SAN FRANCISCO — Soleil Ho is here, and she doesn’t want anyone to know it. But the San Francisco Chronicle’s new restaurant critic could pass for younger than her 31 years, so when a server asks her for ID after she orders a cocktail, she winces imperceptibly. She’s not truly anonymous — after years of posting photos on social media, never expecting to get a job as a critic, that ship has sailed — but she doesn’t want special treatment. She’s armed with fake names and new credit cards. But getting carded is “the one thing you cannot bulls---, because it is illegal,” she said.
The server studies it and mouths the words “Ho, Soleil,” and her date of birth, but there’s no recognition in her eyes.
Soleil Ho is here, and everyone knows it. It’s the week her long-awaited first reviews will be published, and there is intense speculation on Eater and SFist about how she will approach the varied restaurants of the Bay Area, where she moved in January after accepting this job, replacing a predecessor who had held the job since she was “not even a fetus,” she says.
And that’s why, the day before, Ho was lingering in a hallway, bracing herself to enter a room at the Chronicle building downtown, where readers, chefs and publicists were armed with questions for a Q&A.
“Should I go in there?” she asked her editor, Paolo Lucchesi. She’s nervous, but once the questions began, you would never have known it.
What did she do before she got this job? She worked as a freelance writer, podcaster and chef in Minneapolis; Portland, Ore.; New Orleans and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. What parts of the Bay Area’s food scene have intrigued her the most? The immigrant-owned restaurants in Fremont, she said, plus, “The Pacifica Taco Bell has been a highlight.” Will she continue podcasting for the Chronicle now that her popular podcast, “The Racist Sandwich,” which explored issues of culinary appropriation and representation, is on hiatus? Yes, and she’s starting a newsletter, too — called “Bite Curious,” a wink at her queer identity. Her least favorite food? Green bell peppers.
How will she approach the job? By writing about restaurants that tell a story — one that might touch on race, gender, class or the culture of the Bay Area. By following a strict ethical code, even though her appearance won’t be a secret. By eliminating the star system in favor of a more nuanced analysis.
“Wait,” asked publicist and restaurant owner Jen Pelka, from the audience. “You’re saying you’re not doing stars?”
The room broke into a round of applause, as if to say, we’re so glad Soleil Ho is here.
The first wave of modern food criticism included white critics who reviewed prestige restaurants for prestige publications, such as the New York Times' Craig Claiborne. French chefs were idolized. Formal dining was the standard.
The second wave brought writers and such personalities as Jonathan Gold, Anthony Bourdain, Tyler Cowen and Ruth Reichl: (Mostly) still male, still white; but for people who looked like them, they were the gateway to foods from other cultures. They wrote about immigrant foods with deference and sensitivity, and importantly, with specificity, distinguishing between regional customs and flavors, and incorporating history, culture and politics into their assessments. But for those cuisines, they were still outsiders.
You might say that the third wave is Ho. Raised in New York by her Vietnamese family, Ho is a third-culture kid who grew up eating her grandparents’ Vietnamese food as well as the takeout that her mother, a buyer for fashion brands, would order for her and her sister. “I still, to this day, know the number for McDonald’s delivery,” she said. In an essay for Bitch magazine, she wrote of how she longed for the simplicity of Bagel Bites over “brothy, weirdly fishy” Vietnamese dishes, in part because of kids who made fun of her food.
After graduating from Iowa’s Grinnell College in 2009, when jobs were scarce, Ho entered the food industry, working at an organic farm, and then at restaurants across the country, where she acquired a disdain for critics. Her mother left New York to open a restaurant in Puerto Vallarta, and Ho followed, doing freelance writing and podcasts in the mornings, and a kitchen shift in the afternoons and nights. Before that, she worked as an executive chef at a restaurant in Portland, where she said she experienced the toxic side of the industry: The owners, she alleges, made racist and harassing statements, “Like, ‘ching chong.’ . . . That was also the time I was doing Racist Sandwich. That frustration fueled a lot of that work.”
Having traversed both sides, she’s uniquely positioned to tackle some of the most pressing issues in the food world, some of which were themes in her first reviews: What’s the difference between appreciation and appropriation? What’s the true cost of food and the labor to produce it? How do we make the restaurant industry more equitable, more accessible, more just?
Addressing those issues via criticism will be a seismic shift for the Bay Area. While food has always been political here, there were long complaints that the former critic, Michael Bauer, was ethically compromised, and favored splashy prestige dining over immigrant cuisine. Ho was hired as his replacement after Bill Addison and Patricia Escárcega were announced as replacements for the late Gold at the Los Angeles Times, and Tejal Rao was named California restaurant critic for the New York Times. Collectively, their voices are shifting the center of gravity for America’s culinary media westward.
“There’s this wonderful cosmic timing that’s worked out,” said Rao, who is friends with Ho. “We’re both establishing authority in these new cities and these new roles. We’re both millennial women of color. . . . We’re rooting for each other.”
