In today’s episode, we speak with our guest John Lehndorff, an acclaimed Colorado-based food writer, radio host, and editor.
In this episode, John shares how he pivoted from yearning to be a music critic to becoming an award-winning food media professional—penning the Nibbles column since around 1985 and hosting Radio Nibbles show at KGNU FM for more than 25 years. He takes a deep dive into his “food critic” days when he reviewed more than 400 restaurants for the Rocky Mountain News. John also elaborates on what it’s like to be a head judge at the National Pie Championships.
Listen as John talks about how to cover local food scenes, what his days typically look like as a professional food writer, and his deep affinity for pies.
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Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. Today, I’m honored to speak with John Lehndorff, an acclaimed Colorado-based food writer, radio host, and editor. To give you a little background on John, he’s chronicled the blossoming of Colorado’s food, drink, and fare since the late 1970s.
Currently John is the food editor of the Boulder Weekly, penning the “Nibbles” column. He has written almost weekly since 1985. For more than 25 years, he’s hosted the Radio Nibbles show on KGNU-FM.
But it doesn’t stop there. John is also the food editor of Colorado “Avid Golfer” magazine, and has contributed to other leading publications such as “Washington Post,” “Bluegrass Unlimited,” “USA Today,” “Food Network Magazine,” and more.
As a former restaurant cook, caterer, and cooking teacher, he’s reviewed more than 400 restaurants as the dining critic for the “Rocky Mountain News.” He’s also a self-described pie expert and former spokesperson for the National Pie Day, director of the Great American Pie Festival, editor of “Pie Times Magazine,” and head judge at the National Pie Championships.
Listen as we chat about how John became an award-winning food writer and editor, his best tips on starting this type of career, and how he became a pie expert.
And there he is! Good morning.
John Lehndorff: Good morning, Kirk. How are you?
Kirk Bachmann: I’m great, buddy. If I was any better, I’d be you!
John Lehndorff: Ha!
Kirk Bachmann: Honestly. I’m sensing there’s some pie somewhere around the corner. Who knew? Who knew?
John Lehndorff: Who knew there was a pie subculture all over the world that wanted to stay connected. It’s a beautiful thing.
Kirk Bachmann: It really is, right? So many times – I have to be perfectly honest – you go to a beautiful restaurant for dinner and oftentimes, it’s the standard creme brulee, maybe the kids have some ice cream, but boy, do my ears perk up if I hear a cobbler or a pie is available on the menu, because it’s so rare! And so beautiful. Maybe throw a little ice cream on top, there. How do you prefer your pie? We’re going to talk a lot about pie today! But I’m super curious: How do you like your pie?
John Lehndorff: Well, it depends. Generally speaking, when I’m judging pie competitions, I want the pie. I don’t want ice cream, whipped cream, creme fraiche, or cheese on it. It has to stand on its own merits.
It depends on the pie. There’s no question that warm apple pie with whipped cream or ice cream is a beautiful thing. But if you’ve never tried it, a really sharp cheddar cheese melted on top or incorporated into the crust is a wonderful thing.
What I’ve always loved about pie is the way that it brings people together. That’s kind of been a driving force for me.
Kirk Bachmann: Like food does. I absolutely love that.
I’m really excited to chat with you this morning. I’m looking at you. I’m looking at years of experience. I’m going to ask you to be patient with me. Go easy. I listened yesterday – or maybe the day before – to your beautiful little chat with Chef Daniel Asher from here in Boulder, and our very own chef instructor, Suzanne Prendergast, who has been with Escoffier for years. It was so, so good! So playful, so thoughtful, so respectful, so fun. How does someone get so comfortable with the microphone as you appear to be?
John Lehndorff: Well, it helps if you’ve been doing it for 30 or 40 years. There are some weeks when I didn’t sound so cool, so together, or so organized, but some of that is the practice over the years.
I first started doing food radio at KGNU in 1985. I had this idea of doing something like a “Prairie Home Companion,” except about food. I called it the “Generic Gourmet” show. It was on for a number of years. It was like a food variety show. I just had always loved radio.
And I would say, the way that you get comfortable with that is, of course, doing a lot of it. The best place to do something like that is KGNU, which is Boulder’s 45-year-old public radio station. They have classes in using the technology. You can intern. Let’s just speak to anyone who is younger than 40 or maybe less. I often say, “What I do is a podcast that happens to be broadcast live,” because if I say the word “radio,” they fall asleep. Because they don’t know what it is.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m going off script here quite a bit, but it’s fascinating to me. What about this recent phenomena called the pandemic? How did you find yourself pivoting during that time?
