It's a bountiful life: A cook who writes books
Mar./Apr. 2014 California Bountiful magazine
Interview by Megan Alpers
Photo by Ringo Chiu
...and newspaper articles, recipes, food blogs and more
Onetime sportswriter Russ Parsons shifted his attention to the food world about three decades ago and today is a cookbook author, recipient of multiple culinary awards and food editor of the nation's fourth-largest newspaper.
Tell us about your daily experience as food editor of the Los Angeles Times.
Every day is different; even every hour is different. Sometimes I'm working on creating recipes; sometimes on writing columns. Or I might be working with the test kitchen, talking about cooking or making videos. I spend a lot of time editing other people's recipes and writing. And these days, at least half of my time is spent online—working on our website, food blog and social media channels.
What makes a restaurant special?
If I had to sum it up, it would be a place that offers something that I can't get at home—either really creative food, great technique, wonderful wine list or just perfect service.
Describe an interesting food trend.
Beyond a doubt, the most important food trend in the last 30 years—for both cooks and farmers—has been the development of the farmers market. They're not perfect for every farmer, but they offer another opportunity for small growers. And for cooks, they've opened up supermarket produce departments to offering fruits and vegetables that are not in the mainstream.
What advice would you give an aspiring food writer?
Read as much as you can; write as much as you can; eat as much as you can; cook as much as you can. And pay close attention to all four.
Was it always your career goal to be a food editor?
Ha! I was a sportswriter for 10 years, in New Mexico and West Texas. I wrote about popular music for a while. I covered cops and courts. I didn't start writing about food until about 1982 or 1983. That was when it became my dream to be the food editor of a newspaper like the Los Angeles Times. I came here as a deputy editor in 1991 and have been food editor, off and on, since 1999.
What is the most interesting aspect of your job?
Probably the most interesting aspect of my job is the way the food world keeps changing. Just when you think you understand what's going on, something comes out of left field that totally catches you by surprise. That and keeping up with all of the new technology as it becomes available. Quite a challenge for a guy who started working on newspapers when there was hot type!
Where do you get your inspiration for The California Cook column?
Initially, I hated the title California Cook, but my editor loved it. When I asked what it meant, she said, "You're in California, you cook, you're the California Cook." Oddly enough, that has been pretty much my modus operandi. I cook and I write about the things that are interesting to me at the time. Could be agriculture, could be fishing, could be cooking or writing. I try to keep my ideas very place- and time-specific, linked to what I'm seeing in the markets right now. What I'm thinking about right now. And I like to think of myself as a high-ratio recipe writer … if I call for a step that's 10 percent more involved, I want there to be at least a 25 percent payoff in terms of the finished dish.
Who is one person (chef, farmer, or celebrity) you've been dying to interview, but haven't had a chance to meet yet?
I've been really fortunate over the last 25 years to have known so many wonderful food people—pretty much everyone I have wanted to. There were some folks who were working at the beginning of my career that I never got a chance to talk to and would have loved to: James Beard, of course, Richard Olney, Roy Andries de Groot and Helen Evans Brown.
How far have you traveled for a story?
I spent a week at a restaurant in Italy once, very early farm-to-table. Of course they didn't call it that. They called it shopping.
What is one thing you've learned about farming in California that you wish more people knew?
There are so many things. That's part of the reason I wrote the book "How to Pick a Peach"—to try to explain to people how farming and the produce industry really work. I get so crazy reading what people write sometimes. I think there is a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic structure of farming.
What is your favorite meal to cook at home?
When you develop recipes for a living, you're constantly having to come up with new things. But there are a few that I do serve over and over for friends. One is what I immodestly called "The Ultimate Tri-Tip" (and it kinda is). Another is a lemon curd tart that is just so good. And, of course, dry-brined turkey!
What is your favorite California-grown crop, and why?
It's funny, but probably artichokes … they're just so weird (and delicious). Artichokes were the subject of one of the first ag stories I wrote. I did a long piece on the history of artichoke farming in California. I talked to farmers and they kept saying the usual things about the perfect climate in Castroville, etc., but I had visited artichoke fields in other countries that had very different weather. I figured there had to be more to it than that.
This was in the very early days of the Internet and I found on the University of California library website a reference to a thesis that had been written on the artichoke industry in the 1940s by a student of agricultural location theory. But I could never find the paper. Then on the last day I was in Castroville doing research, I had an extra hour and stopped in at the public library and asked if I could go through their ephemera collection. There, in a beat-up old manila envelope, was the thesis.
Turns out the history of artichokes in the area was linked to one of the last land grant inheritors who thought artichokes would be a good replacement for the sugar beets after that market had crashed. So he fronted some San Francisco farmers seeds, equipment and even housing. That's how it started—and it hasn't moved much since.
Follow Russ Parsons' food adventures
Follow Russ Parsons' food adventures as The California Cook in the Los Angeles Times' food section, available at www.latimes.com/food.