My Conversation with Mark Miller

Mark is the most brilliant food mind I have met, here is the opening summary:

Mark Miller is often called the founder of modern southwestern cuisine, but his unique anthropological approach to food has led him to explore cuisines in over 100 countries around the world. He joins Tyler for a conversation on all that he’s learned along the way, including his pick for the most underrated chili pepper, palate coaching, the best food cities in Asia, Mexico, and Europe, the problems with sous-vide, why the Michelin guide is overrated, mezcal versus tequila, the decline of food brands, how to do fast food well, and why the next hipster food trend should be about corn.

Here is the text, audio, and video.  Mark is a blizzard of information density, and I don’t know anyone else who has his experience with the food world, most of all with Asia, Mexico, and the American Southwest.  (You may recall he was an interlocutor in my dialogue with Fuchsia Dunlop, and so we recorded this session with Mark afterwards.)

I thought the highlight was Mark’s six-minute riff on tasting chiles, it really shows Mark in his glory — this is one of those cases where I definitely recommend the video over the text:

Elsewhere in the conversation, see why he picks Seoul, Tokyo, and Bangkok as the three best world cities for food tours.  And:

COWEN: You don’t need brands, right?

MILLER: You don’t need brands anymore. The consumer used to have brands as guide and trust. Today there are other ways of developing that. We’re in consumer level 3. Consumers are defining brands, and how brands get used. I think that the idea of brand is probably — you’re an economist — dated. [laughs]

There is this:

MILLER: You go to a bus station in Monterrey: you can see a hundred of the best tacos in the world.

The questioner was Megan McArdle.  I enjoyed the entire exchange immensely, and hope you do too.


Owning food brands, however, is pretty much increasingly limited to just a few global companies - they seem to think the value of a brand worth spending large sums to acquire and maintain.

'So whether you’re looking to stock up on anything from orange soda to latte-flavored potato chips, Mondelez, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo, P&G, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg's, and Unilever own just about everything you could hope to buy. It seems that six degrees of separation theory has been proven after all, if only because we all drink Diet Coke every now and then.

In order to visually elucidate that point, Oxfam International created a comprehensive infographic that reveals the extensive reach of the “Big 10” food and beverage companies. Unlikely ties between brands we largely don’t associate with one another show how easy it is to be misinformed about the American food system. For example, PepsiCo produces Quaker granola bars, and Nestlé makes Kit Kat bars but also frozen California Pizza Kitchen pies.'

It's Kraft-Heinz now. Try to keep up!

"we all drink Diet Coke every now and then": speak for yourself, matey.

That was very very good, but not better than the classic Fuchsia Dunlop conversation, from my point of view. Bangkok, Tucson, Salt Lake City, Budapest, by the way; not Bangkok, Tokyo, Seoul. Everyone knows that! Quibbles follow, stop reading if you don't want to think these things through: Sad to say, as good as that was, I find it hard to fathom how someone intelligent can enjoy eating lobster. That is the foodie equivalent of a chess master heading down to the park and greedily stealing quarters from the ex-cons who are just trying to make a few bucks, not because they need the money, but because they want to feel good about themselves, honestly (well, non-criminally - if you have seen it even once, you know what I mean) swindling people at the chess boards. Deny it if you will but it is true. Still, lobster semi-cannabilism (lobsters are on average the same age as our uncles and aunts) is better than octopus semi-cannabilism (if you don't know how smart and charming your everyday average octopus is you are missing out on one of the great secrets of the world God made - I always forget which day the sea creatures were made, but it was one of the early ones). Good conversation, as I said, but reading this stuff I sort of feel like a Christian must feel reading the Christian-haters like Voltaire and Hemingway and their ilk or how a kind-hearted aristocrat must feel reading Dickens in those chapters where he specialized in hating on aristocrats (none of whom he ever bothered to be friends with - that was one of his main faults, as Dearieme has explained more than once). Because I like the little lobsters, and the octopi of all sizes.