John Lehndorff: For me, it was genuinely horrifying as a food person. It really brought to light a lot of the problems in the food supply system, local food sheds, and everything else that came up because of that.
Personally, about a week after it started, “Nibbles” went on what we like to call hiatus. In other words, they said, “We don’t have any advertising from restaurants and stuff.” “Nibbles” went away for a year, which was challenging, but there was always a desperate need for information about how restaurants were doing, how people could find eggs, things like that.
Kirk Bachmann: One thing that I was not aware of, and both of us being here in the area, we have had our fair share of rain in the last ten days. Bittersweet. I love it. We need it. We need it. It’s as green as I’ve ever seen it. What about the golf course? Have you been out there yet?
John Lehndorff: Actually, I’d been talking to some golf people, and they say it’s a real challenge. When you have 20 acres of turn to mow and it’s growing really fast. All of the farmers are complaining, and they need help because the weeds are growing in between the tomato plants. My personal problem, since I live in Louisville, is that I’m afraid that all of the stuff is going to grow, and then in August it’s going to turn brown, and it’s going to become a fire danger. I hope that doesn’t happen.
What this all means, though – I just wrote a column about getting help fermenting foods and preserving food because it’s just going to be a stunning year for local produce. I’m always encouraging people to figure out how to make pickles or kimchi or salt away stuff or dry it or freeze it, so that in October you can have a rhubarb pie.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. For our listeners, I just want to re-emphasize if you haven’t got the hint already, that John is our go-to person for hot eateries and all food trends in Colorado. I’m sure you get these questions a lot. “John, what should I go eat? What’s in season? What should I do?” A couple of questions that are going to put you on the spot: Where’s the most recent place that you dined?
John Lehndorff: I dined at a place called the Pupusas Lover 2 on Arapahoe, right across from Safeway. It’s in this very cool corner that includes Rincon Argentino, a French cafe, a good bakery, and a Montreal-style bagel place. What I love about Pupusas Lover 2 is that most of us who have encountered El Salvadoran, Central American food have had pupusas, and that was about it. It was sort of a tamale alternative. If you go to this restaurant, you can sample all the other cool things, different kinds of enchiladas, different kinds of tamales, different kinds of horchata. It’s very interesting.
Kirk Bachmann: Again, I don’t know if you’re at liberty to share. What’s the hot spot in Boulder right now?
John Lehndorff: Got me! It’s very hard to tell anymore.
Kirk Bachmann: How about around us? Where do you like to go? You live in Louisville, right? I’m right on the border. I’m right there by you in the Indian Peaks area there. Where do you like to go by us?
John Lehndorff: You mean out in Louisville and Lafayette?
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah.
John Lehndorff: It’s an incredibly exciting [inaudible [00:09:14]
Kirk Bachmann: Isn’t it?
John Lehndorff: People have this misunderstanding about Louisville and Lafayette in terms of the food that’s available. They assume it’s either bad Italian or regular Mexican. Some wonderful things are happening. Just take Lafayette for instance.
I hate to go back to pies, but there’s a fine New Zealand-style pie shop on Public Road called Tip Top [Savory] Pies. Right next to it is the Teocalli [Cocina].
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, I’ve been there.
John Lehndorff: Superior tacos. There’s just a bunch of new places that have come in and really enhanced things.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. All these little plugs locally.
John Lehndorff: Let me tell you, that’s my raison d’etre. It always has been. It is saying this great stuff locally. What’s nice now compared to 40 years ago when I started is that there is really a lot to talk about.
Kirk Bachmann: What about Denver? Do you venture to Denver much?
John Lehndorff: A little bit. The place I have been to lately, although I didn’t get to eat, was Casa Bonita.
Kirk Bachmann: Everybody’s been to Casa Bonita of late. When are they going to open up?
John Lehndorff: Well, in a few weeks. My old friend, Loca, Dana Rodriguez, is the chef for Casa Bonita, so I have no doubt that it will be 1000 percent better. The crappy, disgusting stuff that was served the last time I was there in the 1990s, but they’re being very Hollywood about it, and they’re not in op, so I haven’t tasted anything. What I was pleased [about] though, is that they have preserved somehow – I’m not sure it’s a good idea – but they preserved Casa Bonita in all of its 1973 glory, but there’s no sign of South Park anywhere in the restaurant.
