Keep the Conversation Going – An Interview with Josh Hamlet
December 18, 2017
Josh Hamlet is electric. He’s the kind of person who infuses whatever space he’s in with that brand of humming energy usually reserved for Friday night football games or the long, clanking trip to the top of the roller coaster before the drop. His mind is always working and seems to be in a hundred places at once. He’s organizing a dinner in New York, working through the details of a travel itinerary in Iceland, nagging writers about deadlines, and brainstorming about an event half a year away – all at the same time. And it’s infectious.
Josh and I have known each other since college. He’s the person who taught me how to move like no one was watching on the dance floor – and how to make a great grilled Portobello. Together, we’ve demolished a trash bag full of taco salad while whitewater canoeing down the French Broad and eaten real shrimp and grits in Savannah.
This October, Josh and I worked on a series of collaborative projects together in Berlin. The timing felt perfect. Josh’s online publication about food on the edges, Counter Service, is taking off in a big way, and I’ve been looking for ways to take Eat Me. Drink Me. out into the community. We spent the month writing and eating our way across the city, hosting a writing workshop, putting on events, reminiscing about the past, thinking about the future, and just basically having a damn good time.
We sat down one morning for breakfast at a very squeaky table to talk about New York, travel, hidden talents, and all things Counter Service.
LYZ PFISTER: I’m just going to dive right in. So tell me, why did you decide to start Counter Service?
JOSH HAMLET: Having worked in the New York food industry for six years, and having worked in food and around food since I was fourteen – I don’t know if that’s legal or not –
* we laugh *
JH: …I saw so much passion and creativity and talent that was so untapped, because these days, the food industry requires all of your attention. It’s an age-old stereotype that people go into it to make money to do something else. Now, because the service industry has ramped up in terms of what hospitality means, it kind of takes over. When I first started at one of the better restaurants I worked at, I would go home and study instead of writing or having creative discussions. A lot of my creativity was stifled as I moved further and further into the restaurant industry, and I think that’s true for a lot of people I worked around. People had these incredible talents I didn’t know about until we started talking Counter Service. For example, Nicolle, who’s a big part of Counter Service, is so talented when it comes to illustrations, but I never knew that in our day-to-day when we were serving chawanmushi. So I originally started Counter Service as an outlet for people to express their creative sides, be that through prose, poetry, essays, photo essays, videos, or playlists – which I think is a talent in its own right.
LP: What kind of response did you get from people when you approached them about contributing to this thing that didn’t directly have to do with their jobs?
JH: Everyone I talked to got excited. I don’t think that means everyone went home and wrote…
* we laugh *
JH: …because we all busy. But I think people thought it was an interesting way of talking about themselves and about food, too, because we’re all in the industry for a reason. I think people got excited about what this could be, even though it was nebulous at the beginning. It was one of those things where people were like, “Yeah, that sounds really dope. I don’t know what that means, but yeah, of course.”
The first issue we put out was themed “Beginnings,” ‘cause y’all, we didn’t have a theme. And what “beginnings” meant was up to that person. DeVonn [Francis] wrote about cooking with his grandma and beginning to learn that food is important in terms of community. And Zwann [Grays] submitted something about watching Hannibal, and how she thought the way Hannibal looked at food was beautiful, even though it involved eating… people. Which is kind of crazy and obviously gross. So, those things had nothing to do with each other, but it was a platform for people to say, “Oh, shit, somebody’s asking me to do something that’s outside of me setting another table, making a daiquiri, picking out the best Burgundy.” And I think for the most part, people got excited. Which then excited me, because I was like, amazing, this is something people are into, even if I’m not the one writing.
LP: For me, it’s been really cool to see the progression of Counter Service from that first issue to this one, which is your 12th. It feels more defined, has more sense of self – it’s really become a mature publication over the course of this year. When we talk, you keep coming back to this idea of a publication on the edges. What do you define as “on the edges”? And where are the edges in such an established food city as New York?
JH: That’s a great question. We’ve talked about the difference between Berlin and New York before, how Berlin is still trying to find its identity, while New York’s is so defined. I mean, we are a food city. But even though there’s a defined identity, people working in the industry are still pushing ideas that are not necessarily quote-unquote mainstream. I want to give a platform to those talented AF people that are creatively gifted, and a voice and place in the food industry conversation to those who don’t normally stand in the limelight. I love my chefs, my restaurateurs, my cocktail wizards, but I also love those who are the focus of a dining experience, a meal, a gathering, but on the outskirts of food media: bloggers, servers, somms, barbacks, cooks not chefs, chefs that aren’t backed by PR. I want to make sure the conversation is rich with new thoughts, energized ideas, and represents different backgrounds.
