Where Local and Global Appetites Collide

What Does a Professional Food Critic Do?

If you are like me, you read a food review in the paper and think, “Man, this is a cushy job!  They get to review one restaurant a week, all expenses paid, eating the finest of  foods with the friends of their choosing.  What is there not to like?  Sign me up.

Well, I just gone done reading the book “Born Round – The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater”, by Frank Bruni, and I no longer want the job, thank you very much.  Frank Bruni was the NY times food critic from 2004 – 2009.  (Here is an article on the current NY Times food critic Sam Sifton).  Trained as a journalist at Columbia and having numerous serious assignments such as covering the war in the Persian Gulf, the campaign trail with George W. Bush during his first election for president, and a foreign correspondent stationed in Italy, Frank seems an unlikely candidate for the position of food critic.  But he steps up to the plate with great gusto.

The parts of the book I find most interesting are towards the end where he fully details his stint as food critic.  This was “back in the day” when the the position had more clout (and less competition from the internet foodies that abound) and was much more secretive – where he had grand schemes to hide his identity.

The work involved in preparing for that one weekly review is explained in this excerpt from the book.  I had no idea it was this much work:

I was supposed to review one restaurant every week, and I was supposed to visit every restaurant I reviewed at least three or, better yet, four times.  Meanwhile, I was supposed to acquaint or reacquaint myself with restaurants integral to understanding the ones being reviewed, and I was also supposed to try restaurants that might, after one or even two visits, prove too inconsequential to be written about.  With only seven nights in a week, I pretty much had to use all of them for dinners out in order to make the math work.  On some weeks I could throw a lunch or two into the equation, but the vast majority of restaurants really weren’t best judged at lunchtime.  Lunch wasn’t the answer.

Regarding the stealth he needed to use to try to remain anonymous, for every visit to a restaurant he used a fake name, and he paid for each meal with various different credit cards with fake names (this was all above-board with special arrangements made with the credit card company) – some even with women’s names, which he gave to female companions to use to pay with (and sign for).

It was a fascinating insight into his world that I truly enjoyed.  I would recommend the book just for this point.

  1. Mary
    Thanks. I want to read the book now.
    I used to be a food critic when I lived in LA many years ago. I wrote about where to go for lunch downtown. However, I was not allowed to be critical as restaurants were always potential advertisers.
    Never the less it was fun as I was very popular at work as everyone wanted to be my friend so they could go to lunch with me. I switched off with the regular restaurant writer at the paper; she gave me the restaurants she didn’t want to go to.
    LA has a big Chinatown near downtown and there’s only so much one can say about limp broccoli.
    I also reviewed restaurants for a short time at Tucson Weekly. The editor I worked with told me I only needed to go once if the experience was fairly good but if it was bad, I needed to go twice. The people reviewing now under another editor have to go twice. That can be a drag and a big use of time especially for a little bit of money. Although restaurant reviewing as other perks other than food.

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