Kirk Bachmann: No. Probably by design. I can’t remember the last time I went, but boy, I don’t know that there’s been more excitement about a restaurant opening in the state of Colorado in a long time.
John Lehndorff: It was ludicrous, really. Initially, it will be very hard to get in there. I didn’t actually get to eat in there.
Kirk Bachmann: For our listeners, the unique attraction to Casa Bonita is the fact that there’s divers within the building while you’re in the building dining. It’s an interesting draw, for sure.
John Lehndorff: It really is. It’s very distinct. It was really a trend toward eater-tainment. I don’t know if you remember this. When I originally wrote about Casa Bonita, I also wrote about Hollow World, which was an eater-tainment place in South Denver built around a volcano that spewed stuff. There was another one that was jungle-oriented. This is a long tradition of trying to fuse entertainment and food.
Kirk Bachmann: While we’re talking about that, having dined a lot over the years and written a lot over the years about the various places you’ve dined, what specifically, John, stands out to you about the gastronomic scene here in Colorado? Not just Boulder, not just the corridor between Boulder and Denver, but Colorado. What’s our food statement here?
John Lehndorff: I think it goes back to the same thing that distinguishes a lot of characteristics of life in Colorado. I just finished a story about the birth of fast-casual dining in Colorado, which was also the birth of fast-casual dining in America. It was the same thing. It’s the same thing I hear from brewers and distillers.
Because most people in Colorado are from someplace else; they come here. I’ve been here a long time, but I’m not from here. It breeds a different kind of spirit of entrepreneurial activity, and in our case, collaboration. I came from Massachusetts. “New” was an ugly word. People didn’t like new. If you hadn’t been there since 1600, then you were the new kids on the block. It tends to inhibit creativity. People come here from all over the world, set up shop, and usually they start with restaurants. I think that has been a unique thing. It’s allowed a tremendous amount of creativity as immigrants, whether they’re from Vietnam or from the Midwest, do cool things.
The other thing that’s unique here is this remarkable spirit of collaboration. Chefs are always jumping in together to aid in various benefits. Breweries team up to co-brew beers and lend each other equipment. I think that’s been a really distinguishing characteristic. That and the fact that we live in an incredibly beautiful place that everybody wants to visit.
Kirk Bachmann: Well said.
Moving to that theme of cook to food writer, if you will, I was reading an article recently that you wrote for “Boulder Weekly.” It was entitled, “Mom’s Kitchen Table.” In that article, you mentioned, and I quote, “It all started with lasagna. I credit my career as a print and radio journalist to daily vocabulary tests, four years of Latin, and many attempted poems during six years of formal education. I’m grateful to everyone who made me possible.
“However, one individual is responsible for the fact that I’ve spent most of those decades as a food writer, food editor, dining critic, pie authority, and most importantly, a host: my mom.”
So take us back to the beginning. I love this story. It gets emotional. Tell us how your mom helped you realize your love for food, and then how that transcended to sharing that knowledge with others through critique or collaboration, as you mentioned, or just simple conversation.
John Lehndorff: So I’ll take you back probably the 1960s into the early 70s. I grew up in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, which is a dying mill town, in a big old house. The center of the house was always a kitchen. If I wanted to talk to Mom, I needed to be in the kitchen. I ended up helping because I felt like I should help, but I was also curious. I was interested in chemistry, too. How did this work? It just wasn’t apparent to me that I wasn’t supposed to be doing that because I was a guy. The same thing happened to me later when I became the first male food editor in Colorado.
I was sitting there, and I always loved lasagna. My mother said, “Well, why don’t you make the lasagna?” Because she was busy with five kids. So she handed me the box of Prince lasagna noodles. I got in there. It had hard-boiled eggs in it. I thought that was unusual at the time, sort of a relative of poached eggs in tomato and shakshuka. Kind of a similar flavor arrangement.
So I did that, and then I started helping with other things and learning other things, including how to make my family’s famous Italian sausage and mashed potato stuffing at Thanksgiving, which I wrote about over the years. My maternal grandfather was an Italian grocer in Connecticut. Made wonderful, spicy Italian sausage. My grandmother had never seen a turkey, didn’t know how to stuff it, and ended up going to a French-Canadian neighbor who told her, “Why don’t you fill it with the stuff that we put in a pie in Canada? A tourtiere – pork pie.” So she combined mashed potatoes and ground sausage, put that in the turkey, and that’s how traditions are made.
