'Born Round': Food Critic Recalls Weight Struggle

NY Times' Frank Bruni talks about lifelong weight struggle, life as food critic.

ByJohn Berman and Sarah Rosenberg
August 17, 2009, 9:24 AM

Aug. 19, 2009 -- His fork decides fortunes.

"There's a guy who comes in, sits down and eats, and his experience will completely determine the fate of your restaurant," said Seamus Mullen, the chef-owner at Boqueria in New York City.

His mouth can make or break you.

"I remember when we were getting reviewed Tuesday night, I couldn't sleep," said Stephen Starr, the top New York City restaurateur behind Morimoto and Buddakan.

For good reason, according to Scott Conant of New York's Scarpetta. "I would say that if he likes your restaurant, you will be in business for a long time," said Conant. "If he doesn't, you won't be in business for much longer."

His palate? Raw power.

"Some kitchens I've been in, they stop service when Frank Bruni shows up," said Ryan Skeen, chef at Allen & Delancey.

CLICK HERE to read an excerpt of Frank Bruni's book.For the last five years, New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni has been, arguably, the single most powerful man in New York's big-money restaurant business.

"I'm looking for pleasure," said Bruni in a recent interview with "Nightline." "I'm looking for a good time. And I'm looking for no obvious shortcomings or flaws."

Bruni's opinions are like Supreme Court verdicts, with chefs living in fear of a critical death sentence. When Frank Bruni walks into your restaurant...

"The first thing I would [think], in your mind, is 'Holy s***, it's on, It's on right now!!'" said Scott Conant, chef at Scarpetta.

George Mendes of New York's Aldea restaurant added, "Frank Bruni enters and it's a rush of adrenaline. Then your stomach tightens up and you become really crazy."

He has inspired pure fear in the food business. But what does Frank Bruni fear? You might be shocked to hear that for much of his life, it was food.

"During my freshman year of college, I threw up a lot of my meals," said Bruni in a recent interview at Cafe des Artistes in New York City. "Whenever I would eat a meal that would get out of hand, I would throw it up. I took laxatives. Later on in college and later on out of college, I sometimes took amphetamines to try to control my appetite."

By the time he had resorted to amphetamines, Bruni had been struggling with controlling his appetite for decades. But when did it all start?

"You know, my mother used to always talk about a time when I was 18 months old and I was sitting in a high chair," said Bruni. "And she had fed me two good-sized burgers, and I threw a tantrum because she wouldn't feed me a third one. And that was sort of like the defining narrative of my childhood. I could just eat and eat and eat, and by the time I was 8, I was enough overweight that people were teasing me. My initials, F.B., stood for Fat Boy.

And once a fat kid, always a fat kid, Bruni said. The idea is at the heart of Bruni's revealing new book, "Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater."

"It's kind of a metaphoric reference to being born with an enormous appetite and a predisposition to gaining weight," said Bruni. "And it also comes from a saying from my grandmother, which is 'Born round, you don't die square.' And what the book is ultimately about is the question of whether you can actually change yourself and your habits, over the course of my life and my struggle to do so.

"I think a lot of people will identify with it. I went through some extreme behaviors, I threw up some of my meals in college. Some of my binges later in life were just epic, and beyond what most people can imagine. But in all of that behavior is an extreme version of a lot of peoples' love-hate, embrace-avoid relationship with food."

Bruni: I Wish I Could Have Those Years Back

As far back as he can remember, Bruni was trying something -- anything -- to lose weight. His first brush with the Atkins diet came when he was not yet 10 years old.

"I remember Mom bought [the Atkins book] in hardcover, so this was serious stuff," Bruni said. "And I remember leafing through it and learning about ketones and ketosis and, you know, having no idea what that meant -- I was 8 years old -- but I thought, 'Ooh, that's profound stuff. If I can get into this ketosis thing, I'll be home free.'"

He wasn't home free -- not for years. Giant weight swings followed Bruni through high school, college and in his career as a successful political reporter for The New York Times. He tried fasting, he suffered from sleep-eating, he toyed with every diet under the sun.

In 1999, Bruni covered George W. Bush's first presidential campaign. He remembers it as a time of professional accomplishment and dietary failure.

"I mean, I knew I was big," replied Bruni. "I was marching to the Gap store to trade my size 40 chinos for size 42 chinos. I was doing that, but on another level, because you have to get up the next day and keep going forward and not be capsized by it, you tell yourself, well maybe my face doesn't look that heavy. Maybe it doesn't show as much as the size 42 pants suggest it does. You tell yourself a bunch of interesting lies to get from one day to the next."

The campaign was the low point in his lifelong, love-hate battle with food, Bruni said. He never weighed himself, but he thinks he topped 275 pounds, compared with about 190 right now.

"I didn't date for probably five years," Bruni said. "I mean that was definitely the low point. I felt very sad, I felt like I lost a lot of time. And lived a very incomplete life for a period, and I wish I could have those years back.

"[Food] took away years, in a sense. I mean they were not empty years, they were years of professional engagement and some professional accomplishment. But they were years when I was living a very truncated, circumscribed life."

