Food Critics Swallow Pounds and Punishment

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

ByABC News
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."