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Bruni moves on . . .


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I'm not describing a "grand tour" of a restaurant. Rather, a knowledgeable writer observing prep and turnout under the pressure of a couple or more services. Any flaws will appear, even though the staff knows a writer is present and making, at least, mental notes.

Hadn't thought of it before, but perhaps give the writer the right to pull dishes off the line and sample them.

I'd be surprised if an aware writer would not have caught on to Le Cirque's two levels of service over the course of hanging out for a couple of days.

The biggest challenge to this approach, beyond trying something new, may be the willingness of restaurants to accept such a risky intrusion.

Edited by Holly Moore (log)

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It's a given that being the "Times' food critic is no piece of gateau: just read Mimi Sheraton's and Ruth Reichel's memoirs. I live in Chicago, a town that per capita can give NYC a run for its money in the restaurant scene, but we've had no critic as engaging and as good a writer as Frank Bruni. In fact, I've become a Frank Fan.

So, not being a New Yorker, I'm going to move past the anonymity and starry issues that you guys are so passionate about, and ask: Who do you think would be a worthy replacement for Bruni? I'm interested. A lot. I suspect that even a Jehovah/ McPhee /Escoffier blend wouldn't pass muster.

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It's a given that being the "Times' food critic is no piece of gateau: just read Mimi Sheraton's and Ruth Reichel's memoirs.
The job has a high burn-out rate. I believe Mimi Sheraton lasted eight years, but the norm is 5-6. In the music department, the Times has had critics that lasted 10-20 years, but none of the main restaurant critics have done that. Eating 10-12 big meals a week takes its toll.
So, not being a New Yorker, I'm going to move past the anonymity and starry issues that you guys are so passionate about, and ask: Who do you think would be a worthy replacement for Bruni? I'm interested. A lot. I suspect that even a Jehovah/ McPhee /Escoffier blend  wouldn't pass muster.

I wrote an open letter to the Times about this. Basically, I want someone with deep experience in food—someone I will learn from. Although Frank Bruni was sometimes entertaining, he didn't really know (or seem to know) much more about food than I did. Obviously he had the advantage of doing this full-time with a much higher budget, and like any smart person he did pick up useful insights along the way. But his reviews never made me think or expand my horizons, the way good criticism should. Edited by oakapple (log)
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It's a given that being the "Times' food critic is no piece of gateau: just read Mimi Sheraton's and Ruth Reichel's memoirs.
The job has a high burn-out rate. I believe Mimi Sheraton lasted eight years, but the norm is 5-6. In the music department, the Times has had critics that lasted 10-20 years, but none of the main restaurant critics have done that. Eating 10-12 big meals a week takes its toll.
So, not being a New Yorker, I'm going to move past the anonymity and starry issues that you guys are so passionate about, and ask: Who do you think would be a worthy replacement for Bruni? I'm interested. A lot. I suspect that even a Jehovah/ McPhee /Escoffier blend  wouldn't pass muster.

I wrote an open letter to the Times about this. Basically, I want someone with deep experience in food—someone I will learn from. Although Frank Bruni was sometimes entertaining, he didn't really know (or seem to know) much more about food than I did. Obviously he had the advantage of doing this full-time with a much higher budget, and like any smart person he did pick up useful insights along the way. But his reviews never made me think or expand my horizons, the way good criticism should.

I would like Bruni's detractors here to name one restaurant critic that DOES scratch whatever itch they have in the area of RESTAURANT criticism? What published restaurant writer expands your horizons, oakapple? The anonymity issue aside, let's just come up with a list of people who have proven themselves as knowledgeable, experienced, trusted, and thoughtful restaurant writers. And then, consider their writing inside a 900-1100 word box.

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I'm not describing a "grand tour" of a restaurant.  Rather, a knowledgeable writer observing prep and turnout under the pressure of a couple or more services.  Any flaws will appear, even though the staff knows a writer is present and making, at least, mental notes.
In the first place, a substantial part of Frank Bruni's job is figuring out which restaurants get reviewed in the first place. If each reviewed restaurant is visited three times, and if he eats out 10 times a week, it means that about 70% of his meals do not result in a rated review. We don't hear about many of those meals, but they're an essential part of the job.
I'd be surprised if an aware writer would not have caught on to Le Cirque's two levels of service over the course of hanging out for a couple of days.
Here's what Bruni reported in his original review:
On my first visit, when a companion and I arrived before the two other members of our party, a host let us know we should wait in the bar area not by asking or telling us to go there but by gesturing silently in that direction with his head. Most of the seats were occupied, so we stood. Over the next 10 minutes, no one asked us if we wanted a drink or anything else.

