The End of the Career Food Critic

This week, two high-profile critics made news by ceasing to be critics. The New York Times' Sam Sifton, after two years as a restaurant critic, got a big promotion to the editor of the paper's national desk, while the Chicago Sun-Times' Pat Bruno, a 27-year veteran, announced he'd been fired. Both represent major changes in their papers. But it also demonstrated how the role of food critic has morphed from the kind of job one holds for decades, with increasing local power and seniority, to the kind of job one holds for a few years, before going off and doing something else. For those who have dreams of moonlighting as a critic, it's great news. For those who thought they could turn their palate into a 401(k), it's a tough slog. 

Not since Ruth Reichl and her famous disguises left The New York Times in 1999 has a critic so reined over a city. Reichl, who held the job from 1993 to 1999 after a nine-year stint as critic and dining editor at the Los Angeles Times, had a reputation as a kingmaker in the restaurant world -- one whose very word could ensure success or failure. She lived entirely in her role as food critic, taking elaborate caution to protect her identity with disguises that were more like alter-egos. "When Reichl donned a costume, she went whole-hog, developing finely honed characters -- complete with their own credit cards and personal histories," wrote Rebecca Traister in a 2005 Salon profile. When she stopped being a critic, Reichl kept close to food. She went on to edit Gourmet before it folded. Now she speaks, blogs, and writes books, and advises Gilt Taste, the food portion of the shopping site. But she does not review restaurants. Similarly, Gael Greene, New York magazine's critic of 40 years, didn't take up another formal reviewing position after the magazine let her go. She started a blog, and does various food-journalism things, but not as a Reviewer with a capital R.

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