"lobsters are on average the same age as our uncles and aunts"

While lobsters can live a long time, the typical 1-1.5 lb lobster you are likely to eat is usually less than 10 years old.

Also, if intelligence is the criterion, lobsters should be one of the least objectional creatures to eat. They have a very simple nervous system and are basically like a huge insect.

Good point, most of us do not have aunts and uncles less than 10 years old.
I have spent thousands of hours since the 1980s observing insects and tend to anthropomorphize the larger ones more than I should; and I wouldn't criticize people in poverty for relying on lobsters to feed themselves, as has happened in the past.

"that was one of his main faults, as Dearieme has explained more than once": have I? Are you sure it wasn't the bogus dearieme?

My complaints about Dickens are that (i) his books are dud, with the exception of a Tale of Two Cities, which is a gripper from the opening line, and (ii) his books are wildly anachronistic, presenting the world of his childhood as if it still obtained in his adult years.

I think the comments I remember included one using the word "mountebank", which to me indicates somebody who, inter alia, maliciously pretends to be an aristocrat, and/or have insights into aristocrats, when he is not and/or does not. Also the "anachronistic" portrayal of aristocrats by Dickens was, unlike the anachronistic portrayal of the good-hearted middle class, often focused on criticizing aristocrats for faults they had left behind (the nursing of old grudges against one class of people and not another was the 'anachronistic' fault I was thinking of). Anyway that is what I read into those comments.

There's a word he said in that video that I didn't quite catch. Tannens? He says it at 2:41. Could someone help out?

FYI Tyler, I wasn't going to listen to this episode since I'm not at all a foodie, but this write-up convinced me it was interesting. I probably should've had faith. More generally, thanks for all the valuable free content you've provided me!

Tannins. Wikipedia has a good write-up on tannins. Wine without tannins is called "Ripple" or "Boone's Farms." Foods without tannins are fairly cheap - not many tannins in Taco Bell burritos.


There was an article the other day about Cambodian round peppers, as in ground black peppers, that have a 'chocolate' and 'smoke' etc flavor that are supposed to be the best in the world, grown in a terrier that's only found in one small patch in Cambodia. Watch for it, coming to a salt-and-pepper shaker in a starred restaurant near you!

Wow -- a pepper that's grown only in a rare Cambodian terrier? Is that a little like the Kopi Luwak coffee?

+1 and my vote for Best in Show

Imagine picking up after that little guy.

I live in Bangkok and while I do love the food, I am beginning to doubt whether it is such a great food city.

Thais won't pay high prices for Thai food at restaurants, so there are few good top end Thai restaurants that aren't just pretentious. Bangkok Thais have a taste for sugar and an inability to eat spicy food. 20 years ago you got great Thai food in Bangkok and weak sweet imitations in the US. Now it might be the other way around.

There are a lot of great small cheap Thai restaurants that produce concisely good stuff, but they are almost impossible to find near the center of Bangkok.

The general quality of international food is extremely high, but I don't think that is what people are talking about.

I spent New Year's in Northeast Laos and was blown away by the cuisine. The quality of ingredients was phenomenal and the cooking was uniformly excellent.

Beer Lao, the perfect accompaniment, is about a billion times better than anything Thailand brews.

Check out the fast food eateries at Soi Cowboy in Bangkok....for cheap crappy food for hung over people!

The street food near Saladang neighborhood is excellent. At night it is the best.

This was fantastic. Miller could be on the short list for most interesting man in the world, if the ad was ever made a real contest.

This is one of the most fascinating and informative conversations I've seen in a long time. His enthusiasm is genuine and contagious. Thank you!

I understand perfectly what he means by chuletón de buey, I miss that flavor from my childhood. Back in the town, the butcher only killed old milking cows or old bulls. Calves were sold to out of town meat packers for a higher price. But the meat of old animals is more delicious, it has lots of yellow flavorful fat. I don't know why tenderness is more important than flavor in meat. Perhaps when I reach 80 years old I'll learn to appreciate meat tenderness. As long as the teeth are strong, fatty flavorful meat tops tender and lean veal.

