This week on The Trip podcast: Lucky Peach co-founder Chris Ying on San Francisco nostalgia, food writing, and the golden era of Mission food.
You can probably tell by now, on the lip of this third episode from San Francisco’s Mission District, that I feel hyperprotective of some of the past eras of the Mission. Which is weird, because as I’ve said before, I’m from West San Francisco more than anywhere, and the Mission was never mine to protect in any decade. But it’s almost a genetic thing. Some people were born to rue and lament and get misty about change and put hipsters on blast without much self-awareness at all. That’s me. Which is why, in this last episode from San Francisco, I appreciate the equanimity of Chris Ying. There he was, in one of the Mission’s great eras, editing for McSweeney’s, then working the grill in a genuine food truck sensation called Mission Street Food, then moving into a storefront with a line around the block, then being a guiding light of one of the great food publications, Lucky Peach, and even though there was so much to love about those days, he is able to just let them go, and to think of the Mission as it really is, a fertile valley that will always be home to new growth. Don’t fight it, just think fondly on those good old days, and move on and let the next generation try to have their moment. So forget me and my nostalgias, just listen to one of the sharpest, kindest people in food media. Chris Ying, everybody.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Chris. Subscribers can listen to the full episode here. If you’re not on Luminary yet, subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing up here.
The Mission is sort of the ground zero for change in San Francisco.
Nathan Thornburgh: All right. Chris, what the hell is happening? I should say I’m doing a triptych on the Mission District. This was the first book you ever did? It’s Mission Street Food and you’ve done so much crazy shit since then, and I want to talk about all that. But that first moment of this is cooking coming from the Mission in book form. So let’s just start there. What was that project? How did that go? What did you learn? What the fuck is happening in food in the Mission?
Chris Ying: The Mission is sort of the ground zero for change in San Francisco. The change that everybody talks about when it comes to culture and food and who’s living here and how much it costs to do it. It’s very complicated. I’ll just start, like you said, with Mission Street Food, which I think we started in 2008, 2007 maybe. I remember it was before the elections, before Obama was elected because the night of the first Mission Street Food, we were having a fundraiser for Obama at McSweeney’s where I used to work. And it was the craziest idea. It was Anthony Myint who was a line cook at Bar Tartine, also in the Mission. And he decided, what if I just walked up to one of these Salvadoran food trucks and said, “Can I sublet the truck for one night a week for 300 bucks and just cook whatever I want in there?” And the owners said, “Sure, that’s way more than we were going to make. Go ahead and do whatever you want.” And this seems completely commonplace now, but this was a month or two before Roy Choi ever rolled the first Kogi truck out.
This was a brand new idea, this idea that you could have a pop-up restaurant. And he rolled it out right in the Mission on I think 20th and Mission. And Eater was just getting off the ground. And Paolo Lucchesi was the editor there. So I sent him a quick email and wrote, “Hey, this random line cook that you’ve never heard of yet is doing this crazy thing.” And it was the first we’d really seen the power of the Internet and social media to drive action. And by the time Anthony opened the door of his food truck, there was a line of 35 people waiting for him. And he said, “Holy shit, what am I going to do?”
Thornburgh: And that is some San Francisco stuff. People will line up.
Ying: San Franciscans love to line up. It’s fucking crazy. They will line up for Tartine, they will line up for ramen. They just love standing in line. It makes no sense to me, but I mean, this is all to say this was 2008. I was working at an independent publishing company for probably $32,000 a year, in retrospect having the best possible time of my life. You’re just in your twenties and just fucking around.
Thornburgh: Why can you only recognize it later on ex post facto, man, that’s a damn shame. But yes.
Ying: I think we’re just trained to complain about whatever moment we’re in. When I think about the Mission and I think about how it’s changed, I think, what an incredible time to be eating and living and working in the Mission. This place that has always represented where the dive bars are, where the taquerias are, where the good stuff is. And to have this very early mix of punk rock spirit or whatever you want to call it that Anthony [Myint] had. It’s not even that, it’s just sort of DIY, entrepreneurial, communist Chinese spirit. And he just democratized fine dining and fine dining cooking in this crazy way. I think that a lot of people who are now in their thirties, like me, look back at that time and say, “Oh man, the Mission’s sucks now. It’s all gentrified as well as just so coiffed and perfectly manicured and it’ll never be the same.” I don’t completely agree with that, but I do remember that being an amazing time to live there.
You don’t own what San Francisco is supposed to be.
Thornburgh: I was going to high school here on the west side. I went to Lowell High School. Which also meant that I would never in a million fucking years come down to the Mission. In the 90s, it was just impossible as a teenager—you would just get routed.
Ying: That’s so interesting to know. I’ve only recently come to this understanding of San Francisco: that the only constant about this city is that it’s always changing. And before the Mission was predominantly a Mexican Latino neighborhood, it was an Irish Catholic neighborhood. And this is what gives me some solace in thinking about San Francisco now—you can’t just be so upset that it’s changing, that it’s not the San Francisco of your 20s, that it’s not the Mission that you remember opening Mission Street Food and cracking beers on the side of the street. You can’t be so upset about it because you don’t own what the Mission is. You don’t own what San Francisco is supposed to be.
