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Food

Q&A:: Get to know Bill Addison, one of The Times’ new restaurant critics

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New L.A. Times restaurant critic Bill Addison’s previous job as a national restaurant critic took him all around, including to Detroit (pictured) and many times to Los Angeles.
(Jordana Rothman)

Bill Addison is one of two restaurant critics who recently joined the Los Angeles Times. (Patricia Escárcega is the other, and you can read a Q&A with her here.) Addison was most recently the national critic at Eater, a job that last year saw him traveling around the country for 34 weeks, eating 600 restaurant meals in three dozen cities. He previously reviewed restaurants for Atlanta magazine, the Dallas Morning News and the San Francisco Chronicle. Addison’s first review for The Times lands today at 5:30 a.m. on latimes.com/food and will be in Saturday’s paper.

You moved here in November. What was the first restaurant you tried after arriving?

P.Y.T. I’d been to a lot of other Josef Centeno restaurants but not to that one, and I wanted some next-level vegetables to kick the sense of place right into gear.

What about the L.A. dining scene excites you?

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The most commonly cited plus to L.A.’s dining scene is its endless breadth. Certainly that’s the case, but also I am amazed at the very singular type of creativity I see in restaurants here. It is as if chefs are working in Venn diagrams from their own heritage and interests and emotions. You can trace so many cuisines and inspirations and unparalleled ingredients, and in the center of the diagram are the dishes that they put on the menus.

Eating out as much as you must, do you worry about restaurant fatigue?

I probably eat out an average of 15 restaurant meals a week. And there’s such a vast array of options, particularly here, that there’s not even a possibility of getting bored. If I’m tired of eating tasting menus, great, I’m going to go power through some Oaxacan restaurants. If I’ve had plenty of Mexican food lately, I’m driving to the OC for Middle Eastern and Vietnamese.

Q&A: Get to know Patricia Escárcega, new restaurant critic for the L.A. Times »

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Do you cook?

I was on the road so much that I haven’t had a home in almost two years. I can’t wait to have a kitchen again. What I’m probably most excited about is making desserts with all the exceptional California fruit. I’ll make blood orange caramel ice cream and try the 56 varieties of peaches come summertime.

You were a pastry chef in your 20s. Why did you leave behind a career working in restaurants for a career writing about restaurants?

The honest, ugly truth is money. It got to a point in my late 20s where I wondered if I’d ever be able to make the kind of living I’d hoped to make for myself working in restaurants. I was cooking in Atlanta at the end of that stretch of my career and I had always been a strong writer, so I just decided to transition into business writing. I did that for about three years, but I missed food and a daily sense of creativity so much that I decided to put them together when I turned 30.

What was the best meal you’ve ever had?

I have no one set answer to that question — if you ask me every day, I’ll come up with a different answer. Today I will say that my restaurant critic’s answer is a meal at Noma in Copenhagen circa 2012 that blew open my mind to possibilities for restaurants that I hadn’t experienced before.

On a more personal level, I’d say an enormous spread of Lebanese dishes at Al Ameer in Dearborn, Mich., that I enjoyed with cookbook author Anissa Helou at a difficult time in my life personally. It reminded me that one of the reasons I love food so much is the community and the communion it engenders.

Review: Fiona showcases pie queen Nicole Rucker’s baking talents, and so much more »

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How did your childhood inform your thinking about food?

I was very lucky to have parents who could afford to take my younger brother and I occasionally to fancy restaurants in Baltimore. We had four very different personalities, but we all got along best when we were sitting around a table sharing a nice meal. I wanted to re-create those experiences over and over again in my life. My poor parents — by the time I was 8, I wanted all lump crab cakes instead of hot dogs for lunch. Not that that always happened, but they were really aware that they’d created a monster.

Do you have a favorite kind of food?

That’s a hard question for me to answer because the job of a restaurant critic is to be curious about every cuisine on the earth, which I am. But if you asked me my top three right at this moment I would say Lebanese, Cantonese and, because I have a sentimental streak, the cuisines of the American South.

You, like about half of our Food section, have a weird aversion to eggs. Are there other foods you can’t stand?

No, it’s just the hard-boiled eggs. I will eat them if absolutely required for professional purposes, but I would rather skip a meal than eat an egg salad sandwich.

How do you evaluate a restaurant?

The food is always the main thing. There’s an oft-repeated axiom by restaurant critics that I do live by which is I try to judge a restaurant by its own ambitions. I really take pride in trying to understand where a restaurant is coming from in all aspects: in its cooking, in its staffing, in its atmosphere, in its style of service. Even though the cooking is the most important thing, it is in how the entire experience coalesces.

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Your anonymity has been extremely important to you. Why?

I have found that it is so much easier to do my job when I haven’t been made in a restaurant.

I do believe this job can be done exceptionally well without anonymity, Jonathan Gold being of course the primary example.

But I would say that when the jig is up, the jig is up. I’m not going to be one of those critics that does a big dramatic reveal. I’ll just put up a dating-profile-quality pic of myself on Instagram and that’ll be that.

Review: In Boyle Heights, Lebanese dishes with a Oaxacan accent »

How do you intend to remain anonymous in the age of smartphones and social media?

I’m not sure I can. I use the usual tricks: different email accounts, different phone numbers, different names on credit cards. I’ve learned really quickly that I should probably tone down my quest for perfect Instagram photos, something that was much easier to do in my previous job when I was all over the country and you could never really guess where I’d be next.

Any funny stories from your quest to remain undercover?

I tried basic costumes and it didn’t work so well. I walked into a restaurant in Dallas where I knew I was known and I bought a pair of glasses with fake lenses and had grown out a beard. When I approached the host stand, the woman said: “Good evening, Mr. Addison, aren’t those new glasses of yours handsome?”

How do you avoid gaining a ton of weight?

There have been times that I have not avoided packing on the pounds with this job. Currently, I’m doing pretty well in that department. I have learned late in life that I don’t have to clean every plate in front of me and I’m also pretty invested in working out right now.

What kind of workouts?

I lift weights and I run about four miles on the treadmill four times a week. Having moved to Los Angeles, I am thinking hard about finding a trainer.

If you weren’t a restaurant critic, what would you want to be doing?

I would be a spy for the CIA.

Why?

Because one of the first adjectives that people like to use to describe me, I’ve come to understand, is “charming.” But there is a whole lot more to me than Mr. Charming.

You were previously a national critic. What made you decide to settle in one city and how did you choose Los Angeles?

Los Angeles chose me. Right now, after traveling full-time for almost five years, it is amazing to me how little interest I have in hopping on an airplane. I feel like I’ve come to the world in moving to Los Angeles.

andrea.chang@latimes.com

Twitter: @byandreachang

Instagram: @byandreachang


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