After we were taken to our table, servers seemed to figure out who I was and offered to move us to prime real estate with better sightlines. (We declined.)

So on a subsequent visit I sent three friends in ahead of me. One sat at the bar for 15 minutes without getting a server’s attention, and a bartender quarreled with the two others when they asked that the charges for their Champagne be transferred to the table. At a place as self-consciously posh as Le Cirque, such a request should be granted instantly.

Le Cirque is, of course, famous for this, but Bruni's oeuvre is full of less conspicuous examples. Obviously, if he calls in advance and says, "I'm Frank Bruni of The New York Times, and I'd like to come hang out in your restaurant for a few days," he's going to be treated like royalty every time.

Needless to say, the place will be spick 'n' span, their best people will always be on duty, they will never run out of anything, he'll always be seated at a prime table, he'll never wait for anything, yada, yada, yada.

The biggest challenge to this approach, beyond trying something new, may be the willingness of restaurants to accept such a risky intrusion.

Are you kidding? They'd be delighted. Any restaurant would far prefer to be reviewed under circumstances they control, and are known in advance. The current situation, in which he shows up unannounced and may very well not be recognized immediately, is much more nerve-wracking for them.
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I would like Bruni's detractors here to name one restaurant critic that DOES scratch whatever itch they have in the area of RESTAURANT criticism?  What published restaurant writer expands your horizons, oakapple? The anonymity issue aside, let's just come up with a list of people who have proven themselves as knowledgeable, experienced, trusted, and thoughtful restaurant writers.  And then, consider their writing inside a 900-1100 word box.

That's easy: Eric Asimov, to give but one example. Of course, he's not doing restaurant criticism now, but he's still at the Times and has done the job in the past.
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I would like Bruni's detractors here to name one restaurant critic that DOES scratch whatever itch they have in the area of RESTAURANT criticism?  What published restaurant writer expands your horizons, oakapple? The anonymity issue aside, let's just come up with a list of people who have proven themselves as knowledgeable, experienced, trusted, and thoughtful restaurant writers.  And then, consider their writing inside a 900-1100 word box.

That's easy: Eric Asimov, to give but one example. Of course, he's not doing restaurant criticism now, but he's still at the Times and has done the job in the past.

Now we're getting somewhere.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

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I'm not describing a "grand tour" of a restaurant.  Rather, a knowledgeable writer observing prep and turnout under the pressure of a couple or more services.  Any flaws will appear, even though the staff knows a writer is present and making, at least, mental notes.
In the first place, a substantial part of Frank Bruni's job is figuring out which restaurants get reviewed in the first place. If each reviewed restaurant is visited three times, and if he eats out 10 times a week, it means that about 70% of his meals do not result in a rated review. We don't hear about many of those meals, but they're an essential part of the job.
I'd be surprised if an aware writer would not have caught on to Le Cirque's two levels of service over the course of hanging out for a couple of days.
Here's what Bruni reported in his original review:
On my first visit, when a companion and I arrived before the two other members of our party, a host let us know we should wait in the bar area not by asking or telling us to go there but by gesturing silently in that direction with his head. Most of the seats were occupied, so we stood. Over the next 10 minutes, no one asked us if we wanted a drink or anything else.

After we were taken to our table, servers seemed to figure out who I was and offered to move us to prime real estate with better sightlines. (We declined.)

So on a subsequent visit I sent three friends in ahead of me. One sat at the bar for 15 minutes without getting a server’s attention, and a bartender quarreled with the two others when they asked that the charges for their Champagne be transferred to the table. At a place as self-consciously posh as Le Cirque, such a request should be granted instantly.

Le Cirque is, of course, famous for this, but Bruni's oeuvre is full of less conspicuous examples. Obviously, if he calls in advance and says, "I'm Frank Bruni of The New York Times, and I'd like to come hang out in your restaurant for a few days," he's going to be treated like royalty every time.

