Former San Jose Mercury-News food writer Aleta Watson is no stranger to the Bay Area. Except for a middle childhood in the Southern U.S., she grew up in the East Bay, graduated from San Jose State University and has written for, in her words, most of the newspapers, large and small, in the South Bay. She spent a bulk of that time at the Mercury-News, nine years as a hard news journalist covering Education and then as a food writer, editor and restaurant critic. She recently left the Merc to pursue freelancing and to start her own food blog called The Skillet Chronicles.
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Watson to find out a bit more about her career, talk about food trends, and get her take on food in the Bay Area.
wm.: When did you start as a food critic?
Aleta: I have always liked to cook, but when I first entered journalism I wouldn’t be caught dead in the Features department because it wasn’t serious enough. And it wasn’t earth shaking enough. And at that point, women had to prove that they could do hard news. But I just kept eying the food section and it was looking better and better. My former City Editor went on a leave for a while and then came back to be the Food Editor. I thought if she could do that then I could make that little change too. I started freelancing for them around 2000 by writing for the magazine, when they had a magazine which included food and dining articles among more general content, which was my primary interest. Then in 2002, there was an opening – they had a restaurant reviewer leave – and at that point there were two full-time restaurant reviewers and I asked them to make it more about food and cooking. And that’s how I got into restaurant reviewing. It was not because of an innate love of restaurants.
I used to like to call myself the “second string” restaurant critic while Sheila Himmel was the primary restaurant critic. She did most of the big ones for the Sunday section and I did the little ethnic places (in a column called “Quick Bites”) which was fun but pretty low key. It appeared with the regular restaurant reviews in the Friday paper. That’s what I did until Sheila left the paper in a big buyout in 2005 when Knight-Ridder was preparing to sell the paper. So when Sheila left, I became the only reviewer. I had been at the Mercury News a long time by then.
wm.: And since then, the newspaper industry has been in decline…
Aleta: Yes. There had been cutbacks at the paper. From 2000-2001, we had more than 400 people on the news staff including writers, editors, copy editors, and now there are only 150 which is why a lot of content is lost because there aren’t the people there to produce it. This has happened all across the country and many newspapers don’t have food sections at all. Nobody likes to see what happened and it’s very difficult for those who are on the inside, and it’s one of the reasons that I decided to leave. It was just hard to do what I wanted to do because at the time I was doing the Food Section, cover stories and restaurant reviews. I didn’t feel like I was growing by doing more and more of the same and not hitting the high spots as often.
(Photoshop™ rendering by wm. christman)
wm.: Are you a fancy restaurant person or a hole-in-the-wall restaurant person?
Aleta: I like both extremes. I love the hole-in-the wall places with food I have never tasted before, the bold flavors, new textures – exciting new food. Or renditions of food that was not the white-bread stuff I grew up with. And I love the really high end. I love Manresa. I been to the French Laundry. I love the French Laundry but I don’t think I will be able to afford it again because it’s so high end.
One day just before I left the Mercury, I was reviewing a restaurant in Los Gatos and we were going in from the parking lot, I passed one Lincoln Town Car after another. There must have been a dozen Lincoln Town Cars parked out around Manresa with drivers hanging around just waiting for their clients to finish eating their 200-300 dollar meal. I love both (types of) restaurants, high end and low end, but journalists don’t make that much money and I’m just not in that price club.
wm.: So what is your favorite hole-in-the wall restaurant:
Aleta: Fiesta-Tepa-Sahuayo. It’s a real authentic Mexican place on 1st Street in Watsonville. Because I have been eating for a living for so long there’s only so much I can eat, and I don’t go back to a lot of places, but I like the tortas at Mexico Bakery on Story Road. Those are quite wonderful; they are just over the top wonderful. And I like the Ethiopian restaurant Mudai in downtown San Jose. There are so many places…
wm.: Over the last several years, what do you see as the worst food trend in the Bay Area?
Aleta: I’m not real hot on the bar scene restaurant – you know, the cocktail lounge as restaurant. I don’t find the food very good and I don’t drink hard liquor very often so it doesn’t appeal to me very much. Usually the food is not very good if it’s really flashy. And that’s really big, lots of places feel like they have to have them…high-end looking places, flashy ones like Fuel. It really started strong with Sino and they have pretty nice food if you went for the dim sum – but (otherwise) it’s loud and it’s all about the theme and it’s not really about the food. And the people don’t seem to be paying that much attention to the food.
wm.: Who are your favorite food writers?
Aleta: Russ Parsons (food writer for the LA Times). I really like his work a lot. Other writers I am more interested in are also cooks.
wm.: That was actually my next question, which chefs are your favorites?
Aleta: You’re going to laugh about this but I really like Jamie Oliver because his food tastes great. His flavors are simple and he still cooks that way. The flavors are fabulous. I’m working on getting every one of his cookbooks because these are the kinds of flavors I like and the recipes are things that I can do. People think I do more complicated cooking but even I don’t want to spend forever chopping and pureeing…I like to have the food talk for itself.
wm.: What about celebrity chefs?
Aleta: I don’t watch too much food television anymore. I would watch when it was about a particular chef. I like Mario (Batali) because he’s real in his own overblown way. I like Jacques Pepin and chefs like that because they are real. But I can’t deny that there are people like Rachel Ray who bring a lot of people, who have no idea how to cook at all, into their kitchens. For that she deserves credit, but otherwise I think it’s just so much hot air. I don’t really learn anything from that. I’ll occasionally watch Top Chef because I feel that I have an obligation to keep up with popular culture when one is a journalist, but not because I enjoy it that much. I feel like they set up fights, competitions, and pitting people against each other to create ersatz emotion.
We create people who don’t really want to cook but go to cooking school with the idea of becoming celebrities so they can make a lot of money. And they spend so much money going to cooking school and when they’re done they have jobs that pay them 10-20 dollars an hour. And only a few of them are going to make it – it’s like kids that want to be basketball stars.
wm.: Anthony Bourdain?
Aleta: Oh, he’s great fun. He’s witty; he’s urbane…he’s hard not to like. He goes way over the top all the time but I like it. I think it’s because he’s smart and witty and it’s not dumbed down at all. He’s an interesting celebrity chef in that he never really became a celebrity by doing his day job. He became a celebrity because of how well he can write and how he can shock in a very smart way.
Part Two of our Aleta Watson interview will appear next week.