The San Francisco Bay Area is home to a whole slew of famous restaurants, food companies and food varieties, such as the Mission burrito. So it’s no wonder cuisine plays a large part in the Bay Area’s culture. From Fisherman’s Wharf to roaming gourmet food trucks, the city is truly a delight for local and visiting foodies alike. And who better to talk local eats with than a bona fide San Franciscan?
Meet Carolyn Jung, a former food writer/editor for the San Jose Mercury News who currently contributes to local publications such as San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco magazine. Her work also appears in national and international magazines, including Gourmet Magazine, Food Arts, Coastal Living and Wine Spectator. An award-winning food and wine journalist, Jung has received accolades from the prestigious James Beard Foundation, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors. Since 2008, she’s been musing about food and wine on her blog, FoodGal.com, and in December 2013, she published her first cookbook, San Francisco Chef’s Table.
In our interview, Jung talks about how she discovered her love of food writing, what inspired her to create her first cookbook, and her tried-and-true tricks for cookie baking success.
TriMark R.W. Smith: As an award-winning food journalist, how did you realize your love of food writing?
Carolyn Jung: I always tell people that I was born in San Francisco to parents of Chinese heritage, so an appreciation of good food just runs in my blood naturally. I was the type of kid who baked every weekend – after finishing my homework, of course. When my best friend and I were teenagers and young adults, we didn’t give each other “normal’’ birthday and Christmas presents. Instead, we saved our money and took each other to Chez Panisse. That being said, I never envisioned being a food writer. Not at all. Most of my career was spent as a newspaper journalist, covering everything from plane crashes to trials to endless city council meetings. When I was covering race and demographics issues for the San Jose Mercury News, the food editor went on maternity leave, then decided not to return to the paper. Her job was posted on the bulletin board. I saw it, and thought about it for a brief second. But it was really my friends at the paper, who’d put up with me talking incessantly over the years about favorite restaurants and dishes I’d cooked over the weekend, who encouraged me to apply for what they deemed my “dream job.’’ Turned out they knew far better than I did. I applied for the job – the best career decision I ever made. I feel incredibly lucky to have turned what was a passion or hobby into my profession.
RWS: Over at the trendy food and wine blog, FoodGal.com, you write about new restaurants, irresistible recipes and celebrated chefs. What was it like for you to witness the site’s rise in popularity?
CJ: Do you remember the scene in the movie, “Julie & Julia,’’ in which Julie, played by Amy Adams, checks her blog a few days after launching it, then screams with excitement when she gets something like three comments from people she did not know? I think every blogger gets that rush in the beginning. You put a piece of yourself out there in the blogosphere, much like throwing a needle into a haystack, and wonder if anyone will ever find you or ever read you. Certainly, it takes time, persistence and dedication. It’s been gratifying to see the site grow. What really amazed me are the wonderful relationships that have resulted. I have regular readers who have been following me since I was a food writer at the Mercury News. I have readers from as far away as Australia. And I have really sweet friendships with people I have never met in person or talked to over the phone. I know them only from the comments they leave on my blog or emails they send. One is a woman in Wisconsin who discovered me online and now sends me the most poignant emails about her family, her love of baking and the cheesecake bakery she once had.
RWS: Before publishing San Francisco Chef’s Table, you spent many years as a newspaper journalist. What inspired you to compile your own book of recipes and chef stories?
CJ: Actually, it all just fell into my lap – or my inbox, more specifically. Lyons Press, which publishes this series of “Chef’s Table’’ cookbooks around the country, emailed me out of the blue one day, asking if I’d like to write the San Francisco Bay Area book. While the publisher already had done a “Charleston Chef’s Table,’’ a “New Orleans Chef’s Table,’’ and a “Santa Barbara Chef’s Table,’’ surprisingly there was not one focused on the Bay Area yet. I was thrilled to take it on. But I nearly had a heart attack when the publisher gave me only three months to complete it. It was definitely a challenge to get it all done. I think my head was spinning at times. But fortunately, I already knew the Bay Area food scene well, and had interviewed many of its best chefs in the past for my blog or for newspaper and magazine stories I had written. So, getting access to them or convincing them to participate in the book was easy.
RWS: As a native San Franciscan, you’ve sampled menus from all around the Bay Area. Where’s your favorite place to eat about town?
CJ: That varies depending upon my mood or what I’m craving. Certainly, I have a soft spot for the French Laundry, not only because I’ve enjoyed dishes there that just left me rapt, but because my husband proposed to me in the parking lot there. I love Incanto because Chris Cosentino is fearless in what he puts on the plate. Matthew Accarrino just amazes me with his creative take on Italian food at SPQR – all made in a teeny-tiny kitchen. State Bird Provisions is just plain fun. And what I wouldn’t give to live next-door to B. Patisserie so I could start every day with one of its impossibly light, flaky and uber-buttery kouign amann pastries.
RWS: You’re a self-proclaimed sucker for a well-made cookie. So tell us: what’s your secret ingredient for making a truly delicious cookie?
CJ: Great dark chocolate. Some nuts for good crunch. Patience to chill the dough before baking. Attention to detail. And the desire to put a smile on your own face – and on others – with something truly decadent that’s just the perfect size.
More from TriMark R.W. Smith