How Francis Lam, son of immigrants, became the voice of America’s food culture

How Francis Lam, son of immigrants, became the voice of America’s food culture


Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post

Originally published by The Washington Post

As a young man in Hong Kong, Francis Lam’s beloved grandfather was hard-pressed to support and feed the children he’d left back on the mainland. When his circumstances changed, Lam says, he devoted his life to food: eating it and sharing it with his loved ones.

“My parents used to put me on his bony knee and tell him about my good grades in school,” the cookbook editor and radio host wrote in Gourmet in 2008. “But it was at the table where I most felt his pride, as he watched my small, clumsy hands aiming chopsticks at ... the things he could once only dream of being able to provide. ‘This one,’ he would declare, ‘knows how to eat.’ It sounded like nothing could be more important.”

Lam’s grandfather, who was born in mainland China, died long before Lam started out as a food writer. He did not live to see his “hungriest grandson” turn his appetite into what Lam, with characteristic modesty, calls “a respectable career.”

Respectable and then some. In the past few years, Lam, 41, has moved from journalist to tastemaker, joining those who decide what food issues matter and who will be heard. Lam splits his workweek between his new gig hosting the powerhouse radio show “The Splendid Table” and working as an editor-at-large at Clarkson Potter, the highly regarded cookbook publisher. Lam sees himself primarily as a storyteller.

His literary career began almost by accident. As a student at the Culinary Institute of America in New York’s Hyde Park in 2002 and 2003, Lam wrote lively emails to friends describing his kitchen adventures. Friends passed the messages around. One day, out of the blue, an editor at the Financial Times who had read Lam’s emails called and asked whether he was interested in writing for publication. Yes, he was.

Another stroke of luck and kindness brought his work to the attention of Gourmet Editor Ruth Reichl: In 2004, Lam heard her speak at the Culinary Institute. A fan, he went up to introduce himself. “I was a total moron,” Lam recalls. “The only sound out of my mouth was ‘Ahhhhhhhhhh.’ ” Noticing his Financial Times badge, Reichl rescued him. “They don’t publish junk,” she said. Lam mailed her copies of his stories, one thing led to another, and soon he was freelancing for Gourmet.

In the intervening years, he has been published widely, picking up four James Beard Foundation awards along the way, two of them for a New York Times Magazine column focused on immigrant cooking. At Clarkson Potter, one of the first cookbooks he acquired, Ronni Lundy’s “Victuals,” won top industry honors. Meanwhile, he dabbled in broadcasting, contributing to “The Splendid Table” for years before being named last year to replace founding host Lynne Rossetto Kasper. He also did a two-year stint as a judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters.”

Quite a run for a guy who says his mother was devastated that he didn’t go to business, medical or dental school — and later consoled herself with one of those maternal put-downs offspring never forget: “I guess you were always the artistic type.”

Francis Lam, center left (looking at the food), with his family. (Family photo)

Lam’s parents did support his career choice, but it took a while. “They were worried I would end up destitute,” Lam says. Their concerns were not theoretical. His parents had arrived in New York in the mid-1970s with almost nothing. Settling in New Jersey, they went to work in Chinatown, opening a small garment factory. “For 20 years, they worked 12 hours a day, six days a week … so I wouldn’t have to,” Lam says. Francis and his two younger brothers were expected to honor their parents’ sacrifice with hard work, high achievement and self-restraint.

His mother was usually too busy working to cook when Lam was growing up, so relatives who lived with the family helped. Dinner often consisted of sauteed greens and takeout: Chinese, Italian, Roy Rogers fried chicken. Pizza was a favorite. “I loved Italian food,” Lam recalls. “I wanted to eat what white people ate.” At school, he hid his “stinky lunches” from American friends and tried to cover up the fact that he spoke Cantonese at home.

