On the Red Couch with Lucky Peach Co-Founder Peter Meehan
Shona Sanzgiri / May 18, 2016
Think writing about food is easy? It’s one thing to say something’s tasty; quite another to put what’s on your plate in the proper context. And yet every few months that’s what Peter Meehan and the crew do at Lucky Peach, a quarterly food magazine that explores what we eat in a way that’s fresh, fascinating and endlessly fun.
Formerly the “$25 and Under” columnist for The New York Times, Meehan logged long hours wandering around New York City’s five boroughs in search of cheap, mouthwatering meals. Besides commenting on the menu, his reviews also skewered bizarre trends bubbling in the food world, like waiting in long lines for a slice of pizza or lecturing elderly men about how they take their coffee.
Soon after leaving the Times, Meehan linked up with Chef David Chang, the founder of NYC’s Momofuku and something of a cult icon in his own rite. Opinionated and punk rock, the duo wanted to create a food magazine with a distinct voice and sense of irreverence. In 2011, they launched the first issue of Lucky Peach, which is now on Flipboard.
You had some unrelated jobs before working in food—you were a receptionist and a publicist. Is that a fair representation of your professional trajectory?
[Laughs] Yes, and in between working as a receptionist and publicist, I fixed computers. It was probably the most money I’d ever made. I worked for a guy who only ate fast food and watched Star Wars all the time. After putting on 30 pounds, I relinquished my role.
How did you go from fixing computers to becoming a food critic at The New York Times?
I got the opportunity to work for Mark Bittman. But I came in at the bottom level. He didn’t trust or know me. I was a production assistant on his show and worked my ass off. I started writing stuff and working on projects for him. It was at this point in my life where I was practically calling Bittman “dad,” that’s how close our relationship was. I earned his trust through diligence and hard work.
Eric Asimov had created the “$25 and Under” column at the Times and had been writing it for at least 13 years. When he was transitioning from that to becoming their wine critic, there was a hunt for a new candidate. And this was, like, 15 minutes from [the rise of] food blogs.
Mark [Bittman] told the woman who was editing the Style section that I was a good candidate, and she told the editors from the Dining section, who got in touch. They asked me to do a writing test and review a restaurant they had [already] written about. Then I heard nothing for three months.
I’d worked hard on this review about a restaurant which featured the cuisine of the Goto Islands, these fucking obscure islands in Japan that have a flying fish dashi, which is the hallmark of their cuisine. In seven days I learned all about that and turned in a review. For seven days all I did was work on this 700-word article. It would have been a pretty crazy thing for a college dropout with no professional trajectory to land a gig like that.
One day Mark and I were talking and I said, “Yeah, you can tell those assholes at the Times to at least pay me back for those meals I ate,” and he said, “Oh, no, no, they’re gonna hire you, I don’t know why they haven’t called you yet.”
And literally the next day the editors from the section took me to lunch and asked, “So what’s your first column going to be about?”
So there’s no good lesson or information in that story. [Laughs]
I think writing about food is hard to do. You can very easily sound overwrought or indulgent or too service-oriented. Was it hard for you to discuss food in a way that still honored your passion and appealed to a broad audience?
[Long pause] I think for me it was less about my feelings than it was…OK, so I just read a new interview with Gordon Lish in the Paris Review, and he talks about how as an editor, he could just tell in his bones when something was wrong or right.
Writing about food is of course different from reviewing a restaurant, but if you want to know if a place is good or worth recommending, it’s not hard for me to tell you. But I don’t just tell people, “This is a good restaurant, you should go there.” I tell people, “This is a good restaurant, you should go there at these times and order this, do this, do not do this, etc.”
Maybe it’s a New Yorker thing, but I can be bossy and decisive like that. The great education I got was learning how to contextualize things so that I wasn’t just an opinionated asshole saying stuff, but that I was respecting the fact that, for example, the women who opened the restaurant that I first reviewed came from this specific area which I knew nothing about, and that I had to ask them and bring knowledge so that I could be sensitive to what they were doing, and give people who were going to eat there some context into why things were the way they were.
I never found it hard, though. I always found it fascinating and wonderful, and I—and anyone with $20 and a MetroCard—had the license to go and eat and learn. That’s the joy of eating—you don’t know everything.
Was eating a pretext to learning about new cultures?
I am an Irish, slightly Italian-Catholic kid from suburban Chicago, so I grew up devoid of all culture. Moving to New York was a big immersion into things other than myself. When I got into food, I was also living above a used bookstore and so I really steeped myself in books about food and wine. It was sad. I should have learned to dance or something.
Then it was about going to find that food was the impetus to learn about culture. If I went to eat delicious Indonesian food for a column, then I had to learn what it was and why it was and who was eating it and where they were bringing it from. Even if it didn’t end up in the copy, I needed that information.
Do you think that Lucky Peach, then, provides context or helps us to understand why we eat what we eat?
