Sunday, January 08, 2017

Food Watch: An interesting exchange between the NYT critic and a Bay Area restaurateur


LocoL creators Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi [click to enlarge]

by Ken

I don't know quite what to make of this story, but I know there's something interesting about it, something worth thinking about a little, and so I'm just going to dish the story out in its three steps and leave it to you to make of it what you will.

It's certainly possible that Tasting Table and TT correspondent Alison Spiegel have it right. They clearly know what they think about the story, as we know right away from the head on Alison's January 4 TT post: "Roy Choi Had the Perfect Response to NYT's Zero-Star Review" and the ensuing blurb "This is the kind of dialogue that makes restaurants better." And, as we'll see, Alison's conclusion carries this theme through.

Before we get to that, though, let's retrace the story.


Note that there are lots of links onsite.

The LocoL Revolution
Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson debut LocoL, fast food with a mission

What started as a talk at the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen two years ago has finally become a reality. Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson's team started flipping $4 burgers, filling $6 noodle bowls and serving $1 aguas frescas yesterday at their first location of LocoL in the Watts neighborhood of L.A.

Yes, this is fast food. It's a term Choi proudly claims. "This isn't fast casual . . . . This is fast food: $1 items, $2 items, $3 items." Nothing on the menu tops $6.

The restaurant—the first of many, the team hopes—is meant to be a vehicle for change: both for fast food and for neighborhoods, providing a healthier alternative to the processed food that's usually available for under $5 to underserved neighborhoods and jobs for members of the community.

The staff at the Watts shop is all local, and the hope is that much of the customer base will be, too. "Watts is one of the most powerful neighborhoods in L.A. They extended themselves to us and offered us love and kindness. In this mission to feed our neighborhoods in this country especially in our inner cities, Watts is the most powerful in that context," Choi explains. Helping it blend into the neighborhood, "our dining room has no windows or doors. We want to bring outdoor and indoor together," Choi says. The block seating can also be moved around and double as a playground, the chef adds.

When he and Patterson set out to create the concept, they knew it wouldn't work without an affordable price point. With that in mind, "We just [had] to start cooking; we [had] to start thinking about how we can combine the flavors and spread products," Choi says. Their savior is grain, which makes up a large part of many of the menu's items, even if that isn't immediately apparent to diners. That includes the shop's burgs, which are 70 percent meat and stretched with 30 percent grain. "It has sprouting quinoa, tofu, fermented barley and all of these other flavors to bring salt and umami . . . like kombu, fish sauce and salt," Choi says. Those burgers come on a roll developed by Tartine's Chad Robertson, who, along with René Redzepi, is on LocoL's informal advisory board.

Most of the menu will look familiar to anyone who has walked into a fast-food restaurant in the last 20 years, perhaps with the exception of "the Foldie," which Choi and Patterson developed together. "It's its own thing . . . . If a taco, quesadilla, pupusa and tamale had sex and had a child, that's what a Foldie is." It can be loaded with fillings like beans and rice or carnitas for $2.

The plans for LocoL's expansion are ambitious: Shops in Oakland, the Tenderloin, East Oakland and another in Watts are all in the works for 2016. "This is like the Apple I computer; it's like the Wright brothers' plane; it's like the fucking Ford automobile," Choi says. If the project takes off as expected (1,500 people showed up on opening day), the team is eyeing Newark, New Jersey, South Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta and Ferguson, Missouri.


And writes a January 3 review that begins:

[Onsite there's a 10-photo slide show. -- Ed.]

OAKLAND, Calif. — The chefs Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi are trying to do so many things with their insurgent fast-food chain, Locol, that it almost has to fall short somewhere. What I didn’t expect before I ate at the branch here was that the big problem would turn out to be the food.

Mr. Choi, who made his name selling Korean tacos from trucks that prowled Los Angeles, and Mr. Patterson, who has gently pushed California cuisine forward at his restaurant Coi in San Francisco, set themselves an ambitious project. To start, they intend to build a network of small restaurants that people in some of the country’s poorest, most neglected urban neighborhoods can afford. Beyond that, though, the chefs hope that their example of progressive labor practices, interior design attuned to the pulse of the city and cooking that shows responsibility for the health of both customers and the environment will spark a reformation of the fast-food industry. . . .
There's a lot more, about both the concept of LocoL, the setting of the Oakland location that Sam visited, and what he found there. By all means read it for yourself onsite. He has some good things to say, like about the egg sandwich, especially the roll it's served on:
Made from a recipe devised with the help of Chad Robertson, the bread wizard behind Tartine Bakery and Cafe in San Francisco, the roll was the farthest thing imaginable from the squishy insubstantiality of most fast-food buns. Said to be rich in nutrients, and undeniably excellent, the roll represents the potential upside of the Locol experiment.
But then it's on to "the downside," which is "represent[ed]" by the fried chicken. "The most successful thing about Locol," Sam says, "is the feeling inside the restaurant." He likes the whimsical as well as street-smart decor, and says, "I don’t know of any other fast-food chain that has put street culture at the heart of its locations in this way." He notes: "The people working at Locol are engaged, and seem glad to be there. If Locol can create environments like this across the country, it would be a major achievement."

