The editor of The Washington Post's Wonkblog tells why DC is a great food town and why processed food deserves respect.
You went to El Bulli the year before it closed. Did it live up to the hype?
To say "El Bulli was incredible" is a horrible foodie cliché. They get you very drunk before they bring any food, which is brilliant—like getting drunk before going to a comedy club. But beyond that, I've never been anywhere where people have worked so hard to delight you.
Is there any restaurant you’re eyeing for a food pilgrimage now?
I’m not a very big fan of tasting menus and very fussy stuff. I like trying to find a truly great hamburger or roast chicken or slice of pizza.
Where have you had a really amazing everyday dish?
Big Star in Chicago. They have a queso fundido, and if I could, I would eat that every day until I die—which would probably be like 10 days. It’s a very luxurious baked cheese-and-chorizo dish.
Where do you wish you could eat more often?
DC's Little Serow is one of the best places in the country right now. It's just amazing. The problem is I can't physically handle a seven-course northern Thai meal three times a week.
Is it true that DC is too conservative to ever become a great food town?
DC today has vastly more great restaurants than a reasonable human being could ever try. At this point, if you only eat on 14th Street at Le Diplomate, and then say, "I wish I were in a better food city," it's on you.
What's a policy failure in the restaurant world?
I think tipping is a terrible policy. It's bad for waiters, it's bad for diners; there's no connection to quality of service. The evidence is overwhelming.
When scientists unveiled a synthetic burger earlier this year, you asked several chefs on TV whether they’d use lab-grown beef and they said no. Would you be happy to order one?
Yes. I try to limit my meat consumption and be humane about it but I struggle, so I say this with more guilt than sanctimony. Between the animal welfare gains and the environmental gains, lab-grown meat is something that we should be hoping works out. If you had reasonably textured, reasonably flavored lab meat and it was quietly introduced into McDonald’s burgers, I don’t think people would notice.
You've written some interesting defenses of processed food. Do you think people are too quick to dismiss it?
I think there is an oddly-drawn line between declassé processed foods and haute processed foods. Restaurants like Momofuku and El Bulli serve highly processed foods, but a lot of the foodies who would think it's gross to go to McDonald's would say, "oh yeah, absolutely Momofuku's terrific." I like David Chang's ecumenical explanations of what he likes in food, because if you don't think McDonald's is delicious, you are the problem. I know a lot of people who get into food and all of a sudden they're shittin' on a Big Mac. McDonald's has spent billions of dollars figuring out how to make a Big Mac taste good. They have succeeded.
What about the health angle?
There's not really a health argument for one or the other. We've spent a lot more time testing what McDonald's does to people than what David Chang's remarkable but quite new creations do to anybody.