Jun 18, 2021 • 29M

A Conversation with Hannah Selinger

We discuss the writer's culinary and sommelier studies, her time in restaurants, the meaning of anthologies, and living in the class-stratified Hamptons.

Alicia Kennedy
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I knew I wanted to talk to writer Hannah Selinger when she was openly angry that her Eater essay “Life Was Not a Peach,” about her experience working for David Chang, wasn’t included in Best American Food Writing 2021. The rule is that we writers aren’t supposed to comment on whether we’ve been snubbed for an anthology or an award, even when it’s a clearly egregious way to keep a highly critical essay out of the canon, in an anthology edited by a fellow chef.

So we talked, not just about the anthology, but about her culinary and wine studies, her generalist approach, and being a year-round Hamptons resident. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Hannah. Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk today.

Hannah: Thank you for having me, Alicia.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Hannah: Yeah, I had sort of a weird upbringing. 

I was born in New York City. And when I was seven, my mom moved to Massachusetts. So I actually came back and forth every other weekend between New York and Mass until I was 17. So, I grew up—

Alicia: Wow.

Hannah: Yeah. 

I grew up in a small town called Newburyport. It used to be Massachusetts’ smallest actual city. It's right on the New Hampshire border. 

What did I eat? My mother was a very, I would say, not inventive cook. So we had this cookbook called365 Ways to Cook Chicken. That was something she was really dedicated to. Bottled salad dressing and a lot of steamed vegetables, because that was very in vogue in the ’80s. 

My father, who lived in New York, was a little bit more adventurous. And he was more into cooking different kinds of meat and vegetables. But I would say that we were a pretty prototypical ’80s family. Nothing very interesting going on.

Alicia: Right.

Well, growing up between Massachusetts and New York is interesting in terms of the rivalry there. Do you have more of an affinity for one over the other?

Hannah: I have some pretty good stories. My father passed away, but he was a diehard Yankees fan. And my mother is from Massachusetts, and has always been a Red Sox fan. And I used to wear a Yankees Starter jacket to school in Massachusetts and was teased, I mean, just beyond all get out. 

Alicia: Right? Of course. 

I remember that moment when Etarter jackets were so popular, and my mom wouldn't let me get one. 

Hannah: They were very cool. 

Alicia: Yeah. [Laughter.] 

But you write about such a wide range of topics. Not just food and wine and travel, which kind of go together, but also parenting, real estate. How did you come to writing and built this career as a generalist?

Hannah: I definitely started in food and wine, which was where I was most comfortable. I had come out of working as a sommelier for some time, so that was kind of a natural segue for me. 

And more recently, as I've expanded my repertoire, I kind of follow things that are interesting to me. My husband is chief of staff for what we call out here a high net-worth individual. And so, he has a lot of experience in homes. We kind of GC’d our own renovation, and I got familiar with the real estate market, which granted me kind of some intellectual access, I would say. 

But I think I now view it as if something is interesting to me, and I feel like I have a base knowledge that's—if I'm, if I have enough understanding of the topic to be able to report it out, then it's something that I'll write.

Alicia: Right, right, right. 

And you are best known as a food writer, and were a sommelier and graduated from the International Culinary Center. And you have these huge credentials in this kind of field. So how have your experiences in restaurants and training for those careers influenced your work when  most writers about food and wine don't have that experience or background expertise?

Hannah: Well, first of all, it's granted me a lot of access, because I think that even at the very beginning when I was green in writing, I could always say, ‘Look, I'm clearly an expert in this field, because I've worked the floor. And I can tell you about X, Y, and Z,’ especially with wine writing where there are very few women in particular who write about wine just compared to the overall field. 

I would say that I have more empathy for what goes on in a restaurant and more understanding, and I would never—I think I would never find myself in the position of being a dining critic for that purpose, because I have too much kind of relationship to what's going on in the—both front and back of the house. 

Alicia: Right.

And what drew you to getting into that work?

Hannah: [Laughs.] It was born of necessity, I think.

I got a Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing when I was like, 24. And I thought ‘Oh, I'm just gonna go to New York and write the great American novel, and I'll be cool.’ So I got a job waiting tables.