At that point, I didn’t think, “I’m going to become a food editor.” That was not in the cards. That wasn’t what I was thinking. I wanted to be a poet. Unfortunately, when I arrived in Boulder, all the poet jobs were taken. So I ended up working in a whole bunch of restaurants. I had done a little bit of that in high school and college to make money.
Kirk Bachmann: I was going to tie in, you graduated with a communications and English degree from McGill University of Montreal. Then you moved to Boulder. How did the sojourn to Montreal occur?
John Lehndorff: Well, young people, let me take you back to –
Kirk Bachmann: You’re a storyteller! I love it! Like Coco.
John Lehndorff: It was 1972. I was at draft age. That’s the story.
Kirk Bachmann: Gotcha. Gotcha.
John Lehndorff: And McGill University in Montreal was the best university I was accepted at. So I was in Montreal from ‘72 to ‘76. I got a wonderful education. Thankfully, I didn’t have to become a Canadian.
Kirk Bachmann: Is this what you wanted to do then? You ended up in Boulder in the restaurant industry –
John Lehndorff: No, I wanted to write.
Kirk Bachmann: You wanted to write.
John Lehndorff: You know what I wanted to do? I wanted to be a rock music critic. I wanted to go to concerts for free. I wanted to get records – those round vinyl things – sent to me in the mail. I wanted to interview my musical heroes. That was really my main thrust, so I started writing for a bunch of publications that are now defunct in Boulder, including the “Colorado Daily.”
I was able to pursue that, but what I kept finding was that everybody was interested in food. I was working in restaurants in Boulder, so I said, “Well, I can write about food. What do you need?” That’s kind of how that started. That blossomed into the radio show. I started looking for different ways that I could use my culinary interest to make a living. I taught cooking classes. I catered. A lot of different things.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that you brought up music. The majority of the guests that we have on the show are thought leaders in the food space, whether they’re chefs, farmers, food writers, so on and so forth. Typically, if given the opportunity, I slide in there, “Oh, so motorcycles, music, and food. Which or all of the above?” And for many, it is all of the above. Since you mentioned music, would you be open to giving me your podium? Top three bands of all time.
John Lehndorff: That’s a very challenging thing. If you Google “Lehndorff” and “bluegrass,” you’ll come up with this other wealth of un-food related material. I’m a thought leader in the progressive bluegrass world.
Kirk Bachmann: Okay. That’s great.
John Lehndorff: But on the other hand, I also went to 30 or 40 Grateful Dead concerts in my time. I love classical music. My dad had a string quartet that practiced in our living room. He was from Vienna. It was very different. I love music. I’m just working on a story right now on the great new artists that are going to be at RockyGrass in Lyons in July.
But if I had to…
Kirk Bachmann: It’s a great question, right?
John Lehndorff: It is. I could name off 30 or 40 people that I wish everyone would listen to, but that’s different.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s funny how things…the other day, I watched a documentary on U2. They had asked Letterman to host it. It had less to do with music and more to do with the culture and the spirit of Ireland and the members. I’ve seen U2 countless times. That’s my go-to. I love that there’s a place for music in our lives.
John Lehndorff: Forty years ago today, U2 played at Red Rocks in the rain, and resulted in one of the greatest live albums and videos ever –
Kirk Bachmann: Ever! Oh my God! John, the chills that just went up my spine. Can I tell you, completely crazy, random story? I’ve traveled around a little bit, too, but at the time, my family had a small hotel in between Gunnison and Crested Butte, that area there. I had a restaurant that I was operating there. For whatever reason, I ended up in Denver with a friend. I wanted to show the friend Red Rocks. Guess who was practicing or rehearsing the day before that concert you just mentioned? We sat there and listened. It was rough, right, because sound checks and all that other stuff. I wasn’t even really sure who they were. Unbelievable. Unbelievable. I’ll take that one to the grave. I didn’t have any pictures, nothing. It was a long, long time ago. Unbelievable.
John Lehndorff: We didn’t have cell phones. It’s probably a good thing.
Kirk Bachmann: So let’s stay on this. How did you transition into hosting a radio show? I’m going someplace with this. And becoming a full-time, award-winning (I might mention) food editor and writer? I really want to come back to for some students that will listen to this chat and love food, but not really have an interest in becoming, “the chef” if you will. But they love to write about food, perhaps in the freelance capacity of some sort. Coming back to your journey, perhaps add a few sprinkles of what steps people should take if they want to land where you did?
