On Monday morning, the venerable New York Times food critic Sam Sifton, an elegant and gripping writer whose reviews quickly became a staple of my Wednesday mornings, traded his position for the more prestigious national editor. His loss was a mere blip among the rest of the news that day, but to foodies around the country, his decision was a monumental one that signifies a serious dent in the profession of food criticism.
When thinking about whether or not I was going to write my column about Sifton this week, I couldn’t help but wonder how many people actually read restaurant reviews in today’s blurb-obsessed world. For me, there’s nothing more satisfying then snagging the Times at Hillside on Wednesday morning and flipping right to the Dining section. Every week, Sifton would tease his review via Twitter, and it took all my power not to sneak a peek at his consistently well-crafted and punchy reviews.
I know the question has been asked before, and by those far more qualified than I am, but is the art form of food criticism dying out? In recent years, food publications like Gourmet, once a staple in the magazine market, have quietly folded. Once-commonplace names like Gael Greene and Ruth Reichl are now little more than wisps of history meant for a Jeopardy clue one day in the not so distant future.
It probably has something to do with the everyday critics pervading our society, dissecting their meals in front of their guests as if Mahnola Dargis waxing poetic about the newest, coolest movie you’ve never heard of before. Blogs and Twitter users snap photos and add instant, pithy taglines to them in the hopes that they will be the first, the best, and the most re-tweeted review of Restaurant XYZ. Pop-up restaurants draw huge crowds, oftentimes with little rewards other than a bright shiny “I was there” type Facebook status.
We need food criticism, if only just to warn us that sometimes hype simply cannot be believed. In yesterday’s Times, former food critic Frank Bruni described a meal at long-awaited New York restaurant Romera, a $245 prix-fixe menu that, with tip, clocks in at about $600 a couple for a meal. For that type of money, one would expect more than “water infused with leek and radish…like indecisive tea, commitment phobic broths, or pond water.” The piece wasn’t a formal restaurant review, but rather a snapshot of how the food market is adapting and transforming to fit the needs of a “foodie” mass culture.
Critics like Sifton and Bruni, and Greene and Reichl, are absolutely vital in today’s overfed, overindulged market stuffed to the gills with food programs featuring top and iron chefs alike. The everyday viewer fancies him or herself as a chef with an expansive background thanks to Rachel Ray and the buttery-good Paula Deen’s do-it-yourself recipes that, more often than not, border on obscene than sublime. Professional reviewers like Sifton and Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton took Top Chef’s Sam Talbot to task for his dismal Imperial No. 9, a restaurant that is all flash and no delivery. These trained professionals weed out the worst of the Hollywood chefs, and for that, everyday eaters must be grateful.
Sifton was an inspiration to me, both in his writing and his wide breadth of knowledge about cuisines and New York neighborhoods. He explored an Asian food court in a basement in Queens one week, then focused on The Dutch, Andrew Carmellini’s triumphant new-American establishment the next. He bemoaned the loss of M. Wells, a short-lived Queens diner doling out heaping platters of fried duck out of a rinky-dink trailer next to the subway.
I, among many others, surely owe Sifton a debt of culinary gratitude. I closely trailed his dining footsteps during my summer break. Were it not for Sifton, I would not have known the joy of braised wild boar and sea urchin from Annisa, Anita Lo’s cross cultural masterpiece on the Lower West Side. There’s not a chance I would have ventured into Harlem for a meal had Sifton not highlighted Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster, a Swedish-soul fusion joint that serves an audience ranging from church ladies in bright pumps and swooping hats to smartly attired businessmen and their associates.
Sifton and others like him are the last of a dying breed. Instead of tossing aside the Dining section next Wednesday, give a beautiful art form the time of day—but make sure to have a snack handy.