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Tejal Rao Transcript

 “Is Restaurant Takeout Helping Or Hurting?” Transcript

Kerry Diamond:             Hey everyone. Welcome to Radio Cherry Bombe. The podcast about women, food, and a whole lot more. I'm your host Kerry Diamond. On today's show, I'm talking with Tejal Rao, the California restaurant critic at the New York Times, and a columnist for the Times magazine. For obvious reasons, it's an interesting time to be a restaurant critic. I wanted to chat with Tejal about how her job is evolving, and about a column she wrote recently titled; Is my takeout risking lives or saving restaurants. It brings up a serious question and touched a chord with many of her readers, myself included. Before we get to our conversation, let's do a little housekeeping. Thank you to our sponsors for supporting today's episode, Ecole Ducasse culinary school and the Wines of Rioja. You folks are the bomb. Tonight, Friday, April 17th is the Jubilee 2.0 after party on Zoom. Tickets are only available until 3:00 PM EST today, so don't delay.

Kerry Diamond:             The first hour of our party is a wine hour with some of your favorite folks in the wine world. And I'm very excited about this, Stephanie Danler, the bestselling author of the novel Sweetbitter will be reading from her brand new memoir called Stray. You do not want to miss that. Then starting at 9:00 PM we've got the Cherry Bombe Talent Show with lots of surprises. Folks will be competing for a $1,000 prize for themselves. And $1,000 for the charity of their choice. Tickets are only $5, and all ticket proceeds are going to charity. Thank you to Sequoia Grove and Bouvet Ladubay for supporting our event. Before we get to today's show, here's a word from Ecole Ducasse.

Kerry Diamond:             For more than 20 years, Ecole Ducasse has been teaching French culinary, and pastry arts to enthusiasts, students, career changers, and ambitious professionals from all over the world. The school was established by the legendary chef Alain Ducasse, and if one thing is for sure at Ecole Ducasse, you can master more than cooking. Right now, Ecole Ducasse has some virtual activities going on that you should check out, like the daily challenge on the Ecole Ducasse Instagram. For every participant in the daily challenge, Ecole Ducasse will donate 10 Euros to the fund for the Paris Hospital Foundation. What else? On May 1st Ecole Ducasse is launching a $5,000 sponsorship in partnership with the James Beard Foundation. For more on Ecole Ducasse's culinary programs. Visit Okay, one more time?

Kerry Diamond:             Now here's my conversation with Tejal Rao.

Kerry Diamond:             Tejal Rao, welcome to Radio Cherry Bombe.

Tejal Rao:                     Hi Kerry. Thanks so much for having me.

Kerry Diamond:             Oh. Please. It's really an honor. I mean you are an amazing writer and reporter, and restaurant critic and we're thrilled to be able to talk to you. And that leads right to my first question. What does a restaurant critic do at a time like this?

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah. That's a really good question. I've been thinking about my role a lot right now and just trying to figure out what's happening in restaurants, and what readers actually need to know, and trying to adapt the role in real time. So, I'm not writing traditional restaurant reviews. I stopped that, gosh, over a month ago. But I'm still working on essays and asking questions and kind of reporting with people up and down the restaurant supply chain. The rush on seeds, people turning to home gardening, small farmers pivoting to delivering their food to restaurants so that people can pick it up like almost like a CSA, but picking it up from the restaurants directly. And I think, I don't know, I think my job is just to kind of show people different ways of thinking about restaurants. And right now that's really strange, but I'm working more than ever.

Kerry Diamond:             Did you ever imagine in a million years, your job evolving like this? And there being a day where the entire restaurant industry was just vaporized?

Tejal Rao:                     No. No. Definitely not. I mean I think part of me was maybe aware of how fragile certain things were in the system and also in the food supply chain. But I never anticipated it all, kind of falling apart within a couple of weeks.

Kerry Diamond:             Well, we will definitely get to that fragility because you've referenced that in a lot of your stories. But I'm curious, how are you doing your reporting today? Are you going out?

Tejal Rao:                     I'm going out a little bit. I'm definitely on the phone more than anything else. My partner's immuno suppressed, so I'm trying to be extra careful. I also think restaurant workers don't necessarily want me in their space right now. They want to be safe too. But I'm still working. I'm still a part of the world. I've been going grocery shopping. I'm being a little bit more judicious with restaurants. I'm not going to try new places right now, because I'm not filing reviews. But I am like going back to small, independent places just to kind of get a sense of what their protocol is, or to see how they're adapting. And also just like as a normal person to have a break from cooking and to get dinner.

