what's on my desk

9 Food Writers and Editors on What They Use to Zhuzh Up Sad Desk Lunches

A series of lunches brought in storage containers for a post about the Strategist reviewing desk lunch gear
Photo: Bobby Doherty

The packed brown-bag lunch can be virtuous — you’re probably saving a little cash and eating something not that terrible — but doing it day in, day out, all while parked in front of a computer screen, can start to feel a little workaday. You could inhale a fast-cazh lunch in about the same amount of time it takes a Sweetgreen speed-demon lineup to whip it up, or you could do like a few food editors and make an occasion of it. Because while the desk lunch (lunch al desko as Bon Appétit has coined it) is kind of a bummer, it can be made less sad when a box of Maldon salt or a little something to spice it up (a near-universal food ed move) is in a nearby drawer. Here, more than a few ways to make the best of a working lunch.

“I spend most afternoons regretting my lunch decisions and all of them regretting my inability to be the food editor most people imagine I ought to be, with a secret stash of Matouk’s hot sauce and crunchy Amagansett sea salt in the pantry next to my desk at the New York Times. I’d like to be the guy with a place mat and good silver, my own steel chopstick-and-spoon set for my Thursday bibimbap, a little candle for when it’s dreary out and I have good soup in my Klean Kanteen, a little heel of bread from Bien Cuit to eat with it. But I am not that guy. Every morning I plan on an excellent lunch from out in the world because out in the world is where the stories are. They are not found at my desk. But then something happens (a story!) and I miss that lunch, and I wonder if I can run out for a quesadilla or a bánh mì or a quick slice from the corner instead. And then I miss that too and have a banana and some Fritos, and that’s a hell of a meal. Journalism’s so romantic, no?” —Sam Sifton, the New York Times food editor

“Maldon sea salt forever. Specifically, this little slide-y travel tin, which someone gave me as a joke because I’ve never met a dish I didn’t want to put yet more salt flakes on top of. (Example: For years I worked in Alice Waters’s office at Chez Panisse, where desk lunches were breathtaking and the stuff of dreams, and even then I kept Maldon sea salt stashed in my desk. And used it. And never regretted it.) Because what doesn’t Maldon sea salt improve? Even sweets — sprinkle it on whatever sad after-lunch cookie you have acquired and it becomes 10,000 times classier and better. The tin lives in my bag and has come in handy in dire food situations.” —Cristina Mueller, food writer

“I am having a harissa love affair right now. It is a delight — the particular smokiness of the chilies makes plain brown rice or Israeli couscous way more interesting, or it works as a little dipping sauce for thinly sliced leftover steak or lamb, or as a counterpoint to a cool savory yogurt sauce, or as an addition to chickpeas … the list goes on. It’s pretty hot, but not searingly so — a little toothpaste-squeeze for a lunch is usually enough. Are there better harissas than this one? Probably. I mean, I could also make it from scratch I suppose … but I don’t. I have what might be an invented memory that Christopher Kimball once reviewed a bunch of harissas and this one ranked near the top. —Mueller

“The new desk sriracha is Ssäm Sauce from David Chang and Momofuku. It’s a Korean chili sauce with gochujang, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, miso paste, cayenne, dried red pepper, and a lot more. It comes in original, spicy, and smoky! Maybe warn your co-workers before you break it out, though.” —Nikita Richardson, Grub Street staff writer