Needless to say, the place will be spick 'n' span, their best people will always be on duty, they will never run out of anything, he'll always be seated at a prime table, he'll never wait for anything, yada, yada, yada.

The biggest challenge to this approach, beyond trying something new, may be the willingness of restaurants to accept such a risky intrusion.

Are you kidding? They'd be delighted. Any restaurant would far prefer to be reviewed under circumstances they control, and are known in advance. The current situation, in which he shows up unannounced and may very well not be recognized immediately, is much more nerve-wracking for them.

You have far more faith than I do in a restaurant's ability to up its game just because a reviewer is present. I don't believe the business is that controllable. Too many variables in preparing and serving meals.

However to ease your concern, the writer could do the traditional pseudo-anonymous reviewing meals up front and then contact the restaurant for the hanging out.

But if the earlier statistic in this thread is correct, that Bruni was recongized 2/3rds of the time, all your fears will come to pass whether the reviewer is eating or watching. The only way for the NY Times or any other publication to meet your criteria would be for them to replace a reviewer as soon as a pic of the reviewer makes the rounds. Otherwise there is a strong possibility that two out of three of a critic's reviews after the first few months on the job are tainted because the reviewer was recognized.

There are also strong odds that a reviewer's experience over two or three meals will not be representative of a restaurant's capabilities or lack thereof. Let's say the reviewer and three other mouths had three meals at a restaurant. That is a total of twelve meals. Let's say it is a relatively small restaurant seating 100 and, over six days a week, averaging two turns for dinner - 1200 meals a week. To make the math easy, the place is open 50 weeks a year. The resultant review will be based on one percent of the meals the restaurant serves in a week and .002 percent of the meals served in a year. Neither is a particularly reliable sample.

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Why isn't L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon viewed as a candidate for a potential upgrade? I've never been there, but by reputation, the food seems to be at the four-star level, and while it is imported, by my understanding it remains substantially more informal than the typical four-star restaurant.

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You have far more faith than I do in a restaurant's ability to up its game just because a reviewer is present.
There is no doubt at all that they can. Obviously there are many things they cannot change. Red Lobster couldn't suddenly start serving Le Bernardin's menu. But consider, for a moment, the difference between your home when you know company's coming, and your home if someone just drops by unannounced. There are obviously things you change. In my prior post, I listed some of the many things (it's far from an exhaustive list) that a restaurant could manipulate if they knew up-front that the critic was coming.
However to ease your concern, the writer could do the traditional pseudo-anonymous reviewing meals up front and then contact the restaurant for the hanging out.
In that case, I have no objection to your proposal, except that you have just doubled the amount of work he has to do, so I don't know how he would fit it all in.
But if the earlier statistic in this thread is correct, that Bruni was recongized 2/3rds of the time, all your fears will come to pass whether the reviewer is eating or watching.
In the first place, all that means is that he is recognized at some point during the visit. It includes those places, like the Le Cirque example quoted above, where they treat him like an ordinary guy for the first 15-20 minutes before they realize who he is.

And of course, even if they recognize him the instant he comes in the door, they still don't know when he's coming. That means they could run out of stuff, he could come when the GM is visiting Mom in Pittsburgh and an inexperienced backup is in charge, he could come when they're overbooked and his table isn't ready for 40 minutes, etc., etc.

See this Eater post for additional examples. For instance, it seems that all three of his Mercer Kitchen visits went unrecognized. At Fiamma: "Every night, he was “spotted.” My GM would send out some extra this, or extra that. If you were a slightly effeminate, mid 30’s, professional looking man with brown hair, and you ate at Fiamma from 2004 – 2006, you got to feel, for a moment, what it’s like to be Bruni."

(That same post notes that Bruni looks a good deal different than his known photos; and I have heard that from other people too.)

There are also strong odds that a reviewer's experience over two or three meals will not be representative of a restaurant's capabilities or lack thereof.

I don't know about strong odds, but it certainly can happen. But if the critic spends a couple of days hanging out in the kitchen, I am not sure how that changes anything. Those two days probably won't be typical either. Of course, this can happen with any discipline that involves a human element: the theater and music critics file reviews of just a single performance.