Alicia: But what got you deep into it into making it more of your career?

Hannah: It was sort of a series of accidental situations. I was working in restaurants. Bobby Flay was the first major restaurant I worked at in the city, and then was working for Laurent Tourondel at BLT Prime on 22nd Street in the city. And I felt when I would go up to a table, I could talk to them about food, which was something with which I was pretty familiar because everybody eats. But wine felt kind of intellectually inaccessible to me. 

And so, I started meeting with a sommelier after work and coming in and doing inventory, which just sort of set me up for this career as a sommelier. When I was working as a sommelier, there were kind of a couple of things about it that felt compelling to me. One, the mood of a restaurant, the frenetic energy, and the fact that you're kind of always doing something. It wasn't an office job. I was in my 20s. 

There's sort of like a vigor to it. I mean, there's a lot to know about wine. And it does cross into kind of the literary study that I had been accustomed to and that I based my academic career on. And that part of it felt like it wasn't just serving people things. There was an element of knowledge and understanding that went with it. And that, to me, was intriguing.

Alicia: Well, how does your MFA in fiction do you think influence your work now, if it does still?

Hannah: If I could go back in time, I think I would have done that differently. I think I knew that I wanted to write, but I didn't know what kind of writer I was. And so I picked fiction, but I think I was always a nonfiction writer. I'm not sure if that set me up and then I exercised the muscle of writing more regularly. And I saw it as something that you kind of had to produce within a set period of time, which is useful if you're a career writer. But beyond that, I'm not sure that I got too much strategy out of it. It took me a while to kind of get to this place.

Alicia: Right, right. 

Well, you did write a book review last year that made a big splash, I think in some circles. For Eater, you reviewed David Chang's memoir, Eat a Peach, which was also your memoir of working for him. And it was one of the best I and many have read on the reality of working for one of—a big chef whose behavior is lauded and excused. And it was really just such an eye opening kind of look into that world. And I just the other day opened the Goldbelly website, and the first main page is David Chang's face. And I was like, ‘Are we still doing this? Really?’ 

And I wanted to know why you wanted to open up in that piece in the way you did, and how the reception was to it. Because I talk a lot with friends about the cost of exposing our trauma and whether we gain anything from it, really. Why did you decide to do that piece in the way you did it, and how have you felt in the aftermath?

Hannah: So when I decided to write the piece at first, I was—I felt like I had to write it. It was sort of—I didn't have a choice. The whole process began when Peter Meehan stepped down from the L.A. Times last summer, it was like right around the Fourth of July. At that moment, I kind of had this feeling in the pit of my stomach. All of these people are suffering—accountability, if you want to call it that—in some small way, but Chang never really did. And why doesn't anyone talk about it?

So I actually just sat down and wrote a draft of what was, at that point, a completely personal essay. It had nothing to do with the book. And after kind of speaking with a bunch of different editors who were interested in it, and then ultimately landing with Matt and Aaron over at Eater, we decided that the best way to frame it was through the lens of his book because his book had just dropped at the point that I was still shopping the piece.

So when you're a public writer and you write about yourself, which I do sometimes, there's always an element of vulnerability and there's an element of blowback that can accompany that. I think that's sort of just par for the course with my job. And I talk to other relatively high-profile writers about this, is people feel like they know you and they feel like they have access to you. They feel like they have, they're entitled to tell you how they feel about your work and your life because your life is suddenly public. And that's always challenging no matter what the piece is.

I actually was surprised by the reaction that I got from this piece, because I was expecting blowback. Whenever something goes viral, you do. But most of what I got privately was actually deep empathy. And a lot of people who had worked for Dave during different periods and at different restaurants reached out to kind of sus through their own trauma, which was an unexpected consequence. I think I didn't necessarily know what people who were in it were going to feel. And they felt largely the same way that I did. And that was a very surprising, surprisingly rewarding part of all this. 

I've been disappointed that it kind of disappeared in the national narrative, and people just kind of let it go away. And they let his behavior kind of just continue to be what it is.

Alicia: Right? It's really shocking to me. 