"But first," he goes on:
Mr. Patterson and Mr. Choi have to figure out the menu. I understand why they want to take on fast food, but in the neighborhoods they hope to reach it’s one of the few kinds of food available. Why offer less satisfying versions of what’s already there, when they could be selling great versions of something new?

The neighborhoods Locol is targeting have serious nutritional problems, from hunger to obesity, but the solution isn’t to charge people for stuff that tastes like hospital food.
Working through the menu, Pete writes, he has to remind himself that "it is run by two chefs who are famous for cooking food that people really, really want to eat." And he concludes:
Mr. Patterson and Mr. Choi seem to have thought about the social dimensions of fast food so much that they now see their target audience as problems to be solved, not customers to be pleased. The most nutritious burger on earth won’t help you if you don’t want to eat it.


Zero stars. I know many of you want me to respond or snap back at him but the situation to me is much more than that. I welcome Pete's review. It tells me a lot more about the path. I don't know Pete but he is now inextricably linked to LocoL forever. So I'll share with you what I wrote to a friend and our team. We got that PMA: "The truth is that LocoL has hit a nerve. Doesn't mean all people love it, some hate it. But no one is indifferent by it. That's the spirit of LocoL. It has nothing to do with my ego. It's something bigger than all of us. Pete Wells is a component to its DNA. His criticisms are a reflection of us and the nerve that LocoL touches. And our imperfections. Also the nerve of challenging the binary structure of privileged thought patterns and how life is not just about what's a success or failure, but some things are real struggles and growth journeys. We all know the food is not as bad as he states. Is it perfect? NO. But it's not as bad as he writes. And all minorities aren't criminals either. And all hoods aren't filled with dangerous people either. But the pen has created a lot of destruction over the course of history and continues to.. He didn't need to go there but he did. That's why he's a part of LocoL. The power of this change and this nerve that it hits. It compelled him to write something he knows would hurt a community that is already born from a lot of pain and struggle.. Crazy, right? But I see it as a piece to this whole puzzle." #LocoL #Watts #Oakland


Again, there are lots of links onsite.

When Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson debuted LocoL, a revolutionary fast-food chain with a social mission, it seemed they could do no wrong. With locations in Oakland and L.A., as well as a food truck, the beloved chefs were riding high. LocoL serves healthy alternatives at low prices to underserved neighborhoods. The mayor of Los Angeles even attended the opening of the first location last year.

Leave it to New York Times dining critic Pete Wells, who spares no one (as you might recall from last year's damning review of New York's Per Se), to bring the LocoL chefs back down to earth with a no-star review published yesterday.

The short story is that Wells doesn't like the food. Of a bowl of chili, Wells writes, "This was less like chili than like a slightly spicier version of the meat sauce my corner pizzeria pours over penne. Supermarkets sell canned chilis that are seasoned more persuasively." Though he applauds LocoL for its ambiance, the food—which at one point he likens to hospital fare— needs serious work, he says.

So was Wells feeling restless since his last feather-ruffling review? Or is LocoL too good to be true? Choi could have picked a fight if he wanted to but instead addressed the review via Instagram at face value, humbly responding:

[See Roy's Instagram response above. -- Ed.]

"His criticisms are a reflection of us and the nerve that LocoL touches. And our imperfections," he says. Though Choi defends his food, as any chef would, he invites Wells's attention, saying that the critic is now a part of LocoL, and that's just the point. "The power of this change and this nerve that it hits. It compelled him to write something he knows would hurt a community that is already born from a lot of pain and struggle. Crazy, right? I see it as a piece to this whole puzzle."

This is the kind of criticism and response that makes restaurants better. And these days, instead of baseless claims and defensiveness, couldn't we all use a little constructive dialogue?
Again, this may be exactly right. Of course I haven't eaten any of the food in question, so I hesitate to offer definitive-sounding statements. Still, I think we can all agree that "a little constructive dialogue" would be welcome in our era of start-screeching-and-don't-stop-till-your-throat-gives-out. And I think both Pete and Roy were sincerely trying to do as much. It's possible to wonder, though, whether Pete isn't being a teensy bit high-handed in presuming to tell chefs Choi and Patterson what sort of restaurant they should be opening in that Oakland neighborhood. And I'm not sure I'm absolutely clear what Roy is contributing beyond not "snap[ping] back" at Pete.

Still and all, food for thought, no, these pieces to the whole puzzle (as Roy puts it)?

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At 3:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like their food is right up my alley and who listens to food critics anyway? I think their goal in life is to disdain restaurants and I hope that encourages people to go and eat there in spite of what he said. Good for them for trying to provide more nutritious food where it has not been available. I wish I could try it but I live too far away. Thanks for an interesting article that isn't so depressing. I enjoyed it.

At 9:31 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I know I meant to make the point, but I don't remember whether I actually did. So, in case I didn't, or didn't make it properly --

A huge problem for those of us who haven't actually eaten the food at LocoL is that, you know, we haven't eaten the food! And therefore we literally have no way of judging. There can be a world of difference between food that sounds like a good idea and food that turns out to taste like a good idea. I have no reason to doubt Pete Wells's sincerity or competence in making this judgement, at least for his taste. I'm also not sure, now that we mention it, that what appears to be cereal filler in the food to control the cost even sounds like a good idea

In any case, without actually eating the stuff, we just don't know, do we?



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