When the New York Times announced this past May that its restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, would be stepping down, it sent a wave of frenzy through the newspaper food writing world as to who would replace him.
Bruni had been a questionable choice from the start for two very good reasons: 1. He was not previously a food writer, having notably covered the White House during the beginning of the Bush administration, and after that becoming the intrepid newspaper’s Rome bureau chief. 2. He had written a couple of books, most notably “Ambling into History,” about George W. Bush, which put his face all over the internet — anyone who wanted to could find out what he looked like.
The Times has replaced Bruni, who steps down this month to promote a book he has written on bulimia and his apparently twisted relationship with food called “Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater,” with Sam Sifton, the Times cultural news editor.
An “obvious and eccentric” choice, according to Times executive editor Bill Keller, who has probably spent a good deal of time in the last few weeks formulating the answers to questions from staff, media and readers as to why the Times would hire yet another dining critic whose visage is well known to anyone who can press the return key on their computer.
The choice has sent a barrage of Sifton images over the Internet, and lots of bloggers and journalists are writing in a frenzy weighing in on the decision. It all comes down to one question: Should dining critics dine anonymously?
The answer is, of course, yes. The details, however, are a little more complicated. Keller, in a Times Diner’s Journal post August 5, finally addressed the issue with a full set of teeth, writing, “it’s worth noting that anonymity has long been less than perfect. Read Ruth Reichl’s book about her long stint as the Times restaurant critic, and you learn that despite all her theatrical dress-ups she was often made by the maitre d’hotel. I’ve dined with Frank Bruni in places where it was clear — from the trying-too-hard service, or the clusters of whispering waiters, or some other tell — that they were on to us.”
How refreshing. I’ve long argued that dining anonymously becomes almost impossible after about two years on a critic’s post. I was “made” in this city several years ago. There are restaurants in Atlanta where the chef will actually wave or come to my table briefly to say hello. Frankly, any of the top restaurants in the city that don’t know what I look like are just not doing their job, a matter, I’ll admit, is even more brutally significant in New York than it is in Atlanta.
Many critics hold this post for years — do we actually think that any restaurant staff wouldn’t know how to identify them? And as for disguises, I’ll have to agree with Mr. Keller — they don’t work. In a recent interview I had with Beard-nominated Top Chef host Tom Colicchio, we veered from the subject at hand (the opening of Craft Atlanta) to talk for a long time about restaurant criticism, a subject on which Colicchio has strong views. He admitted that there was never a time when Reichl came into Craft — disguised or not — that he and his staff couldn’t identify her.
It is incredibly naïve to think otherwise. But it’s also wrong of the public to think that a critic can’t do her job simply because she’s been “made.” We all follow guidelines, set by both our newspapers and by professional groups such as the Association of Food Journalists. They are, basically, that we go unannounced to restaurants; that we pay for everything, even when things are brought to the table for free (I leave a large tip to cover items I don’t find on my bill). I pay with credit cards that have fake names. When I am recognized, I respond politely and hope that the restaurant staff will leave me to do my work. Most times, they do. In short, I do what I can to remain anonymous.
But the point of contention that gnaws at me the most is the idea that because I’ve been identified, it somehow compromises me. It compromises the situation; it does not compromise me. Yes, service changes dramatically — all of a sudden my waiter’s station reduces from four tables to one — mine. And I’m sure plates in the kitchen are fussed over, with the chef making three of the same thing and choosing the very best one for my table.
I can determine these things, and write about them accordingly — sometimes I will mention it in the actual review and other times in the sidebar under the topic of service. I do this when I feel my treatment altered my experience enough for it to be important for you — the reader — to know about it.
I do not, contrary to what the Internet will tell you, party with chefs. I do not attend opening parties or opening nights at restaurants (that was not me with Atlanta Cuisine’s Tom Maicon at the opening night of Verasano’s, even though the web will tell you otherwise. I was actually trying out Linton Hopkins’ then-new menu at Restaurant Eugene that evening. For the record, I do not know Mr. Maicon).
Of course there are chefs I’ve grown fond of over the years, but only from a professional standpoint. They are, after all, the people whom I cover. I try to keep as professional a distance as possible, without compromising this newspaper or myself. Just because I know when someone’s wife is having a baby doesn’t mean I’m going to give him preferential treatment in the newspaper. And just because someone tries to send me a free drink doesn’t mean they’ll get a good review.
So before you fall for the Internet mumbo jumbo on Sam Sifton, take a moment to realize that dining criticism is a job. It’s probably one we dining critics want to keep. Have a little faith in that fact.