Kerry Diamond:             Before we talk about some of your stories in particular, can you tell us a little bit about the restaurant landscape in LA right now?

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah. It's changing day to day, but it's really, it's pretty incredible to see restaurants adapting. So, fast food places are open, drive throughs are open. Also, tiny, immigrant owned restaurants in strip malls are open. A lot of these restaurants have changed what they do. So, they're only doing take out or delivery. Porridge + Puffs, which is one of my favorite places is selling rice porridge to go, along with a whole bunch of provisions for home cooks. So pickles, raw rice, dry chickpeas, they're sort of catering to people who are cooking more at home.

Kerry Diamond:             That's Min, right?

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah. Exactly. Yeah.

Kerry Diamond:             She's fantastic. I was in LA almost right before all of this happened and that was one of the restaurants I went to. She's really wonderful and that was a great space that we'll want to see come back.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah. It's such a special place. The pizza places are in some cases just selling dough with toppings so people can take it home and make it themselves. A lot of places recently have dropped their third party delivery systems and they're trying to figure out their own delivery. Like HomeState is doing that. I think Hail Mary, the pizza place is doing that.

Kerry Diamond:             Can you just explain to people what that means, the third party delivery systems and why would you drop your third party delivery system?

Tejal Rao:                     I mean, so I don't, I actually can't speak to exactly why they did it. Yeah. So third party delivery apps would include a Caviar, Grubhub.

Kerry Diamond:             Right. Uber Eats, Seamless.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah. Exactly. All of those. So you know, part of it is that they charge usually between 20 and 30% on every order. They take a commission for the delivery. But I actually think the bigger reason a lot of restaurants are dropping them is that they don't... It's different staff taking over the delivery of the food that they have implemented all these safety protocols, or that their staff knows how to handle it. They know about food safety, and then someone picks it up who hasn't been trained, who isn't part of their team. And that's the person taking the food to the customer.

Kerry Diamond:             Oh. I hadn't thought about that aspect of it.

Tejal Rao:                     I think that's making a lot of restaurants nervous right now.

Kerry Diamond:             Sure. And the 20 to 30% does not help at all. I know there's been a big move to get the percentages reduced or waived. I think some companies might have deferred them, but deferment doesn't really help right now.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah. Exactly.

Kerry Diamond:             Because you pay eventually. It's like a college loan. But it would be really great-

Tejal Rao:                     In San Francisco, they capped it at 15%.

Kerry Diamond:             Oh. Okay.

Tejal Rao:                     But I don't think that's happened anywhere else.

Kerry Diamond:             That's a start, at least.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah.

Kerry Diamond:             You know, that is a big chunk. I mean, I know folks who listen to the show who are part of the restaurant industry know this, all of this intimately. But for the rest of you who are consumers, happy to help these places. Right now it probably is way more helpful to just call the restaurant directly.

Tejal Rao:                     Absolutely.

Kerry Diamond:             If you're doing pick up or take out. So try to their phone number. I'm sure they're answering their phones right now if they're set up to do deliver or contactless pickup. What about the restaurants that have switched to becoming essentially canteens for restaurant workers? I've seen a little bit of that.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah. That's really amazing. And then some places are doing both. So Hail Mary is in the evening there, they've got their regular menu for pickup. But then there's a certain window of time each day where they're making pizzas just for people in the restaurant industry who've recently lost their jobs.

Kerry Diamond:             Seeing a lot more of that throughout the country.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah.

Kerry Diamond:             So Tejal, one of the reasons I want to do on the show was you wrote a really poignant story last week as part of the Critics Notebook called; Is my takeout risking lives or saving restaurants? And I think you zeroed in on a dilemma that a lot of us are having, myself included, where we don't know what is better. To just stock up on groceries and stay inside and cook, or do take out and contactless pickup to help these places stay alive.

Tejal Rao:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kerry Diamond:             But at the same time you're putting potentially putting the workers at risk. So why did you decide to write this story?

Tejal Rao:                     I mean, it was just, the question which is pretty agonizing and impossible, has just been on my mind. And as I realized that as all the public health warnings have been updated, I've been assessing the risk for myself. But I hadn't really been assessing the risk for everyone else. The people who are prepping the food and cooking it and delivering it to me and packing it up.

Kerry Diamond:             Right. Those folks have to go to work every day.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah. I'm in this very privileged position where I still have a job, I can work from home. I'm being told to shelter in place and I can do it. And the reason that I can do it, the reason so many of us can do it is because restaurant workers are continuing to go to work. And grocery store workers too. They're going to work every day and they're putting themselves on the front lines of this pandemic. And I want to support local businesses, but I also don't want to put people at risk. And we already have a lot of data at this point. We know that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color, specifically black people. We know it's disproportionately affecting restaurant workers. It's just the thought of letting restaurant workers become collateral damage. It's just unacceptable. It's unacceptable.

Kerry Diamond:             I felt you sort of had to read between the lines of your story to figure out what conclusion you came to.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah. Yeah. I mean I am cooking at home as much as possible and when I go out, I'm just being really... I'm going to the places that I really care about, that I want to see reopen on the other side of this. So, mostly small independent food businesses. And specifically immigrant owned, indigenous owned, and black owned restaurants. And I really hope other people are doing the same. Just thinking really carefully about the places they want to support.

Kerry Diamond:             Mm-hmm (affirmative). You had a line in the story, you sort of just referenced it, you said closing, even temporarily is a luxury that Alfonso Martinez, as someone who you had interviewed, and wrote about in your piece, and so many other small food businesses that are essential to the communities, immigrant owned, indigenous owned, black owned, cannot afford. Then you wrote, Los Angeles in turn, cannot afford to lose those restaurants. And to me that was your answer to the question you posed in the title. Is that a fair assessment?

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah. Yeah, I think so. So, Alfonso Martinez is Oaxacan and he runs this tiny pop up in South Los Angeles called Poncho's Tlayudas. Usually, at the moment he's selling tamales on the weekends. Usually he's sells tlayudas and blood sausages. And he came to this recipe for blood sausage through Odilia Romero, his wife, whose great uncle gifted the recipe to her parents for their wedding.

Kerry Diamond:             Oh. That's amazing.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah. And when he gave them the recipe, he said, if you ever need to survive on something, survive on this.

Kerry Diamond:             Wow.

Tejal Rao:                     This blood sausage recipe. And they did. They were able to survive in Los Angeles for decades by building up their community and selling this blood sausage, and they became known for it. So, it's their economic survival. It's a community bond. It's everything. I mean and that's just one. That's one small food business. I think there are a lot of people in very similar position. They, they count stop cooking right now, and I don't want to stop supporting them.

Kerry Diamond:             Right. We don't want them to go away.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah.

Kerry Diamond:             Whether it's Los Angeles, or Brooklyn, where I am.

Tejal Rao:                     Exactly.

Kerry Diamond:             Or where our listeners are, you clearly struck a chord with your readers. I love the New York Times comments. I don't know if for your sanity you don't read the comments.

Tejal Rao:                     Well, sometimes I don't, in this case I did just because the story got so many. And a lot of them were from people in the industry, so I wanted to see what they had to say.

Kerry Diamond:             I think I read literally all 400 plus of the comments that you got because like I said, I've been so torn similarly about what is helping, and what is hurting? And a lot of people are in the same boat. But it was interesting to read the restaurant owners who have either decided to close, or the ones who have decided to stay open and talked about how they are trained in food safety.

Tejal Rao:                     Right. Exactly.

Kerry Diamond:             That's why they do restaurant inspections. And that you can trust certain places. No. The comments were fascinating.

Tejal Rao:                     Some of the businesses, they closed early on and now they've reopened because they changed their mind. Or some tried to stay open, but now they've had to close. It's just there seems to be no one size fits all solution.

Kerry Diamond:             No. But why do you think it got such an outsized response compared to other stories? 400 for food story is a lot.

Tejal Rao:                     It is. Yeah. I mean, I don't know. I think that I was thinking about that question and I'm not the only one. I think a lot of people were just trying to navigate that idea, and trying to understand it. And I also think because there is no easy answer, people really wanted to weigh in. Most of the comments, they weren't angry comments directed at me. They were people trying to kind of unravel it themselves, answer it themselves.

Kerry Diamond:             True. I do appreciate the thoughtfulness of the New York Times comments, which is why I read them as opposed to other comments and other places.

Kerry Diamond:             We'll be right back with Tejal after this quick message.

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Kerry Diamond: Back to my conversation with Tejal Rao.

Kerry Diamond:             I want to talk about something you mentioned in the story. You wrote that many of the restaurant industries, millions of workers are underpaid and undervalued, uninsured and unemployed. And as I read that line, I've been thinking a lot about the future of restaurants. Because this industry has to remake itself essentially. Is the restaurant from your perspective, is the restaurant industry stuck with the system?

