Nancy Leson: Seattle Times Food Critic
By MICHAEL J. CARTER
How does one become the Seattle Times restaurant critic? Try waiting tables for more than ten years across North America, followed by a late blooming education and you get class of ’92 alumni Nancy Leson.
“The best way to get a job writing is to find something you love writing about,” said Leson who professes to live what she covers. To Leson, restaurant is theater. One of her favorite past times is to go out dining by herself.
The Philadelphia native began her culinary prowess at the age of 17 when she started working in an expensive hotel restaurant waiting tables. She subsequently hopped to New Jersey, California and Puerto Rico.
“The career I inadvertently jumped into was waitressing. I could always get a job and move around. I cooked a lot and read a lot.”
Leson made her way to Anchorage where she nearly completed a nursing degree before being lured to Seattle.
“When you live in Anchorage, you almost always stop in Seattle on your way to most anywhere,” said Leson who was visiting a friend.
“We’d go shopping at Pike Place Market and eat at wonderful restaurants and I thought, whoa! This place is a food-lover’s dream-come-true. I want to live in Seattle. This area is so rich of restaurants and chefs.”
She made to move and got an associate’s degree from Shoreline Community College before graduating from the University of Washington with a major in journalism at the age of 33.
“I was so broke by the time I got my degree with all the credits I was taking.”
Needing money, Leson went back to what she new best and landed a job at a high-end Italian restaurant. But as chance would have it a posting for a food intern by the Seattle Weekly caught her attention. After sending in a witty cover letter she was granted an interview and immediately given a column with the paper. From then on she never looked for another job again, taking an annual pay cut of $11 thousand as she transitioned out of the restaurant business and into a job with Sasquatch Publishing.
Later Leson worked as the backup restaurant critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer after their main critic died, but left to begin freelancing for such publications as Town and Country and Brides. She was eventually snagged by the Seattle Times and started writing two columns a week that appear on Wednesdays and Fridays, a job she’s been doing for 10 years.
“People think my job is so glamorous,” said Leson. “I spend most of my time glued to my computer. It’s not all about sitting in four-star restaurants.”
A typical work week sees the critic working from home for several days followed by two to four trips to a restaurant and work from the office. Her role has evolved from star-ranking restaurants to compiling new, writing features and working a beat.
“I’m so lucky to live in the Seattle area. There’s too much to talk about, too much material.
One of her professional dilemmas is finding and “off switch” to her work as evident in an article titled “Oodles of Noodles and One Fateful Parking Spot,” which appeared in the Jan. 23 edition of the Seattle Times.
“So, there I was, wheeling down 12th Avenue on Capitol Hill last week, heading back to the office, when what did I see? Srrrreeeeechhhh! A parking space, directly across from Boom Noodle.”
“I never entirely leave my work at the door. I can’t.”
A year-and-a-half ago she delved into radio broadcasting when KPLU 88.5 FM contacted her to do food commentary, and although the busy reporter initially declined due to her heft workload, she became the “Food for Thought” host. The program encompasses only minutes of her 50-hour work week. The show itself is a short two to three-minute question and answer segment.
On past shows Leson has talked about everything, from popular bread recipes to night-time oyster fests where she’s confessed to having eaten two-and-a-half to three dozen oysters.
“Did you ever hear the great quote credited to Tom Robins?” she said during one episode of her program. “He said eating an oyster is like French kissing a mermaid.”
So what does the future hold?
“Why should I write a book when there are so many great books out there to read?” Leson said in response to people asking if she’s considering writing one.
As for being a restaurant critic, is it a dream job?
“That’s what they tell me,” Leson said, who was quick to point out the amount of time she spends in front of a computer terminal. Then again, perhaps she has found her dream job in being someone who writes what she lives.