Besha Rodell is a food critic, so I can’t show you her face.
She pays using credit cards in fake names. Her teenage son sometimes plays lookout in case the staff catch on to her identity. If he thinks she’s spotted, a cover story is made up. She’s assured waiters her accent isn’t Australian, it’s South African. She was even once “outed” by a rival food publication. (And if you look closely enough, she may be in some of the photos in this story. Then again, she may not be…)
It would be great to describe the woman seated at the station, waiting for our meeting—how she picks through a bowl of canh bún (water spinach noodle soup) at Cô Thư Quán in Melbourne’s Inner West, or sips a hot chocolate in the sun at a nearby cafe, or strolls through Footscray: a Melbourne suburb that’s home to Vietnamese, African, and European communities, and which reminds her of parts of Los Angeles.
I won’t, though. A description of her hair, her walk, her voice, or her wedding ring might just be what gives her up, and I don’t want that on my conscience. For the record: she does have hair, she does walk, she has a voice, and a wedding ring too. She also has opinions about food. We bond over the surplus of kingfish ceviche on Melbourne menus, the gözleme lady at Queen Victoria Market (“She is mean!” Rodell reaffirms when it comes up), a local restaurateur who uses too much salt, and how much we love Melbourne pubs.
“The highlight of my week is that we go to trivia night on Wednesday nights at the [REDACTED], which is a really old-fashioned pub. It has got good beer, has a great publican, and OK food—good enough to eat on a Wednesday night,” she says. “There are trivia teams made up completely of senior citizens. One night Scotty, who is the trivia MC, was like, ‘We are going to sing happy birthday,’ because one of the people was turning 92. Where would I be in America, drinking beer on a Wednesday night with my kid and a 92-year-old? Where would I be drinking beer and singing happy birthday to this dude?”
This appreciation of the quotidian sums up her approach to food journalism. It’s the little experiences, the local people, and the small moments that matter. The food, she tells me, is only 20%.
“‘[I]s it delicious?’ is a yes-or-no question. How much more can you say than that?” she asks. “You can say why [it’s delicious], sure. But the cultural implications about why we eat what we eat or drink what we drink is so much more interesting to me than the ‘Is it delicious?’ question.”
That focus on cultural implications helped Rodell win a James Beard award in 2014, for her personal essay in Punch about drinking 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor. 40s were a big part of her life after moving from Australia to Denver, then to Hartford, Connecticut, as a teenager. She struggled in the former, because in a white school with existing social hierarchies, she didn’t quite fit in.
“I was a freak because I was Australian, but I looked like them and had cultural similarities,” she recalls. “I was kind of punk rock, and there was punk rock kids there…I wanted to talk about being punk rock and everyone wanted to ask me about kangaroos.”
When her family moved to Hartford, she was one of only a handful of white kids in a school of 2,200 students. This time being an outlier worked.
“I was just so out there and bizarre that people were just like, ‘Who are you?’; so I was able to make friends based on my personality rather than those weird signifiers that happen in high school.”
The big problem? 40s consumed vs. classes attended. She knew she wanted to be a writer, but her grades weren’t necessarily in step with that dream. After high school was art school, and then New York for college, where she also waitressed at a well-renowned (now-closed) mom-and-pop restaurant, The Grocery. Eventually, she met her husband, a chef, and her love of food grew. She confesses that the two of them often spent rent money on dining out and drinking—a habit that’s not too unusual within the bounds of Millennial culture, but wasn’t common back in 2002.
The food and drink world was what Rodell knew, but writing was what she wanted. She didn’t graduate college because “she got knocked up” and, with her husband, settled in North Carolina. She began pitching herself as a food writer. The pair eventually landed in Atlanta, where Rodell wrote for Creative Loafing. In 2007 she received her first James Beard nomination, for newspaper feature writing about restaurants in Creative Loafing’s 2006 food issue, “From the Farm to Your Table,” which she had contributed to in her first year as a staff writer. After spending almost seven years as Creative Loafing’s food critic, and food and online editor, she was let go due to restructuring.
