Alexander Chee is most recently the author of How To Write An Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books, 2018), named a Best Book of 2018 by TIME, the Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, Wired, Esquire, Buzzfeed, New York Public Library, Boston Globe, The Paris Review, Mother Jones, and Out Magazine, among others. Two of the essays were included in Best American Essays 2016 and Best American Essays 2019. His novel The Queen of the Night (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) was a national bestseller, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and was praised as “a brilliant performance” in the Washington Post. Chee’s debut novel Edinburgh (Welcome Rain, 2001) was named a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year, and won the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s Michener Copernicus Prize in Fiction, the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Editor’s Choice Prize, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Literary Award. His reviews, essays and stories have appeared recently in T Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, The New Republic, and The Sewanee Review.
A 2021 United States Artists Fellow and a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow in nonfiction this year, his other awards and fellowships include a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose, a 2010 MCCA Fellowship in prose, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak. He is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and an editor at large at the Virginia Quarterly Review.
Here, closing out six years of the Dinnerview series, he reminisces about a wealth of incredible meals he’s enjoyed, dinner parties for twenty-four people, and a weakness for pub cheese.
On his all-time favorite meal:
I have been very, very fortunate, so this is a very difficult question. There is the spicy eel stew my great aunt made us in Goheung, Korea, where she laughed and laughed as my brother and I cried over our bowls at the heat of the spice. Any of the week of dinners at Le Sirenuse in Positano, Italy, at the Sirenland Writers Conference, along with some of the best service and hospitality I’ve had in my life. The many dinners all over Florence with my friends from the NYU in Florence writing program, but especially at either in the restaurants in town, like Trattoria Cammilo, or Pensavo Peggio, or the more formal program dinners in the limonaia on the campus, Villa La Pietra, presided over then by Ellyn Toscano. A table for one at Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap, in Cambodia. Melbourne, good God, so much good food there—breakfast at Cumulus, dinner at Supernormal. And in Sydney, LP’s Quality Meats, breakfasts at dear departed A1, and the extraordinary Chinese food at Lucky Duck. In Shanghai, my dinner at Ultraviolet, but also the soup dumplings I found on a side street at a shop that is most likely not still there. I haven’t even mentioned LA or San Francisco or Chicago or Austin yet. Or Barcelona, Edinburgh, London, or either Portland, Oregon, or Maine.
But my favorite meal is the one my husband Dustin made the night we met, a birthday party for our mutual friend Louisa. He made a seven-hour roasted leg of lamb with potatoes dauphinoise, a cod with chermoula sauce, a salad, and individual flourless chocolate cakes, the molten kind. He made everything, though friends helped. It was a dinner for twelve at his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, and while it wasn’t a set up—we had flirted on Facebook previously—it was the first time we met, and a perfect way to meet, really. He was in his element. I remember realizing at that dinner that he was set up with plates, silverware and glassware to serve a dinner for twenty-four, in his studio apartment, and soon enough, we were doing that. We both love to cook, and we’ve both worked in restaurants and catering, so we love to cook for our friends and we do it as often as we can. This last year has felt as lonely as could be. That first dinner party we have that we can have safely will be a feast—I am thinking a pig roast—but we will likely be all out of practice.
On what the light looks like during his favorite meal of the day:
Breakfast is my favorite meal. Especially a breakfast sandwich. I like mine with a bit of ham and cheese and a roll. A little mayo and ketchup. Or I love kimchi fried rice with a sunny side up egg on top. A mug of good coffee with milk. The light is bright, often enough.
On snacking while writing:
Lately I have a weakness for pub cheese—a spreadable cheese mixed horseradish, on an almond and rice cracker. Double-dipped chocolate peanuts also.
On his go-to late-night snack:
Apples and cheddar cheese, or a spoonful of cottage cheese. Or lately, a slice of cinnamon raisin toast with a bit of cream cheese.
On his food quirks:
The foods I eat habitually are breakfast sandwiches. I like to have a cocktail with my main course at dinner, which upset the waiters in Italy so much, but I refused to stop. I will find a way to include a sweet potato in almost anything. Or a bit of kombu broth.
On his final meal request:
I think my request is that I not know, and not know who will be there, or why it is the last. It would be unendurable to pick the menu for such a thing. So, I pick the surprise.