Tejal Rao on food writing, aimless roaming, and the joy of deadlines

The Los Angeles–based critic shares her Covid routine.

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Anthony Burgess could write a novel in four weeks.

Tejal Rao

I can’t remember when I first encountered Tejal Rao’s writing about food, but I know that at a certain point in the last several years her New York Times byline became mandatory reading in my household. Whether it was a beguilingly simple recipe for beans on toast, an ode to barbecue chicken pizza, a visit to the favorite pit stop of California’s Punjabi truck drivers, or a deep dive into Japan’s obsession with Kit Kats, Rao always delivered a compelling look at the stories and the lives behind the food we eat, not to mention their wider cultural reverberations. And when Rao moved from New York to my adopted hometown of Los Angeles a few years ago—becoming the New York Times’s first California restaurant critic—her Instagram feed became one of my go-to sources for finding out about the most delicious things to eat in this extremely delicious city. So I was thrilled when Rao agreed to answer some questions about her current day-to-day seeking out new flavors in LA, writing on deadline (in giant pink sunglasses!), and hanging out with her two very adorable dogs.

Where and with whom are you riding out the pandemic?

I’m on Tongva land in Northeast Los Angeles with my partner and our two dogs. The older dog moved with me from Brooklyn to Cypress Park a few years ago, and the younger dog joined the family in November. It’s funny and chaotic and emotionally satisfying to have two humans and two animals in one little house. 

I relish in all their little dramas, and it’s been particularly fun to observe the existing dynamics shift between the three of us in unexpected ways when the new dog joined. It’s just an endless source of joy and entertainment for me, and now I’m thinking, hmm, maybe I need a third dog? (I really, really don’t.)

What are you working on these days?

I’m writing stories for the food desk at the New York Times, a mix of criticism and reporting, and writing a column once a month for the New York Times Magazine. It’s been a privilege to keep my job throughout the pandemic, and to do it mostly from home, where I have my own work space with room for my books.

What does your typical day look like right now? Is this a big departure from your pre-Covid routine?

There’s never been much structure to my days, other than they used to consistently end up in dining rooms, in restaurants, and now they definitely don’t. I haven’t eaten in a restaurant since March of 2020, I haven’t gone to a bar—my last meal was the boiled fish at Sichuan Impression, which I shared with my brother, and it was perfect.

Now I wake up early, when the new dog starts growling and whining for affection. She sounds like a drunk Chewbacca, telling a sad story at the end of a big night to the last person who’s still awake. It’s hideous but also very charming and that’s my alarm clock, going off at precisely 7 o’clock.

I get up and boil black tea with ginger and mint, and I take the dogs out for at least an hour so they can sniff and run and wrestle and generally get super gross with other dogs. It was always the best time of the day, but I’m much more aware of how good it is now that I’m not being social in any other ways. From there, I might drive off to pick up some food, to check in on a particular street or neighborhood, to visit a farmer’s market.

When I started at the Times, my boss Sam Sifton told me, “If you’re at your desk, you’re not doing your job,” and it’s true. So much of my writing process happens when I’m not writing, when I’m away from my laptop—following a tip, talking to people, reading two seemingly unrelated stories, or just driving around. I’m not in other people’s spaces as much, reporting by their side in the kitchen, for example, but roaming around (both really strategically and completely aimlessly) is still really valuable to me. I’d say half the time, if you called me up, I’d be in my car, either pulled over and eating some food, or on my way to pick up some food. All the rhythms of my day tend to revolve around that.

Do you normally have any rituals or superstitions that you rely on for getting your work done?

I love rituals and superstitions and lucky charms of all kinds, but I don’t attach any to my work. I’m really practical when it comes to writing. There’s no magic, there’s no secret, there’s no blood pact. I just get to work because the work has to get done, and that’s that. I can’t let down my team—the editors, the research desk, the recipe testers, the stylists, the photographers—it’s just not an option. 

I do have a pair of giant pink sunglasses that I wear when I need to really concentrate at my laptop, I find it helps with the blue light, but I’d still sit down and work if I couldn’t find them. When I’m procrastinating, which of course I do, I try and do it somewhat productively, meaning I tend to over-report my stories, interview more people, read old books, just go on a number of unnecessary side quests. I rely on that, in a way, all of that research and reporting and meandering. But unfortunately, I can do a lot of that and still have no story if I don’t have a deadline.

So I love deadlines and I need deadlines—they indicate to me when it’s time to wrap it up and really get down to figuring out what I want to say, filing the story to my editor and moving on to start the next piece. You can’t be too precious with weekly newspaper writing, and you can’t be too slow, and I appreciate that.

I’m curious how your relationship to food and cooking has changed over the course of the pandemic. I know a lot of people initially enjoyed taking on new cooking or baking projects but have now reached the point of pretty much never wanting to cook for themselves again. What’s it been like for you?

It’s been fine. I’m a cook. I mean, I was a restaurant cook, and now I’m a home cook, so cooking more at home was an easy thing for me to adapt to. I do miss cooking for other people, outside of my home, you know cooking the kinds of things that are big and celebratory that I wouldn’t make just for myself?

But the truth is that I’m still eating restaurant food much more than I’m cooking at home, for work, and because I want to keep going to restaurants as much as possible (I’m just limiting it to takeaway).

My food shopping has changed more than anything else—I get a produce box twice a month from a farm, County Line Harvest, and very occasionally, a chicken from Marin Sun Farms. I’ve always cared about where the food I buy comes from, but during the pandemic I started cooking much less meat, and that’s not going to change.

What have you been doing to relax and recharge?

Gardening, plant-shopping, lurking on California native garden forums, ogling over new seed catalogs. Any chance I get, I go outside and mess about in the garden—weeding, raking, digging, pruning. The soil was so dry and hard to dig because it was under concrete for about 40 years, so it needed a lot of work just to get things in the soil, but I like the whole process and it always helps me unwind. A few things I planted are juuuust starting to bloom right now—verbena, borage, sweet peas, basil.

Finally, have you read, watched, or listened to anything amazing lately that you can recommend?

Podcasts: Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s reporting for Reply All on Bon Appetit (I’m two episodes in) and Foxy Browns whenever I need to just breathe and laugh. I listen to a lot of Desert Island Discs, the oldest episodes I can find, and new ones too. And You Must Remember This, the Polly Platt special in particular, but all of it really, is so deeply reported and so beautifully presented—I love how it’s reoriented me to the ideas of celebrity and so much of the media I consumed around it growing up.

TV shows: I adored the French show Call My Agent, and the Korean show Uncanny Counter, which I just finished. It’s about these guys who work in a noodle shop and chase evil spirits on the side! Lupin was occasionally quite silly but so slick and fun, I was utterly charmed by it.

Books: I read Harold McGee’s Nose Dive the second it came out, and keep dipping back into it. I’m reading every word of Melissa Weller’s A Good Bake and I’m about half-way through Nikesh Shukla’s new memoir, Brown Baby. Koa Beck’s White Feminism is a must read, about the history of racism tangled up with feminist movements. And I read A Burning, by Megha Majumdar, months ago, but the characters are so vivid that they’re still on my mind.

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