Tom Sietsema writes a weekly dining column for the Washington Post Sunday Magazine, a weekly restaurant news column for the Food section, a monthly report on dining in other cities for the Travel section, and two annual dining guides. He also is vice-chairman of the James Beard Restaurant Awards Committee. Previously, he wrote for Microsoft's sidewalk.com, the Seattle Post-Intellegencer, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Milwaukee Journal. His work has also appeared in GQ, Food & Wine, and Travel & Leisure.
Tom got his start with the Post's Food section in 1983. He was a recent graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University slinging pizza for a living when a friend who was an investigative reporter at the Washington Post called. Apparently, food critic Phyllis Richman was looking for an assistant. Tom had interned at ABC News and the Chicago Sun-Times, and jumped on the opportunity to get back into journalism. The idea was that being an assistant would lead to writing opportunities, and the Food section would lead to Metro, then to national and foreign news reporting. The sky was the limit.
In the fall of '83, Tom's first byline appeared in the Post. Richman had been planning to do an article on food newsletters. These were quite popular among foodies at the time, something like eGullet without the 'e' part. Tom had done all the research, so Richman suggested he go ahead and write the article too. This led to bigger and better things, such as an express lane column featuring recipes with no more than 13 ingredients (so that they could all be purchased in a single trip through a supermarket express lane), and a series of offbeat food features on topics ranging from what the embassy of Burkina Faso served its guests to a group of bread-baking Virginia monks. He researched and tested recipes, cooking anything and everything: French food, African food, cookies, cakes, recipes from top chefs, and down-home country treats. His grocery bills were double salary, but he, his roommates, and most importantly his readers were all eating well.
After four years at the Post, Tom was looking for a new challenge and was offered the position of Food Editor at the Milwaukee Journal. This position exposed him not only to new styles of cuisine, but also to the rigors of managing a team of writers and interacting with the management of the paper as a whole. Four years later, in 1990, the San Francisco Chronicle called, and Tom answered. As a food writer and restaurant reviewer in San Fancisco, Tom saw the genesis of many of the trends we now take for granted in new American cuisine. He developed a passion for the fresh seasonal ingredients that local chefs sought out so religiously. He also saw new ideas, like the use of savory herbs in desserts, grow, evolve, and inspire cuisine not only in bay area, but all the way back to the East coast. In 1994, Tom headed up the coast to Seattle. He write food features and restaurant reviews for the Post-Intellegencer, quadrupling their food coverage in just two years.
In 1996, while at the P-I, Tom interviewed Microsoft technical guru Nathan Mhyrvold. Nathan was not only a techie, but also a foodie. In fact, he spent one night a week working the line in a local French restaurant. Over the course of a six and a half hour dinner, Tom and Nathan discussed all manner of culinary topics. Only later did Tom learn that he was not only the interviewer, but an interviewee. Microsoft was on the verge of launching its sidewalk.com online site, and was looking for experienced writers from the traditional media to join its team. Tom was convinced, and returned to Washington, DC to cover the city for Microsoft. Of course, we all know how this ended. In 1998, Bill Gates pulled the plug, deciding Microsoft should refocus on its core technology business, at the expense of content businesses like sidewalk.
Needless to say, a talented and well-respected food journalist like Tom landed on his feet. Jeanne McManus, the Post's food editor, offered Tom a temporary full-time position filling in for another writer who was taking a leave. It would be a great place to be for a period of months, in a city he loved, while he pondered his next career move.
Six months after he returned to the Post, the landscape of available positions shifted radically. Phyllis Richman announced that she intended to retire after 24 years as the Post's food critic. A global search plan was announced. Writers from all corners of the planet were invited to submit portfolios of their work to a blue-ribbon panel charged with finding Richman's replacement. For a period of months, Tom felt as if every feature he wrote was a test. Would he or wouldn't he make the grade and be offered the food critic position?
Obviously there's no mystery left in that question at this point. In the summer of 2000, Tom officially took over at the Post's food critic. His first review appeared in August 2000, and his first dining guide was published in October of that year. Since then, Tom has earned widespread acclaim from his readers, restaurateurs, and fellow critics, both for his palate and for his prose. He continues to travel extensively, and brings his global knowledge of cuisine and culture to bear even when covering the most local of dining destinations.
Tom Sietsema Bio
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