John Lehndorff: As always, it was one of those long and winding roads – pardon the musical reference there. I was very interested in writing, and poetry, and journalism and other things. I was in Boulder and pursuing that. I started writing for anybody and anyone who would allow me to write stories for them, including this very strange publication called “The Tank Works Weekly.” It was built around a company that had sensory deprivation tanks that you floated in, the saltwater tanks, and isolation tanks. They eventually were arrested for a Ponzi scheme, but they said, “You can write about anything you want, John.”
I decided, “I can be a reporter.” I’m a good reporter, and I’d do that. But I wanted people to notice my name and hopefully learn how to spell it, which hasn’t happened. But I wanted to use the word, “I.” I wanted it to be personal. I was inspired by people like Calvin Trillin, who wrote, “Alice, Let’s Eat,” and other people who were in new journalism who were recording how life was being lived. I saw food as a venue to do that.
So I was looking for different ways to do that. I was working for all different kinds of publications. It’s an equally long story, but because I got antibiotics when I was a little kid, my teeth were soft. I got into my late twenties, and my dentist in Boulder said, “Hey John, I know you’re having fun freelancing, and writing cooking stuff, but you need to get a serious job for a while because you’re going to need 26 crowns in the next three years.”
That’s how I ended up taking a job with “The Daily Camera.” They were willing to hire me as the food editor. Up until that time, most people don’t realize that in newspapers, the food pages were called “The Women’s Pages,” and most of the food editors were women, and the audience was women. It was wrapped around supermarket ads. But they hired me and said, “Let’s do something new: food.” So that’s how I entered the mainstream. I spent 15 years as a food editor because I got used to being paid and having benefits.
Kirk Bachmann: In your opinion, John, coming back to others who would love to – and even more contemporary, bloggers and influencers on social media. You mentioned earlier how important that is. What are some of those essential – to use a pun – essential ingredients when it comes to being, not only thoughtful, but a top-notch food journalist?
John Lehndorff: Having all of these experiences in writing and food wherever you can. By all means, take classes. Learn how to cook. Learn how to cook something you don’t know how to cook. Read. Just leaf through cookbooks just to see how recipes are done. If you can’t stand actually looking at a book, there is certainly plenty of that online. All that feeds in.
What drove me was that food was looked on as cooking when I started. I said, “Food is everything. Food is history. Food is personal. Food is political. Food is farmers.”
Kirk Bachmann: It’s wellness and community today.
John Lehndorff: It’s artisan crafters. I saw this humongous world of food to be covered in a lot of different ways. That’s the way I approached it. I think that there’s so many opportunities out there. What’s important is NOT the medium, which has changed in many different ways. It really is the message and how you’re connecting to people.
I’m not a spring poultry here, and one of the beautiful things about this job is that it’s forced me to become at least marginally technologically savvy. I’m on Instagram. I’m on LinkedIn. I have several Facebook sites. I have my own web page. I found that if I do videos, I get a thousand times more reaction than if I just do something in print or just with a photo.
There’s so many new opportunities that didn’t exist before for student, people who are interested in food. I’ll start with people who maybe don’t want to work in a restaurant or be a chef. There are so many venues now. Food companies that are trying to reach out to their customers, to their diners. There are opportunities in that. There are nonprofit groups that are pursuing various soil and regenerative agriculture issues. Then there are people that just want to learn how to cook something, where you have a particular interest. If you have this passion for something, regardless of what it is related to food, there are probably other people you can connect with.
Kirk Bachmann: And impact.
John Lehndorff: But I do want to speak to all of the students who are there at the school sharpening their knives and learning proper poaching techniques. If nobody ever comes to eat your truffle-poached capon, then the chances are, you ain’t going to make it in a very difficult business. You have to be able to let people know. Part of that, most especially start-up restaurants, aren’t going to be hiring media professionals to do the work. Chances are, it’s going to be you. It’s more than taking pictures of a dish and saying, “We’ve got this on the menu tonight.” It’s weaving a narrative. It goes back to my original inspirations, which are storytelling, those stories that connect us all. If you can share yourself through the food that you’re serving, the stories of the farmers. If you can bring people in for a tasting, and then send them home with information. All of those things are involved with writing, talking, media. Things like podcasts, which can reach a lot of people.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I’m going to jump a little bit on the food critic piece, which is so fascinating to me. you’ve reviewed hundreds of restaurants for “Rocky Mountain News,” and that doesn’t just happen overnight. You have to build trust and credibility, and validate yourself.
John, in 2007, there was a beautiful film called “Ratatouille” that hit the screens. Honestly, I still watch it today.