Yes, I think it’s really annoyingly expensive to live here now. And I think that the people who are sort of new to the city are disengaged in a very profound way from what it means to live here, and from the people who live here. Sure, I don’t like it. But to say that, “Oh, the real San Francisco that I know of 15 years ago has gone,” is doing the same thing. Fifteen years before that it was completely different. The San Francisco you grew up with is probably completely different.
Thornburgh: I got on a tear as we were publishing Roads and Kingdoms. Straight-up West San Francisco, 1990s nostalgia pieces. And I was so fired up for this and it’s just striking how that specific version of that city was dear to us, but also totally irrelevant to the people who grew up [before us]. My father when he grew up here, my grandfather. This city has gone through a lot of stuff. And so when we were all coming back from college and all of my college buddies said, “We’re moving to the mission.” I said, “Are you fucking nuts?” It just didn’t make any sense to me. And then, slowly you start to realize it had turned into this 20-something playground, which it kind of still is in that way. I’m having some graphic foggily in my mind of the life cycle from the auto repair shop to dive bar, to Taqueria, to fine dining, right? Like there’s some kind of cycle that the Mission’s gone through and that’s why the food is so fucking great there on all levels, right? You can still eat cheaply and well, but then you have things like what Anthony was getting involved in, which is just bringing that extra level to it.
Ying: Yeah, I was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle for a minute and there’s this restaurant space on the corner of 18th and Guerrero, in the thick of the Mission, across the street from Tartine, right up the street from Delfina. It’s one of the most vibrant eating blocks in San Francisco now. And even when Tartine moved there…. You wouldn’t open a bakery in the Mission. And this spot in the corner of 18th and Guerrero has been empty forever and ever and ever, or just always a restaurant comes and fails and fails and again and fails a third time. But eventually, this Japanese restaurant came in there, took hold, stuck it out for five or six years and really did well. And you would assume that any restaurant on this block would do well. And I started thinking about San Francisco as this place of constant change and what is underneath the surface, whether it’s an auto shop or a restaurant. And you think about the Mission, and the Mission itself before there were buildings, before there was anything, there was this very fertile piece of land.
There’s not a lot of them in San Francisco, but it was grassland, and this is why the Mission was built there. It was because this is where there was actually soil, they grow things, grass for cows to feed. And I think about the Mission as now continuing to be in whatever shape it is—very vibrant and full of people and things happening. And I think about it as a naturally a productive piece of land.
Thornburgh: That’s a trip. Yeah, that’s quite an analogy, but right. Shit’s still sprouting there.
Ying: I stopped writing for the Chronicle because I said, man, I am really reaching for each one of these analogies. But I believe that there are naturally abundant, fertile pieces of land. Even if we don’t grow things there, life still grows there.
Thornburgh: I think I’ve got an opposite metaphor for 48th street.
Ying: Totally. Freezing and sandy.
The fuse would blow out every time we had our blender working at the same time as the stereo.
Thornburgh: Just hard bitten. But it’s true in the Mission. It’s a very strange thing, because it’s a valley that has its own natural properties. It’s such, such a colossal victim of its own success in that way too. It’s like these are the nice things about the Mission, why people are coming in and making it very hard to stay.
So, all right, you were just hanging around with Anthony and you were in the scene and enjoying the moment that he was having?
Ying: Anthony went to like elementary school, high school, all of that, with one of my very good friends who first hired me. Eli Horowitz, who is now the creator of homecoming on Amazon. So he was my boss at McSweeney’s and he had known Anthony his whole life. So I knew Anthony tangentially. But when I first started working at McSweeney’s, I was also cooking at this restaurant in the Mission. And Anthony also had happened to start cooking at the same time as me at that restaurant. So we cooked together for the week I was employed there before it became unbearable.
Thornburgh: What were you cooking?
Ying: I was working in the grill station. Anthony was working in the cold bar. We knew each other a little bit, but we both commiserated on how much we disliked this place. And then when he switched to start Mission Street Food, he wanted some help with the graphic design on the menu. He wanted to just talk through some of the food stuff he was going to do. Ultimately I ended up jumping in the truck with him and cooking because I had kind of screwed him over by getting all these people to show up. So I cooked with him in this truck for the entire duration it was happening. Then we moved into this little Chinese restaurant that Anthony also just went door-to-door to find. And over time, the phenomenon was crazy. There were hundreds of people lined up every week outside of this very dingy Chinese restaurant called Lung Shan. And this restaurant during the day or as for the entirety of its life was completely empty, save for one or two construction workers at lunch. And it was just your run- of-the-mill, utilitarian Chinese place where you would get a huge pile of rice and, or Chung Fun, and it would just fill you up.