Tejal Rao:                     I mean, God, I hope not. I mean, we're in a really strange place right now. People do seem open to rethinking the way that things work, and really stepping back, looking at the system. People, and when I say people, I mean the people I'm reporting with, so cooks, and dishwashers and chefs and restaurant owners. They are really aware of all the cracks, and all the problems, and with how fragile the system is. And in the first few weeks I was hearing a lot of people being kind of impatient. Wondering when can things get back to normal? And now I'm hearing that a lot less. I'm hearing, burn it down, normal sucked, let's rebuild things to be better and safer and stronger and more humane.

Kerry Diamond:             Right. We knew the system was broken.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah.

Kerry Diamond:             We all just turned a blind eye to it until you said, this reveal just how deep the cracks went.

Tejal Rao:                     So I mean, I don't know if being aware is enough, but it does seem like everyone is very much aware right now. And that's promising.

Kerry Diamond:             Most folks, at least our listeners, have a sense of how restaurant economics work, and that it is not great. And that most restaurants, even the best ones are just barely getting by. So, I mean obviously what's required is a lot more government intervention. In terms of social safety nets, and a living wage, $15 an hour, universal health care.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah. And I think immediately restaurant workers need access to testing.

Kerry Diamond:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tejal Rao:                     And like ensured protection masks and gloves, and also the training that actually makes those things effective.

Kerry Diamond:             I mean, we'll be dealing with those things for a long time. But even beyond that Tejal, the paid sick days.

Tejal Rao:                     Oh yeah.

Kerry Diamond:             The universal health care. I mean I do feel that's all... Those are all things that the government is going to have to step in and support, or fund in some way because the average restaurant can not afford that.

Tejal Rao:                     No. Yeah. The other thing that people are talking about is, when we reopen, when things... When it's safe to reopen, are people going to be okay with a significant shift in pricing? Which is another interesting question. And I don't know the answer to that, but I think that's a good question too.

Kerry Diamond:             But other countries don't have to deal with that. Their food's not more expensive because people get health care.

Tejal Rao:                     Right.

Kerry Diamond:             I listened to the interview that Sam Sifton... Is Sam technically your boss?

Tejal Rao:                     He is. Yeah. He is.

Kerry Diamond:             He is. Okay. So Sam Sifton from the New York Times did an interview with you, Pete Wells, who is the restaurant critic based in New York City and then Besha Rodell, who is a restaurant critic for the Times based in Australia. And it was so interesting to hear her talking about how in Australia they have universal health care, they have access to testing, and how people over in Australia are just less freaked out about their plight because of the social safety nets.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah.

Kerry Diamond:             As you were, as you were listening to her talk about that, what were you thinking?

Tejal Rao:                     I mean, I was just immensely jealous. I mean, that's how it should be. That's how it should be. People shouldn't have to be put in the position that they are here. People shouldn't have to be making the choices that we're asking them to make. It shouldn't be so agonizing, so scary.

Kerry Diamond:             I'm just jealous.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah.

Kerry Diamond:             I'll admit, that was the emotion that went through my brain as I heard Besha talking about that. Sam also asked all of you for one word to describe your mindset at the moment regarding restaurants. Pete's was a little bleak. I think he said Darwin, or Darwinian, which I don't really want to think too hard about why he said that. But you said hopeful, which I thought was really lovely. Why did you choose that word?

Tejal Rao:                     I was feeling, for one second I was feeling a little optimistic. It's just, it's such a roller coaster of emotions every day. Like my mindset is constantly shifting from despair to joy. And sometimes for hours at a time I feel like I'm just feeling nothing, or I'm totally incandescent with rage. I'm just living this in real time like everyone else. But seeing restaurants around me do whatever it takes. Like teams of people cooking for healthcare workers, and line cooks delivering food to elderly people who are home bound. And people just stepping up in the absence of plans, and real answers, and protocol, and support. People just stepping up for their communities, not for glory or press, just they've figured out how to be helpful in a small way. That makes me, yeah. That makes me a tiny bit hopeful.

Kerry Diamond:             That's true. There have been some remarkable stories. I had to interview José Andrés the other day. I was just like, dear universe, please protect this man for as long as humanly possible.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah.

Kerry Diamond:             I mean, I just don't know how folks like him are doing it. It's remarkable.

Tejal Rao:                     It really is.

Kerry Diamond:             And I'm so grateful to have those folks, and not just in our industry, but in our midst, my God.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah.

Kerry Diamond:             So Tejal, I don't know if you're allowed to talk about a few things you're working on, or what's on your radar. But where's your head at these days? What are you thinking about covering next?

