“There’s almost no subject that you can’t explore by asking questions about food,” says Francis Lam, a food writer, cookbook editor and host of the public radio show “The Splendid Table.” “If you’re curious about the world, it might be the best beat to be on.”
This wide-ranging inquisitiveness and ability to use food as a way to tell people’s stories—particularly those of immigrants and other “invisible people,” as Lam puts it, within the food world—have established him as one of the most original and influential storytellers in his field.
“My curiosity has come from my life,” Lam says over tea at Conrad New York Downtown.
The son of Chinese immigrants, Lam, 42, enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in 2002 after attending the University of Michigan, where he had worked in restaurants.
Instead of wanting to become a chef, he found himself drawn to telling stories, though he regarded becoming a food writer as a “pipe dream.” He started emailing chronicles of his classroom culinary discoveries to family and friends. These emails eventually made their way to an editor at the Financial Times, who gave him his first writing assignment in 2003.
Since then, Lam’s writing for publications such as The New York Times Magazine has won multiple James Beard Awards. He’s also collaborated on cookbooks with acclaimed chefs such as Alex Stupak and celebrities like Chrissy Teigen. Two years ago, he took over as the voice of “The Splendid Table,” a longstanding weekly radio program about culinary culture.
“Part of me really loves the craft and the art of cooking food, because I was trained as a chef,” Lam says. “The other part of me is really interested in politics.”
These two interests, and an abiding awareness of his own family’s story, have drawn him toward covering “delicious examples of what happens when migrants and immigrants move through the world.”
For example, he talks rapturously of the signature dish at a street stand in Penang, Malaysia, serving Mamak cuisine—stir-fried noodles with turmeric and a sweet potato curry as a sauce—and how it ties into the history of the country’s Mamak community. In the same vein, he explains how his passion for American Southern food led him to want to go to Senegal, because “so much of what we think of as Southern food is truly rooted in West Africa.”
This is not to say Lam doesn’t also appreciate the pleasure of a well-crafted dish. He praises the restaurant Higgins in Portland, Oregon, as serving “the best charcuterie around” and considers dining at Alinea in Chicago to be “the closest I’ve ever had to a lifechanging meal.”
Closer to home, he thinks any trip to New York, where he lives, should include a stop at A&A Bake & Doubles in Brooklyn for an order of the doubles, a fried flatbread stuffed with curried chickpeas. “It’s chewy, it’s crisp, the chickpeas are squishy but sort of meaty, the 45 spices—it’s amazing.”
While he’s somewhat surprised by the cultural explosion around food and chefs since he started writing more than 15 years ago, he’s happy that more and more people want to be seen as “foodies”—which means “it’s important to you to feel like the food you eat matters”—even if the term itself has become overused.
It’s that centrality of food to our lives and identities that keeps Lam inspired and motivated to juggle the demands of his many roles. “Food is infinitely interesting,” he says. “It’s an incredible privilege to do what I do.”
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