Philadelphia magazine restaurant critic Trey Popp is a magician. In his hands, a review becomes a statement about our nation’s quantity fetish (Table 31), or one chef’s errant intuition (Square Peg), or the underdog story of a snubbed neighborhood on the rise (NoBL).
In general company, Popp doesn’t flaunt his tricks. His social routine is casual. Today, folded string-bean-like into a chair and facing Rick Nichol’s journalistic food writing class, he is outfitted in understated beige slacks, a pastoral collared shirt, and a smile. He apologizes for being dazed – for the last few hours he has been steeped in fumes, administering paint to his son’s bedroom walls.
Happily for these students, Popp is willing to spill trade secrets to a room of eager epicurean novices. Only hours of work, he tells them first, will produce a magical review. That means eating, reflecting, and phoning. It means revisiting a single place two or three times. It means considering not only the meal, but also what the food means in a broader context: about eating, about the cooks, about the cultural moment.
If all preparations are timed just right, the writer can conjure an accessible style, a “light-footed prose with an intellectual core.” Popp believes that anybody, if he is willing to work hard, can make magic with words. “Because,” he muses, reclining in his seat and breaking down the matter in a manner both tripping and rational: “Writing is reading and doing.”
Trey is a Southern moniker meaning “the third.” Born in New Haven, Popp moved to central North Carolina when he was three. At eighteen, he returned to Connecticut to attend Yale, where he studied Psychology.
It wasn’t until Popp started voyaging beyond his comfort zone that he discovered his mystical abilities. Following college graduation, he began a series of journeys around the world. Enchanted by the people he was meeting, he shared their stories with friends back home. Only then did Popp begin to consider himself a writer.
His first quest was a trip to Yugoslavia in the nineties with his grandfather, where the pair lived with distant cousins. The craters America had blown into Yugoslavian soil were still fresh, and Popp’s stay got exciting when he met some locals on a train. They started roasting the American, hooting that they might season him with garlic and salt, stew him up, and have him for dinner.
From there, he spent his twenties hitting Thailand, Cambodia, Australia, and New Zealand. Popp loves Thai food, but can’t say as much for Cambodia, which he attributes to his poor gastronomic luck in that country. In Australia, he got his hands dirty working illegally at farming establishments, picking peppers and harvesting corn. His favorite memory of that period was returning to his hostel, where his friends had dumped armfuls of produce from their respective jobs, and magicking all that color into a meal.
Having returned stateside, Popp tried selling his travel writing, to moderate success. He landed a gig as copy editor of Philadelphia City Paper’s food section. Soon after, he was writing for that segment, having pitched himself as a world traveler with a unique perspective on exotic cuisine.
Today, Popp wears two hats – he’s a food critic and an editor at a local magazine, the name of which he chooses not to publicly disclose, for fear of making himself easier to track down (he considers anonymity an important part of being an effective food critic). In private, he continues reading and doing, adding daily to his bag of tricks.