Ina Yalof is the author of Food and the City, a collection of more than fifty stories focusing on the behind the scenes figures who help run the foodservice industry machine in New York City.
Before taking on this challenge Ina lived in New Jersey and worked in a hospital for ten years before going on to publish a total of fourteen books on wellness, hospitals and women’s health. After moving back to New York City, Ina saw the burgeoning popularity of the food scene in the city through long lines at food trucks and restaurants as well as the very visible online presence of food, particularly through blogging and photographs. What came next was a deep dive into a new world for Yalof, someone who had never studied or written on the subject. We spoke with Ina on how she chose her subjects, her favorites stories and what she learned during the writing process.
Ina, why should people pick up a copy of Food and the City?
Well there are two things that make the book really interesting. It is an oral history researched by someone who knows nothing about the industry. I went searching for people and when I found them I just started asking questions that a newcomer would want to know about. The second thing is that I asked questions industry insiders might not consider which makes the book more accessible for the reader. It’s not a bad thing to come to a subject with fresh eyes.
How did you pick the subjects of your book?
This was the best part of writing the book. First off, I knew I wanted them to all be from the five boroughs, not just from Manhattan. I also knew I wanted to find people no one knew about. Well known chefs and culinary figures weren’t really what I was going for, I wanted people like line cooks. Those are the people who really make the food great but no one ever sees them. What brings them back day after day? So I ended up with nine different topics that turned into my nine chapters of the book.
I found them mostly through word of mouth. Find someone who owns a restaurant, they pass you along to a line cook, who passes you along to a food truck operator and so on. The more I started interviewing, the more recommendations I would get and it just expanded from there.
Do you have a favorite out of all the people you interviewed?
It’s funny because I have been doing a lot of radio shows and interviews and each time I do one I change my answer. There are fifty three people in the book and every single one is fascinating.
For example one of my favorites is Alessandro Borgognone and Daisuke Nakazawa. It is a New York story personified. Borgognone worked for his family in an Italian restaurant outside Manhattan called Patsy’s and one night he turned on the TV and watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about a chef from Japan with a famous sushi stand in a Tokyo subway station. When he was watching he saw Jiro’s assistant, Daisuke Nakazawa making sushi and thought ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if an Italian guy and a Japanese guy opened up a sushi restaurant in New York City? So he wrote to Daisuke and a year later they opened up their sushi restaurant and got four stars from Pete Wells at the New York Times! If that is not a New York story I don’t know what is.
You interviewed more than just people working in restaurants. What are some other operations you went and researched?
Well I wanted to find the largest kitchen in New York City and it turned out to be Rikers Island Correctional Facility. They served 12,000 inmates and 8,000 guards daily for a total of 47,000 meals every day. I was fortunate enough to get inside the prison and talk to people and see how things operate, it was just incredible. Everything from how they make desserts for 20,000 people to Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to put prisoners on heart healthy diets which cut out all of the fryolaters in the facility.
What ties together all of these people in the food service industry? What common traits did you see?
In order to be in the business I found you have to have a few things. Everyone I talked to had grit, guts and passion. The passion is the most important part from what I saw. Take for example Mohamed Aboulenein of The Halal Guys. He came to America with a PhD in Veterinary Medicine and he just wanted a better life for himself. But instead of being a vet he sold Hot Dogs near Central Park. His passion kept him going and he took over a Halal Stand on 53rd and 6th Avenue. This year they unveiled a plan for 375 franchises across the country.
Also people’s skills tie them together. With line cooks for example I asked them “after fifteen years of turning steaks and grilling fish, do you eve get bored?” And they explain to me that it is difficult. It takes skill and attention to time steaks at different temperatures for different tables and there re a lot of components that we don’t ever take into account because we don’t see them. They don’t do it for the exposure, they do it because they love it.
What is your biggest takeaway personally from writing this book?
That people in the food industry are a microcosm of our society. They are rich and poor, black and white, educated, uneduca
ted, single, married or divorced. They represent everyone in society.
Having written your first book on the food industry, do you have plans to write more about it?
It is a great question and one I ask myself every night before I go to sleep. What’s next? The book has gotten way more PR than I ever could have imagined. I won’t try and replicate the book but I think I will stick in the food area for awhile because it is so fascinating and there is so much worth sharing.
You can order Ina’s book on Amazon.