
Sometimes food doesn’t have to be goody-goody to be good.
Here’s where some of Seattle’s top chefs go for fast food, here at home or when they’re on the road (including some in Eastern Washington — and North Carolina! — recommendations you might want to add to your list).
“I’m a Cheesy Gordita Crunch guy — no lettuce. And a Crunchwrap Supreme guy. And a Mexican Pizza guy,” says the chef of Canlis.
“Honestly, the only fast food I ever eat is a Dick’s Deluxe,” says Jerry Traunfeld of Poppy and Lionhead. (June 21, 2017)
RECENT STORIES BY TAN VINH
Famed food TV personality Anthony Bourdain visited Seattle, Bellevue and Vashon Island for an episode that airs Sunday night. Sorry, Amazon, he doesn’t have a lot of nice things to say about you. (Nov. 14, 2017)
These are not your discounted Taco-Tuesday snacks. Tacos with freshly made tortillas can be heavenly. (And there’s a great spot in Everett to buy some for home.) (Sept. 28, 2017)
Seattle isn’t known for its barbecue, but a rash of new spots have opened. Reporter Tan Vinh and barbecue judge Leslie Kelly try them out. (June 1, 2017)
Two Japanese restaurants sit a mile apart, and you can’t go wrong with either. (Oct. 25, 2017)
Some hopeful restaurateurs may have jumped the gun in South Lake Union, where recent closures show a healthy lunchtime and happy-hour bustle from Amazon’s workforce has yet to carry over into evenings and weekends. (Aug. 23, 2017)
Want to learn more about your favorite Seattle Times reporter? Write to Deputy Managing Editor Lynn Jacobson.