John Lehndorff: So well done. All the details, too.
Kirk Bachmann: From Linguine, the star, to Anton Ego, the food critic, everything was beautiful – even the rats in a crazy kind of way. It was a very culinary-friendly movie. Thomas Keller served as a consultant. In the most important scene – I thought about this a lot before I knew I was going to chat with you – Anton Ego tries a simple dish from Linguine and Remy, a simple, simple dish called ratatouille. There’s that moment, right, which immediately sends him to his childhood. Almost puts him in a fetal position. He almost starts crying. Have you had –
John Lehndorff: I’m going to start crying. I’m going to start crying.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s beautiful. Have you had an experience like that while dining and critiquing? Something just took you back to your childhood?
John Lehndorff: Oh, all the time. Obviously, especially when I’m eating either Italian food, on the one side, or central European food on the other, because that’s what I grew up with. Certain dishes. At the time, I was a Catholic, growing up. My mother used to poach eggs in spaghetti sauce and serve it over pasta. Almost inevitably, when I have shakshuka, or all the variations on baked and coddled and eggs with tomatoes, I’m right back there on a Friday night.
The era of the dining critic has passed. I was just talking to Ruth Reichl, who’s a famous food writer. I said, “Do we need restaurant critics anymore?” And she essentially said, “Like I know.” No one can afford to hire a dining critic anymore.
But what we do need is as many journalists as possible providing accurate information in an AI-driven age of disinformation.
But when I was a dining critic, I was anonymous. I wasn’t a public person. My career had led to that point where I had the legitimacy to review places. All I wanted to do was tell people whether they were going to get a good deal for their money, whether it was going to be a good experience. So I had a credit card with a different name on it. I had friends make reservations so the number couldn’t be traced. I had to steal menus, because there were no cell phones and there was no internet to get menus. All in the interest of me being treated like you.
As a result, I had many incredible experiences and some just profoundly awful. The difference between the vast majority of restaurants – everybody served okay food, for the most part – and the places that I remember so well, it was all the service. From the moment you walk in to the moment you leave, from everybody – from the chef to the waiter – it always came down to service.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m sure you’ve read, “Unreasonable Hospitality” already. I love it.
I’m going to be with Ruth. I haven’t met her yet, but I’m going to be with her in September at a really cool event in Ohio with the Chef’s Garden called Roots, where they bring farmers, chefs, and journalists together for a few days of exactly what we’re doing. Just experiencing food and friendship and all of that. I’ll keep you posted on that. I’m really, really excited about it.
John Lehndorff: And she’s in town next week.
Kirk Bachmann: What is she doing in town?
John Lehndorff: She’s going to be at Chautauqua Auditorium. She has a new documentary on the scary state of the national food scene. I’m going to moderate an audience Q&A and talk back after the screening at Chautauqua.
Kirk Bachmann: Wow!
John Lehndorff: June 14.
Kirk Bachmann: So you know I’m sending you an email right after this, right? Oh, I love that.
Hey, let’s talk about you a little bit more, John. A day in the life of a multi-hyphenate, if you will. It sounds worse than it is. You’re just a person that juggles a lot of stuff. What’s on your plate today, as an independent food writer, an editor, and so, so much more? I’m just really curious of what a day in the life feels like.
John Lehndorff: Well, it starts with vast quantities of good coffee early in the morning. That’s really an essential component to all of this.
Kirk Bachmann: Are you picky? Do you need to go down to Boxcar, or will any coffee do?
John Lehndorff: Nah, that’s too expensive. I’m a journalist. I did go to OZO Coffee and take a class on how to make better drip coffee. I wrote a column about it. That was good.
This morning. Let’s see. Early in the morning, I was finishing up a story that was due yesterday, so I was late. For a magazine called “Avid Lifestyle.” It’s the monthly magazine for the southern suburbs of Denver. They asked me to write a story about late-summer margaritas. So I searched around and found three places that have different takes on margaritas, and got a recipe from one of them. That also required me to get photos from them that were good to use in a magazine, and to write 500 stunning words.
I turned that in, but at the same time, I was also late on my “Nibbles” column for Thursday, which was an extended interview I did with Ruth Reichl. It always sounds easy, so last week I did a Zoom with Ruth. Then I took it and I dropped it into Otter.ai, which produced a transcript, and then I edited that and incorporated that into my column. I finally got that in this morning after I did a Zoom with the head nutritionist for the LPGA, the golf people, about what to eat on the course for my “Fairways” column for “Avid Golfer.”
