Jean Teng reflects on a year of eating and writing about food.
It’s been a year of eating like I never have before. I started my job at Metro on 12 November 2018. In the months since I’ve gained weight, I’ve met new people, I’ve nearly thrown up as a result of my own gluttony many times (and one time actually did, in the bushes of an undisclosed location).
I used to get the shakes before filing anything about food. Being a judge for Restaurant of the Year (ROTY) made me feel like I was clumsily walking around in adult shoes. I remember dining at Clooney for ROTY with a friend, also aboutmy age, and feeling small, sunk down into the plush seats as a French-accented waiter waved his hands around talking about an aged sauvignon blanc. Our food director had sent me because he knew the owner, Tony Stewart, would recognise and dote upon him. Tony served one of the courses and didn’t return to my table. A few months ago, I attended a dinner on short-notice at Harbour Society in baggy jeans and a $15 top I bought from ASOS, where PR assumed the guest I brought with me was me. Boy, oh, boy. I learned the term “imposter syndrome” and listened to a lot of podcasts about it.
My bedside table piled up with books about food; my night-time reading was Hannah Goldfield’s restaurant reviews in The New York Times. Dining out fell into work and not-work categories, the former of which requires a completely different headspace and a liberal use of my iPhone’s notes app (While we were planning dinner one time, a friend told me they were looking forward to seeing a food critic ‘doing their thing’. The truth is, I hate talking about food out loud in the midst of eating – saying you think a dish is bad makes everyone at the table resent you. I’ve gotten pretty good at lying).
Stereotypical assumptions about high-brow Western food writing had me concerned people would call me out for not knowing all that much about wine, or cheese, or French cooking techniques (I’m learning!) even though my strengths lie in other areas. In any case, I knew pretty much immediately I didn’t aspire to become the sort of food writer who alienated readers by showing off exactly how much they know, in the most overwrought prose possible. Food writing is not about mulling over the technicalities of a dish, it’s about making your experience of the dish tangible for whoever is reading it. Informed but fun. As the year went on, and my inbox filled with more press releases for cookie-cutter food news and cookie-cutter openings, all the gaps mainstream food media – and Metro – misses were thrown into sharp relief It made me believe I’m in the right place to do some good, at least for now. Lots of restaurants in Auckland don’t have enough cultural literacy to navigate this world - to be able to code-switch well enough to wiggle their way onto our radar. That is, they don't speak English, or they don't understand how to brand themselves in a way that's appealing to the people who consume 'taste-making' media in Auckland, so they fly under the radar. There were a few things I told myself near the beginning: accessibility is important, not being a complete dick about people’s livelihoods is important, and avoiding the use of ‘unctuous’ is important. I’m very proud to say the word unctuous has never been typed from this keyboard, until now.
I love the food scene in Auckland. In fact, the food scene has gotten so bloated that keeping up with it is starting to become hard – and expensive. I love that I can get a bibimbap down the road, and eat a $60 steak from the place on the other side, if I want. Coffee has been getting better and better. I love how there are so many places for me to revisit my childhood, but also to eat something I’ve only ever seen in the movies (I have yet to eat ratatouille, though – that’s been a bit disappointing). I love that so many people are into food as much as I am, constantly rhapsodising about their newest discoveries on social media. Seeing which trends have come in and out has been interesting - we’ve finally got natural wine bars, generically-Asian baos seem to be leaving menus (hallelujah!), and Instagram should be a restaurant’s best friend. Fine dining has become looser; simple, confident cooking is cool; and we’re all eating ramen.
On the other hand, there are some things that should change in 2020. None of our Top 50 lists include places serving Pasifika or Māori kai – in 2019! In Aotearoa! And where are Auckland’s brown food critics, for that matter? I was the only non-white person on our ROTY panel this year, and I’m fairly certain other media’s judging panels are equally as one-note (DM me if you’re a non-white food writer on an existing panel - let’s talk!). I would like to see more thought and innovation going on in the ‘Asian-fusion’ space rather than window dressing and novelty flavour combinations. And I plead, urge, BEG restaurants to stop serving me sparkling water without asking first.
Anyway, God, it’s been fun! I’ve had so many good meals, and learned so much, and connected with so many. I’m still constantly suffering from imposter syndrome, but who doesn’t exist with a malady of self-doubt these days? If you’ve read any of what I’ve written this year, you’re a fucking saint, and I love you. See you next year.
Most memorable meals of the year:
Cassia, a meal I shared with Pat Nourse (ex-Gourmet Traveller), causing me to shake in my boots a little. I was only about four or five months deep into the job, and he asked me if I thought the beer list was good. I panicked and said no and came up with a bullshit justification, even though on hindsight the beer list there isn’t terrible. (“I’m not trying to test you, Jean,” he said, but he totally was.) We had really nice oyster pakoras.
My birthday lunch at Cocoro, which was just very lovely.
Pre-theatre dinners at Satya Chai Lounge, feasting on bites of vege dumpling Manchurian, Paneer 555, and Chicken 65.
The Africola x The Grill dinner, where I ate two helpings of spit-roasted pig and anchovies in a roasted pepper sauce and cucumbers with stracciatella. Fuck, that was good.
The gamja-tang (pork back bone soup) at Jomaru Korean Restaurant in Henderson. I live on the Shore so hardly get out there (twice this year!), so when I do it’s a revelation each time, with a guaranteed empty bowl.
The Sneaky Snacky hot chicken donut burger. Jesus. One bite and your body immediately recognises how bad it is for you, but it’s hard to care. I still remember it very well.
My spicy-food progress lunch (some might say… degustation) where I had to sample about five hot dishes on camera. You can see a video of me eating the hottest item of the day, in which I did not have a good time. I can barely remember how it tasted, but it was certainly memorable.
The octopus at Bar Céleste.
I really have to give a shout-out to Templo in Hobart, which was unexpectedly one of my very favourite meals of the year. Confidently executed simple pastas, excellent service, and very good radishes.
And, due to recency bias, the eight-pack of Wicked Wings I just devoured from KFC.