Ho lives near Golden Gate Park in the Richmond District, where dim sum restaurants and coffee shops are interspersed with Russian restaurants.
Her apartment has still-unpacked boxes of cookbooks — “Jerusalem,” “Vegan Soul Kitchen,” “On Eating Insects” — and little art on the walls yet, save for one remnant from Ho’s past as chef: She competed in Ment’or, a young chef competition in 2014. A plaque features a photo of her throwing a peace sign next to Thomas Keller.
“So many things have happened since then,” Ho said. “Thomas Keller and Roland Passot, they are both judges in this competition, and now I will have written reviews of [two] of their restaurants.”
One of Ho’s first reviews is of La Calenda, Keller’s Mexican restaurant. It’s exactly the type of place that longtime readers of Ho would expect her to skewer, because Keller is not Mexican. But the review subverted readers’ expectations; its headline called the restaurant “cultural appropriation done right.”
“There’s this misconception that because of the work I did at Racist Sandwich . . . that I am the PC police,” she said. Publishing five reviews simultaneously was a strategy.
“People are going to pick apart everything, so the idea is give them a whole lot of s--- to pick apart,” she said. Rather than putting all the weight on one restaurant, “it’s almost a snapshot about what I’ve been thinking of.”
Eliminating stars is another way she’s changing things up at the Chronicle. Because Ho will be reviewing everything from tortas to molecular gastronomy, she wrote, “I believe imposing a star rating system that purports to put all of those things along the same spectrum would do a disservice to all of them.”
As Lucchesi, her editor, put it: “She’s fresh eyes, so she has the ability and the opportunity to look at these conventions that have been in place for decades. She’s not going to have to do something because it’s been done.”
Soleil Ho is here, and not everyone is happy about it. The backlash to her first reviews began shortly after they were published, when people latched onto her criticism of Chez Panisse. She wrote that the famed restaurant was “listless” and that it “has pushed the culinary conversation in this country forward, but then seems to have stood still since then.”
When Chez Panisse founder and chef Alice Waters read the review, “my friends called to say, ‘I hope you’re not worried about that,’ ” Waters said. “I knew, certainly, the old writer, who’s a good friend of mine.”
She took to heart Ho’s critique of the way dishes were plated — “I am not one to shy away from criticism” — but said she was surprised by the review’s theme.
“I think it wasn’t fair to say that a restaurant that has a philosophy of food that’s important is maybe getting old and tired,” Waters said. “That can never get old and tired. Supporting people who are taking care of the land is the most important thing we can do on this planet right now.”
Chefs such as Benu’s Corey Lee and food writer Mimi Sheraton, previously the first female food critic for the New York Times, bristled at Ho’s initial writing.
“So far, new SFChronicle food critic, Soleil Ho, is too full of herself,” tweeted Sheraton. “Should stop explaining what she stands for and just start reporting and critiquing.”
Ho expected this.
“The things that I say, and the things that black women, even more so, say in an online space, get blown up even more into this aggro tone that we don’t have,” Ho said. “People will misread it, whether intentionally or because they’re trained to look for hostility where there has been none.”
When Ho walks into a restaurant, she always has a member of her party scout out whether the bathrooms are gender-neutral. She also considers accessibility for people with disabilities and the availability of plant-based dishes on the menu.
“The bathrooms are so neutral, I didn’t even know where I was,” shouts Ho’s 26-year-old sister, visiting from Phoenix, over the din of a wine bar. The Post agreed not to use her sister’s name, because Ho uses it to make reservations for herself.
Maybe all of Ho’s life has been a dance between cultures, identities and names.
“I never thought the name fit me. It’s a little too cute,” Ho says. “I don’t feel like a Soleil [pronounced so-lay]. My Vietnamese name is Vy, and that’s what most of my family calls me.”
That includes her husband, Chris Farstad (Ho identifies as queer and, when pressed, refers to herself as “pansexual.”). He joins her for most meals — “It’s free dinner,” he shrugs — and is still getting used to her new ethical framework.
Before another evening’s review dinner, when Ho and Farstad arrive at a restaurant, she asks Farstad to request a table on her behalf. But he’s confused: “Can you level with me about why I’m doing this?” he asks. She discreetly explains that it will help her avoid detection.
“He’s still getting the hang of this,” she says, as he goes back to the host. Early on, when he met her at the restaurant Angler, he asked the host if there was a reservation under her real name.
In the days before her first reviews were published, there were other firsts. She experienced a food critic rite of passage — a mild case of food poisoning. It wasn’t the dairy — “Kryptonite for Asian people,” she quipped — but something else. She won’t be going back to that wine bar anytime soon.
Ho might have taken a night off when she was a freelancer, but now, she eats for a living. So, at 5:30 p.m., on a drizzly San Francisco evening, a Lyft is taking her through the Presidio, and as soon as the Golden Gate appears, she smiles and claps.
“I’m still kind of like a cheesy tourist, I get excited about that stuff,” she says. It isn’t long before the car pulls up to another restaurant, and she’s here.