On tacos, I was a bit surprised neither Tyler, Mark or Megan talked about the drinks on the side of your delicious tacos. Mark praised the tacos on the street found near a bus station in Monterrey. However, drinks available at those street stands are mostly sugary soft drinks. If you're lucky they'll have bottled tap water, and if you're really lucky they'll have carbonated water from the local mineral spring. So, if you don't the acquired taste of Coca-Cola, some of the best tacos in the world are ruined for you. Morning tacos? The best you can find in a street stand is instant "coffee". A delicious cold beer? Local boring laws say it's not possible on the street. If you become a daily customer, Mr. Taquero may keep your beers on the fridge or ice chest and serve it to you in a plastic cup. But, first you need to develop some kind of bond with the people running the place. The drink topic is not trivial, most places in Mexico below 1500 m.a.s.l are very hot 8-9 months per year, you have to drink around 1 liter of liquids along your meal. Perhaps it's interesting for the tourists, but when you eat tacos regularly 2 Cokes is not something you're looking after, street stands are not interesting anymore.

Amid all the discussion of diverse villages with their various chiles, corns, and more, it is too bad Tyler Cowen didn't ask Mark Miller his thoughts on helping transform 400-year-old Santa Fe into an enclave for wealthy tourists and transplants. Since chiles of different flavors are a good thing, maybe questions of different flavors would be good too. Or would that disrupt the genial, somewhat adulatory tone of the "Conversions with Tyler" brand?

Did Miller do something to cause that other than open a really good restaurant?

Only a fraction of Santa Fe's transformation can be attributed to Miller, but he was in the middle of it and part of it, and would probably have something interesting to say about it.

"Brilliant food mind" is pretty funny. Food tasting, like wine tasting, is all BS. I like watching some of the food game shows as they give the game away. Some poor guy is forced to use Spam to make a dish and the expert judge ends up liking it more than the gourmet stuff from the other contestant. The reason is salt. Honest chefs will tell you that the heavy use of salt makes most anything taste good. The rest is dressing up the experience to flatter the customer so they will overpay for their dinner. Foodie culture is nothing more than signalling.

A bit of animal fat helps too, doesn't it?

It's true. In blind taste tests, no one can tell the difference between a chocolate cake and a raw potato (provided they both have the same amount of salt).

Spam, huh?

Go for it.

What makes a taco the world's best? Is there a world's best ham and cheese sandwich?

Given all this talk about chilis and the challenges of finding real chilis, I want him to start a chili club, in which he sends a box of chilis every month or so, perhaps with a couple recipe ideas included. I'd want to sign up.

I'd rather he just send me the prepared food.

I'd rather create a regulatory environment or some sort of occupational licensing scheme.

After that, I think I'm going to start looking in to smoking and drying my own chiles. I primarily use chiles to make chile paste and chili (yes with an i) powder for southwestern dishes, often texas style chili. I haven't noticed a huge difference (beyond which could be explained by seasonal and random variety) between batches of said powders, so perhaps I've either been lucky or have just been enjoying an all-ancho spice mix?

Perhaps by preparing my own chiles from fresh for this I can get a similar dramatic increase in flavor and complexity as I got when I first started making my own chili powder!

Thank you for that video. I watched it twice. Lots of info there.

Calling someone "the most brilliant food mind I have met" does not sound very flattering. It sounds like a wry insult masquerading as a compliment. It's like the way you'd describe a moron without calling him a moron.

You are the most brilliant internet commenter I have met.

Nice discussion. One thing I couldn't wrap my mind around, as a former resident of Tokyo, was eating Mexican food there, especially moles. Yes, the way I remember it from a few years ago, there was something called "Mexican food" around, occasionally, but it was not something you'd want to eat if you were familiar with Mexican food in Mexico, or in immigrant communities in the United States.

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