For the restaurant beat, I've advocated more frequent re-reviews. Before Ruth Reichl, the Wednesday column usually covered two restaurants. That allowed the critic much more flexibility to re-review places. Reichl changed the format to one restaurant per week, and although Bruni has revived the double review (one of his few valuable innovations), he only does that occasionally.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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One thing that hasn't necessarily been considered is the pressure on a restaurant when they know that a reviewer like Bruni is in the house, whether he is supposed to be anonymous or not. I could imagine rather than getting a better meal because of the knowledge, the reviewer may get a decidedly worse meal than the average Joe because of the additional nerves both in FOH & BOH. Not everyone responds with improved performance in these circumstances. Holly's point may allow the restaurant to take a deep breath and better show what they are capable of. The reviewer can supplement his own direct experience with anonymous dining from a corps of trusted sidekicks to assess the day to day variability of a restaurant as well as the general approach to the average customer.

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Why isn't L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon viewed as a candidate for a potential upgrade? I've never been there, but by reputation, the food seems to be at the four-star level, and while it is imported, by my understanding it remains substantially more informal than the typical four-star restaurant.

Based on Bruni's known preferences, it doesn't seem likely that L'Atelier remained on his radar after his initial series of visits. One never knows, but it's not a place he ever mentions, even in passing.
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Why isn't L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon viewed as a candidate for a potential upgrade? I've never been there, but by reputation, the food seems to be at the four-star level, and while it is imported, by my understanding it remains substantially more informal than the typical four-star restaurant.

Based on Bruni's known preferences, it doesn't seem likely that L'Atelier remained on his radar after his initial series of visits. One never knows, but it's not a place he ever mentions, even in passing.

Add to that the fact that they have just had a chef change. And not only a chef change, but one that seems to be, at best, a step sideways (and in many people's eyes might be a slight step backwards), though the jury is still out.

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One thing that hasn't necessarily been considered is the pressure on a restaurant when they know that a reviewer like Bruni is in the house, whether he is supposed to be anonymous or not. I could imagine rather than getting a better meal because of the knowledge, the reviewer may get a decidedly worse meal than the average Joe because of the additional nerves both in FOH & BOH. Not everyone responds with improved performance in these circumstances. Holly's point may allow the restaurant to take a deep breath and better show what they are capable of. The reviewer can supplement his own direct experience with anonymous dining from a corps of trusted sidekicks to assess the day to day variability of a restaurant as well as the general approach to the average customer.

Have to disagree.

Every restaurant I've worked in, when bruni's table fires you put (almost) everything else on hold, and usually cook off two of each protein, and a fresh batch of whatever else you have time for. I would have to expect that unilaterally, Bruni receives the best of whatever a kitchen is capable of.

Of course you take your clumsier runners out of his section too, and make sure he gets perfect one-liners for every dish and pour. I would say all-in-all its not so bad to be Bruni, despite all his bitching and whining to the contrary.

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I favor the hanging-out approach to the traditional anonymous restaurant meal(s) re-digestion.  Let the writer spend a day or two at the restaurant - talking with the chef, the owner, the maitre d', servers, cooks, apprentices and more.  Get a feel for the capabilities of the kitchen - everything from imagination to craft to sanitation.  Eat a few meals in the dining room.  Perhaps talk with a few diners on their way out. 

Who will better predict a diner's experience? Someone who has eaten two or three maybe anonymous meals at a place or someone known to be a reviewer who has eaten two or three meals and spent a day or more watching prep, turnout and service, and talking with the staff?

This is a fascinating idea that, in theory, may have merit, but in practice, I'm not so sure.

Holly, who has owned restaurants, doesn't agree, but it probably is true that within minutes a restaurant will shift into a higher gear when they know a reviewer is in the house. Whether or not the reviewer visits before or after their review meals, the restaurant will have considerable time to get their act together (and they surely will) if they approve a day or two at the restaurant.

Given my profession my immediate thought was the Hawthorne Effect from the 1920's. Factory workers increased productivity when observed by someone, particularly management. So either consciously or unconsciously restaurant staff will best behavior and perform at a higher level for a day or two. I'd bet editors of "reality" shows have to go through hours of tape to give viewers a few minutes of what participants are really like. And those people are screened to see if they'll be themselves with a camera present.

