Who could have predicted that in naming its new restaurant critic two weeks ago the New York Times was also administering “the death blow to critical ‘anonymity’ ”? So said popular food blog Feedbag to the news that Sam Sifton, the paper’s cultural editor, would replace Frank Bruni in the fall. Unlike his under-the-radar predecessors, who seemed to have a Hutterite-like aversion to the camera, Sifton is a known quantity visually: within seconds of the announcement, his photo from the Times website went viral, likely ending up on the wall of every restaurant kitchen in the city.
Feedbag viewed the development happily, noting that a restaurant critic’s anonymity, long viewed as sacrosanct in the food world, “is a sham anyway.” Others were less sanguine: “Unless Sifton does something major to alter his appearance, every restaurateur in New York City is going to know exactly who he is,” Bill Daley lamented on the Chicago Tribune’s food blog The Stew. “Frankly, that saddens me.” Clearly, Daley’s a fan of artfully disguised restaurant critics, tales of whom invariably burnish the teller’s self-importance. In her book Garlic and Sapphires, Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl writes of rivalling Mata Hari in elaborate ruses when she was the New York Times restaurant critic in the 1990s. Joanne Kates, the Globe and Mail’s restaurant reviewer for 34 years, also makes a production of going incognito: she wears hats and masks to professional events and tries to blend in with the crowd when reviewing, a practice she calls “protective mimicry.” Like most reviewers, she never makes the reservation in her name and uses credit cards under aliases.
Such subterfuge is necessary, Kates says: “If they know who I am, they’re going to knock their socks off to give me better everything,” an approach that also runs the risk of irritating royally with abject sycophancy. Kates scoffs at the notion restaurants have little room to improve the experience: “They can try harder, they can pick a better piece of fish, they can take more care with their technique, they can put their best server at my table.”
Restaurateurs admit they step up their game when they know a reviewer is in the house. “Instead of checking something twice, we’ll check it three times,” says Robert Clark, the executive chef at Vancouver’s C restaurant. Anton Potvin, the owner of Toronto’s popular Niagara Street Café, agrees: “The kitchen is in a state of heightened awareness.” He recalls expecting Kates to review the place after he opened five years ago; one of his staffers who knew the reviewer kept vigil, but she never visited. Kates became even easier to identify after photographs of her taken for the website of a summer camp she runs were posted by a food blogger, a development Kates calls “a bummer.”
Even in the post-Google age, critics try valiantly to defy technology in the name of objective journalism. When Corey Mintz, the Toronto Star’s restaurant reviewer, took the job 15 months ago, he tried to expunge his online visual history, removing photos from Facebook and asking friends and relatives to do the same. He even bought a disguise kit, with fake moustache, that he has yet to use. He admits it’s probably futile: “It only takes one picture.”
Sifton, too, is playing the game: “I’ve got some spy-versus-spy tricks,” he told the Associated Press. Elsewhere, though, critics are easing up on the pretense. A.A. Gill, the rabble-rousing reviewer at the Sunday Times and the model for the very visible (and risible) critic Anton Ego in the movie Ratatouille, has his photo on the paper’s website.
But if a restaurant wants to identify a critic from a make-or-break publication like the New York Times they can, as illustrated by Phoebe Damrosch in Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter, her 2007 memoir of working at New York’s high-end eatery Per Se. She devotes chapters to the gyrations involved in preparing for a visit from Bruni, who was recognized seconds after he arrived. (Rules for staff included: “No cologne, scented lotions, scented soaps, aftershave or perfume.” “No first names, no flirting, no hands on the chair, no touching the guest.”) Bruni’s review was glowing.
Of course, adding to the ongoing friction is the fact that the Internet, which so quickly exposes wannabe-anonymous critics, simultaneously undermines their influence via the increasing power of food blog reviewers who are truly anonymous—and unaccountable. That’s something Sifton can chew on while he decides what, and who, to consume first.