Secrets of a New York Times Food Critic

Past and present Times food critics revealed their tricks of the trade at a TimesTalk conversation

Credit: Matthew Arnold Photography

The former restaurant critics appeared in person, while the current Times critics gave their input from a secret location.

On Saturday evening, October 18, past and present New York Times food critics gathered at the TheTimesCenter in midtown Manhattan for a panel discussion on the ins and outs of the much envied and powerful position at the paper. The event was held in conjunction with the New York City Food and Wine Festival, was hosted by Times’ media columnist David Carr, and included former restaurant critic (1999 to 2003) William Grimes, former restaurant critic (2004 to 2009) Frank Bruni, and former restaurant critic (2009 to 2011) Sam Sifton. Current Hungry City columnist Ligaya Mishan and current restaurant critic Pete Wells weighed in via intercom from an undisclosed location “to maintain their anonymity.”

The panel first addressed procedure and criteria for the restaurants they decide to review, which are:

·         No free meals accepted

·         No invites by an establishment accepted

·         Visit the establishment under scrutiny three times if employing the star system, twice if a simple review will be given

·         Generally bring along companions to help taste more of the menu, though the new trend of tasting menus helps alleviate this necessity

The star system was also discussed, which Mishan admitted she was glad she does not have to use in her column. Wells pointed out that it has been used by different critics in different ways over the years, as it’s not a scientific assessment. When considering if a restaurant deserved that ultra-coveted fourth star, he said he compares the experience to the ones he’s had at other restaurants that scored four stars to see if it measured up. Grimes believes the system acts as shorthand for the reader, and that it was probably best it did not include half-star measurements, as fractional grades are a slippery slope. Bruni is not a big fan of the system, as he believes that only the full review gives the reader an accurate portrayal of the dining experience in question, but conceded that both readers and restaurant owners seem to like them.

Many of the critics had at one time or another experimented with disguise –“If you go wig, you’ve got to go expensive wig,” quipped Sifton – but often found maintaining them during the meals distracting. Frank Bruni would get so caught up in the scheduling and secrecy that when he called to make a reservation, he would suddenly remember he needed a pseudonym, so many of the names he used came from the spines of the books in his office.

David Carr asked the panel which culinary trends they were tired of, and Liguya Mishan said “kale in cocktails,” while Bruni is bored by “all iterations of ‘farm-to-table.’” Wells rolls his eyes at the “create your perfect bite” trend he has encountered in a number of restaurants, which entails your server explaining exactly how “Chef” wants you to eat the plate before you, bite-for-bite. William Grimes knew it would be a long night on the job when the philosophy behind the food and establishment was explained to him before he got a glimpse of the menu, while Wells has a hard time stomaching “When your server reminds you of someone in the high school drama club that almost learned the lines, but there are just so many lines and the script they’ve been handed doesn’t make sense.”

Finally, the panel was asked the classic question of “If the world was ending, where would you go for dinner?” Sam Sifton would get a classic steak at Peter Luger while Grimes picked Le Bernardin. Pete Wells got the final word, and he responded, “People love to ask this question, and I don’t understand why the critic always has to die. If the world is really about to end, I’m going to a bar.”

Kate Kolenda is the Restaurant and City Guide Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @BeefWerky and @theconversant.

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