Like other children of immigrants, Lam had two identities. He was an American kid in love with pop culture, music and football. He was also a Chinese American son with a profound sense of familial obligation. As he matured, his awareness of his parents’ sense of dislocation grew, and he understood that he was both like them and different from them. “I am not an immigrant,” he says. “I am a child of immigrants. I know only the frayed facsimile of the world my parents grew up in.”

At the University of Michigan, where he majored in Asian studies and creative writing, Lam was active politically, identifying with outsiders and people of color. He also continued indulging his curiosity about food. After a postgraduate stint waiting tables (a low point as far as his parents were concerned) and teaching writing to neighborhood kids, he moved back to New York, where he took a nonprofit grant-writing job.

When Lam decided to follow his passion and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in 2002, his parents relaxed because they had heard about a general manager of a restaurant chain who earned $200,000 a year. But not until his first story appeared in the Financial Times did they truly feel at ease about his career. Finally, concrete evidence of high achievement that would lead to financial stability. “Which is hilarious,” Lam says, “because I am a writer.” Lam’s parents framed the Financial Times story; 15 years later, it’s still on their wall.

His big break came in 2007, when Gourmet offered him a contract for regular work — a rare honor in the freelance world. The problem was, he was working part time for a nonprofit in Biloxi, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina. He loved the Gulf Coast and had met his future wife, Christine, a leader in the rebuilding effort. He decided to stay but devote himself to writing. “I understood people wait a lifetime for this kind of opportunity,” he says. “I had to make it count.”

By all accounts, he did. “He is one of the best at showing life through food and cooking,” says John “Doc” Willoughby, editorial director at “America’s Test Kitchen,” who edited Lam at Gourmet. “Francis is genuinely curious about other people’s lives.”

Lam at Yee Li in New York. (Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post)

At Yee Li, a noisy, old-school, bright-light, no-tablecloth Cantonese restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Lam orders favorite foods from his childhood: pork dumplings with scallion; lo mein; roast duck fragrant with camphor; glistening barbecue spare ribs. Lam had eaten these dishes with his parents at a nearby restaurant and kept patronizing it as an adult until the food changed and, heartbroken, he stopped going.

He and his wife returned to New York in 2009. A few years later, wandering around Chinatown, he looked into the window at Yee Li “and recognized a cook and a couple of servers” from his old haunt. “Everything tasted as I remembered,” he says, “but it was better because when you find that special thing and then lose it and find it again, the taste is so much sweeter.”

Lam’s visit to Yee Li epitomizes the culinary world’s interest in “authenticity” — a term Lam hates but sometimes uses — describing efforts to celebrate traditional foods in traditional settings. Lam loves Yee Li, but he is perhaps even more interested in the other end of the spectrum, where younger chefs are exploring traditional cuisines to “re-artisanalize” them.

Among them: Jonathan Wu, a young Chinese American chef who makes oyster sauce and other basic ingredients from scratch to rediscover their essence. Wu’s updated dim sum house, Nom Wah Tu, has a Lower East Side vibe. Most of its young customers are Western; its reimagined small plates, however, reflect Wu’s meticulous study of what he calls “the flavor building blocks of Chinese food.”

Though he doesn’t speak Chinese, and some of his dishes — Szechuan chicken nuggets, “Pickle Rick” garlic cucumbers — have a cross-cultural vibe, what you taste, Lam says, is a different kind of authentic sensibility.

Lam talks with friend and chef Jonathan Wu at Nom Wah Tu in New York. (Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post)

Many of the cookbooks Lam edits at Clarkson Potter reflect his interest in chefs, like Wu, who are rediscovering the essence of often undervalued cuisines. Lam values explorations by authors immersed in their own cultures, but he doesn’t think ethnicity is the most important thing.

“I prefer to focus on the quality of the book,” Lam says. “Does this person have a good reason to write this book? If the author is an outsider, how do they deal with being an outsider? That’s what I care about.”

