Lessons Learned as New York Times Food Critic



When I meet restaurant lovers, New York Times readers, and people familiar with my memoir, certain questions come up time and again. As I did in a post earlier this week, I'm reproducing some of those questions, along with my usual answers, so that they're more easily and widely accessible to anyone curious about these topics.

Q: In an era when critics are frequently recognized, are restaurant reviews as valid?

A: Yes, I think so. First off, critics have long been recognized. In big and sophisticated cities where the economic stakes are high and where restaurateurs are savvy, the major critics quickly become visually known. Restaurateurs will find a way. I remember, in my first months as the Times's critic, being gawked at by industry people who would walk into a place where I was dining, stand in the vestibule for a few minutes just for the purpose of laying eyes on me, and then leave. I learned through the grapevine that they had been alerted and summoned by the staff where I was eating, and they wanted to give themselves a better shot at spotting me should I ever walk through their front doors.

At the end of the night, a recognized critic still has plenty of insight into the merits of a restaurant.

Bloggers' and industry people's ability to post and share photos on the Internet—and to take pictures surreptitiously with cell-phone cameras—have made it harder for critics to keep a low physical profile. That's certainly true. But critics can still, with pseudonyms and fake phone numbers and such, keep restaurants guessing about when they might come. And restaurants suddenly faced with a critic in the dining room can't change the menu instantly. They can't go shopping right then for better ingredients. They can't get a better service staff, or re-train the line cooks, etc., etc. While a recognized critic's portions may be slightly different from another person's, and while the kitchen may take special care with the order going to a critic's table, the fundamentals that make the restaurant great or mediocre remain in place. And while the service can get better for a critic, it can also get worse: hyper-solicitous, nervous, intrusive.

At the end of the night, a recognized critic still has plenty of insight into the merits of a restaurant. And the only way to have truly physically anonymous critics would be for publications to change critics every three to six months. There'd be no benefit to that. Readers wouldn't be able to figure out how a given critic mirrors or departs from their tastes, and the critic wouldn't develop the long-term frame of reference that helps him or her judge merit in the context of what has and hasn't been achieved in a given city.

Q: Where are you eating tonight?

A: In every city I visit, several people ask me this question, and it always makes me smile, because there's usually such a local-pride sweetness embedded in it. The questioner wants to hear that there's a local establishment I'm dying to try, or wants to know what about his or her city caught an outsider's eye.

But my answer, usually, is, "I don't know." Or, "nowhere, really." And I mention that for the following reason: too often, those of us who swim deeply in the food culture of the moment give the impression that every dining choice made is a deeply considered one, that life is a series of carefully researched, freighted judgment calls about the content, and destination, of every single meal. But is life really lived that way? Can it ever be? Do any of us really have the time or energy (or budget) for that?

Frank Bruni: "Q & A, Part One"
Corby Kummer: "Critics and the Web"

I know I don't. And as often as not, when I wrap up a day on the road around 9:00 p.m., I'm tired enough or eager enough for a solitary moment or interested enough in NOT thinking so hard about eating and food that I just get room service, or plop myself on a bar stool at a restaurant that I select spur-of-the-moment, or do something along those lines. I make a deliberate decision NOT to deliberate too much. I eat incidentally, serendipitously, in the service of basic nourishment, not epicurean enlightenment. I've never had a room-service burger I hated, maybe because I could never hate the indulgence of eating something in bed, with a bad TV rerun of some kind playing a few feet away, and with the knowledge that someone else has cleanup duties.

In fact, the reality of incidental, catch-as-catch-can eating was underscored for me when, at the request of the New York magazine's Grub Street blog, I kept track of six days of eating. They debriefed me at the end of it. The results were published recently as part of their New York Diet series. And they show a mix of thoughtful and thoughtless eating. Which is the mix I think most of us have in our lives.

That said, I tripped across a few memorable meals on the road. The relatively new restaurant Frances, in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, is an American bistro of sorts that's cozy, that has a succinct and appealing menu of small and larger plates, that spotlights a very talented chef (Melissa Perello), and that has the best chickpea fritters I've ever tasted. In fact, I never loved chickpea fritters before: they always seemed to me like ostensibly virtuous but less satisfying alternatives to the thick-cut French fry. But the Frances fritters are somehow custardy on the inside, providing a textural contrast that no French fry could. Wow.

I was also struck anew by how much and how wonderfully coffee culture in this country has advanced over recent years, and by how the West Coast has led the way. In Portland, all around, were coffee alternatives to the big chains, places that had individual spirits, like Heart, where I had coffee between appointments one morning. And in San Francisco, the individually made cup of drip coffee I had at Blue Bottle was, seriously, one of the best cups of coffee I've ever had. I grew sad as I reached the bottom of the cup, the way I do when my dinner plate is almost clean. I didn't want the pleasure to end.

Q: Did you get a lot of interesting feedback, after Born Round was initially published, about being a man talking about disordered eating, which people more often associate with women? A: All in all, the many book readers who sent me emails telling me they recognized their own troubled relationships with food in my story were more often women than men. But it wasn't a big disparity. And I did notice this: the men who wrote did so in a much more emotional vein, saying expressly that they have long felt isolated, in terms of how few men talk openly about their food and body-image problems.

But the more interesting—and, quite honestly, upsetting—reaction I got was from some people in the therapeutic community, who initially, upon hearing about the book, reached out to me, excited about the prospect of a new spokesperson for eating-disorder awareness. (Something, incidentally, I was neither volunteering, nor refusing, to be.) Once some of these people read the book, they pulled quickly back, upset that my story was of someone who got past the worst of his disordered behavior on his own, without a prolonged struggle and without therapy, and upset that I didn't write the words "eating disorder." One even said to me: "I'm worried about you. I don't think you've dealt with your issues at all." Another warned me of the hostile reaction I could count on getting from mental health professionals.

I was stunned. I hadn't been reaching out to, nor running away from, any particular group or orthodoxy. I hadn't consciously tried to use or tried NOT to use any particular language. I had written a memoir, a personal story, in the most personal and logical and (I hoped) compelling and readable language I could. And I could only portray and relate my own experience and truth; if that story didn't gibe with approved messages and lessons, then it simply didn't. It wasn't an attempt to contradict or challenge such messages and lessons. In fact, I think I probably SHOULD have spent some time in therapy earlier in my life. It might have saved me some grief. But the fact that I didn't undergo extensive therapy doesn't necessarily mean I haven't made progress and am in a dangerous place because of the omission.

This article also appears on bornround.com.