It's lunchtime on the last Thursday of 2010, and JoAnn "Jo" Stougaard is holding court at her usual corner table at Jitlada on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, as she has nearly every week since March. But this is a momentous occasion.
Today, Stougaard will eat her 148th, 149th and 150th dishes from among the restaurant's about 300 mostly southern Thai specialties — the halfway point toward her goal of working her way through the entire menu, curry by curry, pad see ew by pad Thai, miang khun shrimp by yala tiger prawn.
"I'm tying my hair back to get ready," she says, getting down to business. She pulls out her trusty Leica D-Lux 4 camera, which she has used to document via Flickr every Jitlada dish she has eaten, and takes a photo of the plate in front of her — deep-fried soft-shell crab in a dry curry with pumpkin. "OK, let's eat."
Stougaard, an infectiously perky 46-year-old with a white-bright smile, doesn't have to ask before a server brings to the table her preferred beverage — Singha beer. When she wants an extra glass of water, she dashes to the waiters' station and pours it herself. And when customers walk in but the harried staff is too busy to notice, Stougaard will get up, seat them at a table and start recommending dishes.
In a city of peripatetic pop-ups and food trucks and guest chefs, when the allegiances of distracted patrons are divvied between the newest supper club, the latest iteration of bacon-wrapped you-name-it or the next Foursquare badge, Stougaard is a regular's regular. She might be the ultimate diner.
This isn't the first time her infatuation with a restaurant has compelled her to eat every single dish on the menu. It took her a month and a half to get through the opening menu at José Andrés' Bazaar at the Beverly Hills SLS Hotel. "I stopped counting after the 20th time I went there," she says. (She's not exaggerating.)
Her zeal didn't go unnoticed. "So much enthusiasm, so much passion for the food," Andrés says of Stougaard. Dining "is her vocation almost."
Her eating and photo-documenting the hundreds of items at Jitlada — renowned for specialties such as rice salad "in the style of Songkhla province" and curries with catfish and sator beans or beef and pickled cassia buds — is less a Lucullian stunt than an extension of her obsession with food.
She blogs about food at her website, My Last Bite, and has been taking pictures of what she eats since 1982 (back then with an Instamatic and 110 film). Stougaard tweets gastronomic news throughout the day from her home in Studio City — a 900-square-foot cottage with a swimming pool, recording studio, tiki hut and Bedouin-style tent in the backyard that she shares with her husband, Peter, who is a former studio executive, and four dogs.
Her tchotchke-packed kitchen is a window to her fervor. Over the door hangs the sign, "La Cuisine de la Jo Jo," and the shelves are stacked with hundreds of cookbooks, her collection of Easy-Bake Ovens and a couple of cans of haggis of dubious vintage. There are orange clogs à la Mario Batali on the wall, photos of Stougaard with chef-lebrities such as Anthony Bourdain, and a smattering of pig paraphernalia — a pig timer, pig bowls, pig cutting boards. "I was born on the island of pork," she explains, referring to Okinawa, Japan, whose cuisine puts an emphasis on the pig.
By 6 a.m. every day, she has perched herself on her pink-upholstered, retro Steelcase chair in front of her 27-inch computer screen, monitoring the online food world via TweetDeck and Google Reader (she subscribes to 206 food blogs).
Stougaard, previously a nature photographer's assistant who now focuses on her passion for food, has more than 30,000 Twitter followers, gaining more at a clip of about 100 a day. "That's more than [the band] Rush!" Stougaard notes. "It still blows me away. I don't want to let people down. There's pressure to tweet good food."
Meanwhile, My Last Bite soon will be a mobile phone app — a guide to her favorite restaurants. Stougaard is working with a developer to roll it out by summer.
She's also writing a memoir, "The Key to Red Meat." She says the decade she spent at an orphanage in Covina were "the dark years." Not just because she grew up without her parents — the unfortunate fallout of a divorce between her mom, who ran a hostess club in Okinawa, and her father, a musician now living in Scotland — but because she remembers with a shudder the S.E. Rykoff truck that regularly would pull up to the Masonic Home at Covina to deliver food. The memoir's title is a reference to a childhood incident in which she and her sister lost the key to a can of Spam and went hungry. She still loves Spam.
Now Stougaard calls Jitlada her remote office and chef Suthiporn "Tui" Sungkamee and his sister Sarintip "Jazz" Singsanong her second family. "It's not just the food that keeps me coming back," Stougaard says.
"We have to get you a pillow and a blanket," Sungkamee tells Stougaard.
"Jo has her own style," adds Panumas "Joe" Sungkamee, another sibling who works at the restaurant and is usually the waiter who serves Stougaard at lunch. "She's so friendly and always makes everyone feel comfortable. She knows a lot about food, and she really likes spicy."
It might not be a coincidence that Stougaard — a fan of chiles such as habanero and Bhut Jolokia — started the Jitlada Project shortly after Tui put his "Dynamite Spicy Challenge" on the menu. His warning: "If you do not eat spicy food, do not order this!" Your choice of meat comes blanketed in a thick sludge of chile sauce that packs more your-ears-will-ring heat than Tui's famously spicy kang neua khii-lek, a lip-numbing beef curry. (A tip: In case of emergency, ask for a beverage called sala, a milky, pink-tinged drink that takes the edge off the burn.)
"I trained by eating whole habanero chiles every day," says Stougaard, who has had several iterations of the dish — with beef, pork, tofu, seafood (mussels, scallops and squid) and soft-shell crab. Once in a while she orders by saying, "Tell Tui to hurt me!"
The Jitlada menu marathon wasn't something she planned, Stougaard says. "I just kept coming back. A friend asked me, 'Jitlada for lunch again?' And I said, 'I'm going to finish the menu here.' That was it.… There was no strategy. I just came in and started ordering. I didn't care if it took me months or years."
Now it seems everyone wants in on the party. Freelance writer and LAist lifestyle editor Julie Wolfson has eaten lunch with Stougaard about 20 times. "Occasionally it's a small group, but more and more lately it turns into an event," Wolfson says. Lunch has been known to last until 6:30 p.m.
Tables are pushed together to accommodate friends and friends of friends, including on one December day Jean-Jacques Rachou, chef-owner of the erstwhile French restaurant La Côte Basque in New York, and Joseph Mahon, former chef of Bastide in West Hollywood. Stougaard, who arrives at the restaurant armed with a list of dishes she wants to order, has shared Tui's "dynamite" with chef Akasha Richmond and the green mussel curry with chef Ludo Lefebvre.
It's not always easy work. The kaeng phuung plaa kung sap — a spicy, funky, fish kidney curry — was "just gross," says Stougaard. "I had to go to the bathroom and scrape off my tongue."
But there is little on the menu that she doesn't love. And because she has been inundated by requests for recommendations, she has compiled Flickr photo lists of 10 dishes for beginners and her top 25 favorites (thus far). "I'm spreading the love," she says.
Last week Stougaard passed her 160th dish. Only 140 more to go.