What to Read: Natalie Cruz is eating her way through the world's cuisines

This week, we interviewed Natalie Cruz, a chef and educator who writes Food For Thought., a publication where she’s logging her quest to eat at a restaurant from every country.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s your Substack about in one sentence?

Food For Thought. is where all my musings on food, culture, and identity mix together.

You're a cookbook writer and researcher. Before food became your profession, what was your personal relationship to it?

Growing up in a Latino household, food was always front and center in my life. As a child, I was invited to the kitchen at the crack of dawn to have a cup of strong espresso with my grandmother. I never thought it was an odd thing to drink coffee at such a young age until I was much older and later understood that this was not a cultural norm.

I didn't realize how much food played a huge part in my upbringing until I started cooking for myself as an adult, and all my childhood memories came flooding back in. 

What inspired your current Substack project eating every country's cuisine from “A to Z” in New York City? 

This may sound cliché, but New York really is a melting pot of people, and the food choices we have here reflect that. There is nowhere else in the world where you can grab Nepalese food on one block and then turn the corner and eat Ecuadorian. My project is meant to shine a light on the amazing immigrant communities that have made New York the place that it is – a condensed globe of cultures, languages, and food.

I don’t see myself as a critic or a reviewer. I just want to showcase what different flavors these cuisines have. I’m not here to yuck someone else’s yum.

What do you look for in the restaurants you select to represent each cuisine?

I research places that are off the beaten path in neighborhoods or areas that don't seem like obvious places that people want to go to.

I want to go in with an open mind and palate. I'm there to taste the dish and make sure I can describe it in full detail for my audience, who may not have the luxury of trying these foods. I don’t see myself as a critic or a reviewer. Anyone can walk into a restaurant and say if the food and service are good. That’s what Yelp is for. I’m not going into this experience trying to discern if the food is good to me. I just want to showcase what different flavors these cuisines have. I’m not here to yuck someone else’s yum.

You do a wonderful job of photographing your trips to each restaurant, documenting the decor as well as the different courses. Why is it important to include photographs in your posts?

I try to capture as much of the experience as possible via photos. I want my audience to feel like they came with me to the restaurant, sat down, ordered, and tasted the meal themselves. I basically want to make people drool a bit over the food!

Do you worry that you’ll have trouble accessing cuisines from nearly 200 countries?

When I embarked on this project, access was definitely a major concern for me. There are countries that are so tiny that I had never heard of them.

When it comes to some countries that are difficult to find restaurants for, I've decided to do some fun research and recreate a dish from that country instead. It's a great way to learn to cook something I'm possibly not familiar with.

You've just begun making your way into the "B" cuisines: Bahamas, Bahrain, Belarus. What's been the most surprising part of the experience so far?

The most surprising thing is how excited people get when I tell them I haven't tried their cuisine before and ask them for recommendations on what to eat. Without fail, servers, owners, and managers will point out several things on the menu with huge grins and go out of their way to explain how everything is made. It's wonderful to see how genuinely happy and proud people are of their cultural heritage through food. I truly love how New York allows people to share and keep their cultural identities alive outside of their homeland.

Who is another Substack writer you'd recommend? 

I've been a huge fan of Mark Bittman for as long as I can remember – as far back as his column for The New York Times. I am ecstatic that he has a newsletter now. It's called The Bittman Project, and I always look forward to getting it in my inbox. 

Subscribe to Natalie’s newsletter, Food For Thought., or find her on her websiteTwitter, or Instagram.