Talking with Jordana Rothman: Rocking a National Platform

The Montville native—prominent and provocative food writer, trend spotter and cookbook coauthor—discusses her new perch as restaurant editor of Food & Wine magazine.

Photo by Leslie Pariseau

At the top of her website, Jordana Rothman describes herself as “Food + Drink Writer, Voluptuary.” As to the former, her lively and informed writing for a host of publications, her Twitter and Instagram feeds, her extensive travels, and her award-winning 2015 cookbook, Tacos: Recipes and Provocations, with chef Alex Stupak, have placed her at the food forefront and made her a sought-after speaker.

As for the V word, the Montville native explains, “I’m a voluptuous person in a lot of ways. I find great joy in exploring the things that make people happy and in experiencing the joy of being alive. But being a writer is an isolating profession. No matter how fabulous the night before was, there’s the morning after, with the blank page and the need to turn it into something.”

Just before Thanksgiving, Rothman, 33, was named restaurant editor of Food & Wine, giving her a broader national platform. I spoke with her about her view of the national and local scenes.

New Jersey Monthly: Where do you see pockets of creativity and excitement?
Jordana Rothman: For a long time, trends and ambitious chefs were concentrated in a few major cities, and now you see it all over. The narrative in Detroit has long been apocalyptic, post-industrial, but what I saw there recently was places with a lot of enterprising spirit and really cool flavors. I had a few fantastic meals there, but I also loved a little corner bakery called Sister Pie. It has loyalty programs for patrons. It’s become a community gathering place.

Interesting things are happening in places like Walla Walla, Washington, Cleveland, Bainbridge Island off Seattle, and closer to home, in the Catskills, well beyond the scene in Hudson. More people want to have really good food not only on vacation; they want it close to home.

NJM: What about New Jersey?
JR: I’m actually very much in love with the whole scene in Asbury Park. With chefs, designers, artists, there’s been an amazing revival. Tallulah’s makes really fantastic pizza, totally world class. The Asbury Festhalle is amazing. I love the coffee and baked goods at Cafe Volan. When there’s a seasonal feel to an area, you always wonder if it has the same energy off-season. I went back last fall, and it was the same. I felt the place exists for the local culture and not just for visitors.

NJM: Downtown Jersey City is just as dynamic. Have you been there?
JR: I hear people talk about Jersey City and Hoboken, but though I’m from Jersey, I don’t get back there very often. I admire what Maricel Presilla has been doing with the heritage foods of Central and South America at her restaurants in Hoboken and in her magnum opus cookbook.

NJM: Your take on Philadelphia?
JR: Fantastic dining city. I could not be a more ardent fan of Michael Solomonov [chef/owner of Zahav]. He’s done a great job of presenting  [Middle Eastern] food in an apolitical way, where we can just appreciate it for what it is. Ange Branca, a female chef, which obviously I love to hear, is doing the food of her native Malaysia at Saté Kampar.

NJM: Trends you see fading?
JR: We’re still in a sort of golden age of cocktails, but in terms of presentation, I think the speakeasy thing has kind of run its course. Now a serious restaurant or bar is expected to have cocktail expertise, and it doesn’t need that secret handshake, cloak-and-dagger thing. I think molecular gastronomy has been integrated into kitchens in a more thoughtful way, as opposed to feeling like a magic show. Now there are sous vide machines and related technology for home use.

NJM: What about grand tasting menus?
JR: The tasting menu is still a legitimate format for a chef who wants to tell a story with his or her food. It can be an adventure. But they may be changing their scope. Contra in Manhattan is a good example. The number of courses is five or six, not super long. The food is thoughtful and interpretive, but really delicious, food you really want to eat. It’s fun and high energy and a little more affordable than classic tasting menus.

NJM: You cowrote the book on tacos. Has taco madness gone too far?
JR: Have I had some bad tacos out there? Sure. I’ve had bad pizza, too. If I’m eating a taco that’s not so good somewhere around the country, I might be a little disappointed, but I’m also really excited that it exists at all. It’s awesome that people want to eat this way and are playing with the format, exploring the canon of Mexican food. It’s all a rising tide. I try to look at it like that.

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