When San Diego Magazine announced Troy Johnson as their new editor-at-large and dining critic, I was perplexed. Wasn’t Troy Johnson, dare I say, too edgy for old, stodgy San Diego Magazine? The same magazine that often features multi-million dollar homes of San Diego’s upper echelon?
Having never met Troy, I only knew him through his sharply hilarious tweets commenting on everything from dressing his infant daughter as a trussed turkey for Thanksgiving to glass shards found in frozen pea packets sold at Walmart — exactly the type of humor that makes me chuckle out loud and at the most inappropriate times. Oh, and he also happens to tweet about food news, too. So when an opportunity came to talk him about his new gig at San Diego Magazine, I coerced my way out of a phone interview into having him buy me lunch at Bull Taco in Encinitas.
It’s one thing talking to people but preparing to meet Troy was nerve wracking. But I quickly discovered he’s just a regular born and bred San Diegan — class of ’91! — with a passion for all things related to food and surfing. Having wrapped up a stint on the Food Network for his show Crave last year — something I admitted to him that I’ve never watched — Troy is looking forward to getting back to his writing roots. While we covered everything from music (he’s enjoys listening to music that others would describe as dour) to growing up in San Diego (Rancho Peñasquitos), here’s a portion of our conversation related all to food.
Last year was huge for you with a new baby, a television show and a gig at San Diego Magazine. What do you look forward to in 2012?
Sleep. No really, 2011 was the biggest year of my life. It was just absolutely crazy and difficult to do a T.V. show, be a food editor, a husband and a father. I was so bifurcated. At the end of the day, I was a mediocre food editor. I was a mediocre T.V. host. I was a mediocre father and I was a mediocre husband. And that’s being a little self-bashing, but I guess the bottom line is that I know I can be better. For 2012, I want to focus on journalism and food writing. And San Diego Magazine opens me up to write a little about everything in San Diego.
Are you going to continue your show, Crave, with the Food Network?
We don’t know yet. We started off pretty well in the ratings. It was on Monday nights. But then Monday Night Football returned and Dancing with the Stars returned. And our ratings, along with all of cable, went into the tank. I also think my humor scares Food Network a little bit. I compared pizza in New York to childbirth in Utah—both daily rituals. They’re like “You just pissed off all of Utah! The Mormons are never watching Food Network again!!” They sent me a few notes back to that effect.
They have a huge, huge base and they have a well-established philosophy. I think that’s why they wanted to do Crave, because I was little different. I have a weird take on food. I hate to use the word “edgy,” but I have a little bit of sarcasm and satire that they really didn’t have. But when that sarcasm and satire came to light on film, I think it might’ve scared the bejeezus out of them. When the ratings when down they put me out to Friday night. They were like “Whew!! That’s done! That was a good experiment! High-fives all around! Now it will just die a quiet death.” But sometimes when you put a mongrel dog out to pasture, it mates with the entire forest and forms its own posse. That’s kind of what happened. They put us on late Friday nights and our ratings went up. I don’t know what they’re going to do now. They could do another season — I would love the experience. They could cancel it. I had nothing but a good experience with them.
But I’m looking forward to San Diego Magazine and just being a writer. There’s only so much you can do in a day and do it well. I haven’t been able to really, TRULY just write about San Diego food for two years.
So what do you hope to bring to the San Diego food scene?
San Diego Magazine does have a very high-end readership, but Riveria magazine was strictly high-end, 4-star, 5-star food. So there was only really so much I could cover at Riviera in regards to street food. Authentic Vietnamese, authentic Korean, whatever it was. That’s the kind of stuff that has been missing from my food resumé. In my view, the really affluent people in San Diego have been to Vietnam, have been to Africa. They want to know where they can find real Vietnamese food, real African food. It may not be 4 star. It may be in a real shady part of town. But it’s really good and it’s authentic. That’s what I’m really looking forward to covering with SD Mag.
What food trends do you want to leave and what do you want to see go mainstream?
Sometimes I think we’re taking this DIY thing a bit too far. I feel like I’m going to walk in and then “Set your own table, cook it and we’re going to sit at the bar and watch your experience.” But then again, I like the pulling back of the curtains and letting eaters get into the experience. Mess with different butters and spices at the table — that’s fine. But dish towels as a napkins? Come on! I feel like I’m going to have to wash my own dishes sometimes.
The food trends I want to see are noodle bars. We have a few. And, yes, there are more authentic ones obviously than Underbelly. But gringos are weird. They’re xenophobic. They need a “whitened-up noodle bar” as a gateway drug that will eventually get them to Convoy. Convoy is just an amazing spot. There’s such really good food. But a lot of gringos don’t go. It’s not that they’re racist. It’s xenophobia. They can’t read the menu. It scares them a little bit.
How to do you prepare for a day of eating?
When I’m on my own time, I eat salads. I try to drink as much water as possible.
I have a “Two Bite Rule.” If a dish is really good or I can’t place like a spice or herb, then I’ll take a third bite. Sometimes I have three lunches in a day. That’s why it’s a two-bite limit. Otherwise my body would block out the sun. I’d be walking and a foot will fall off from gout. You have to keep it in check. It’s like being a wine taster or a booze quality guy. If you drank everything, your liver would jump out of your body! So you have to have temperance in this job.
I have my “Hit List”: a list of restaurants I need to try out. Sometimes I’ll knock out six in one day. It’s crazy. Sometimes I’ll only knock out one, depending on how much writing or editing I have to do. So… a hit list, two bites and a LOT of napkins.
What do you think about the prevalance of food bloggers? And what do you think they contribute to the culinary landscape?
Food bloggers all need to go away. (laughter) Kidding! I think it’s great. I hate Yelp because people use it as a bully pulpit against local restaurateurs. Like they didn’t get seated quick enough because it was a busy Saturday night, so they go on and rail against this restauranteur who’s trying his darndest to making a living. That pisses me off. But you don’t have to been an anointed food critic to have an opinion—and a colorful opinion at that. It adds more voices to the conversation. There are a lot of people who are so much more well-educated about food than myself. Chefs, people who have worked in the industry for 25 years selling fish—they can contribute to the scene. If only they had something like a blog so it’s a podium, you know? So I think it’s fantastic.
I have my own blog on the side, which I can never keep up with. So kudos to you. It takes a lot of commitment from people like yourself, Alice Q. and a few others that have really kept it up.