You are (and you write) what you eat

The ins & outs of food writing, straight from the pros.

You are (and you write) what you eat

Kara Nesvig

Food scribes Rick Nelson and James Norton go out to eat âÄî a lot. They estimate that they fill a booth or take a seat at various restaurants around the metro anywhere between four to five times per week (Nelson) and five to 10 (Norton). Sound exhausting? It might be, but no one can say it isnâÄôt a tasty trade. The Twin Cities has recently become a hotbed of new bars and restaurants, and a cornucopia of writers and bloggers feel itâÄôs their duty to test the waters for eager diners. A&E talked to Nelson, food critic for the Star Tribune , and Norton, founding father of leading blog Heavy Table , about their favorite spots to chow down, which food trend they wish would disappear and the best places for poor college kids to grab a bite. If you canâÄôt take their recommendations, whose can you take? RICK NELSON How did you get your start as a food critic? My first job was at the Twin Cities Reader as the restaurant critic; IâÄôd been primarily writing about performing arts, mostly dance. The paper got a new editor and he didnâÄôt get along with the restaurant critic, so he hired a woman who was really into food. Eventually he didnâÄôt like the way she wrote âĦ he knew I loved to cook âĦ from there I went to the Pi Press, was a reporter for a year-and-a-half, and IâÄôve been at the Star Tribune for 11 years. When you go out to eat, whatâÄôs the process? Does the restaurant know youâÄôre coming or is it a covert operation? I hope they donâÄôt know that IâÄôm coming. I donâÄôt go to a lot of extremes but I go to some: I make reservations in other peopleâÄôs names, use a credit card with a name who isnâÄôt mine. I ask people who IâÄôm with not to use my name. We set all those arrangements, like what people are going to order, from the menu before. IâÄôve been doing this for a long time âÄî I know that people know who I am, but youâÄôd be surprised how many people donâÄôt know. Which restaurants have you enjoyed lately? What do you hope will stick around? ItâÄôs really funny because this year, even in a downward economy, IâÄôve never seen so many restaurants open. ItâÄôs shocking! In the last few months âĦ Bar la Grassa , just based on one meal I had there, I was so bowled over by how right it was. I really like Sea Change at the Guthrie. The food is beautiful and accessible. Based on my single visit, a place in Blaine called Cru âÄî no one ever goes to the suburbs âÄî that place is going to be really special if people support it. Where do take out-of-town guests where you know the food will always be solid? I always want them to get a taste of what the Midwest tastes like. IâÄôll take them to Alma , LuciaâÄôs , places that canâÄôt be anywhere else because they source locally. All have Midwestern ethos in the room. Do you read food blogs or the work of other food writers? I tend to read more of people who do what I do around the country. The hard thing about my job is that I canâÄôt do everything. IâÄôm only one person. I love what Jim Norton is doing at Heavy Table. IâÄôm jealous of what heâÄôs doing; he has a million people writing for him. WhatâÄôs the next big trend in cuisine? If I see one more hamburger IâÄôm gonna have a seizure. Bar la Grassa has jumped on a big trend of making fresh, affordable food really interesting and inventive and fun. If memory serves, I donâÄôt think anything on the âÄúsmall platesâÄù of pasta was over $9, which is really shocking. Have you ever incurred the wrath of a restaurant owner for a review youâÄôd written? When I was at the Reader, I wrote a somewhat scathing review of a place; I came to my office after the review ran and found a lunch bag filled with papers. They were place mats from the restaurant. The owner asked everyone at the restaurant to write scathing note about what a bad person I am and had it delivered to my office. JAMES NORTON WhatâÄôs the idea behind Heavy Table? When did you start it? What do you want its ultimate purpose to be? We started Heavy Table on Feb. 17 of this year. I had been working for City Pages for about a year [as the âÄú$20 and underâÄù restaurant writer] and they laid me off my print edition column and wanted to keep me on as a Web contributor. To be totally frank, I wasnâÄôt enamored of how they were doing it online. So I said, âÄúThanks, but no thanks,âÄù teamed up with a guy named Aaron Landry, an information architect. We did some brainstorming. I put together an editorial model and recruited writers, got a sense of our calendar and priorities. Aaron made sure weâÄôre Web 2.0. We wanted [Heavy Table] to be local, Midwest-focused, wanted to do a piece of original content a day, two pieces of content a day and aggregate. ItâÄôs a one-stop show, food and drink in the upper Midwest, this is the only place thatâÄôs doing what itâÄôs doing. How did you acquire your staff? A couple were people I knew ahead of time. My wife was an easy choice as a photographer. âĦ I put up something on Craigslist. It was pretty easy to cobble together a staff of talented people. ThereâÄôs a lot of journalistic talent here, but not a lot of outlets. If your goal is to assemble a staff of talented journalists, itâÄôs not very challenging. What restaurants have you loved lately? I was very impressed with Ginger Hop in Northeast. I feel like restaurants these days are opening stronger and stronger. People have a better idea how to open a restaurant and make it succeed. Ginger Hop, most everything we got was between decent and excellent. Barbette is an absolute go-to. ItâÄôs charming, it reflects local food and itâÄôs sophisticated without being haughty. AlâÄôs Breakfast is just a bunch of fun and I love the blueberry pancakes. TheyâÄôre the best anywhere. What are you sick of? IâÄôm sick of burgers. I can certainly live with fewer burger places opening. ItâÄôs not like a lot of them have new takes, itâÄôs sort of hamburger after hamburger. So where should broke college kids eat? Any recommendations? Obento-Ya is terrific. That, I think, is an awesome way to get some awesome interesting food for not too much money. From a culinary perspective, Moto-i in Uptown is a sake brew pub that does Japanese. A really good option is going down Nicollet or East Lake Street, hitting Mexican or Vietnamese dives. Sometimes the foodâÄôs amazing and itâÄôs always really cheap. Which local food blogs do you read? I read pretty much all the food blogs. If thereâÄôs anything IâÄôm not reading, I wanna know about it. I do âÄúThe ChurnâÄù for Heavy Table, where we do a digest of things in local food blogs. ThereâÄôs a lot of good ones; I donâÄôt wanna diss by omission. The Tangled Noodle [http://tanglenoodle.blogspot.com] âĦ Martha & Tom [locovores and cooking enthusiasts at marthaandtom.com] do a really good job. One of my favorites is Trout Caviar [troutcaviar.blogspot.com]. HeâÄôs an excellent baker who often shows up at Midtown FarmerâÄôs Market. Trout Caviar is a series of reflections; he does a lot of fishing and baking and a lot of foraging. HeâÄôs a really good writer. OTHER FOOD BLOGS OF NOTE We Got Served (wegotserved.blogspot.com) âÄî Up front and honest reviews from a couple that hits all the hot spots. They arenâÄôt food critics, but they have a passion for cuisine. Twin Cities Eats (twincitieseats.blogspot.com) âÄî Travel enthusiast âÄúRed PepperâÄù details her excursions around the metro and the dishes she tastes along the way.