Our next Globavore Interview is with Rachel Leff of TenKitchens.com. A writer and editor based near New York City, she’s also a librarian, a mother, and “a very enthusiastic eater”. She and her husband, with their young daughter in tow, travel as much as they can.
1. Who are you and how does food play into your travels?
Hi, I’m Rachel. I’m a writer, editor, and librarian who loves food. Food is central to much of what I do, including travel. While it isn’t the main focus of every trip I take, it is a primary focus of many…or at least a secondary one.
2. You’re at your favourite eatery with three companions (fictional, living or dead). Where (and when!) are you and who are you with?
I’d be with Ina Garten, Julia Child, and Jonathan Gold. As for where—that would be Jonathan Gold’s choice!
3. What are your favourite foods?
North Indian and Ethiopian food are my favorites. I love New Haven pizza, pretty much any meat cooked over fire, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, beef rendang, sausage and broccoli rabe…too many things to list really!
4. Is there anything that you’d never eat? What is it and why?
Eating bugs is a hard one for me. Also, not a fan of eating anything that’s still alive. Ed.’s note: Yah, I’d have to agree wholeheartedly with that!
5. What do you crave but can’t get whilst on the road? How do you satisfy the craving?
If I don’t have coffee in the morning, I’m kinda devastated, and probably unbearable. Thankfully, I can usually find it, but if not, then I’ll have tea. If we’re not near any stores (say, if we’re backpacking), I can bring tea along with me and I’ll live. I won’t be thrilled, but I’ll live.
6. What food are you embarrassed to admit you like to eat?
McDonald’s french fries. Ed.’s note: I hear you. When piping hot, MacDo’s fries are pretty good. And remember the old version before they went “healthy”? Swoon.
7. What / where do you dream of eating, but haven’t yet had the pleasure?
The “where” is Thailand, the “what” is everything.
8. Strangest meal?
I once lived in a neighborhood in Queens that had a pretty sizeable Romanian population. A friend was out visiting me one night when we walked by a Romanian restaurant called Transylvania. We decided to give it a try. We ordered a few things, including the mixed grill, which we just assumed was a few types of meat, maybe beef, chicken, pork…. But it was mixed organs. Not wanting to be closed-minded, we ate it, albeit uneasily. The brains and especially the testicles were the most challenging, but we made it through. We washed down our meal with a few beers around the corner and then both had the weirdest dreams. Fueled by Romanian-style testicles? Perhaps. We sure thought so at the time. What I learned? It doesn’t hurt to ask what’s in a “mixed grill” before you order it. Ed.’s note: That sounds like very solid advice!
9. Ever had food poisoning while traveling? Any advice to share?
Thankfully, I have not. My husband has been less lucky. Number one piece of advice based on his experience: if at all possible, stay in one place—don’t travel until it has run its course.
10. Have you fallen so much in love with a foreign dish that you learned to make it at home? What’s the story?
Beef rendang! No interesting story to share, just that the dish blew my mind when I ate it (and remains one of my all-time favorites). I heard James Oseland (from Saveur) on the NPR show Splendid Table talking about his recipe for it (from his book Cradle of Flavor). After gathering the ingredients from a couple of Indonesian markets, I made it…and made it and made it and made it. His recipe is still posted on the Splendid Table website. Give it a try!
11. What’s the first thing you eat after returning home from a long trip?
I usually have an enormous iced coffee, whether that’s because I haven’t had a good iced coffee on my trip, or because I’m tired from traveling! And we usually get a pizza once we drop our bags at home.
12. Favourite foreign ingredient you wish your home supermarket carried?
Fresh rice noodles
13. Country / city where you’ve found the best food? Details please so we can check it out too!
There are so many places with amazing food, but Los Angeles, Montreal, and Kyoto pop to mind. I lived in LA for over ten years. Every type of food you can imagine can be found somewhere in the county—it’s a vast, sprawling metropolis, one of the world’s great diverse cities. It excels in lots of areas, such as Mexican, Korean, Persian, and Chinese food. There are innovative takes on classics, the food truck explosion, improbable fusions, tacos tacos tacos, amazing sushi… Wait, why did I move away?
And there’s Montreal. We visited a couple of years ago with the primary mission to eat, and that’s exactly what we did. Everyone knows Joe Beef and Au Pied du Cochon…and I thought they were both phenomenal. We loved pretty much every other place we ate, too: Schwartz’s, Agrikol, Sumac, Le Vin Papillon, Nouilles de Lan Zhou, Fairmount Bagels, Romados Chicken. Ed.’s note: So glad you’re a Fairmont person, rather than St. Viatuer!
And Kyoto…my god, what an incredible city, and the food! We had humble meals and beautiful meals. And the noodles! We ate soba noodles at Honke Owariya (which has been serving them for over 500 years), udon at Yamamoto Menzo and Omen, and ramen at the food hall in the Kyoto Train Station, all of which were amazing, and all of which got our then-two-year-old daughter’s enthusiastic stamp of approval.
14. Country / city where you’ve found the worst? What made it so awful?
Everywhere has something great to offer in terms of food, even if it can sometimes be hard to find. I’ve been to very poor areas that have little by way of restaurants other than fast food, which I’d classify as pretty awful. But in one town like that, I went to a swap meet where people were selling freshly prepared food that was delicious.
15. What are your favourite markets for a) eating b) finding unusual things and c) for photography?
I’ll choose a few LA markets, and all three would be great for eating, finding unusual things, and photography. From west to east: Santa Monica Downtown Farmers’ Market, Grand Central Market, and LAX-C. The Santa Monica Downtown Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays takes over several blocks of Arizona Ave. with the rich bounty of Southern California produce. Grand Central Market is a food court in downtown LA with old-school favorites as well as new and innovative stalls. Wexler’s is my favorite for their super-duper pastrami. LAX-C is a bare-bones, practically warehouse-sized Thai market with more fish sauces, dry noodles, and curry pastes than you could imagine. They have lots more than that, of course, including Southeast Asian produce and some hot food up front.
A few other markets I love: Atwater Market in Montreal, Union Square Farmers’ Market in NYC, and Nishiki Market in Kyoto.
16. If money were no object, where (and what) would you eat?
I’d make my way through all the restaurants on the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants list!
17. Do you have any food regrets?
When I was in Japan, I didn’t explore Japanese food anywhere near as fully as I would have liked. Alas, I’ll go back one day….
18. If you could invent any ice cream flavour, what would it be? (yes, I am looking for ideas to add to my ice cream repertoire!)
Cherry or peach with toasted almond sounds lovely, if conventional. How about a riskier choice…something like balsamic and strawberries or rosemary and blackberries? Fig and prosciutto? Bacon and anything? Ed.’s note: Mmmmm… love these ideas!
19. What do you love and hate about food writing (yours and/or in general)?
I love food writing, and I love how much of it there is these days. It’s such a rich topic, and also my favorite topic! I try not to hate anything, but I guess the thing I like least is when people attack other peoples’ writing, cooking, etc.
20. You’re having surgery tomorrow and there’s a reasonable chance you’ll lose your ability to taste (oh the horrors!). What would you choose as, essentially, your last meal?
Horror, indeed! I’d probably go with the doro wot and vegetarian combination from Meals by Genet on Fairfax in LA. That place is sublime. I’ve always loved Ethiopian food, but Meals by Genet was nothing short of a revelation.