“Oh, lucky you. That must be a fun job.”
That’s the top reaction I get when I tell people what I do for a living. I’m keenly aware that for many, food writing is a dream job. I won’t belabor the perks (yes, my employer pays for wine) or the ways work is still, well, work. (The 95-degree evening when I faced a seven-course tasting menu at nine months pregnant comes to mind.) Instead, I hope to explain how I got here – and what I plan to do as The Sacramento Bee’s new dining critic.
Honestly, if my 17-year-old self had known she’d end up in Sacramento, she’d have been horrified. I never thought I’d settle in the Central Valley, much less that I’d love it. I grew up north of Sacramento, up Highway 99, in Chico – home of Chico State, Sierra Nevada beer and almond orchards. By my mid-teens, I was itching to get out and see a wider world, which the teen me was sure would be more sophisticated.
On both sides, my family has a long association with Central Valley agriculture. My paternal grandfather, George Washington (yes, really), moved to Chico from Kansas during the Depression to work on a relative’s sheep ranch. In the 1960s, he bought an almond orchard, which my dad still farms. It always has had fruit trees and big gardens for family use.
In summer, our kitchen counters overflowed with apricots, plums, Red Haven peaches, fat tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, peppers, corn and eternal zucchini. Winter brought mandarins, navel oranges my mom juiced fresh (attention, breakfast joints: I know when your OJ isn’t really fresh-squeezed) and Meyer lemons. We always had lamb (bought at the fair) and usually venison (shot in the foothills) in our garage freezer.
My mom’s dad was a grain trader in Stockton. He grew up in San Francisco and made a mean cioppino thanks to his Italian roots. A bon vivant, he loved taking my brother and me out to eat. Family dinners revolved around antipasti platters at North Beach Restaurant; he held forth about the perfect zabaglione at Vanessi’s; and he always tucked a napkin into his collar before tackling Dungeness crab.
All this just seemed like how we ate to the young me, raised years before “farm to fork” became a slogan. I never thought of our food as anything special or fancy, though my parents did join a gourmet group in the 1970s. (The tube of truffle paste my mom mail-ordered for beef Wellington stayed in her fridge well into the ’90s). But I did get interested in cooking and baking young. By 13, I was obsessed with learning candymaking from the Time-Life Good Cook series. In one sticky experiment, I attempted marzipan from home-grown almonds. (My marzipan fruits were adorable but too sweet; I didn’t know you needed bitter almonds, illegal to cultivate in the U.S.)
It wasn’t until I left California for college in Washington, D.C., in 1990, that I realized California’s bounty was unusual. Eastern produce and dining-hall food shocked me. D.C. food culture was burgeoning, though, and I explored the city’s restaurants (like then-celebrity Southwestern chef Mark Miller’s Red Sage) and food shops (NYC retailer Dean and Deluca opened a D.C. branch) as much as my student budget and visiting relatives allowed, splurging on levain bread that tasted a little like sourdough I missed from home.
After college, I hurried back to California, with no idea of becoming a food writer. Instead, an English major graduating in a recession, I took the well-worn path to graduate school, where cooking was entertainment and obsession. (Even students with no going-out budget have to eat.) As I neared finishing my dissertation and starting an academic career, I had a problem: I didn’t like teaching. At all. I pivoted to writing and editing, and in 2000, landed a copy-editing job at a startup food magazine in San Francisco. I went on to work as associate food editor at Sunset magazine, where I developed recipes and covered food around the West.
Meanwhile, my husband, whom I’d met in grad school, got a tenure-track job teaching at CSU Sacramento. My mother lived in Carmichael, and my experience of Sacramento’s food scene had been unencouraging. But the Sacramento News & Review was hiring a restaurant reviewer. I got the gig and was delighted to discover a blossoming restaurant culture. I was the News & Review’s critic from 2004-08, during which many dining-scene anchors opened. I had the pleasure of reviewing Mulvaney’s B&L and Hawks; I survived the great sushi wave of ’07 and the eternal pizza boom. Since 2008, I’ve covered dining as a contributing writer for Sactown Magazine and served as local editor for Zagat’s Sacramento guide.
I believe my job as dining critic is to write a review that helps you decide whether you’d like to spend your time and money at the restaurant. I’m always aware that reviewing is a subjective pursuit. I won’t always like the same things my readers like, but I aim to disclose my biases and describe food so you can assess whether you want to eat it. (Two of my immutable principles: I like salads lightly dressed, and I detest deviled eggs.) My background with food has made me an occasional restaurant skeptic. I love good food; I dislike flashy gimmicks and restaurants that trade more in style than substance.
Whether restaurant critics should be anonymous has been a hot topic in food circles for years – witness Ruth Reichl’s disguises at the New York Times. Sorry, everyone, no wigs for me: In a city as close-knit as Sacramento, I’d have no hope of staying incognito anyway. That said, I won’t deliberately identify myself or accept freebies or similar perks.
I’m thrilled to be lucky enough to cover our ever-expanding dining scene for The Bee. With apologies to my 17-year-old self, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather live and eat. I can’t wait to taste – and tell you all about – what Sacramento serves up next.
Email Kate Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate