Food Critics Swallow Pounds and Punishment

As Time's Bruni exits food beat, critics say it's not always a "dream job."

May 15, 2009, 3:24 PM

May 18, 2009 — -- To be a good food critic, you have to have a hearty appetite and the willingness to uncap your poisin pen when the gastronomic offense warrants. A bullet-proof vest may also help.

Former Boston Globe food critic Alison Arnett wrote a review that so choked up a South End restaurant owner that he called her editor and threatened to get a gun.

"It's part of the job," said the 29-year veteran critic, because people are so passionate about food.

"Funny, it's almost always the owners and never the chefs" who go ballistic, Arnett told

Just last week food critic Frank Bruni announced he was leaving the restaurant beat, opening one of the most coveted critic spots in America. His editors at The New York Times declared, "The search for a successor begins now."

"Pick me, pick me, pick me, pick me," wrote one reader on the newspaper's Web site who likely envisioned a job overflowing with caviar, oysters and century-old bottles Chateau Lafite-Rothchild.

"Other than an impending very serious heart attack, I can't think of any reason in the entire world that I would give up his job," wrote another reader.

But food critics who spoke for this story agreed that reviewing restaurants for a living is no bed of arugula.

"For one thing, it makes eating out work," said the 61-year-old Arnett, who now works as a restaurant consultant. "What most people think of as a treat becomes a job and it's very relentless."

Even the perks of the job can become a source of annoyance. Arnett's budget allowed her to invite friends, but they often chastised her for not letting them order what they wanted.

"It was amazing how people get testy even though they were coming along for free," said Arnett.

And even gourmet food gets old.

"Tasting another bite of overcooked tuna, another spoonful of sludgy pumpkin soup, another leaden bit of deep-fried calamari can feel like attaching a ball and chain to my tongue," she wrote. "Yet as soon as one taste, one memory wears off, I'm up for another."

Bruni, himself, has said being a food critic can be a recipe for disaster. In his memoir due out this August, "Born Round: The Secret History of a Fulltime Eater," he explores his complicated relationship with food.

Though he declined an interview with, Bruni confessed in a 2008 article in Men's Vogue an addiction to sleeping pills. Any insomniac knows late-night eating is an invitation to nightmares.

He also described the quest for a gym workout that could offset the calories consumed as a critic.

Mimi Sheraton, author of "Eating My Words" and a former New York Times food critic, reportedly stormed out of newsroom in 1983, screaming, "I need to lose weight."

Gourmet magazine Editor-in-Chief Ruth Reichl described in her book, "Garlic and Sapphires," creating new identities to keep the critics at bay.

While food editor at The New York Times, she acquired a collection of wigs and glasses so she could remain anonymous after demoting the La Cirque rating one star at the renowned New York restaurant Rao's.

In a television interview when she left the job in 1999, the then-mother of a young son said, "I really wanted to go home and cook for my family. I don't think there's one thing more important you can do for your kids than have a family dinner."

Food Critics Fight Weight Gain

Gina Mallet, a restaurant critic for Canada's National Post, said the job's "real peril" was putting on weight. "I gained 10 pounds."

"Now I don't go out five days a week, I go out twice a week, so I take people with me and share plates," said Mallet, author of "Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World," which won the 2005 James Beard Award.

She doesn't rely on disguises but always books under someone else's name. "I write it all down without being obvious because they've got my photo pasted in the waiting station," she told "But, if I am recognized, so what?"

As a critic, the first thing she looks for is the welcome. "Is it discreet, but agreeable?" One cheaper restaurant asked her where she would like to sit. "I immediately liked it."

Next she checks out what is on the menu, "whether it's original and not the same old, same old," then watches the service carefully.

"It all builds to the food," said Mallet. "If all things are going well and I am feeling good – if I am asked if I want a glass of water or an aperitif – I feel great and I am ready to order."

"If I leave in a very good mood, I am also in a forgiving mood," she noted.

New Orleans food critic Tom Fitzmorris has written a weekly restaurant review for 37 years and has expanded his work into a daily newsletter - "The New Orleans Menu" - and a three-hour, six-day-a-week radio talk show.

"I'm lucky in that I live in a city which was full of foodies a century before the word 'foodie' was invented," he told "There's no limit to the interest New Orleanians have in eating."

Fitzmorris admits, "it's a great job," except for a few things. In 2008 without an expense account, he spent $41,000 of his own money on eating out. He also struggles with keeping his weight "under control" and finding dining partners who can pay their own tabs.

"I dine alone a lot," he said, noting that he's out until 10 or 11 each night. "Being a restaurant critic doesn't dovetail very well with being afather, since I'm out most evenings. Fortunately, my two children have turned out fine."

Like the Globe's Arnett, he deals with another threat: "having people hate you."

"You wouldn't believe the spleen people work up when you say that their favorite restaurants are not very good," Fitzmorris said. "I have two Web sites devoted entirely to relentless personal attacks on me. They even attack my wife and kids."

He's also been banned from restaurants – even some he gave 3 out of 5 star ratings. "They all thought they should have four."

And according to Fitzmorris, the food critic who's recognized in the restaurant can strike the deepest fear in a waiter. "When I asked [the waiter] to recommend between two dishes, he lost it and literally peed in his pants."

But both Fitzmorris and the Globe's Arnett agree that befriending the restaurateurs is one of the great rewards of being a food critic.

And some, according to Arnett, come around, even after a bad review.

"One of the owners talked to me years later and said he was upset with my review at first, but then he looked through what I had said, and it saved their business."

"You're writing for your readers," she reminded, but still, it felt good.

Bruni, who occasionally wrote about the culture of eating out, reminded his readers that even the most glamorous restaurants, like the food critic's job, have a seamy side. He wrote about well-heeled patrons who get loaded after too many martinis and too much wine.

In a 2007 column, "Fine Diner to Riffraff: Tipsy Tales of 4-Star Benders," Bruni described a woman at New York City's pricey restaurant Daniel, "making like a dancer on a pole at Scores."

"Just as she was getting to her bra, the maître d'hôtel got to her," he wrote. "Thus her drunken, wobbly stint as a stripper ended, and so did her dinner."

The story, he writes, is "a reminder that a 1985 Burgundy casts the same dark spell as a 2007 peppermint schnapps."

Bruni, like all critics, gets the last word and when things go wrong the words can be caustic. Like these choice tidbits from his reviews:

After waiting nearly an hour for a table at Ago in New York City (June 2008): "This restaurant isn't in the hospitality business. It's in the attitude business, projecting an aloofness that permeated all of my meals there, nights of wine and poses for swingers on the make, cougars on the prowl and anyone else who values a sort of facile fabulousness over competent service or a breaded veal Milanese with any discernible meat. The one I had one night was pounded so thin that the breading on top met the breading on the bottom without pausing for much of anything in between. A vegan could have made peace with it."

Of the New York eatery Ninja, he wrote in 2005: "It has a stringy crab dish served on a grapefruit that belches smoke, a ridiculous dessert in the shape of a frog and a whole lot of nerve...In the name of "new style sushi" Ninja employs rice cakes as beds - or sometimes graves - for a rectangle of truffle-flecked omelet (it tasted like soggy French toast), a sliver of sautéed foie gras (pleasant, but how could it not be?) and a finger of seaweed-crowned mackerel (fishy in the extreme). It trots out a golden tower roll, which inexplicably embeds uni in spongecake, and a spring snow roll, which engulfs eel in an obliterating puck of sweetened cream cheese."

Just a handful of restaurants earned Bruni's four-star rating, and for these the praise flowed just as copiously: For New York's Jean Georges, he wrote in 2006: "Eating is seldom this absorbing, this bracing. To lend needed excitement to beef tenderloin, some foie gras had been placed on top. But the crucial, less predictable flourish was a rhubarb foam on top of that. It cut the fattiness of the liver. It snapped the palate to attention. So did a wedge of cured lemon that was strategically placed alongside broiled squab and foie gras in another dish."