And I don't know, I've always been curious how you feel in the last few months when I've seen his name just kind of pop up in a really neutral manner. What has been your response to that?

Hannah: That's hard. And of course, I got that PR email that was advertising a project that he was working on. And I was like, ‘I actually can't believe that someone wouldn't even put my name into Google before sending this PR thing out to me.’ What?

It's not that I think that he's all one thing. It's not that I think he's a terrible person, or even bad at what he does; I think he created something that was really cool. I was certainly driven to work there and eat there. Even after I left, I wanted to eat at the restaurant, or the restaurants. 

But I do think that I had sort of this moment at the end of my piece where I called for him to say something and step down, or pass the reins of his business on to somebody else. And that has really been met with silence. People like to say that we've come so far in this industry, and I don't know how far we've come at the end of the day. Powerful men are still the ones who run things in the restaurant industry.

Alicia: Right.

I've been thinking a lot about this. I think that writers are punished for it—for speaking out about chef behavior and for writing about it, even though we think that that's our job. But we are really expected to maintain the status quo when it comes to these chefs. We are expected to be nice, be accepting that it is hard to work in a kitchen, hard to run a kitchen. And so even though these people, usually men, are getting rich off the backs of other people's labor that perhaps they've been toxic to, we are supposed to not necessarily criticize that. 

And that came up for me this year because the person who was chosen to be the series editor, the editor for Best American Food Writing 2020 or 2021, was Gabrielle Hamilton, who—I saw my job, when I was writing for The Village Voice, to—as a food writer to be someone who kind of held powerful people to account for their decisions. 

But I wrote a piece about how when she was thinking of going into business with Ken Friedman to—yeah, to restore The Spotted Pig, and somehow related it to a natural disaster and that sort of thing. It was just really horrifying to watch in the midst of this big movement for accountability to see a female chef thinking that she could kind of fix a rapist and a restaurant with a rape room that anyone in the industry had heard the whispers about. I was told people knew not to work there if you were a woman. It was just really bizarre. 

And so I wrote about that—when it happened in 2018. And then when she was the—named the editor this year, I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I'm certainly not going to be in it.’ And that has consequences for us financially, of course. And that's why I was like, ‘How is it ok to put a chef in charge of deciding the best food writing when this is, of course, someone who's going to protect other chefs as well?’ 

And when your essay on Eat a Peach wasn't included in the anthology, you were very vocal on social media about your feelings about it. And I was really impressed by that because I feel most of us are—We're going to be Charlie Brown going home or whatever sad, being like, ‘Ok, whatever. I guess I'm just not good enough.’ But when we know that's not the case. We know that these things are not judged on a real meritocracy—meritocratic level. 

And so I wanted to ask you why it was important for—to speak out about that. I don't think we can really have hope that awards or anthologies are going to reward work that's critical of chefs, because they are bound to protect each other. And I mean, there was something included about  just being the girlfriend of a Michelin-starred chef. 

Hannah: I saw it. 

Alicia: And it's like, ‘Wow, this is just really collected work this year, when we had—we're talking so much about restaurants and the role of restaurants. But we're gonna have an anthology that just pretends that none of that actually happened.’

But yeah, so for you, why was it so important to speak out? And how did you feel about this person being the editor?

Hannah: I mean, I'm pissed about the whole thing. 

And actually that essay that you're talking about, that was in Grub Street. I very much like Alan, but the winner of that award tweeted out how honored she was to be working with one of her idols, Gabrielle Hamilton. And I wanted to scream into the void. 

Look, anyone who has read my essay who is, who’s tangential to the food world knows that that essay belonged in the anthology if for no other reason than it memorialized a certain period of time that we were living in. And that is what is supposed to be the point of an anthology that comes out annually.

And I'm not afraid to say that it was an excellent piece of writing. It's probably the best piece of writing I have ever executed, with great gratitude and debt to my editors who reigned me in. And this is my bad. I really just thought it was a sure thing. I was like, ‘I'm 100% going to be in the anthology. Why wouldn't I?’ And even Pete Wells was like, ‘You're definitely going to be in the anthology or whatever.’ When I didn't receive word from them, I was like, ‘This is shocking.’ And then I was like, ‘I guess it's not shocking. It's not shocking for Gabrielle Hamilton to be exactly who I thought she was going to be.’

