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Francis Lam Holds Foodies Rapt as He Leads a Conversation About Orange County's Food Scene

Updated: Feb 9

South Coast Repertory hosts a live taping of American Public Media’s ‘The Splendid Table’ with LAist.


Francis Lam, Brenda Castillo and Daniel Castillo
Francis Lam, left, talks to Brenda and Daniel Castillo of San Juan Capistrano's Heritage Barbecue during a live taping of "The Splendid Table" at South Coast Repertory Sunday. Photo courtesy of James Van Evers for LAist
 

Remember this scene in “When Harry Met Sally”? A date-night couple discussed whether restaurants were the new theater. Written as a joke, today it seems prescient.


Open Instagram and a million new food photos pop up. TikTok recipe videos gone viral threaten to deplete your grocery store of popular ingredients. Chef-testants on national competition shows keep getting younger: A few years back, Delilah Flores of Anaheim Hills was just 14 when she and her uncle Daniel won the first season ever of “Top Chef Family Style.” 


So, just how far is America’s obsession with food culture going? 


Multiple James Beard award-winning journalist Francis Lam has had his gimlet eye fixed on this topic for years. Since 2018 he’s hosted “The Splendid Table,” a national radio program that airs Sunday nights on LAist (KPCC 89.3 FM), in partnership with American Public Media. 


He brought a live, sold-out taping of the show to South Coast Repertory on Sunday with local food celebs Daniel and Brenda Castillo of Heritage Barbecue, Kenneth Nguyen, host of The Vietnamese Podcast, Patricia Huang, general manager of 626 Night Market, and Gustavo Arellano, Los Angeles Times columnist and author of "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America."


Food was served to attendees of Sunday’s live taping of “The Splendid Table” at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. PHOTO 1: Small bites prepared by Heritage Barbecue. PHOTO 2: Pho tacos. PHOTO 3: Food by sponsor Sweetgreen. Photos by Anne Valdespino, Culture OC

 

Lam, a smartacus with a laidback interviewing style, has a resume that stretches out like the credits in a “Star Wars” sequel: judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters”; vice president and editor-in-chief at Clarkson Potter, which specializes in cookbook publishing; bylines in top publications such as Bon Appetít, Food & Wine, Saveur, Salon, Men’s Journal and the Financial Times.


Francis Lam speaks at the beginning of the live taping of "The Splendid Table" Sunday at South Coast Repertory. Photo courtesy of James Van Evers for LAist
 

He graduated at the top of his class from the Culinary Institute of America and holds a bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies and Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. So how could Culture OC pass up the chance to listen in on the conversation? 


The dish ranged wildly, from iconic oldie La Palma Chicken Pie Shop to how the Vietnamese community forever changed Orange County’s taste buds.


Francis Lam speaks to Gustavo Arellano, right, of the L.A. Times at "The Splendid Table" taping at SCR in Costa Mesa. Photo courtesy of James Van Evers for LAist
 

Lam asked Arellano to recap our local food history and he quickly ran through a lively lesson that began with Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant to now-shuttered Michelin-starred restaurant Taco Maria. Along the way Arellano offered his sassy opinions from how In-N-Out Burger is overrated (audience gasps) to how Memphis Cafe started it all (applause).


Francis Lam, left, speaks to Brenda and Daniel Castillo of Heritage Barbecue during "The Splendid Table" taping in Costa Mesa. Photo courtesy of James Van Evers for LAist
 

There was a smoking hot discussion of how the Castillos brought Texas barbecue to Orange County after they got raided by the health department for cooking in offset smokers in their backyard. They’re now a resource for pitmasters across the country for having pioneered the cooking method in California.


Then Nguyen and Huang (who are not from Orange County) stepped onstage to tell the story of starting 626 Night Market. The popular nighttime extravaganza started an OC iteration at the OC Fair & Event Center in 2014, which will return May 31-June 2, June 7-9 and Sept. 6-8.

Francis Lam listens to Patricia Huang, center, and Kenneth Nguyen during "The Splendid Table" taping Sunday at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa. Photo courtesy of James Van Evers for LAist
 

Nguyen compared the sea of 350 vendors with makeshift kitchens to a war zone. Huang said it’s some of the best Asian food you’ll ever eat.


We were fortunate to get a few minutes alone with Lam for a Q&A. Here are his insights.


ANNE VALDESPINO: We’ve got a million restaurant photos on Instagram, Nick Cage starring in a film as a chef with a kidnapped truffle pig, and now “The Bear,” a TV show so foodie-driven that the chocolate cake gets its own character arc. How far is the obsession with food culture in America going to go? 


Well, I'm not a futurist, so I can't tell you how far it's gonna go. But I do think from what I have seen, over the past 20 years or so, is this really interesting dynamic. And as you've just described it, food has really moved closer and closer to the center of American pop culture. It's something that's really fascinating because it just wasn't there before. 


When I was growing up, I always loved food, and I felt like a little bit of a weird kid. I wouldn't talk to other kids about what I ate that weekend or what I wanted to go eat, or the Indian restaurant my parents took me to. It wasn't a thing that I would talk about. 