LP: Speaking of backgrounds, yours is in restaurants. Why get out of the kitchen and behind a computer? Why the switch from working with food to working about food?
JH: I’ve been in and out of the industry. I took like a little Eat. Pray. Love. moment two years ago, where I was like, I want to go travelling and get out of the industry, just because you get burned out. The stereotypes about burning out are completely true. When you throw yourself full-force into it, you give a lot. You’re constantly giving. But even though I’ve definitely taken steps out of it, when I get far enough away from working with people and working in hospitality, I come running back. After my little foray around the world, I helped open up a restaurant in Brooklyn and really enjoyed the process. Then I did it again and was like, okay, I’m done with restaurants. Then somebody approached me and was like, “Hey, let’s open this other restaurant,” and I got really into it. So for me to say that I’m completely out of it is a little hard, because I don’t know. I’m not working in a restaurant now, but that doesn’t mean I won’t step foot into one again.
For me, the motivating factor to do Counter Service is that I think it’s important. I have a strong drive to help other really talented people pursue their talents. I see so many creatively and intellectually powerful people not being able to express themselves. And I want to help shift the food media culture as it is now. I don’t know if that’s my goal. I don’t know if I’m one to stand around and say, “I’m going to change stuff.” But I want the people I’m working with to change stuff. Their views on food are too important not to do this. Food media should be more than just listicles. “Top ten places to eat in New York.” “The four best coffee shops in Kreuzberg.” “The three best places to buy a steamer.” Like, those are relevant, but I think there’s so much more to food media and food writing than just figuring out what’s the best, who’s opening a restaurant, how do you cook with shiso, what the hell is a chawanmushi, why are there poke bowls everywhere? Those are conversations to have, but I think the way in which food influences creativity in general is important as well. I don’t want to say I aspire to have Proust writing about madeleines in Counter Service, but if it happened, it would fit more than a top ten list would.
LP: That’s something I admire about Counter Service – it feels like real people talking about real experiences, and they’re very diverse, as is the writing that’s being showcased.
JH: Right. I’m going to paraphrase something Gabriela Acero said while we were working on an event together. Counter Service is a dialogue between establishing a community and trying to figure out how everything fits together. When she said that to me, I was like, “Thank you for saying what I’ve been thinking but can’t put words to.” It was this idea of a dialogue about real life, because food is a part of everyone’s everyday. That’s a cliché that’s also a truth. It’s amazing to have fourteen essays or photo essays or graphic designs or poems all tied together around, for example, water. Talking about crabbing and talking about your mother crossing an ocean to emigrate doesn’t necessarily work together, but it’s threaded through the idea of water. And that expands people’s ideas of what food writing is. I mean, I always joke around about the fact that I don’t want the phrase “cooked to perfection” in the publication ever, just because I don’t know what the hell that means. I don’t know where perfection is. But I’d love to live there.
LP: You mentioned events. What are some of the collaborations you’re working on, and how do you see that as a part of Counter Service?
JH: I originally started Counter Service with Kristen Tauer, and back then, it was a traditional publication. It was: let’s take words and images and publish them. Events just kind of came along with it, because I’ve always loved doing them. Even before Counter Service, I was doing stuff with Unfamiliar Suppers or Junior Varsity. But as Counter Service grew, the events became manifestations of the community we were trying to build. Instead of connecting just through a screen, getting people together started to become really important. Being able to say, “Hey, everyone who knows Counter Service, if you’re in the city, we’re going to be at Hemlock tonight. We’re throwing this thing, five course, family style, we’re clearing everything out.” It was really cool when we did that first event at Hemlock, because there were five distinct groups, and by the end of the meal, people were crossing the room and sitting with other people and being like, “Oh my God, you know this person from this restaurant,” or “Oh my God, I did an event with you over at the Met.” It was like all of a sudden, the entire room knew each other, and that was so important to me. It was the epitome of what I want in an event and what I eventually want in this publication.
So we’ve worked with Hemlock in the Lower East Side in New York, we’ve worked with Vinegar Hill House and Bradley Schaffer. That was a special moment, too. We took over the backyard and threw a family-style, multi-course dinner. At Hemlock, we also did a tasting menu hidden at the bar, so it was like a restaurant within a restaurant. And that felt really magical, because the energy was just up, and people were excited about where they were. We’ve worked with a couple of other people, and now I’m in Berlin with you, working with Eat Me. Drink Me.
