067 – Jason Tesauro, The Modern Gentleman, Best American Food Writing 2016
Writing Work. With Wine and Intention. Welcome to the last in a series of FOUR podcasts celebrating the Virginia Festival of the Book! From March 16th to 19th you will hear from the country’s best and brightest when it comes to food writing. Today’s episode? Writer and sommelier Jason Tesauro, author of The Modern Gentleman and a contributor to this year’s Best American Food Writing series for his profile of chef Bo Bech. Jason will be appearing at an event Sunday, March 26th at JMRL as part of a panel discussion. Event details are listed below.
I first became aware of Jason’s writing because of his book. We know so many of the same people in the food world and I’m sure we’ve met briefly during my many forays to Barboursville Vineyards where he’s been a sommelier for 15 years. So it was a thrill to finally coordinate our busy schedules for a talk. Not just any journalistic back and forth, but a real honest-to-goodness deep conversation about food writing which evolved into his philosophy of setting your intention as you move throughout your day. And your life. Something I can definitely get behind in this age of instant gratification. Slowing down. Making that tiny bit of extra effort. Living awake and aware.
“My job as a writer…I want you to see past my words into the intention of that grower of that chef of that restaurateur.”
Jason’s passion comes out in the piece selected for this year’s Best Of series about Chef Bo Bech, a Michelin-starred chef in Denmark, who self-describes as “Complicated Simple”. With every beautiful raw ingredient he selects, he sets his intention to transforms it for the plate, while preserving its simple essence. For example, changing the shape of an avocado so when you go to taste it your mouth goes on a journey of discovery and surprise. Chef Bech is no precious “Tweezer Punk” (Tesauro’s term), but an innovative chef exploring boundaries. Pushing the diner’s expectations and understanding of an ingredient. Continually setting his intention with every plate to create a unique dining experience for his patrons. One so special they’ll never forget it. Which behooves Jason to take a similar approach when it comes to reporting.
“The complicated part is how do I put my ego aside and how can I explore the humanity? It’s about a beet, but it’s not really the beet, it’s the the heartbeat of the grower who survived the winter and made the ground sing.”
The deeper themes are the complicated part when it comes to food writing. Tesauro’s piece is a travelogue of Virginia with Jason taking Chef Bech to all his favorite haunts, “foraging” simple ingredients for a one-off pop up in New York called The Bride of the Fox. Fifteen hundred people signed up, but only six invitations went out. A mere ninety minutes before the dinner was due to start. How did Jason get this sweet gig? What was his game plan? Listen to find out.
“What I love about Bo Bech’s food, he will take two ingredients that we’re all familiar with and put them on a plate in a mashup we’ve never experienced…I think Bo never plays it safe. And I’m drawn to artists who live in that space…I like to be around people who are not pushing the envelope for innovation’s sake, but they’re challenging themselves to evolve and grow.”
Not resting on your laurels. Pushing yourself to do more. Jason is an embodiment of that himself, a true Renaissance man who not only writes, works as a sommelier, but who has created an entire lifestyle choice with his book and website The Modern Gentleman which espouses the belief no matter your age or background, there’s no reason to move through life sloppy and half-assed, as my Momma used to say. The origin story behind the book fascinated me, then convinced me to buy a copy for my nephew. Because a huge part of that story involves setting your intention, saying “Yes” to opportunities, and overcoming fear. Just showing up.
“To me intention is the important word here. Because the intention behind growing, behind sourcing, behind plating, I think that is immediately apparent (when it comes to restaurants). The 3-star (restaurant) wanted to show me their ego. They wanted the show. The 1-star nourished me and showed me her heart and her intention. And I came away with an understanding of each dish. A memory. Wheras the 3-star was a blitz of theater, of smoke, of polished meticulousness. But it felt souless.”
Future plans? Jason recently submitted a wine piece to Esquire. It’s one he fought hard for because instead of talking about the beverage in the technical terms most sommeliers use, he went emotional. No flavor or sensory descriptors here. Jason focused on questions like how do you feel while tasting this wine? What does it make you want to do? In what time and place would you drink it? If the wine were a person, who would it be? That style of writing conveys so much more to the reader. It’s more accessible. There are more opportunities for connection. While writing the piece, Jason set that intention and hoped for the best. He knew it might be rejected, but he showed up anyway. Guess what? The editors loved it and his article will appear in the Spring. I can’t wait to read it and hope more food and wine writers follow his example. I know I’m inspired to do so.
“I hope it leads to a shift in the way that we talk about food and wine. Because ultimately it’s not just a bunch of salt and acid mixed up together. It’s soul. It’s place. It’s intention.”
This talked propelled me. I left feeling energized, ready to set my own intentions for the podcast. Wandering through Jackson Ward made me nostalgic for my hometown which made me remember. Which made me rush home and write a blog post that garnered more response from readers than anything I’ve written in months. Maybe there’s something to this intention thing? Listen and discover it for yourself. Then head out Sunday for his panel talk. See you there!
Best American Food Writing 2016
Sun. March 26, 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM
Central JMRL Library, 201 E Market Street, Charlottesville, Virginia
Join food writers Todd Kliman, Jason Tesauro, Joe Yonan, and moderator Holly Hughes as they discuss the Best Food Writing 2016 series.
SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:
- Rally for Ally – Help out one of our own, a chef who recently suffered a debilitating accident.
- Help Polina Recover – Help out one of our own, a baker, who recently suffered a debilitating accident.
- Help Scotty Recover – My best friend has Stage 3B Colorectal cancer. Bills are piling up. He can’t work. Can you help?
- Virginia Festival of the Book – Head out to the food writing events among tons of others. Yes, I’m biased.
- To Your Health, WPVC 94.7 – Thanks to host M.C. Blair for having me as a guest! Here is the audio.
- Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards – The man. The legend.
- In researching Jason, I came across this quote and knew I’d start the talk with it. It’s from Bryan Curtis’s piece in The Ringer called, “The Rise (and Fall?) of Food Writing.”
- In a fully digitized world, food offers the promise of writing about something tangible. “I feel like people are longing for connection,” said the writer Jason Tesauro. “We’ve gotten to a place where soul and authenticity and genuineness — there’s a dearth of it about. A lot of food writing just deals with surface — it’s restaurant reviews and hype and ‘Look at what I’ve found that you haven’t heard about yet.’ But peel that back and what you’re really getting is an excuse to write about what’s real.
- Subscribe to This Podcast. Stay Edacious! – Come on, after this episode? You know you want to 😉
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