When a reviewer makes a reservation, eats a meal and leaves there are far fewer variables at play than if they were to observe, interact and have the authority and audacity to pull a plate off the line and try it. To come anywhere close to neutralizing their own biases the reviewer must have a working knowledge of psychology and sociology, but maybe that's taught in journalism school. What if the reviewer is a jackass and the staff telegraphs their dislike? Or what if the reviewer takes a shine to the staff? All reviews mention how they were treated during their meals so are they going to say how they personally feel about the people with whom they've spent a day or two?

As far as the small sampling of three review meals is concerned, that's plenty. Hell, if I'm spending my hard earned money on food usually they get one chance.

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It is too bad the New York Times Corp is under such financial pressure, because it would be a very interesting exercise for them to take both approaches and see how they do over time. I'm not really aware of anyone doing it quite the way Holly describes. The closest that I can think of is John Mariani, but he is quite controversial.

I disagree. Lots of people have done exactly that. Andrea Strong, Danyelle Freeman, Ed Levine and many many more...including many newspapers around the country and many internet folks too The inevitable result (even if it doesn't start that way) is that they all end up writing puff pieces. Which is how we end up with much of writing about restaurants, whether it be in print, blogs or on the foodboards, being simply shilling (I'd say the majority of print actually).

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Ruth Reichl

Mimi Sheraton

It's not popular to say this here, but Amanda Hesser

And that's just people who've written for The Times.

Not Mimi. No way.

Reichl yes, although she would be crucified on the boards today if her name wasn't Ruth Reichl.

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Ruth Reichl

Mimi Sheraton

It's not popular to say this here, but Amanda Hesser

And that's just people who've written for The Times.

Not Mimi. No way.

Reichl yes, although she would be crucified on the boards today if her name wasn't Ruth Reichl.

I'm not worried about agreeing all the time with a critic (that is impossible), but I would like the Times to apply the same standard to choosing a restaurant critic as they do a music or theater critic. I'd certainly argue that Craig Clairborne, Mimi Sheraton, Bryan Miller, and Ruth Reichl reached that standard. They were all people who had spent their careers involved with food. Bruni has been an embarrassment when compared to any of them.

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It is too bad the New York Times Corp is under such financial pressure, because it would be a very interesting exercise for them to take both approaches and see how they do over time. I'm not really aware of anyone doing it quite the way Holly describes. The closest that I can think of is John Mariani, but he is quite controversial.

I disagree. Lots of people have done exactly that. Andrea Strong, Danyelle Freeman, Ed Levine and many many more...including many newspapers around the country and many internet folks too The inevitable result (even if it doesn't start that way) is that they all end up writing puff pieces. Which is how we end up with much of writing about restaurants, whether it be in print, blogs or on the foodboards, being simply shilling (I'd say the majority of print actually).

I'm not familiar with all the writers you list or their work, but are they presenting their articles as critical evaluations?

What makes a puff piece? Was the article in Sunday's NY Times business section about DBGB a puff piece?

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I disagree. Lots of people have done exactly that. Andrea Strong, Danyelle Freeman, Ed Levine and many many more...including many newspapers around the country and many internet folks too  The inevitable result (even if it doesn't start that way) is that they all end up writing puff pieces.

I'm not familiar with all the writers you list or their work, but are they presenting their articles as critical evaluations?

What makes a puff piece? Was the article in Sunday's NY Times business section about DBGB a puff piece?

Yes it was. That doesn't mean it lacked value; to the contrary, I very much enjoyed it. But it wasn't a discerning evaluation of Boulud or his restaurants. It was an almost entirely positive piece in which the writer's perceptions were manipulated by the setting and situations that he was allowed to observe. I wouldn't want to lose such pieces, but they aren't reviews.
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I never suggested it was a review.

But totally disagree that it is a puff piece. Puff piece is a pejorative that implies that a writer is motivated to present a glowing picture of a subject no matter the writer's observation - such as cutting and pasting from PR releases.

A writer can be objective without being critical. A writer can be objective without writing a "discerning evaluation."

Edited by Holly Moore (log)

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