LP: Here we are.
JH: Here we are. And putting on a writing workshop that I think strikes the balance between what Eat Me. Drink Me. and Counter Service are looking for in terms of thinking about food writing and how food is used as an entryway into talking about memories, experiences, or the future.
LP: You were also just in London, and travelling seems to be something that’s becoming a more definite part of Counter Service. Where’s the most interesting place Counter Service, or just life in general, has taken you this year?
JH: Counter Service might be based in New York, but goddammit, I do not want it to be a New York thing. New York is an incredible, motivating, driving factor in the food world, but it’s not everything. You can get better meals other places. Sarah Boisjoli, who I went to London with, is starting the travel aspect of Counter Service, called Cabin Service. Part of that trip was actually to jump-start Cabin Service, which I’m really excited about; it’s going to be dope. But where’s the most interesting place I’ve been? I recently got back from the center of France. My friend has some property there, and I don’t know if it was the time, the place, the weather, or the company, but there was something so magical about being there. We were – I’m going to butcher all of this French – just east of Cahors, right outside of a town called Lugagnac.
LP: * laughs * That’s cute.
JH: It is! It’s Lugagnac. Isn’t it? And, what’s the other one… There’s Lugagnac and Limogne. Anyway. It was a place that felt like all construction had stopped in 1724. Where they were like, “And we’re done. No more big buildings, no more buildings at all, really.” It was a place that was so true to itself, which is something I search for in everything. That makes me sound like a pompous asshole – I’m not, I promise – but I really search for honesty and truth and integrity in the things I consume or surround myself with, be that friends or places I go or restaurants I eat at. It’s what I’m looking for, more than, oh my God, is it perfect? No, perfect doesn’t exist. Anyway, it was this gorgeous home, the shutters were baby blue, there was sprawling land everywhere just because people didn’t want to build on it anymore. The structures were gorgeous, but not perfect and not insulated, and it got cold at night, but it was still amazing. The runs were fantastic and the roads weren’t paved and we biked everywhere and the bread was good but misshapen, and the lines for the charcuterie place were out the door, but everyone waited because it was so good. That place really floored me. I would go back in an instant. It’s one of those places where you sit back and you’re like, I want to live here forever. What would I do? And the answer is read and run and that’s about it. And cook. Which sounds like an idyllic life, but…
LP: That sounds great.
JH: Yeah, I feel like it’d get a bit boring after a while. I also just recently got back from New Orleans. That place is so goddamn hedonistic. I couldn’t live that life, but it’s definitely really cool to see. I don’t know. It’s a hard question. In the last year, those two places were really special, but I feel like I’m leaving somebody out of the party. Like, “Oops, sorry about you, Amsterdam. I didn’t mention you.” I mean, no matter what, I am so motivated by travel.
My friends Laura Zulliger and Jenny Estill and I went to New Zealand to WWOOF, but when we landed in Christchurch, we still didn’t have a WWOOFing person set up. So we’re flipping through that little green book trying to find somebody to stay with, and we found – obviously, we all went to Davidson – a man named Stu Davidson. When I called him, his answering machine picked up and said, “If I didn’t pick up the phone, I’m out killing possum. Leave a message.” I was a vegetarian at the time, and I was like, oh no. That night, I ate lamb, broke my vegetarianism, we worked on the dairy farm, got up at 6 a.m. every morning, but what was really interesting about that experience was getting dropped off at that little town in the Waikaka Valley. The bus driver was like, “Alright, so this is – whatever the name of the town was – population of two. We have three people getting off, now it’s a population of five. It’s a different town, but I guess that’s why you travel, right? To see places that are different.” And that’s stuck with me. No matter where you go, it’s always different. Even in somewhere as familiar as Berlin, I went to that grocery store and was like, “Oh, this is different.”
LP: So where’s Counter Service headed?
JH: Oh God, I have no idea. I mean, I have a lot of ambitions and hopes and dreams. I want to keep producing material, I want to meet new people, I want new people to get excited about it, and in their excitement, help shape where Counter Service can go. I really do believe it’s such a community effort.
I want to throw cool parties. I want people to get together and talk about food, and I want people to get together and not talk about food. I mean, if I had my way, we’d have a publication that threw amazing events, that might team up and have a residency at a restaurant we take over every Tuesday and Wednesday and serve a dope menu at the bar. I don’t know. But I want the conversation to keep going no matter what.
Photo credits: Gabriela Herman, Matthew Feddersen