One year into her gig as editor-in-chief of Food & Wine, Nilou Motamed is hitting her stride. And why wouldn’t she be? She’s one of the most well traveled food enthusiasts around, having hosted multiple travel television shows, served as the Director of Inspiration for Conrad Hotels, and been the editor-in-chief of Epicurious. In other words, this is a person who knows how to spot a great place to eat.
On the heels of the release of Food & Wine’s widely lauded annual feature, Best New Chefs, we spoke to Motamed about what—exactly—makes a great restaurant, the elements restaurants tend to ignore (and shouldn’t), and how a spot gets chosen to appear in the pages of Food & Wine.
What do you think fundamentally makes a restaurant press-worthy — something that’s worthwhile enough to cover in the magazine?
It’s such a nebulous thing to talk about, because it really is that je ne sais quoi factor. There’s an alchemy. That alchemy isn’t constant — I don’t have a barometer for the greeting or the interior design or the music. But it’s about the sum of its parts being greater than the individual ones. There is an ephemeral component, where a place just feels fun and dynamic and delicious, and you just want to come back and eat the food again.
And the restaurant has to have a definitive point of view. There are plenty of places where you can have a great meal, but it’s when all these factors converge that a meal becomes magical. Then, it hits you like a ton of bricks, and before you have eaten your appetizer, you know — I’m going to come back here.
What about when you are selecting Best New Chefs? What goes into that decision-making process?
The key with Best New Chefs is what’s on the plate. This is not about light fixtures or cocktails or other shenanigans; this is about what you are served. So I want that food to tell a complex story about who the chef is and where they come from.
We try to make a list that represents the diversity of our industry and our country, and we also love chefs who are looking to their region for influence in both the ingredients they use and what’s on the menu. And it’s fun to look at people who are examining the traditions of where they came from and finding brilliant ways to reinterpret the food ways of their culture.
What do you want Food & Wine to be for the food community? What role do you want it to play?
What is amazing to me with Food & Wine is that it does have this dual role as both a consumer-facing magazine that home cooks look to for inspiration and guidance, and also as a business magazine for our community of restaurant cooks and chefs. We love to celebrate restaurants, we love to be a flag-bearer for trends, and we try to be a partner to our readers wherever they are — whether that is on a Friday night figuring out what to make or on an eating pilgrimage figuring out where to dine. I want to over-deliver on all of these buckets, and continue to have chefs want to aspire to be in our pages.
Do you have any dining pet peeves?
I don’t love when waiters try to explain a menu that seems self-explanatory. I don’t love a “let me explain how small plates work.” There is this tendency for waiters to just have a speech they give on autopilot — I don’t love autopilot, in general. I also love when servers are engaging, but the challenge is when they become overbearing — there’s a fine line between friendly and you-need-to-leave-the-table-so-I-can-eat-my-food.
Lastly, this is very specific, but: scented soaps. I don’t like them. My food smells like the soap when I come back to the table. I see why offering nice-smelling soaps is compelling, but it’s personally very challenging for me.
What is good service to you?
Good service is about reading situations and being intuitive, accessible, and knowledgeable — but also knowing when to get someone else if you don’t know the answer to a question. Don’t fake it ’til you make it. And don’t make diners feel like they have to second-guess you.
It’s very vulnerable being a diner. There are people like me who do a lot of research before going to a restaurant, but also there are people who need a lot of handholding. It’s about finding out what your guests require, and accommodating that in a genuine way.
Are there things that you think restaurants care too much about that diners could care less about?
Honestly, I think diners care about everything. People are more sophisticated in their tastes than ever — they could be eating at Shake Shack one day and then going to Masa the next. So as a diner, you expect places to over-deliver on what they promise. More and more, diners feel like they are VIPs and expect to be treated as such. They may not be on anyone’s radar, but they feel like they should be treated like they are the most important person in the room.
And the reverse: are there elements you think restaurant don’t take into account enough?
The first thing is the greeting when you call to make a reservation. That makes a huge difference. The way that someone tells you the restaurant has no availability — that exchange is often so badly handled, and it makes people feel like losers. Again, everyone wants to feel valued. If the person doing reservations isn’t representing you well, it will reflect poorly on you as a restaurant, and that customer will come looking for problems.
Another one is lighting — often times the lighting in a restaurant will feel like I am in an interrogation room. Restaurants don’t take it into account enough because it’s expensive, so they think they can cut corners, but it’s really important to have lighting that is flattering, and in this day and age, conducive to photography. Also: bathroom cleanliness. I was at Gjusta in Los Angeles and I found myself taking photographs in the bathroom it was so nice. I really care about that. And definitely invest in good glassware.
You’re extremely well traveled. What are some of your favorite dining cities around the world, and what do you think makes them so great?
Most recently, I was in Paris, and it felt so alive and so dynamic. This city that has traditionally been a bastion of super haute dining is evolving and thinking about how to have fun in the dining room with natural wines and bars where you eat oysters standing up.
I also think that London is having a moment. People used to think it was so stodgy, but now there is this deep appreciation for great produce and great proteins. And Saigon and Hanoi are also among my favorite places to eat — the food is so fragrant; you feel like you are taking a sip of the culture.
How have you seen food media change in the past few years?
The biggest change is the fact that everyone is an expert now, so the definition of food media has expanded. You’ve got all these consumers who want to have their voice heard; layer that with social media, and food magazines like us just aren’t the only game in town anymore. To continue to maintain our expertise, we have to keep evolving, and through social and print and video be able to offer exactly what our readers want in that moment.
Photo Credit: Sven Eselgroth