As part of our series of Food Talks, last Sunday the New York Times‘ Frank Bruni—their recently departed restaurant critic—joined Mike Colameco, host and producer of Public Television’s Colameco’s Food Show, for a candid discussion about Bruni’s life and career thus far. We’ve recapped some highlights in the video above with a few bullet points:
On calorie counting, Colameco asks Bruni, whose new book Born Round, documents his life-long battle with weight and unhealthy eating: “Do you keep track of calories?”
“...especially as a critic, you’re obliged to eat, Bruni replied. You’re supposed to eat food. And a lot of food. And taste everybody else’s food. And swallow. Well, calories,” Bruni playfully clarified. “That almost sounded dirty.”
About the expense of maintaining a food critic at a paper like the New York Times, Bruni explained: “I never had them reduce my dining out budget. I know they haven’t reduced it for my successor Sam Sifton. It’s one of the most expensive beats to maintain.” This is important, he argues, so the readers know they are getting, “a considered opinion based on at least three restaurants visits, based on a thorough canvassing of the menu, and based on money spent by the paper.” According to Bruni, that might not always be the case with restaurant criticism elsewhere, particularly online, where arrangements might be clouding the reviews:
“A lot of the stuff you see online, a lot of it’s lively, a lot of it’s great, some of it has a lot of integrity, but some of it, you have no idea. You’re reading it because that’s a restaurant in which the person writing it dines for free, frequently.
...you know at least when you read the Times, there’s utter economic independence of the critic.”
On restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, who placed a full page ad in the New York Times attacking Bruni after receiving zero stars from the critic, both Colameco and Bruni verbally jabbed him: “I don’t know how you can write many flattering reviews of any of his restaurants,” Colameco opined. Bruni chuckled, and continued: “You might have to look long and hard in the archives to find a flattering review of a Jeffrey Chodorow restaurant.
On anonymity and how important it is, or isn’t, to the job: Bruni related stories he heard about the lengths some restaurants went to neutralize a surprise visit from a critic, including sentries posted on the street corners nearby, employees whose sole job is to stand in the restaurants lobby keeping an eye out, or chefs who will make two dishes of everything for a critics table, picking the best one to serve. So it is more important to make sure they don’t know you are coming, as opposed to staying anonymous once there, he argued. What they can’t do without a lengthy advance notice, is to rework the menu, change the staff, or make a new run to the market for fresher food. “You will still get a...fundamentally honest experience at the restaurant.”
The evening ended with Bruni and Colameco offering recommendations for various restaurants and bakeries, or more accurately, where they have been spending their money as of late. Peasant on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan was mentioned, Bruni said he was a “big fan.” Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn was mentioned as a “nice experience for the money,” and Veloce Pizzeria in the East Village was called: “a very pleasant place.” Levain Bakery on 74th Street was held up as a place that does very limited things, but what they do, they do “really, really well.” Bouchon Bakery, the bakery at Petrossian, and any place Karen Demasco or Kate Zuckerman hang their hat at were also given mention as places and people deserving praise for their pastries.