Then, this afternoon, I’m continuing to work on that. I’m going to do a Zoom with a female member of the golf team at CU this evening. I also needed to confirm my guests for Radio Nibbles on Thursday. It’s going to be two folks from The Sink restaurant, celebrating its hundredth anniversary. June 14th, they are showing a documentary on The Sink at the Boulder theater. I was interviewed for that documentary because I worked at The Sink for a year at one time.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s all it took.
John Lehndorff: I realized that wasn’t quite the spot for me. This is back in the late 70s, probably.
Kirk Bachmann: Did you say 100 years for The Sink?
John Lehndorff: Yeah.
Kirk Bachmann: And that’s on the 14th as well?
John Lehndorff: Originally, I was going to go to that.
Kirk Bachmann: You’re double booked!
John Lehndorff: After three years of nada – nothing.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s all coming. It’s coming 100 miles an hour.
John Lehndorff: That’s what my days are like. I’m looking ahead and saying, my next Nibbles column is going to be a walkabout through the Longmont market. Eventually, I want to do something on upscale hot dogs. Thinking ahead for my radio show, I want to get somebody in to talk about fermentation.
In order to be an independent contractor like this, you have to be able to be organized, juggle a lot of different things, and have some fun, hopefully, in the process.
Kirk Bachmann: Fun is important. So is storytelling. It’s an art form. You’ve certainly mastered that. It takes a certain set of skills. You’ve been at your craft since the late 70s.
John Lehndorff: Here’s what I’d say about the storytelling thing. Some of my editors used to talk about what they call “The Lehndorff Lead.” If you are bored or something, you go through 20 or 30 of my columns or stories. I spend more time working on the first three sentences than I do on the rest of it combined. It has to sing. It has to drag you past the first word, to the second sentence, to the third paragraph. It has to make you want to read it. For that, you have to see how storytellers tell stories.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m asking for secrets at the risk of getting emotional. Lots of stories and events that you’ve covered, many that probably tugged at the heartstrings. Were there any, or at least one, absolutely unbelievably memorable event that you covered, wrote about, shared, that impacted your career?
John Lehndorff: I sort of have a couple of different things. The one event that touched me incredibly deeply was the death of Jerry Garcia. I was in the newsroom that day. I was forced to write a front page obituary. There was a news story about how Jerry had died, but I was supposed to get some meaning out of it. That was hard.
The thing that impacted my career the most was in the mid-90s, a restaurant called Rioja opened in Denver. Jennifer Jasinski, wonderful chef, and her team, including Dana Rodriguez, who’s now a famous chef at Casa Bonita. A friend of mine proposed that I follow the course of what it takes to create and get a new restaurant open. I spent a year following Jennifer and all the folks there. It was called something different originally. It looked very different originally. There were different people involved. It was an ugly construction. I got to be able to chronicle that. It eventually came out as a stand-alone special section without any advertising that captured that whole thing until opening night at Rioja, when they started filling those fig-filled beignets and all that great stuff that Jennifer –
Kirk Bachmann: When was that? What year was that?
John Lehndorff: I can look it up and send you a link if you want.
Kirk Bachmann: I ate there. For my travels, I was in Chicago for a long time, came back 2014, and was at Rioja within two weeks. I had eaten there previously. I just can’t remember. There was another incredible restaurant for years. I think it was called the European Cafe. Does that sound right?
John Lehndorff: Yeah, Radek Cerny. What a character!
Kirk Bachmann: But what a great place. I remember it had the big velvet, half-moon seats. The plates. I had never seen such colorful – nothing matched. It was almost chaotic. The food was lovely. I’m talking the 90s. So [inaudible [00:42:55] extravagant.
John Lehndorff: And the best mashed potatoes in the world.
Kirk Bachmann: Boy, the memories are great.
Let’s transition to pies. This was new for me. I didn’t realize that you were Dr. Pie. Your website says you’re a recognized pie authority. I love pie. Tell me, how did you enter the glorious world of pies? What intrigued you? How’d you become a judge? How can listeners stay up-to-date with you, specifically, on pies and what’s going on?
John Lehndorff: Obviously, I grew up with pie. I have a very strong memory of some special event at my parents’ house when I was growing up. They had a pie there, and they said, “You can have one piece, but don’t have any more.” I engaged in what’s called “pie evening,” which is where you cut it off because it’s not quite straight.
I had a normal relationship with pie and made a few in my time, but this story is really about beer.