So now, it was just packed with hipsters, and people like us, who are just so grungy and gross just looking for those wild experience where you would eat food that seemed completely discordant with the environment. You walked through the kitchen to get to the bathroom. The Chinese owners were there the whole time. We shared the wok station. So there were two woks and we occupied one of them. And we sat next to, there were sort of wok cook who you refer to as shifu. And he would just fall asleep on an upside-down milk crate in the kitchen. When he woke up, he would startle himself awake and then step outside and smoke a cigarette those sickly sweet Chinese cigarettes, come back inside, wait for the one order he was going to get in seven hours while we were sweating out what the hell we were doing on the wok. In the side office, the Chinese owner, Sue, she would just be watching crazy soap operas on her laptop. And it was just so naturally, authentically hilarious and fun. The food was so inauthentic, but the experience was so authentic.
Thornburgh: Well, you’re talking about groups that pass each other like ships the night in this city. I know exactly the guy you’re talking about the wok station because I just grew up in this town. You just see them, but you rarely are going to share a space with them in that way. That’s fascinating.
Ying: Exactly. And that was the best part. My parents wanted me to have nothing to do with like manual labor, right? I grew up in Orange County and am only visually and nominally Chinese. My spoken Chinese is terrible, but walking into an actual Chinese restaurant with immigrants from Guangdong, and I actually don’t speak the same language as them. They speak some Mandarin. But being thrown in with what is essentially my parents’ generation of immigrants—first generation here trying to make ends meet. I learned so much about how to use a fucking wok but also, man, how far you separate yourself from where you come from.
Thornburgh: Right. Just how weird that stuff felt to you.
Ying: Yeah. In one generation.
Ying: I had more in common with the white hipsters in the dining room than I did with the people in the back of the kitchen. But I tried so hard to feel like I was part of the kitchen world. And ultimately I did. Anthony is so good because he is in there and he feels that DIY struggle in his bones. I remember the owner at the restaurant was such a badass. The electrical system in that restaurant was not built to accommodate more than one person eating at the restaurant. So we had hundreds of people in there and the fuse would blow out every time we had our blender working at the same time as the stereo. And the fuse went out one time and we rented an extra fuse. So he just said, “Yeah, no problem.” He took a hacksaw and cut off a piece of copper piping and just jammed it into the fuse box. And I thought, “This guy is the fucking best.”
Thornburgh: Those little life skills you lose in that second generation.
Ying: For sure. I don’t even know what a fuse is.
You can talk about bigger issues with food, as frivolous as it is, as elitist as it is to talk about fine dining and wine pairings
Thornburgh: How did it evolve from there?
Ying: I had never really mixed my cooking, which I had been doing since college, with this publishing activity, because I just felt like food was super frivolous and pointless.
Thornburgh: I mean, it is.
Ying: It is. It totally is.
Thornburgh: We get to pretend that it is not.
Ying: No. I think that it’s becoming less and less so, or I’ve started to see it less and less. And that was the huge change for me. You can talk about bigger issues with food, as frivolous as it is, as elitist as it is to talk about fine dining and wine pairings and all of that stuff. I thought that food writing was restricted to that—restricted to restaurant reviews and things. But I met Dave Chang and I met Peter Meehan and, they were just putting out the Momofuku cookbook and I was working at McSweeney’s. We were doing this big newspaper project. This was at the height of everybody saying newspapers are dead, print is dead. So, Dave Eggers who was my boss at the time said, “It’s not dead. It’s just nobody’s trying to do anything with it. So let’s make a 320-page newspaper and show everyone that people will come out for this, people will get up for a 300-page newspaper that’s all beautiful, beautifully designed and full of smart writing.” So we were doing that, and we were doing a food section.
I didn’t want to have anything to do with the food section, but I saw some pages on a desk one day out of the corner of my eye and some 19-year-old kid was putting it together. His feature article was like, “What to eat after like a tough rugby practice”. I’m sorry, dude. I got to take over here.
Thornburgh: Why haven’t I read that article? I need that in my life.
Ying: Yeah, I mean that’s a free one for anybody who needs a little editorial guidance. But, I randomly got in touch with Dave and Peter and they were really generous with giving me material for the Momofuku cookbook. Few months later they were doing The Mind of a Chef TV show and wanted to do a print component and called me up and said, “What do you think about doing this?”
The benefit of working for a flailing publishing company in the Mission and just the Mission, that whole spirit in general ,is that you really do really to live the mantra of “I don’t know how to make money and I don’t really care because somehow $32,000 is enough. And somehow I’m having a pretty good time just making shit and people are paying for it. I don’t know where the money comes from or where it goes.” And so when they called me I said, “Yeah, sure, let’s make a magazine.” So we started Lucky Peach, literally with the math on the back of a napkin. I know that’s a hackneyed metaphor, but it was literally that.
Thornburgh: And the number came out positive on the bottom of the napkin.
Ying: It didn’t.
Thornburgh: It was just a little bit of a loss.
Ying: It was just question mark, question mark, question mark. And that was all we needed for like an okay go. So we started that magazine and then my life went from, “I don’t want to do any food writing” to “this is all I do is talk about food and travel and culture and things like that.” And stuck out on the mission for a little while longer but that was right around the time, it was in 2011, I think that if you wanted to start putting markers into when the Mission started undergoing its current transformations probably around then.