The first cookbook he acquired was Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman’s “Tacos: Recipes and Provocations.”Stupak isn’t Mexican, but Lam respects his deep knowledge of the country’s cuisine and his sincerity in promoting it, and he defends Stupak’s price point at his New York restaurants, including Empellon. Lam finds it reprehensible that Stupak was slammed in the food press for charging $24 for two seared-scallop tacos, “when exactly the same dish at Jean-Georges costs twice as much.” In a similar vein, he acquired Austin Bush’s “Food of Northern Thailand,” which will be published this year. Bush, who has lived in Thailand and speaks the language, has traveled extensively through the country and “is presenting dishes no one has ever described in English.”

Which is not to say that all Lam’s cookbook authors are white and western. One of his 2017 offerings was “Night + Market,” by Kris Yenbamroong, an American Thai chef based in Los Angeles.

“He cooks Thai food similar to his grandma in Thailand … but, living in Los Angeles, he also makes Thai tacos and Thai fried chicken sandwiches. In this way, he is claiming the totality of his experience as his own.” In 2019, Lam is publishing “The Jemima Code” author Toni Tipton-Martin’s cookbook of African American cuisine, which he describes as “going far beyond the stereotypes of soul food.”

Lam and Lynne Rossetto Kasper, founding host of “The Splendid Table.” (Nate Ryan/American Public Media)

Lam moves easily between high and pop culture, and many of his concerns are generational. As a husband whose wife “works super hard,” being a fully participating father to their 2-year-old daughter matters to him. (“There is no greater joy than watching her eat,” he says.) A number of his cookbook authors, including Chrissy Teigen, are also busy parents of young children.

Lam began following Teigen some years ago when “I noticed this model whose tweets and Instagram photos of cooking dinner were hilarious.” After Teigen married John Legend and became a mother, her interest in food and family deepened. In 2016, mere months before Teigen gave birth, Lam published her book “Cravings,” which turned out to be a huge hit. On Lam’s 2018 list is Teigen’s follow-up book, plus “Eat a Little Better” by chef Sam Kass, who was senior adviser to President Obama for nutrition policy and executive director of the first lady’s “Let’s Move!” program.

Lam prides himself on his sense of humor, even when the joke occasionally hits close to home. Take the warnings his mother finds on the Internet and forwards to Lam and his brothers, cautioning them against the dangers of a swelled head. Lam recently posted some of these on Facebook:

“No one is going to be happy for you.” “All the nice comments you get are just fake.” And most dire: “You are just attracting the evil eye on you and your family.”

As Lam sees it, his mother — a devout Buddhist — “believes in fear as a motivator.”

Lam’s humor and lack of pretense are on display on “The Splendid Table,” as are his crescendoing hehehes and tehehehes. “You’ve gotta love his laugh,” says Kasper, who retired last year as host after two decades.

Managing producer Sally Swift, who convinced both Kasper and Lam that their futures resided in radio, agrees: “He entirely loses himself in his laugh. He is out of control. Helpless. The laughter is a stunning contrast to the way he talks to people, and it is one of his charms. Here’s this deeply thoughtful student of food and culture who is also a kid feeling crazy delight in the absurdity of himself and everything else.”

His temperament — and perhaps his mother’s stringent admonitions — limit any impulses Lam might have to dish unkindly. Asked where he would like to take “The Splendid Table,” for instance, Lam demurs at first, noting that he is new to the host’s chair, still learning “the craft” of broadcasting, and that “a huge audience loves what we are doing.”

Asked what trends in the culinary world he dislikes, he pauses and considers his words carefully: “I have a hard time tolerating people who aren’t serious about what they eat. Who see food as a matter of whim, as in, ‘This week, I am gluten-free, and next week, I am Paleo,’ not for reasons of health or food justice, but just as a game.” Then Lam steps back from his critique, quoting a friend whose words recall Lam’s dual roles as a parent of a child who loves all foods and as a journalist hungry to explore new worlds: “It’s important,” he says, “not to yuck on anybody’s yum.”

Weissman is a freelance journalist who lives in Chevy Chase, Md. She is the author of three books, including ”God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee.”

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