Kirk Bachmann: Okay, pie and beer. I’m okay with that. You have my attention.
John Lehndorff: This is back in the 80s. I have a friend, Charlie Papazian. He’s recognized internationally as the father of the craft brew movement, as well as the American home-growing boom which led to the craft brewing environment. At the time, he had been a nuclear engineer. He was teaching at a Montessori school in Boulder. His birthday was coming up, and his kids wanted to bake him a cake. He went like this. He said, “No! No. I only eat pie on my birthday.” His birthday was January 23. He said, “Well, as a class project, we’re going to declare my birthday National Pie Day.”
Kirk Bachmann: Wow!
John Lehndorff: And he did, through the organization that was doing that kind of thing at the time. He got me interested in pie and celebrating National Pie Day. We held the National Pie Championships in Boulder, and had the Great American Pie Festival, which was modeled on the Great American Beer Festival which started in Boulder, by Charlie. That was just fine.
But Charlie had this tendency to go to Thailand or Brazil to drink beer in January, so he said, “Why don’t you be in charge of National Pie Day and take the calls?” So I ended up talking to people from coast to coast on National Pie Day about pie and why it’s wonderful. So I became a pie proselytizer, evangelist. I ultimately became the executive director of…. The American Pie Council was a mythical organization. We had to come up with a name for it. It got taken over by corporate pie interests, including the maker of most of the pie pans that most of the pies in America go in. It eventually got taken over by those interested parties.
I’ve ended up having this marvelous hobby, which at various times I tried to turn into a career and failed. But I love it. I write about it still, and whenever I start writing for a new publication, I always somehow talk them into letting me write a new pie story. I talk about it on the radio. I have a wonderful Facebook group page, which I invite everyone to join, called the Global Pie Society. We have a pie shop, an American pie show in Copenhagen. We have a pie shop in Zagreb, Mexico, Canada, New Zealand.
There are people all over the world that have a relationship with pie, and this provides them with a forum for all the kind of nerdy stuff that you would think you would end up with. Should you use an aluminum pie guard to protect the crimp? Should you use lard or butter? Can you substitute? Can you really make a good-tasting gluten-free pie crust? All those kinds of things. I just constantly discover new stuff about pie and our relationship with it. Pie in popular cultures, in movies and songs. I mean, it’s amazing.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. The name of our podcast is The Ultimate Dish. If I ask John what his ultimate dish is, are we going the pie route? Or are we going a different route?
John Lehndorff: For me, it would be hard not to go for a wild blueberry pie.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh! I’m in! I’m in!
John Lehndorff: And not just blueberry pie, but wild blueberry. It’s a significant difference. It strikes so many chords on my taste buds, in my memory. I remember what it took to collect enough low bush blueberries to actually make a pie, and it’s not easy, and you get bit a lot. There definitely is there. I think that would probably be it.
But a year ago, or last October, I unexpectedly had spinal fusion surgery. I ended up in the hospital. I went to rehab. I went back to the hospital. I went back to rehab. It was not an experience I would recommend, and the food was truly abysmal. The one thing I kept thinking about was real bread and real butter. At some point, somebody brought me a baguette and some European butter. It was better than all the painkillers and muscle relaxants and everything else I was taking to cope with the situation. That’s a pretty wonderful thing, too. Of course, a little bit of ripe Camembert from Colorado is not a bad thing either.
Kirk Bachmann: It doesn’t hurt. I have to say, you just ascended to the top of the podium, the most beautiful Ultimate Dish story we’ve ever heard. I’m not surprised. John L-E-H-N-D-O-R-F-F.
John Lehndorff: See! People will learn how to spell it.
Kirk Bachmann: They will learn how to spell it. I’ve got the double consonants as well as you. I loved your storytelling today, and I loved how you weave a narrative. There’s lots of TikTok in our chat today. I’m going to reach out to you real soon, because I want to keep this friendship going. We have lots of cool stories that happen here that I think that you can turn into beautiful prose if you wish. Thanks for what you do for the Boulder community, and thanks for chatting with us a little bit today. You’re a beautiful person.
John Lehndorff: Thank you so much for having me. I hope that you and students will come down to KGNU and visit us. We’ll keep this going.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Thanks so much.
John Lehndorff: Thank you.
Kirk Bachmann: And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. And if you can, please leave us a rating on Apple or Spotify, and subscribe to support our show. This helps us to reach more aspiring individuals ready to take the next step toward their dream careers. Thanks for listening.