City Desk

Frank Bruni Doesn’t Like Insects But He Loves Sietsema

Frank Bruni, lead restaurant critic for the New York Times, laid himself bare in a Q&A session last week with readers. Over the course of five days, he answered some of the toughest questions that can be put to a professional eater, including those dealing with qualifications, how one selects restaurants to review, and of course, anonymity.

Whatever you think of Bruni—and he has enough detractors, it seems, to fill Madison Square Garden or at least paper the place with response ads—I think he handled these questions with the kind of intellectual finesse that you rarely find in chats and online boards. I was particularly interested in how Bruni would deal with the question of his qualifications, which, in terms of pure culinary training, are thinner than Mary-Kate Olsen.

Says Bruni:

I received a number of questions like the two above. They echo similar questions I’ve received on occasion over the last four and a half years.

And while I think they’re utterly fair, they surprise me somewhat, only because I don’t get the sense that readers expect or demand that a television critic has worked in TV, that a rock music critic has a background in songwriting and an ability to play the electric guitar, that a book critic be a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. So why should a restaurant critic have been in the restaurant business or attended culinary school?

I’m not saying that those experiences — that such a background — might not indeed help give a critic more insight, better perspective. And I’m certainly not advocating a know-nothing approach.

But for the sake of argument, might not too close an association and identification with the restaurant business — with what goes on in a kitchen and what the challenges of service are — actually hinder a critic? Or at least make the critic a less tough-minded advocate for the dining public?

The critic, in my view, is writing more, much more, for the restaurant-goer than the restaurant-maker — the report card that a restaurant gets isn’t meant primarily for the restaurant. And the critic is primarily judging the finished product, not the messy process that leads to it.

What I think both of you readers/questioners are getting at, and what I certainly agree with, is the importance of knowledge and awareness. And you’re implying that there’s probably no better way to get knowledge than to have done similar work oneself.

That may well be true, but critics — of restaurants, of plays, of movies — need additional skills that someone whose primary credentials are cooking school or theatrical design or cinematography class might not have. They need to be able to write quickly and accurately and with a level head and with enough life experience to see what’s being critiqued in a wider context.

And knowledge of the profession being criticized can be acquired in ways beyond experience in it.

That's a pretty fine response, though I think Bruni's argument relies a bit too much on an antagonistic black-and-white, self-created world in which writers are independent thinkers and trained toques are slavishly devoted to their profession. I mean, can't someone attend cooking school without becoming a shill for the entire profession?

I also learned that Bruni will eat just about anything except "most reptiles" and bugs. ("It just grosses me out — I can't get around the idea of it — and, lucky for me, it doesn't come up that often in Manhattan restaurants.") And I learned that Bruni doesn't hobnob much with his fellows critics around the country, save for a few, including Tom Sietsema from the Washington Post.

I don't know most other big-city critics at all, with two exceptions. I'm friendly with Tom Sietsema of The Washington Post — no relation to Robert Sietsema of The Village Voice — and I have enormous respect for the seriousness with which he approaches his work. Washington Post readers are very lucky.

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