Now Bruni is finishing a stint as one of the most revered, and feared, restaurant critics in America. (Next he's taking on a staff writer job with The New York Times Magazine.) All of which leads to the million-dollar question: Bruni was a short-time bulimic, laxative-taking, amphetamine-using, sleep-eating food fanatic when The New York Times asked him to be their food critic. And he said yes.

What was he thinking?

Bruni: Fake Names, Disguises

"I knew that the enforced rhythmic eating of having to go out every night would take away from me the ability to say to myself, 'I'm going to pig out today because I'll diet for the next week,'" Bruni said. "I could never diet for the next week. So I could never tell myself the lie that it was OK to pig out today."

When he started the restaurant critic gig in 2004, Frank had already turned his habits around. He credits a stint in Italy. After the 2000 election, he headed to the Times bureau in Rome. There, he says, he started to figure out how to control his appetite.

"Italians don't supersize things, they don't have Big Gulps," he said. "They don't do Value Packs. They eat in moderation. They care a lot about food, but they care about the quality of it and not the quantity. And I felt I'd absorbed all of that, and I made the bet that it was going to be OK."

Bruni described the day-to-day work of a restaurant critic.

"Um, eat," he said. "I'm in restaurants pretty much every night of the week. Sometimes six or seven nights. But almost always that much. When I go into a restaurant, I have to sort of look at the menu as this sort of vast terrain to be conquered. I have to go to a restaurant repeated times so that I and the people working with me can go across the menu, judge the restaurant's consistency through time. And I also have to keep a kind of curious, sort of low public profile, in which I fly under the radar so that I'm not drawing attention to myself when I walk into restaurants."

Restaurants every night, for someone with such a problematic relationship with food? Isn't that kind of like an alcoholic working at a liquor store?

"I mean I was always looking for a magic bullet," said Bruni. "I wanted a shortcut. I wanted a cheat. And one of the things I learned over time, one of the things that allows me to sit here not as a big fat person, is because I stopped looking for shortcuts, for magic bullets, for cheats. All you can really do that's going to be successful in the long run is keep control of your portions, watch what you eat, and exercise a lot."

The job itself is the stuff of New York legend -- part journalist, part CIA operative, as Bruni puts it. As a critic for the massively influential New York Times, Bruni tried to remain anonymous, to avoid special treatment. He made reservations under fake names.

"I would use names from the reference books within reach as I'm on the phone making reservations," said Bruni. "So I dined out as Mr. Webster, Mr. Fodor, Mr. Strunk, Mr. White. I mean look around at the textbooks on your desk, every one of those surnames has been one of my pseudonyms."

He even, occasionally, wore disguises.

"One of the times I had to, I was wearing an enormous puffy wig, because I myself wear my hair close-cut and don't have as much of it as I wish I did," Bruni said. "Um, so I had this big mane of hair that was this strange light brown, and I looked like Farrah Fawcett and Andy Warhol's love child.

"The few times I had to dress up like a circus character was when I was trying not to get thrown out of a restaurant."

Thrown out, because one restaurateur, Jeffrey Chodorow, threatened to toss Bruni if he ever caught him in one of his restaurants. This after a ZERO-star review of Kobe Club, with the damning line, "It presents too many insipid or insulting dishes at prices that draw blood from anyone without a trust fund or an expense account." Chodorow even took out a full-page ad in the Times attacking Bruni.

Bruni: A Healthy Relationship With Food

"Having Frank Bruni in your restaurant is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences you could have as a cook," said Boqueria's Mullen.

Starr had a different take.

"Frank Bruni is the smartest, handsomest, most wonderful human being in the world," said Starr. "I have to say that. I am still afraid he is going to come get me."

Bruni said the job of the critic is to tell the truth about food, good or bad.

"I can be snarky and pointed, and my feeling about that is, if you're going to write a negative review, that you're writing on the merits," he said. "If your appraisal of a restaurant is genuinely negative ... if you want them to read it, you need to give them a good time as a reader. So yeah, I'll use pointed humor, I'll be snarky, but the restaurant is what it is. But I've got to write something that I want you to read with some pleasure."

Bruni has given good opinion for five years. With the help of regular workouts, he hasn't gained any weight. And with the release of his book, he wraps up his job as food critic this week.

So what's the next stop? Will Bruni be on "Oprah," talking about diets?

"I'm not trying to position myself as a diet guru," he said. "I do think that there are some really useful observations and lessons in here for people. What I learned, and I think this will apply to a lot of people: If you approach food in a panicked, love-hate way, you're going to be undone by it. You're not going to be able to form a healthy relationship with it. If you accept it, if you take a measured approach to it, and if you kind of celebrate it rather than being afraid of it, you're going to be much better off.

"I am, after five years as a restaurant critic, as healthy as I was in the beginning. No heavier than I was at the beginning. And that suggests to me that I've worked something out in my head, and I hope it lasts."

Yet somewhere inside Bruni is still a fat kid?

"Somewhere on the inside, I'm still wondering, like in the frame right now, Do I look heavy? But that's -- you know, we began this conversation with the title of the book, and that's to me what it means to be born round. You know, you always sorta have that shape in your head."

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