A food writer reflects on a childhood in the San Gabriel Valley
I became a fan of Genevieve Ko a few years ago when I received a copy of her 2016 baking masterwork, “Better Baking,” as a holiday gift.
I learned many important lessons from that book — the value of investing in a good rimmed baking sheet, for one — and return often to its simple yet profound premise, which is rooted in the idea that minimally processed ingredients, used intelligently, can deepen the flavor of something as familiar as a peanut butter cookie, and make you long for a chocolate sheet cake made using, of all things, creamy sweet potatoes.
Before joining L.A. Times Food as cooking editor nearly two years ago, Genevieve worked as an editor at Martha Stewart Living and Gourmet, among other publications, and has co-authored several well-known cookbooks, including George Mendes’ “My Portugal,” Carla Hall’s “Soul Food” and multiple titles with French American chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
I met Genevieve for the first time in December of 2018 — I remember the exact date because it was my first day on the job and I felt both thrilled and extremely nervous when I bumped into her in the wilds of the The Times’ El Segundo parking lot. I don’t remember exactly what pleasantries were exchanged, but I remember feeling grateful for Genevieve’s warmth and lack of pretension.
A Monterey Park native raised on dim sum and chile relleno burritos from La Azteca Tortilleria, Genevieve will soon join the New York Times Food section and NYT Cooking as a senior editor.
We are sad to see you go, Genevieve, but grateful for the time we had together.
Genevieve generously made time this week to talk to me about growing up in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1990s; how she got her start in food writing; and how Los Angeles has shaped the way she thinks about food and cooking.
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This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What was it like growing up in Monterey Park?
It still wasn’t very developed then. I remember clearly riding my bike alongside tumbleweeds on the road. The hills surrounding us were empty then.
I always loved and appreciated the amazing Chinese food I got to eat in Monterey Park and Alhambra, and the great Mexican food in East L.A. because my parents worked in Montebello. I never had a bad taco growing up.
My dad was involved in City Council meetings so I sometimes went with him. At the time, tensions were high. A lot of the old guard of the city were angry about all the newcomers.
Can you tell me about your parents?
They both came to the U.S. for college [from Hong Kong] in the ‘60s and met at Berkeley. (My mom had family in the U.S. and Canada who had already immigrated.)
They moved down to L.A. in ‘70. My dad ended up getting his MBA from USC and my parents ended up going into real estate development because my dad is an architect. In his heart, he was always an artist, and we would often go to LACMA and Venice to see art.
My parents have been very open about telling us: “Hey, we could have lived in another suburb, but we didn’t want you to grow up in a place where you felt like the other, or felt ashamed of your heritage.”
How did you get into food writing?
I always wanted to be a writer. As a kid, I loved poetry. I loved Emily Dickinson.
I tried a bunch of other career options. One summer, I interned with a movie director. He said one of the best things I did was lunch. He said: “You make a really good sandwich.”
I always found myself gravitating to the kitchen.
After college, I went to a book signing of [cookbook author] Mark Bittman in downtown New Haven.
I went up to him afterward and told him I was thinking of becoming a food writer. I told him I grew up in Monterey Park, in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California.
He immediately understood the value in that because he was starting a cookbook covering international cuisines, and I had expressed my interest in this sort of panoply of all these cuisines, having grown up in L.A.
I basically started moonlighting as his research assistant while still working my full-time job.
I only share this part because there are so many young people who ask, “How can you make a living as a food writer?” Sometimes you’re keeping a paying job or you’re cobbling together freelance work.
What has been your experience working closely with prominent chefs to put together a cookbook?
I’ve learned so much and made great friends in the process. These chefs are generous with their food, their lives and with their knowledge. They have a natural spirit of hospitality, so they feed you well and they welcome you.
You’ve also been an editor at magazines like Martha Stewart Living and Gourmet.
It was such a good learning experience. Working at Martha Stewart was a big turning point for me in terms of thinking about the visual aspect of recipes and food stories. I loved working with talented photographers, designers and stylists.
At Gourmet, Ruth Reichl let me write a feature on the San Gabriel Valley. Being able to tell that story from my perspective was really special. It’s even more important to me now: It was a snapshot in time because a lot of those places don’t exist anymore. It was significant to be able to document that era.
Do you remember some of the restaurants that were in the story?
Monterey Park Palace off the corner of New and Garvey, which had the most amazing char siu and soy sauce chicken. We used to get Styrofoam boxes of those and their roast duck, cut up.
For Lucas’ SGV episode of “Off Menu,” I took him to Huge Tree Pastry. I really admire Lilian Liu, who now runs it with her parents. She kills it there. She effortlessly moves between English and flawless Mandarin, Cantonese and, I believe, other dialects.
How do you think growing up in L.A. has shaped the way you think about food and cooking?
I’ve lived as many years on the East Coast as I have in L.A. But there is always this internal core or sensibility of being an Angeleno through and through. I think it informs my work in a way of understanding food and culture from the perspectives of other people and other cultures and not just my own.
Roy Choi is an obvious example, but he’s not the only one. There’s a whole generation of chefs who grew up here. You absorb this city and all these other cultures through the food in the city.
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Coming soon: The L.A. Times Food Bowl Cook-a-thon
The Los Angeles Times Food Bowl is sponsoring an online Cook-a-thon fundraiser benefitting World Central Kitchen on Saturday, Oct 17. The event, which will be livestreamed starting at 5:30 p.m., via The Times’ YouTube channel and Facebook page, will feature 30 chefs and special guests from around the world.
It will include cooking demonstrations, kitchen tours, recipe tips and conversations from an all-star roster of local and international culinary talent, plus celebrity appearances from actors Danny Trejo, Jack Black, Jamie Lee Curtis and Eric Wareheim, among others.
Guests will include Alice Waters, Ana Roš, Dominique Crenn, Éric Ripert, Ferran Adrià, Fuchsia Dunlop, José Andrés, Josh Niland and Lamar Moore. Participating L.A. chefs and restaurateurs include Daniele Uditi (Pizzana), Dave Beran (Dialogue and Pasjoli), Greg Dulan (Dulan’s), John Cleveland and Roni Cleveland (Post & Beam), Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (Jon & Vinny’s), Jonathan Whitener (All Day Baby), Ludo Lefebvre (Petit Trois), Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger (Socalo and Border Grill), Nick Montgomery (Konbi), Steve Samson (Rossoblu) and Wes Avila.
To register for this free event, please go to eventbrite.com
Have a question for the critics?
— My co-critic Bill Addison on why Tamales Elena y Antojitos is L.A.'s most vital new Mexican restaurant.
— Lucas Kwan Peterson has a question: Is Kewpie the world’s best mayonnaise?
— Garrett Snyder on the trio of L.A. winemakers harvesting historic grapes at San Gabriel Mission.
— I suggest bookmarking Ben Mims’ nostalgia-proof taste test of top mayonnaise brands for future reference.
— Finally, for your weekend baking consideration, Genevieve Ko’s thick and chewy chocolate chunk cookies. Have a great weekend, everyone.
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