Soleil Ho Photo: Celeste Noche
In 2019, Soleil Ho took over as restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle — a position that had been held for 32 years by their predecessor, Michael Bauer. Very quickly, Ho reshaped the column, taking a hard look at established institutions like Chez Panisse and dubbing a Mexican restaurant from Thomas Keller “cultural appropriation done right.” In 2022, Ho won the James Beard Award for Distinguished Restaurant Reviews, but this week, they announced that they were stepping aside (almost literally, to the Chronicle’s Opinion desk) after just four years on the job — a uniquely short tenure for the kind of dream job that is quickly disappearing. Ho took a few minutes to talk through their decision with me and reflect on how the role of a restaurant critic could change so enormously in such a condensed period of time.
Four years is not a very long tenure for a restaurant critic. Did you go into the job thinking it would be a relatively short stop?
I didn’t have a plan. But several things conspired in the time that ensued. For a lot of people, COVID forced them to take stock. It was such an intense time that made a lot of people, including myself, step back and think, What are my values? What kind of world do I want in this very short time that we have on this planet? And what am I doing to make that happen?
So it changed your priorities as a writer, and it made you rethink whether restaurant criticism was something you wanted to do?
Essentially. As I wrote in my newsletter, I had one year of normal restaurant-critic stuff, then everything went to shit. To be honest, I feel like I was pretty well suited to what followed. I hadn’t been in the job that long, and I was used to looking at things beyond the immediate sort of sensorial details. I think I did all right, and the “pivots” didn’t feel as forced. Even so, it was chaotic, and there are so many conversations with restaurant people that never made it to print, because it’s just so intense and so fucking sad, and it was all off the record. It’s just carrying the weight of that. Why?
As a critic, there’s a disconnect between your loyalties to the reader and to the worker. Criticism can be compassionate and kind to all stakeholders, but the disconnects felt starker as the pandemic continued. I don’t want to say that people like us — you know, food journalists, writers, and critics — are wrong for continuing doing what we do or for finding meaning in the work.
When you started, there was pushback from some readers on the change in approach — talking about accessibility, the ethics of dining, etc. It has been noted before that your writing represented a big tonal shift from that of your predecessor, Michael Bauer. When you review a restaurant like Chez Panisse — which, you argue, had become a bit stale — do you feel like you have a responsibility to examine things anointed as uncriticizable?
I feel like nothing is uncriticizable. If I hear that, it just makes me more curious. When we talk about institutions, it’s almost like a haze of nostalgia, right? That makes up the majority of what people think of the place versus the reality. It’s the critic’s job — as someone who is not paying out of pocket for these experiences and going multiple times in a very close span of time — to provide some reality. And most the time, I think it’s probably not accurate to that haze of nostalgia, because that haze makes up for so many things.
It’s kind of like fandom too, right? Like, you cannot say shit about Harry Potter or Disney to some folks, because they have such a strong emotional reaction. And I think restaurants have their own fandoms.
One of your biggest stories was about a very popular $72 fried-rice dish and how difficult it can be for a restaurant to keep up when a viral menu item takes off. Telling the story from that side felt like a big shift and an example of how your own restaurant work informed your criticism. Was there ever an urge to just write the straightforward version, like, “It sucks that they had to take this off the menu”?
I think there’s this idea that we — in the restaurant-criticism field and food media as a whole — take the customer perspective as a given. Like, as far as our reflection in mass and food media about how deeply entrenched in capitalism we are and in terms of the dehumanization, alienation that we participate in. That was the story for me. That was the $72 fried rice like dollar fried rice — how jarring that can actually be, right? And how for us, the unintuitiveness (and I’m saying that sarcastically) of stopping production of something that a consumer wants.
Was there anything else that you wish you could have done with the position over the last four years?
I stress myself out a lot over missed opportunities. So the answer is yes, of course, there are many extremely made-up things: Why couldn’t I just overthrow capitalism in four years through restaurant reviews? Why couldn’t I stop the war in Ukraine?
There were some things I wanted to do. I wanted to win a James Beard Award, and I’m happy I did that in, let’s be honest, a very unrealistic span of time. I think I did most of what I wanted to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.