The Accidental Critic
One of my earliest and sharpest memories is of food: day-old rice with plain fishsauce. My sister Chi was seven, I was four. Our rogue nanny had run off with the grocery cash and abandoned us with nothing in the pantry. Chi and I sat on the cement kitchen floor and dug clumps of cold rice from the pot with our spoons. We were hungry, and the fishsauce rice tasted fine because we were happy. We had each other, just the two of us in that empty house as the gray monsoon rain crashed down.
Every memorable moment I've ever had, every girl or woman I've ever loved, every wondrous place I've ever been, every turning point in my life is inextricably linked to a dish, a specific flavor profile. Baloney sandwiches remind me of the gritty days when my family lived next to the city dump. Bulgogi beef with kimchee brings me back to the youthful seasons when I was madly intoxicated with a tragic ballerina. Grilling sausages stirs a sea breeze from the time I lived aboard my dilapidated sailboat dreaming of circumnavigation. Spicy papaya salad washes me back to the blue-sky years when I drifted aimlessly, blissfully from island to island in the tropics.
Food is about being in the moment and also about remembering things gone. Food in the present pleases the palate, food in the past nourishes the soul. These are the gems in the mines of memories. They glitter with all that is worthwhile—my great grandaunt taught me this as a child. When I was old enough to understand, I tried to live and eat in such a way that when my time comes, the sum of my decades would look like a vast and diverse buffet, filled with both ordinary and extraordinary fares, where I could stroll leisurely from one end to the other, equipped with only a small tasting spoon. However, the only way to keep these gems shiny is to write about them, even if only to commit them to a diary.
But as a professional writer, I rarely have the luxury to "write for fun" or keep up a journal. I am compelled to write those few works that I feel are my mission in life. Beyond that, I must do that onerous thing known as making a living, which somehow never quite seems to get checked off my to-do-list. Some writers are supremely skilled; sit them in front of a computer and they print money. Some writers agonize a decade to distill a single volume invaluable to humanity but worth nothing to their hungry children. I am neither, but I know I eat faster than I write—and I grow hungrier by the word. One solution, I discovered twenty years ago, was to get paid to eat and write about food.
At the time, I was working as an engineer with dining and travel perks. I had a small pack of gainfully employed friends. Our common hobby was dining at establishments that had been well reviewed by professional critics. We took turns treating each other to fantastic meals, sampling restaurants everywhere, hot on the trails of renowned critics. When I abruptly decided to drop out of the rat race to become a struggling writer, dining out at fancy venues was no longer possible. In fact, simply eating was a challenge on an artist's budget. It was a serious blow to my spirit. So, one dark, stormy night, while moaning into my thin gruel, it came to me in a flash of inspiration: I could certainly be a food critic. Why not? I'd eaten in every restaurant they reviewed for years. There were as many cookbooks on my shelves as engineering texts. I loved everything about food and good eating. There could be no better, deserving candidate.
Fortunately, having read food columns diligently, I knew well the local critics' strengths and weaknesses. I identified an opening. I saw a way in. I carefully crafted and pitched an article to a local newspaper, and as they say, the rest was history. I dined, reviewed, and wrote about food for five years. I connected with hundreds of thousands of readers and contributed to the success of many worthy restaurants. My reviews changed lives, particularly the restaurant owners.
After the publication of my first book, I retired my fork-n-pen to travel the world as a foodie-writer-wanderer on a shoestring budget. I toured on motorcycles, bicycles, and nearly every possible mode of transportation. I built a wooden bungalow in the jungle and established a homestead farm, producing organic rice, fruit, and fish for personal consumption. I even devoted two years of my life to create an internet startup for food writers, with over thirty professional food critics, authors and writers. It was a thrilling but unsuccessful venture that gave me the opportunity and excuse to consume a huge amount of excellent food and wine.
When my wife and I finished the construction of our house at Baan Aomjai, I plunged back into my food hobby. I built a small experimental aquaponic farm for tilapia and vegetables, an outdoor BBQ, a small tandoori oven, and a wood-fired brick pizza oven. I bake bread almost daily. We go fishing and squid fishing, eat fruits and vegetables from our gardens, and host monthly cookouts. Twice a year, we trek back to our bungalow on the Mekong for the rice planting and harvesting seasons.
One blue-sky afternoon, in our sala overlooking the brilliant green rice paddies, we were eating bowls of steaming jasmine rice. We marveled at how the rice tasted, these grains we had planted and harvested months ago. In the somtam salad were our beloved chili peppers, lime, and papaya—the fruits of seedlings we planted when we first built the bungalow. A special kind of contentment descended on us at that moment.
Foods really do taste better when you're eating as neither a restaurant critic nor a food entrepreneur. The best part of a food-life is the ability to savor the process of growing, cooking and eating good food with friends and family for, indeed, there is no love more genuine than the love of food.