I hope. It’s hard to say what the thing you work for does. I think that it’s certainly something we do, which is considering food as a product of culture and giving people a hand mirror while they’re eating. That’s where the discussion of food becomes interesting.
Being Indian-American, I think about how, as a kid, I would order chicken tikka masala at Indian restaurants, which would make my dad roll his eyes. Learning about its history—that it was invented to appease the tame palate of the British in India—changed my relationship with the dish. On one hand, it’s delicious. On the other, it symbolizes oppression.
Right. And I’m just as curious about things like that as I’m curious about the other five dishes you should order at an Indian restaurant besides chicken tikka masala. Or what it says about a restaurant that has chicken tikka masala on the menu.
You could also jump to the conclusion and say, “Well, it’s an Indian restaurant that has chicken tikka masala, which is not authentic, so I don’t want to go there.” And it misconstrues everything about the economic factors restauranteurs face. It’s why I would try and figure out why that was there, how those things came together, why that’s an enduring situation for restaurateurs. The answers to those questions is where the rubber hits the road for me. That’s why I’m more interested in the context more so than what’s now or next.
Do you think this hunt for authenticity is uniquely American?
I think this need to find authenticity presents itself in different phases of people’s lives. There’s one interest that’s a defensive pose which says that your interpretation of my tradition is not accurate because you’re not of my tradition.
There is a seeker’s truth, too. Andy Ricker of Pok Pok went to Thailand and had his mind blown. He wants to bring the truest things that he can find there to America because that’s the truth he found in this world, and the deeper he can go into the rabbit hole the more meaningful his cooking is to him.
Then you look at Night + Market’s Kris Yembanroong, who is Thai, and is more comfortable walking away from those traditions and instead embraces the hodge podge. Authenticity is like a German word with a hundred meanings: it can be pejorative, you can use it to praise something, etc. Trying to define where we’re at in that particular conversation itself is what excites me.
How does Lucky Peach differ today than when it started?
A lot. It was launched with a fair amount of pith and vinegar, and I wanted to do a lot of things that weren’t being done in magazines. We started the first issue with a 25-page obscenity-laden travelogue that I’d written with David [Chang] about going to Japan. Over time we got a lot of those things out of our system. Then it became, “Can we do a lot of the things normal magazines do, but in our own way?”
Oftentimes those things are very hard to do, like a compelling front of book, the first 25 pages you flip through on the toilet. Getting that right is much harder than expected. The things Chang and I always talk about is trying to aim on the center of the target and always landing left of center. We used to publish recipes as a document of what chefs were doing and certain aspects of cooking, but after five years I now have two kids and think having useful, accessible, cookable recipes is a noble thing. We already did years of things you can’t cook.
There’s a little more of a shift. The mission is the same: to make a really distinct food magazine with a voice and personality.
How do you as a father and person who runs a food magazine find new restaurants? To what extent does your personal or professional life determine what you eat?
A lot. The people I interact with are the greatest conduits of information to me. That said, I’m very lucky to be friends with [Pulitzer Prize-winning LA Times food critic] Jonathan Gold and eat with him regularly whenever I’m in L.A. Besides the people I work with and my family, the person with whom I’ve spent the most recreational time would be Jonathan. It’s a constant education and socratic dialogue between us.
What do you think you’ve learned from him?
I wrote about just meeting him for the first time in our fourth issue. He and I and Robert Sietsema went to Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City. I didn’t like the barbeque and said so in some unpoetic way, and Jonathan scolded me, all of which I wrote about verbatim in the piece. It was a good reminder that assessing food in its context is a responsibility that you have when you’re a person who talks about it and takes it seriously.
Beyond that, it’s just curiosity and enthusiasm that he brings to eating, even after covering it for three decades. It’s a challenge to stay engaged.
You appear in “City of Gold,” the documentary about Jonathan. What’d you think?
I won’t review my own performance, but I love [the movie] to death. It’s a wonderful movie and exactly replicates the feeling of going around with Jonathan. It’s a beautiful look at Los Angeles as a city, which tends to get portrayed sometimes as 90210, but there’s a bigger, better city beyond the manicured gardens and West Hollywood.
Jonathan seems like the last of a certain type. I know he’s technically a critic, but he’s so much more. He’s a cultural icon.
Well, I don’t know, I think there might be a lot of those people. There’s [Anthony] Bourdain, who was the first person to say an Ecuadorian porter is working harder than everyone else in a restaurant. Or Yotam Ottolenghi writing wonderfully about Middle Eastern food, or Fuchsia Dunlop, whose writing about Chinese cuisine is the best in the English language and perhaps better than anything in Chinese. I don’t think there’s a dearth of people.
There is, however, more dumb shit written about food every minute, which is part of the enthusiasm. Being someone who got into food before it was a cool thing to be into, I don’t think this is a bad thing because of the connection food builds between people, as well as an awareness of the environment. You’re giving people a reason to care about that, about other cultures, and the planet itself.