And in addition to the Ken Friedman thing, there was the 10,000-word essay that she had in the New York Times Magazine last year, which people blindly praised when it had a lot of really questionable things in it, like, ‘Oh hey, I'm not going to take a GoFundMe for my staff because it bruises my ego.’ And then a recipe a few pages later for using $60 crab and an appetizer. 

I don't have a personal grievance. I just think that how—who made the decision to put her—it's mystifying. The whole thing is mystifying. I think it's widely understood in the food community that changes need to be made. And yet, here we are, after all of this, repeating the same narrative over and over again. Let's take the people who were abusive and put them in positions where they get to choose what is good and what is not good. Let's ignore the fact that this was the biggest year in terms of racial injustice that we've had to actually face head on as Americans in my lifetime, and put a white female writer, restaurateur of all things in the position of editing the collection. 

The food world continues to be tone deaf. Of course. I mean, we can talk about James Beard a different time. But this is just sort of another example. And I don't know if there's a correction on that. I tried to call it out so that more people would amplify the understanding of it. And privately, a lot of high-profile people reached out to me. Probably not so much.

Alicia: Yeah. 

And that's disappointing, because we really do. And I said this, I think I wrote about the James Beard awards and how basically I think writers, if they bring back the media awards, writers, especially freelance writers, should boycott putting their work in. Because something has to give in terms of the way these things work, in terms of how much energy we put out, and then are expected to also spend money to be—have our work considered for these awards, I mean, while we get paid garbage and are taxed to the hilt for that work. 

The expectations really need to change, and I think—the reason it was so disappointing that Gabrielle Hamilton was chosen this year is that this was the year that we were hoping to see changes. And I think that her decision, the decision to put her as editor this year, showed we're not actually going to change anything. We want to consolidate power at where it is, and keep it where it is. 

Hannah: 100%.

Alicia: Yeah.

And I think it is important for people to talk publicly about that kind of thing. But the thing is, it looks like sour grapes to some people. It looks like you're being rude to your colleagues whose work was chosen. But it's not that. It has to give that we reject the status quo and this concentration of power with chefs. And it's just high time. [Laughs.] 

Hannah: Right. 

And I think also the public may not know, for instance, that when it comes to these compilations and awards—I mean, Best American you don't have to pay, but you have to be the one to actively send her your material and be like, ‘Please consider me.’ It's not like it's just a bunch of people sitting in a room going through every piece of food writing from the year. 

And with ICP and James Beard, you have to send them money, and then you have to send them your links, and you pay for every single submission. Obviously, there's an access issue based on the financial part of it. But in addition to that, you have to have the wherewithal to even know when to do this stuff and who to send it to. The system is completely messed up, even apart from the person making the choices about what gets included.

Alicia: Right.

No, it's just really upsetting. And I think I'm glad that you were vocal about this, because it's such a conversation, it's a conversation that's wildly overdue to just really point out that what is called Best American Food Writing is simply one person's kind of idea of what that means, and not a real expression of what that year meant in food writing. I mean, if it was, we would have seen a lot more independent outlets, I think, included there. It was really a year of independent media. But yeah, no. [Laughs.] 

And yeah, it's really sad that more people aren't willing to kind of reject these things that we know are harmful. But that's the world we live in. That's capitalism, I guess, right? [Laughs.]

Hannah: Yeah. 

I mean, I think my feeling is also—a, I mean, you mentioned sort of the collateral damage that writers can suffer by vocalizing this kind of stuff. I mean, I continue to be unafraid of anything except cockroaches. So, don't put me in a room with roaches. If I want to write a piece about David Chang, I'm gonna write about a piece about David Chang. If I want to post about Gabrielle Hamilton, I’ll suffer the consequences. 

I don't believe for myself, because of where I'm positioned, that these people are going to come for me. I recognize that they are very much capable of coming for people who are less established. And in some ways I see it as an obligation, because I have a platform and because I have enough of a reputation of being kind of an iconoclast and just saying whatever I want, that I'm not sure it's harmful to me. And so I feel like it's my obligation to use that lack of harm to everyone's advantage. 