AV: But that changed.


Yeah. There are definitely milestones along the way … When food was first on television, the first person I know of who was a cook on American TV was Lena Richard, an African American woman chef in New Orleans. And James Beard and, of course, Julia Child, who kind of broke it open in a new way. All of a sudden food was entertainment on TV. 


AV: And what she did was groundbreaking. 


Certainly groundbreaking. But then, it's not like a cool food person thing to look to now, but the Food Network really had a massive impact on that. I remember again, from being that kid who would never have said to my friends, “Oh, let's go out to dinner.”  Like it's a thing to do in high school. I remember sitting there watching folks like Emeril (Lagasse) and Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger cooking on TV and just feeling like, wow, I don't know why, but I can spend hours doing this. 


AV: So that caught your eye. 


Yeah. And turns out millions of others felt the same.


AV: Stanley Tucci, Eva Longoria and a host of celebs are starring in food series. Everyone’s looking for the next Tony Bourdain. Was he a one-of-a-kind Mozart, Robert Parker type or is the next one out there?


I'm sure there is somewhere. So it's hard to say what Tony did in one sentence, but certainly what “Kitchen Confidential” did – which is the first thing that really put him on the pop culture map – was solidify the idea of the chef. The figure of the chef as this cool American icon …. All of a sudden, Tony's book really changed the whole perception of that profession. 

 

AV: Last year O.C. had two chefs in the James Beard semifinals, this year none. We dropped off Yelp’s national Top 100 list. There’s no food critic at The Orange County Register, our paper of record right now. Do you think that’s hurting us?

 

I can't say I know enough about the media landscape here to really speak on that. But I would say anytime you have a place with fewer media resources devoted to talking about the unique characteristics and characters and pleasures of a food scene, the worse off everyone gets. I do think it's important that there is media coverage beyond individual people posting about it on social media, blogging about it. It's important that there are prominent voices who can spur conversation … there isn't that catalyst for conversation, disagreement, argument. “Oh my God, you think that place is good? This other place is doing the same thing and 20 times better.” That’s all for the good when you're talking about a food scene. 


AV: What about New York versus California? It seems like California's stealing some of New York's thunder in the restaurant world. 


I don't see them in competition with each other … I'll just say there are so many things I find absolutely incredible about food in California … I was at dinner the other night and we're eating. I'm like, “Oh God, the vegetables are so good.” And I had a slice of pie from Fat + Flour, and I just looked up to (a dinner companion) and said “I'm sorry, the fruit here is just better.” 


Francis Lam speaks during a live taping of "The Splendid Table" Sunday at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa. Photo courtesy of James Van Evers for LAist
 

AV: What else impresses you?


Southern California, New York City, all of America certainly, the stories of these places are formed by the many different immigrant cultures. Immigrants who have been here for generations. There’s certainly a different mix of what those communities are and what they bring with them, but also there's a different kind of commingling that's happened here in California.


AV: How is it different?


I'm the child of Chinese immigrants, I'm always really interested in the story of California food. For instance, when I was growing up, I didn't know Chinese people who were, say my parents' generation, who were not immigrants themselves. And they have a particular outlook on the world. And then when I came to California, if a person was an adult and I started talking to people who looked like me or looked like my parents they spoke with a totally different accent. Like no discernible Chinese in their accent. 


I was amazed by that. They're like third- or fourth-generation Americans. And so it really snapped into focus for me that it's a totally different story here. The Chinese American community here is both a recent immigrant community and again, three, four generations of family. 


AV: There’s a richness there.


It is a richness. And it's just the way that the culture has seeped into the groundwork.


AV: That brings up another question. I interviewed author Rick Martinez, when "Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture from My Kitchen in Mexicocame out. (Lam said he will be the editor on Martinez’s next book.) Martinez said the publishers kept telling him they wanted it to be “authentic.” Martinez responded that it's hard to grapple with that word. If you go to Mexico, each family makes the same dish, but a little bit differently. What’s your take? 


The notion of authenticity is really funny because again, if you say this is really just like the food you get in Mexico, OK, cool. But where in Mexico and not just which state or which town, but which village and then which home? Because you're demanding when something has to be authentic, that it can't vary from cook to cook. And also to what time is it authentic? Is this how this dish is served in 2024 or in 1782, or 1655? 


I get what people mean by it, and I get why people want it. They want to go into a restaurant that's down the block from them and feel like, boy, this is just like walking into a restaurant in Venice or Tokyo. But the fact is, if we start demanding that of restaurants … what we're saying is an immigrant chef's highest calling is to be like a photocopier. Whereas, some other chef can be creative.


AV: Finally, where are you going to eat while you’re in O.C.?


I want to go to Heritage Barbecue for sure. I just had a really delicious brunch at Alta Baja Market in Santa Ana with super delicious savory corn pancakes and an amazing, beautiful Cafe de Olla. I don't know where else I’ll go, but there will be more places. Thankfully, you’re getting so much good food here. 

 


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