Lillian Chou is living the glamorous life—eating her way through one paid meal after another in the nation's capital as food editor for expat magazine Time Out. A diehard foodie, Chou doesn't just write about food; she's also worked as a chef, a food stylist, a recipe developer, and caterer. The former Gourmet Magazine editor grew up around her family's Chinese restaurant in the New Jersey suburbs (despite this, she says, "My family's not a food family. There's nothing refined; they still go to takeout places") and has contributed to a number of cookbooks and other publications. She dished on Beijing's food scene during a recent visit to Chengdu.
So your job is eating at restaurants. Do you still cook?
Yeah, that's my day off. It's not that Beijing food is bad—when I first got there, you don't know where to go, you look at the magazine, and it's all foreign restaurants. I didn't come here to eat a burger; I didn't come here to eat a crepe. I now know where to go. But I really like to cook at home. It's really a pleasure.
What food items can't you get there?
Good avocadoes that aren't $6 that aren't black in the middle. I don't really miss anything because there's so many other things, so many new things. I usually have mules coming all the time, people always come to Beijing; if there's one thing they can bring me it'll be a bottle of olive oil. I had a friend come visit me, and he upgraded to first class, which meant he had 140 pounds. I had him bringing me everything, from chocolate, to quinoa, to sea salt. But it doesn't mean I want that all the time. The one thing I really miss is having a good Caesar salad—that's the one thing that nobody knows how to make in Beijing. ... We got a new store in Beijing called The Taste of Spain. Very expensive. But they're good. It's really good. So for me it'll be a treat to buy a little thing of olives or boquerones, which are sardines, and I'll have that with rice, and the can will last me two days, two meals, and I'll have had a much better meal at home sitting in my pajamas, and I'm happy.
What's your criteria when you review a restaurant?
In the beginning, Time Out said, 'Don't expect New York, it's Beijing.' And I said, 'That's not the point here, to say, this is good "for Beijing."' ... But having come from a kitchen and dining point of view, I have a lot more sympathy—what are they trying to do, are they trying to do something new? How hard are they trying? What kind of obstacles have they overcome? How authentic is it? How's the service? How's the dining room? Does it match the price point? If you're charging a certain price and giving a certain air, you have to deliver. Trying to be a high-end restaurant is difficult in any city because if you want to be the best, there's only one way to go from up, and that's down. I hate doing [the reviews] actually, I really hate it, because as a cook, I hate to judge; that's the part of the job I hate the most. That's no secret. But I try to focus on the positive. I want good food, and I try to find and encourage it.
Worst review you've given?
It was a Spanish tapas restaurant, and it was just bad. I just said, "Stop," and I walked out. I wanted to give it zero as a warning not to go, and then I decided it wasn't even worth it. What's the point? Everything was bad. And I didn't go back.
Do you usually agree with popular opinion on restaurants?
Earlier this year we did food awards, and there were a lot on the contenders' list that I hadn't been to, so I had to go try a lot—and it was very painful. I only give one [category] to readers because what happens is the restaurants vote for themselves, or it becomes the shitty Italian place that delivers. The other magazines do the most popular. But [ours] is not a popularity contest. And there are restaurants that are popular that I don't like, and that's OK. We don't all have the same taste.
Most underrated cuisine?
Peru. One of the best cuisines in the world. I go there every two years. It's amazing. It is phenomenal. And they have a big Chinatown, and the Chinese food is pretty bad, but they have something called chifas—Peruvian-Chinese fusion. They do a great job of it.
Food you can't stand?
I try everything twice. I don't hate anything. I thought I hated donkey because I had some really bad donkey in Harbin, but then I had some really great donkey in Beijing. I'm not a big kidney person. Last night I was eating pig brain, which is very custardy. The hardest thing to eat was sheep's eyeballs. Scorpions, lots of bugs. Dog penis I don't like. You can see the urethra. And yak ball, I really don't like. It's a tough texture.
Best airline food?
Usually when I'm flying I pack my own meals. And I'm of that sort that if it's not good, I'd rather miss the meal.
Your favorite culinary creation right now?
Just a sweet potato, it's like the greatest thing. Sometimes I'll take a little butter, put some douban jiang on it, some scallions, drizzle it with some sesame oil, and it's like the most wonderful meal. Or I put some good oil and Sichuan peppercorn in a cast-iron wok, and then I put some popcorn in there. The kernels pop really well, and it's really nice with some sea salt.