Tejal Rao:                     Well, right now I'm trying to figure out how to report a profile over FaceTime. Yeah. So please stay tuned for that. It's tricky, how do you connect as a reporter, how do you connect with someone and learn about your subject when you can't follow them around all day? So, I'm working on that. And then my column is shifting more to really, really basic home cooking. But yeah. That's about it. I really don't know what I'm doing beyond the next few days.

Kerry Diamond:             Mm-hmm (affirmative). Sounds like everybody else. Sort of all of our condition these days. My gosh. It will be very interesting to watch how your role evolves, and a restaurant critic, in a few months could mean just a completely different thing than it meant the beginning of March.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah. Who knows, who knows? I hope that I can adapt.

Kerry Diamond:             Well, I have no doubt. California is in good hands with you, Tejal. I'm excited to see what you do next and what you keep reporting on. What are you reading these days?

Tejal Rao:                     I just started reading Emily Gould's new novel, Perfect Tunes. It's New York. It's like the East Village during like the internet cafe boom.

Kerry Diamond:             Oh. Okay. That's interesting.

Tejal Rao:                     It's really fun. It feels like a fantasy right now.

Kerry Diamond:             Isn't that crazy? Everything, every movie, every book. Everything feels like science fiction almost in a way.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah.

Kerry Diamond:             Or fantasy fiction. I just picked up Stephanie Danler's new book, Stray. It's a memoir. She's the woman who wrote Sweetbitter.

Tejal Rao:                     Oh yeah. Oh. I want to read that. The new memoir I mean.

Kerry Diamond:             I love her writing and I just love her as a human being. So I'm excited to get some time to sit down and read that. And then how about streaming? You streaming anything?

Tejal Rao:                     I just finished Babylon Berlin.

Kerry Diamond:             Oh. How was that?

Tejal Rao:                     Which is really, really strange and beautifully produced German show. It's set in the 1920s so it set post Spanish flu Berlin and again it feels like science fiction. Just seeing people at a crowded bar, tearing into a loaf of bread, three people leaning over their mugs of beer and getting rowdy. I mean everything feels... It hurts to see... It makes me miss restaurants and bars so much.

Kerry Diamond:             Yeah. I'm having a hard time with anything heavy.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah.

Kerry Diamond:             I've been sticking to sort of lighter fare. Audrey on team Cherry Bombe tipped me off to this documentary called Tea with the Dames. Have you seen it?

Tejal Rao:                     Oh my gosh. I actually have seen it.

Kerry Diamond:             So for those of you who haven't seen it. It's set in the English countryside and it's Dame, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, and two other famous British actresses. And they're just sitting around talking their lives and their careers. And you really feel like you're eavesdropping on four girlfriends. And it's delightful.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah. It is. And they get quite juicy with the gossip.

Kerry Diamond:             As juicy as they can get. I mean, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench are just priceless.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah.

Kerry Diamond:             Just for those two, it's amazing and they laugh so much. It was really nice seeing what a deep friendship they have, and just how they crack each other up. Yeah. Tejal, that's about the extent of what I can handle right now. Everybody's watching Tiger King. I'm like, how can you watch Tiger King?

Tejal Rao:                     I can't do it. I haven't, I'm not going to watch it.

Kerry Diamond:             It would give me nightmares.

Tejal Rao:                     Yeah.

Kerry Diamond:             Yeah. Life is enough of a nightmare right now without Tiger King adding to it. Tejal I know you have to go. We are really thrilled that you could join us today on Radio Cherry Bombe. We are such big fans, and thank you for all the amazing reporting you do, and the beautiful writing that you do too.

Tejal Rao:                     Thank you Kerry. Thank you so much for having me.

Kerry Diamond:             That's it for today's show. Thank you to Tejal Rao of the New York Times for calling in and for the great work she does. Thank you to Ecole Ducasse, and the Wines of Rioja for supporting this show. Radio Cherry Bombe is edited and produced by Jess Zeidman. Our theme song is All Fired Up, by the band Tralala. Don't forget the Jubilee 2.0 After Party, and the Cherry Bombe Talent Show are tonight, Friday, April 17th. Tickets are $5 and on sale now and it's all going down on Zoom. You have to buy your tickets before 3:00 PM EST though. Do not forget. Visit Hang in there everybody, and thank you for listening. You are the bombe.

When Harry Met Sally Clip: I'll have what she's having.

Alexis deBoschnek:        Hi. My name is Alexis deBoschnek and I'm a recipe developer based in Los Angeles. Do you want to know who I think is the bombe? Hana Asbrink, Executive Editor of Chowhound in New York City. She's a working mom, incredible writer, and I'm always inspired by her recipes.