Alicia: Right. 

And I would hope it changes things, but I think people are a bit too comfortable with the way things work, even if it is to their detriment. Yeah. 

Well, to shift a bit, I wanted to ask about living in the Hamptons because I know you're living in East Hampton. I grew up in Patchogue on the south shore. So I know the Hamptons. Well, because I used to work at Hildreth’s Department Store in Southampton. I designed the website for a couple of years when I was in college. 

And I wanted to know, how is it out there? Where do you eat? How has it influenced your work? It really is, I think, more interesting a place than people give it credit for because of that kind of merging of the townies and the working class and the wildly rich. And I think it is more interesting than people give it credit for, though I do think it's weird how much the summer, places from the city kind of open summer residency is out there now. I think that's weird. 

But for you, how is it? How is the experience?

Hannah: Well, what's changed in the last year because of the pandemic really—there's this sort of beautiful off-season that we enjoy as members of a resort community and it's like until late March, early April. And there's nobody here from September on, and it's our own private Idaho or whatever. These past two years, everyone's been out here. So we haven't really gotten a respite in that sense. 

It has its pluses and minuses. Where I grew up in Massachusetts was a seasonal beach community also, although certainly not to this degree. And wealth was not part of the equation. So I'm used to the pop in the summer, and I always gravitate toward the beach. That's something that's very important to me. 

But actually, the townie element of it for me is maybe the most interesting thing. I really did not know moving up to the Hamptons six years ago that it's very conservative out here. There's a lot of conservative politics, which are a tough pill for me to swallow as a former Brooklyn resident. 

In terms of restaurants, more and more, we're seeing things that are opening year round, which is exciting. I love the Nick & Toni's group. Rowdy Hall is actually one of my favorite just sort of go-to places. 

It's actually exciting for all of us, even those of us who live here year-round, when the stuff starts opening for the season because it's something new is happening. And I get to go to a different place to eat. So that's starting now. I like to go to Montauk a lot, because I'm close by and I lived there for a few years. 

But I would say that the experience is—it's hard to explain to people who don't spend a lot of time here. The blend between the high and low and the absolute—the wealth is so unimaginable. But then there are just ordinary people who live here, too, and there's a huge undocumented community who lives here, which is something I really value about the community.

Alicia: Yeah. 

No, it's interesting. I used to work out there. And then also my dad used to drive Martha Stewart around. [Laughter.] So I have this very weird understanding of the Hamptons. ’Cause yeah, when I worked at Hildreth’s, it was all people who lived out there. And you have a different sense of what it's like from that versus—when I've been home in the pandemic and I went out to Carissa’s, which is so beautiful. But it's such a different vibe. And they had the Forthave Amaro, and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ It's just a taste of city stuff, which is good. And I can't wait to go back, honestly. 

Hannah: I mean, I can't wait to get to the beach. Everyone's predicting kind of a banner year out here, which is not necessarily what you want when you have to drive on one lane of traffic.

Alicia: Yeah, that moment when Sunrise Highway becomes one lane is killer. [Laughs.]

But for you, is cooking a political act?

Hannah: Yes. 

I mean, I think I make choices in terms of what I purchase, and who I do business with, both cooking and dining. And that is sort of informed by my politics of what I choose to eat, what I choose to feed my kids. 

I've had a farm share out here for the entire time that I've been living out here, because I really feel like I need to be part of the local farm system. And I feel it's important for people to buy into their community in that way. There are places that I absolutely stay away from. I'm not saying Blue Duck, but maybe Blue Duck. [Laughter.] Very big Trump supporters. 

Alicia: Oh! I didn’t know that.

Hannah: Yeah. [Laughs.] Although it's tough to navigate that out here, because if you were really to go by that you would never buy fish. 

But yeah, I think there's political—everything is political. People like to say, ‘Oh, don't get politics involved.’ But politics absolutely governs everything you do, especially in a small community.

Alicia: Right. 

Well, thank you so much for taking the time today.

Hannah: Thank you for having me. This is really exciting.