In the Kitchen with Max Falkowitz, Saveur's Executive Digital Editor
Max Falkowitz has a baby face and a disarming smile. He talks almost breathlessly, packing each sentence with intricate verbiage and asides that run into each other—all said in one spurt, then revisited with an editor’s thoughtful manner. He writes the same way, not at all like Hemingway. “I’m extremely long-winded and have a lot more droll,” he laughs.
The first point is debatable, but a curious thread certainly runs through Falkowitz’s food writing portfolio at Saveur, and at Serious Eats, where he started as editor of their New York site (he left as the senior features editor). When he was reporting on restaurants, he found himself dining out much more. Now that he manages a stable of freelancers, his own team of three and writes more about, say, pu-erh tea brokers, cookware and the fight for kitchen gender equality, his meals are a little more open-ended.
Falkowitz doesn’t cook much for himself these days, which is “an incredible shame,” but he’s trying to get better about it. It’s a challenge all New Yorkers face—it’s tough when you pass by food trucks with steaming momos, exceptional halal food and spicy Thai dishes tease you from multiple storefronts on your walk home. And there’s always that journalist’s excuse: “Well, I need to keep on top of things!” So the out-of-practice home cook has made a rule for himself (because he works best with rules and deadlines) that he’ll make a pot of beans every weekend.
“I have to defrost some pork belly, actually,” he says in the middle of our interview. It would go perfectly with the beans he was soaking for a borscht. “Do you mind if I just take that out of the freezer?”
When he finds the time for it, Falkowitz finds cooking to be a balm for his mental health. Mindfulness plays into many of his dietary habits these days, like the calm and rhythm of his tea-drinking. His living room is completely arranged around the practice—two couches bookend a sliver of a table to hold handcrafted ceramic tea ramekins, coasters and accoutrements he’s collected on his travels.
“One of the reasons I love tea drinking like this is that it’s really rhythmic and it forces you to stop and pay attention to what you’re doing. You can’t be absent-minded about it … it’s what I always come back to, to calm down and center myself,” he said, topping up a shallow cup of 10-year-old raw pu-erh.
Falkowitz tells the story of his start as a food writer as a bit of a stumble-upon. A Philip K. Dick aficionado with a penchant for sci-fi lit (“I’ve always found it to be a great medium for exploring everything. It’s the most accessible form of intellectualism there is for people”), his dream was to work in genre book publishing. However, staff jobs eluded him, leading to consulting, freelancing and event organizing for the Vendy Awards. As his social network became more food focused, so did his writing.
His first foray into food nerdom was a freelance Serious Eats column about spices, which got him talking about using spices in ice cream (he’s been called the “ice cream whisperer” and has written and developed over 100 flavors and recipes on the site). This led to covering ice cream shops and general New York food news, which eventually led to Falkowitz’s full-time job running the Serious Eats New York website, with an emphasis on Queens.
He was surprised when Serious Eats founder Ed Levine called him up and offered him a job at the “deliciously anarchic,” James Beard Award–winning website. It was his first staff position, and a fortuitous foot in the door.
“I was lucky to start working for a place where you were encouraged to pursue your obsessions. I really lucked out in the food writing game in that [at] most publications, you’re not encouraged to do your own thing—Serious Eats, it’s their entire business model. Getting crazy people to talk about stuff they know about.”
Falkowitz grew up in Forest Hills, just one stop away from his current Jackson Heights apartment, and most of his food memories had nothing to do with a home kitchen. He and his classmates were practically poster children for diversity—his best friends were Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian and Irish Catholic. With Queens as their playground, he and his buddies socialized over food; they stuffed themselves with falafel (his mom called it “falafelizing”), dumplings and hot pot, delighting over monthly congee deliveries from a pal’s Hong Kong–born mother.
“I had to learn how to use chopsticks at the same age that I had to learn how to ride a bike, so Chinese food culture was always there in some form and it always seemed particularly interesting to me,” he recalls.
Falkowitz continues his love of Chinese food culture today; he co-authored The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook, with chef and restaurateur Helen You, released by Clarkson Potter at the beginning of 2017.
He was offered the opportunity to work on the cookbook around the same time he was set to begin his job at Saveur; he couldn’t fathom turning down the offer to work with such a local legend.
And though he’s quite humble and may not admit it, Falkowitz is important to Queens food as well. He’s certainly done a bang-up job of putting Queens restaurants and food traditions on the map, having dedicated thousands of words to Queens food over the course of his career.
Adjusting his wiry eyeglasses and bustling around his narrow kitchen, he’s able to seamlessly concentrate on both recipe and conversation at once. He uses honey he picked up on Staten Island, some squeezed lemon and chilled sherry to throw together a labneh-based frozen yogurt while we talk. He’s just gotten back from a trip to New Orleans and these are his refrigerator’s offerings. He measures out some sherry for our glasses, and conversation resumes as the ice cream maker whirrs into action.
It’s been an evolution, graduating from free-form, straightforward celebrations of flavor and where to go for a great meal to Saveur’s structured environment with more nuanced, provocative discussions about why food—and the people making it—matter.
“This is actually an enormous opportunity for lifestyle journalists and storytellers to do something we should have been doing all along, which is telling stories of these marginalized voices. We have the ability to humanize people in a way that these other organizations can’t … that’s a power we have that they don’t.”
Everyday, he and his editorial team ask themselves how they can contribute to the “hashtag resistance” in meaningful ways. “We’ve been lucky to run a number of food stories about refugees from Syria and beyond in America and Canada (often with them as entrepreneurs),” Falkowitz adds.
He is particularly proud of one he recently edited about a refugee family of Syrian chocolate makers, though, “I worry a little about inadvertently cultivating a narrative that requires refugees to do some amazing food thing for us to care about them—being good and decent people to our fellow world citizens, of course, should be more than enough—but there’s something about these pieces that’s clearly connecting with people, and I think helping, in some small, perhaps infinitesimal way, to help engender that empathy that we talked about that I think is so important.”
He mused, “I think the best I can do for now is sneak in some vegetables of truth with stories about food we can get people interested in. Everyone likes to eat. Everyone wants to hear stories about food, and the act of then slowly exposing people to stories of who actually makes the stuff? To me, I think that has more potential to change minds than a scathing op-ed in the Times.”
Falkowitz’s keen ear senses that the frozen yogurt is almost done: “You hear that? It gets progressively deeper, which makes it a little louder. As the base freezes up it gets harder to churn and the machine struggles a bit. So it makes this groaning sound, like someone working harder and harder to bike up a hill. And you know that slow, almost gurgling UGH that you mouth as you push up near the top? That’s what you want to hear. That’s the sound of good ice cream.”
The yogurt wasn’t quite ready to serve, but he didn’t want to keep me waiting. He dolloped some half-formed fro-yo into one of his collected bowls, drizzled some honey over it and laughed at its soft texture. He may have virtually written a book on ice cream, but he still doesn’t take the task, or himself too seriously.