When the brisket lands on the table, Francis Lam doesn’t hold back: “That is an absolute fuck ton of meat.” We’re sitting at one of New York City’s many illustrious barbecue restaurants and, as with most of Lam’s food-related observations, this is absolutely accurate.
Since hitting the food-writing scene more than a decade ago at the Financial Times and as one of Gourmet magazine’s most thoughtful, consistently engaging young writers, Lam has only seen his profile, and fan base, grow. Now, the James Beard Award–winning writer is an editor-at-large for Clarkson Potter (you can thank him, at least in part, for convincing Chrissy Teigen to write cookbooks) and the host of the Splendid Table, a role he took over from Lynne Rosetto Kasper in 2017.
When examined in hindsight, the course his life took leading to that host’s chair seems at once perfectly random yet oddly unavoidable. Food was going to be at the center of his world, simple as that. Lam, after all, is a person who can regale a dining companion with a ten-minute story about a conversation he had regarding French omelettes. (Not a ten-minute story about omelettes; a ten-minute story about a story about omelettes.) But even as one of the food-journalism world’s leading voices, Lam himself is surprisingly chilled out about all-matters-culinary, and it sounds like he’d like other people to mellow out a bit, too.
When did food begin to play a major role in your life?
My father’s father, who had grown up super poor in rural China, eventually made money in the last third of his life, and he actually became quite comfortable. I just remember him taking people out to fabulous dinners, throwing elaborate parties where food was incredibly important. I remember being in Hong Kong with my family once, at one of these meals, and I always insisted on sitting with the grown-ups, never at the kids’ table, because I wanted to eat the grown-up food, and I remember the fish came out, like a whole steamed fish, and this was very rude of me — like this was not an okay thing to do, because you were supposed to defer to the elders at the table, you know, they get the best bites — but I asked for, and got, the bite of fish cheek. And I remember my grandfather looking at me, and saying to my parents, This one knows how to eat.
It was a huge thing. Finally, my parents had something they could brag on. Like they couldn’t talk about my grades, because I’d occasionally get a 97 instead of 100, my piano playing was terrible, but I got food, and they understood that. There was probably some level of emotional validation from that moment.
You host a food-related audio show, which means people can’t see what everyone’s eating. What is it about food that allows people to talk about it — or listen to people talk about it — for hours at a time.
Well, I’d like to think it’s because of the charm and intelligence of the host, but honestly, it’s like … Well, for a lot of people, it purely is like food porn. And why do you look at porn? It’s pretty self-evident. It turns you on, it gets you excited for the next time you go do this thing. What keeps me interested in food, though — and this is the best way maybe for me to answer, not to assume I know what’s in the audience’s mind — is that it never gets boring. There is no limit to the kind, the varieties, and the depths of stories you can get into with food as a starting point. Now, if food is your end point, then I think you probably will run into a limit. There’s only so much of that you can listen to. “I make this by doing this and this and this.” Okay, cool, great, I’m psyched for that because I love cooking, but I don’t know if I could sit there for 20 years of my life just talking about recipes.
What’s an example of a conversation that you wish would end?
I’m tired of hearing people shit on other people. I’m tired of hearing people shit on avocado toast. I mean I’ll joke about that too or whatever, but who cares? I have this friend, Kat Kinsman, I don’t know if she invented this, or coined this phrase, and it’s kind of goofy, but she says, “Don’t yuck on someone’s yum.” If someone likes it, likes a food, sure maybe they’re three months late to it, four years late, who cares? I’m tired of people feeling like the thing they want to do in food isn’t okay. It’s like when you were 16 and more people started to get into your favorite band and you’re like, “I was here first! Fuck you!” It’s a pretty normal impulse, I’m not mystified about why it’s there, but there are better, more fun, more interesting things to talk about than how much you hate someone for liking avocado toast.
Alternatively, what’s the next big thing you see coming?
It’s funny: People are always trying to talk about the big new thing. Like, people talk about how the cuisine of the Philippines has been the next new cuisine for a couple years, but, people, like, Filipino people have been eating food from the Philippines for a pretty fuckin’ long time. It’s not new.
At the same time, no cuisine is old, either … all cuisines are constantly in a state of evolution. Right now, people are getting so much more interested in black cooking. And that’s great. We’re seeing more black chefs get awards, more articles about black cooking being published in the media. But the more I think about this — the more I learn about this — black cooking is truly the foundation of American cooking. And we have not thought that black cooking was worth talking about as a culture, as a society, in the mainstream, for a really long time. And that’s fucked up.
How do you approach those kinds of topics on the Splendid Table? Has the move from traditional broadcasting to podcasting changed things at all?
I personally don’t think of the show as being so different than what it was in terms of the format. Our sort of thinking, internally, is, “Does this story, or this episode help us see small things in the world as bigger? Does it make big things in the world feel smaller and more intimate?”
When you’re doing radio, you have six minutes or whatever, and then you have to change topics, because people are tuning in. We try to respect that — it’s still a big part of the audience — but with the podcasts, people are choosing to listen just to that, so you can go much deeper, you can focus just on one thing.
Can you give me an example of what you mean?
There’s a chef and author named Edna Lewis, who was honestly to my mind one of the most important people in American food. It sort of depends on how you read her, how you understand her, but in some ways she helped define — or redefine — what southern food is. She was an amazing writer, and someone who really reined in the expectations and stereotypes of what southern food, and specifically what black southern food was about. We had the opportunity to do an entire episode all about her, about who she was as a chef, as an author, as a spokesperson for black food culture in America, as an aunt to her niece who literally sat with her and type wrote so much of what Edna would say. So we get to touch on all these different things, on all these different issues in the world, that we could get to from one person.
Do you still get excited about restaurants? Does New York, where we live, still stand apart?
What I love about New York is the fact that you might not find the absolute best version of any single food in the world here, but you will find a version of almost any single thing in the world here. Like the other day I was having a conversation with a friend and he was explaining to me who the Uighur people were. They’re an ethnic minority who are essentially being targeted by the Chinese government, they’re a mostly Muslim people, and ethnically I think they’re more related to Turkmen. It’s a small population in Western China, but like, there’s a Uighur restaurant in New York City. In fact, I think there are two.
Is New York the best food city in America?
I don’t want to get into is it the best restaurant city in the country or whatever, but for high-flying, chef-y food, I think San Francisco and Chicago, probably win. For incredible variety of immigrant cuisines, Houston, or, I mean, so many places. Obviously L.A. is sort of categorized as its own special place, because the thing in L.A. is we’ve always known there is this extraordinary diversity of communities there, and an extraordinary diversity of cuisines there, and overlaid on top of that now is a really exciting chef-restaurant scene, so it’s just like, almost a cliché to say that L.A. is the city, it’s the place, but you put it all on paper, you kind of can’t argue against it.
It’s funny because I say shit is the best all the time, that’s the best-ever-whatever, but I guess I’m a bit allergic to it when you have to commit, because really, big picture, what do I mean by best? What does it mean, best?
So it’s safe to assume you don’t have something like a guilty-pleasure food?
No. Whatever I’m eating, I’m all about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.