Fortunately, she was soon hired as LA Weekly’s restaurant critic, replacing the late Jonathan Gold in one of the most high-profile jobs a food writer can have. Once again, she was an outsider coming in to a new city—and that perspective helped.
“[Gold] had just done away with the star rating at the LA Times, Michelin had just pulled out of Los Angeles, so LA was the incredibly important food city without this old-school food critic that went in and gave stars and talked about the hot new restaurants,” she says.
And that’s what she did: fancy food, hot new restaurants, and star ratings.
Rodell describes her work as the midpoint between Gold and notoriously harsh English critic Jay Rayner. Like Gold, she makes a habit of extolling the previously unheralded (one recent example is an entire New York Times column about salad sandwiches, in which she tells Australians to be “proud of all of our culinary heritage, including white bread stained pink from canned beetroot”). She also gives honest assessments of the city’s most talked-about restaurants. Her dressing-down of Tao is infamous; more recently, here in Australia, she dined at Kisumé, a heavily hyped sushi restaurant, and didn’t mince words afterwards. A sushi box was described as “what you might get from a corporate catering platter,” and the overall experience—including a $195 (AUD) chef’s table—summed up as a “hefty sum for the sprinkle of reputation dusted over [a] lackluster but highly photogenic meal.”
Despite the Kisumé review, since moving back to Melbourne in 2017 to take up the role of Australian food critic for the New York Times, she spends more time following the Gold model. It’s an approach that had been missing from mainstream Australian food writing. Until late 2018, Rodell also wrote monthly reviews for Good Food, in which she places an even closer focus on the unassuming and the neighborhood-level. Soon after our chat she shares her excitement about that bowl of noodles in her column: “The soup is complex and alluring, like eating an entire ecosystem,” she writes, with her characteristically efficient prose.
In Melbourne she’s busy noticing things that most residents overlook. “Shitty” pizza and cheap pasta on Lygon Street are some of her favorite snacks, though most Melbourne foodies would run a mile from the idea. She calls Queen Victoria Market (where you’ll find the mean gözleme lady) both a tourist trap and “her happy place.”
“There’s one of the cheese guys that has better goat cheese, and one that has better cow cheese. I get my butter [from] the guy on the corner and they cut it off the slab. I’ve never seen that anywhere in America,” she enthuses.
She is also casting an outsider’s eye over Australian beer. Her verdict, after moving from Southern California? The IPAs here are far too sweet. She remembers trying her old favorite, Lagunitas IPA, for the first time in four months. Her reaction: “Holy shit, that is so hoppy.” She didn’t realize how quickly her palate could change.
The other problem with booze in this country is cost. While over-the-bar prices are similar to those in the U.S., packaged beer can cost almost twice as much. And it's even more noticeable with spirits. As a result, Australians drink less liquor at home, because spending $40 and getting only a week’s worth of gin and tonics “is depressing.”
She’s also purposefully avoiding American-influenced restaurants, mostly because it would be professionally boring for her to take aim at the Australian food joints attempting to cook “authentic” American food. Her main beef is that most aren’t owned by immigrants missing home, but rather by Australians doing burgers and wings because they’re cool. She has kept mostly quiet on the topic so far, but there was a recent barbecue sandwich that was particularly upsetting. “It was covered in mayonnaise—like an ocean of mayonnaise,” she says.
For now, her job is to find the cultural relevance within Melbourne’s restaurant scene, and share it with both American and Australian audiences. Despite the ways that social media has changed food and drink, she thinks the role of the anonymous critic is just as important as it ever was, if not more so.
“There is a real benefit to somebody who is going to tell you to spend your money somewhere or not. And quite frankly, when I do that, I’m also talking to the restaurant and chef as much as I am the consumer.”
The world of the food critic is changing, however. Rodell initially struggled to find work in Australia despite her profile, primarily because she wanted to maintain her anonymity, and Australian papers want critics to be media celebrities. While there are still non-anonymous critics in the U.S., there is more of a cult of personality here in Australia, she says. That isn’t a negative, she adds hastily, just not something she is interested in. If the New York Times hadn’t come to Australia, then she might not have either.