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What To Read: Tse Wei Lim looks at how food is made
This week, we interviewed Tse Wei Lim, a chef who’s run several bars and restaurants over the past decade. He writes let them eat cake, a newsletter about food and the systems that power it.
What's your Substack about in one sentence?
It’s an irregular, wide-ranging newsletter about how food is made, and finding meaning in its making.
What made you want to start writing about food?
Writing is cheaper than therapy.
A longer answer might be: I wrote a book about running a restaurant in the 2010s – a sort of countertext to [Anthony Bourdain’s] Kitchen Confidential. I did this partly because writing is in fact cheaper than therapy. An agent was kind enough to read it, and said, in pretty much these words, “I love your manuscript, but you need a platform. Go build one. Opening another restaurant would count.”
This might be the only time opening a restaurant has been put forward as the easy option.
This was at the start of 2019. Opening a restaurant did not seem practical at the time (and I say this as someone who’s opened more than one). So I decided to try starting a newsletter instead. What I’ve learned in the 1.5 years since is that the newsletter itself isn’t enough of a platform on its own, but I might be more interested in writing the newsletter than in having a platform for a book.
How did working in restaurants, both as a chef and on the business side, change your relationship to food?
It made me see that the business of food in America is fundamentally unjust. Virtually every supply chain for every edible thing in America involves someone being horribly exploited, usually about 30 feet away from where you’re eating or buying the food. The reasons for this are wide-ranging and persistent, and while I knew this intellectually, it wasn’t till I started trying to work with them or around them or insulate one little restaurant from them that the understanding really sank in, like the smell of a long shift at the deep-fryer.
It also got me used to the idea that most people view food as content rather than as food. It’s natural for us to try to find meaning in what we eat, but to value food primarily for what it means seems to me a dangerous and unproductive dynamic.
Food is worth something as an object. It has inherent qualities. It can be properly seasoned or out of balance, full flavored or quiet or simply underpowered. These qualities often have a lot to do with how it was made or how the ingredients were grown. So to the extent that we see food primarily as part of a story, or as information to be consumed, I think we lose touch with the materiality of the food itself. We lose the ability, or willingness, or habit, of engaging with it on that level. And if we don’t value food on this level, what meaning can it actually have?
You've been writing about Singapore recently, where you grew up. What draws you to Singaporean food, versus working with European cuisine in your professional career?
It was only after I started to cook professionally that I realized how precise the flavors in Singaporean food really are when it’s done well. It’s true that much of the food is robust, but there’s a great deal of variation created by minute changes in ingredients and technique. Realizing just how difficult it is to get right made it more interesting.
I also grew up during what might be thought of as the heyday of hawker culture. The power dynamics that make Singapore’s food scene so fraught were less pronounced then, so in a way, it’s gotten more interesting to write about. There’s a part of me that wants to say that the situation today was already foreshadowed when I was learning to cook, and I was just too dim to see it then – but I’m not sure that’s really true.
What's an ingredient that fascinates you?
Flour. Honestly I find it hard to name an ingredient that’s not fascinating, because most things are interesting if you look at them closely enough. Flour is so variable, so characterful, and so ornery, but we frequently treat it as a homogenous, unremarkable, white powder produced by anonymous people in an industrial process that takes place wherever industrial processes take place.
We're conditioned to do so in part by recipes that assume we are using standardized flour which in turn exists because there’s demand for it. Variation in flour can have really catastrophic effects on a recipe – I worked in one bakery where you could really tell when a new shipment of flour came in because all our loaves would be wonky for a few days afterwards!
And my experience of new flours is very mediated, because I work with them primarily when I make bread. Bread has few ingredients other than flour, but it's fermented, so I can only really understand the flour through its effects on the fermentation and gluten formation in the bread. I suppose doing something like extruded pasta (which I don’t have the equipment to do at home), would provide a more transparent experience, but I think I’d also find that less interesting.
Who's another Substack writer you'd recommend?
Drew Austin’s Kneeling Bus. The tagline says it’s about urbanism and technology, but that doesn’t do justice to the clarity, originality, and breadth of the ideas in each issue. I love how each issue feels like something that’s been polished like a sushi master's knife – although for all I know Drew Austin is just the sort of genius who tosses these off between bites of lunch!
I feel I also have to mention Signal Problems, but that, like the 9 train, is no longer running.
Subscribe to Tse Wei’s newsletter, let them eat cake.