Written by Amelia Keleher (SFYN USA Communications Team)
Soleil Ho is a powerful storyteller whose work pushes readers, listeners, and eaters to reflect and ask important questions about food, race, class, and gender. Soleil is the founder of Racist Sandwich, a podcast that discusses why it is that how we consume, create, and interpret food is often political. Soleil is the former host of BitchMedia’s Popaganda, a feminist pop culture podcast. She also recently launched the Extra Spicy podcast, which explores topics such as the definition of “American Food,” “Drama at the Dinner Table,” and restaurant life in general. Soleil has lived and worked in a variety of places, including Minneapolis; Portland, Oregon.; New Orleans; and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
In 2018, Soleil was awarded the Southern Foodways Alliance Smith Symposium Fellowship and a UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship, which allowed her to pursue her passion for food writing. In 2019, Soleil became the Restaurant Critic for The San Francisco Chronicle.
What initially drew you to food and food writing?
“I guess it was something I just kind of fell into. It wasn’t really my plan. I was always really interested in food media — restaurant reviews, for instance. So when I graduated from Grinnell College into the recession in 2009, I had limited options for jobs. I went into farming for a while, then started working in kitchens. I also interned with a local food publication in Minneapolis, where I lived at the time. And things just kind of started from there. They let me do some writing and, you know, I guess it just kept happening.
What led you to pursue a position as a food critic?
Well, the food critics that I knew about at the time were not very interesting. Largely, they were of a very particular social class and a very particular demographic. But I never thought that becoming one would be a way to reverse the things that I saw as problematic in that particular field. But then, this opportunity came up, and it was really exciting to speculate as to who would get the job. And it ended up being just luck, really. I didn’t expect to get a callback. And I threw my name in the hat just because it seemed like it could be an interesting thing to do.
What has that experience been like so far?
I think that providing this kind of service to people in the Bay Area, and even beyond the Bay Area, has been really fulfilling in a way that I did not expect. As a consumer of publications and media, I always had my own concerns of what was being represented. I didn’t want to just read about the same things over and over again. But I’m also very aware of how expectations and funding inform each other. A restaurant, restaurateur, or chef that gets a lot of press is probably more likely to get credit or loans or business investments to pursue their own concepts. And the more ambitious the concept, the more they’re going to be called by the press. So having that kind of power, and really championing people that I think have had a hard time getting publicity before, is really great.
What messages do you seek to convey through your work?
In general, using food to talk about these bigger issues — about social hierarchy, power, labor, and capitalism. And I think that making that clear is a way to kind of educate and give people the vocabulary to ask those questions and really expect more from society. And from the media. Expect different stories, more rigorous stories. And more rigorous questions.
How have you challenged what people view as a ‘restaurant’?
I’ve done reviews of trucks and of pop-ups and written about people who just cook food at home and sell it. I think talking about how people do that — not because they necessarily want to or prefer it, but because they don’t have access to the traditional means of funding — is important. So if you’re blocking them out of coverage, you are actually ignoring an already underserved demographic. The people who do pop-ups or these lower infrastructure type projects are people who are generally immigrants, a lot of women, a lot of undocumented people.
How has your approach to storytelling changed over time?
It’s been, gosh, more than a decade since I graduated college. So I hope that I’ve gotten better at actually doing my job, but it’s always evolving. I’ve certainly received my fair share of complications in what I thought I knew. When I graduated from college, my politics was [sic] not the same. I had a lot to learn about inclusivity and talking about people who weren’t like me. But I think that in general, by moving towards a more complicated way of talking about food and society, I’ve learned a lot. For me that’s really important. And it’s also really important to be open to being corrected, because I’m not the only one thinking about all of this stuff.
Is food writing getting better at encompassing these nuances in the food system, or are you still unique in doing that?
I think it is. I mean, there are certainly a lot of people I’d define as being in my cohort who are doing their best to change things. I don’t think it’s going to be changed until people like me actually gain power [laughs] and executive-level kind of positions. But at the same time, I think the conversation has moved forward, at least since I started paying attention.
What do you most enjoy and what do you find most frustrating about your work?
I really enjoy just reading and interpreting the restaurants, just like you’d interpret a book. For me that’s the most exciting part. The hard part is working at an industry newspaper, because you have to deal with a lot of [internal] politics, and it’s a lot broader than what you’d experience on a more self-selected publication like Eater, for instance. People are very vocal about whatever they read in the newspaper, so you get a lot of feedback. And that can be really challenging. There needs to be a much deeper conversation about what we’re asking of people and what economic systems we see as possible.
What role can restaurants play in creating a more just and equitable food system?
I think restaurants as a model are inherently incompatible [because] they are generally a vehicle for capitalism. They have to make money in order to function. And I just think that with the Coronavirus pandemic and all of the demands being placed on our social infrastructure, you’re seeing restaurants fail because when you take the xmoney-making part out of it, they just collapse. They’re beholden to landlords, labor laws, and the pressures of hiring folks who are undocumented and providing for them and making sure they’re okay. There are many intricate reasons why the structure exists in this way, but once you hit it on the forehead, it completely collapses.
There needs to be a much deeper conversation about what we’re asking of people and what economic systems we see as possible.
In the same way, when you think about sustainability and climate change, if restaurants had no monetary motivation to serve imported beef for instance, or Italian truffles, or meat, like full stop, then they would actually be able to make a substantial dent in climate change. But they all know that they would lose tons of business if they stopped doing those things. So I think restaurants won’t be able to lead anything until there is a much deeper conversation about what we’re asking of people and what economic systems we see as possible.
Where do you see our food system headed?
Realistically, things can change, but slowly. But at the same time, food could change a lot faster with policy measures. Doing things like determining the subsidies that farmers get and improving the Farm Bill can change a lot. That sort of stuff can have a real impact, even if it’s not very sexy or compatible with food media.
Who are some food writers that you enjoy?
Gosh, there are so many. Osayi Endolyn is really great, and I’m really excited for her new book, which will be about food writing and race. I really appreciate everything she does and everything she writes. Toni Tipton-Martin, of course, and Korsha Wilson. And Mikki Kendall, who’s this great Chicago-based writer, she’s written a lot about appropriation and food. Cynthia Greenlee is wonderful. And Jonathan Nunn and Alicia Kennedy are both really interesting and great, too. Like these are all really incredibly smart people, who have taken a lot of time to educate all of us about stuff that I certainly care about.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
For more on and from Soleil Ho:
- “I’m San Francisco Chronicle Food Critic Soleil Ho and This Is How I Eat” By Claire Lower
- “Soleil Ho Is Revolutionizing Food Criticism, With No Taste for Outdated Conventions” By Mattie Kahn
- “Soleil Ho is a young, queer woman of color who wants to redefine food criticism” By Maura Judkis
- Chronicle Critic Dissects Problematic SF Restaurant Celebrating Colonialism By Caleb Pershan
- How Food Media Fails BIPOC “… it’s still mostly white people” By Leah Bhaba
- Soleil Ho talks about her relationship with food, race, heritage, class and culture (and about her tattoos!)
Soleil’s writing appears in:
- The San Francisco Chronicle
- Women on Food By Charlotte Druckman
- MEAL: Adventures in Entomophagy Written by Soleil Ho, Drawn by Blue Delliquanti
- The Best American Food Writing 2019 Edited by Samin Nosrat