Jonathan Gold drops anonymous restaurant critic mask
I have posed for pictures shrouded in gauze, wearing a dinosaur mask and shaded into a Hitchcockian silhouette. My face has been obscured by giant wineglasses, beer steins, menus, stacked dim sum steamers, Wheaties boxes, a Thomas the Tank Engine and a perforated tortilla. My Facebook profile picture is of a Jonagold apple. I have appeared on some television shows hidden behind a potted plant and on others with my face pixelated as if I were in the witness protection program.
I regularly decline magazine profiles, corporate speaking gigs and reality show appearances. I once walked backward from a lectern after winning an award because I was afraid of being photographed. I have OpenTable accounts under many different names, a habit of paying bills — even large ones — in cash and a burner phone account, all in an attempt to keep my identity a secret from the chefs and staffs of restaurants I have reviewed.
But my identity is not secret.
I have been charmed into posing for a thousand food-festival selfies. A hundred waiters know my name. I have been called out in taquería lines from Pacoima to Bell Gardens. At chic restaurants, chefs nervously avoid my gaze. When he spotted me eating dinner, a Las Vegas maître d’ once physically moved the table at which I was sitting from its cozy niche behind a pillar to a more glamorous spot in the middle of the room. I have become adept at pretending not to notice that a restaurant staff is pretending not to notice me noticing them noticing me.
That’s my picture up there — go ahead, have a look. Any real anonymity I may have once had ended in 2007 when an assistant at a publication I used to work for accidentally posted a photograph to the paper’s website. The pretense of anonymity ends today.
Restaurant critics, it has long been held, aspire to a state of perfect stealth, an anonymity so deep and so profound that they could double as the protagonists in John le Carré thrillers, lest they be plied with food and drink better than that available to your brother Alvin when he takes his fiancée out for dinner on a Saturday night. We are silent vigilantes avenging curdled hollandaise.
In his 1974 culinary manifesto, “American Fried,” Calvin Trillin wrote that he pictured Jack Shelton, a San Francisco critic known for his devotion to secrecy, “wondering whether the waiters would greet him warmly by name despite the pains he has taken to disguise himself as the Korean consul-general.” Former L.A. Times critic Ruth Reichl was famous for her disguises when she wrote for the New York Times, and I had the pleasure of dining with her when she was made up to resemble a New Jersey matron, a Midwestern tourist and a bleached blond I could swear was supposed to be Linda Tripp. Robert Sietsema, who used to review for the Village Voice and now writes for the Eater website, has been known to dine wearing a devil mask.
But the restaurant critics’ dirty little secret is that restaurants have always known who we are, even before Instagram, even before our images were tweeted by the woman at the next table. Waiters, cooks and managers, after all, move from restaurant to restaurant. Photos are posted in kitchens (when I was outed at one restaurant early in my tenure as the New York restaurant critic at the old Gourmet magazine, I was effectively outed at all of them).
My tribe’s tastes include odd seafood, obscure white wines from the bottom of the list and the dodgier bits of the animal. (Barbara Kafka, a great cookbook writer and former restaurant consultant, used to devise what she called “critic bait,” eel terrines or pig-nose dishes that existed solely to be reviewed.) We will never send back a plate of food, but we are quick to point out a corked bottle of wine. If you address us by the name we have reserved under, it will take us a moment to realize you are talking to us. We know how to pronounce mille-feuille. We ask about the provenance of the sea urchin. Our habits are as predictable as those of mating owls.
I thought I’d been able to maintain anonymity in the first part of my career until a chef I ran into at a party was able to tell me not just the exact dates I’d been in but what Burgundies I’d ordered, whom I’d dined with and about my affection for a crepinette of snails and sweetbreads that hadn’t made it into the review. (Even then, I knew it was critic bait.)
In recent years, I have taken part in panel discussions, spoken at schools, judged cook-offs, delivered a commencement speech at my alma mater and attended festivals sponsored by The Times. I’m not Thomas Pynchon. My face is Googleable. My voice may be familiar from the radio. I am featured in Laura Gabbert’s L.A. food documentary, “City of Gold,” premiering at Sundance next week, and was trailed by camera crews to restaurants not under review over a period of several years. We live in a multiplatform world.
And in a way, the game of peekaboo is harmful both to critics and to the restaurants they write about. If chefs truly can cook better when they know a critic is in the house, then restaurants without an early warning system are at a permanent disadvantage. A critic who imagines himself invisible may find it easy to be cruel. At a moment when serious criticism has all but drowned in a tide of Yelpers, Instagram accounts, tweets, Facebook sneers and bloggers who feel compelled to review a restaurant before it even opens, the kabuki of the pose is a distraction.
There are a scant few restaurants in the United States that can improve their food for known customers — Daniel in New York is infamous in that regard — but in general, a kitchen team tends to cook about as well as it cooks. The recipes are in place, the food is already purchased, the aesthetic is well-established. It’s like a theatrical production — a performance of “King Lear” is not likely to be any better the night The Times’ theater critic Charles McNulty has two seats on the aisle. I still intend to reserve under odd names, to avoid press events, to sneak in after the rest of the party has been seated and to pay for every last scrap of food that makes its way to the table. I’m just going to skip the strange pas de deux.
Adam Platt of New York magazine and Leslie Brenner of the Dallas Morning News renounced their anonymity last year. Their criticism hasn’t suffered a bit.
Follow me on Twitter @thejgold