On a midsummer Thursday night, there’s a reservation in a New York City restaurant’s book for an Enrico Pallazzo.
Only a pop culture junkie might suspect that something was afoot. Enrico Pallazzo is the opera singer in the Leslie Nielsen cult classic “Naked Gun” – and the man posing as Enrico Pallazzo is actually a restaurant critic.
Many people would consider it a dream job to eat at restaurants night after night on someone else’s tab, in search of the perfect culinary experience. But not all that glitters is (edible) gold. The profession of critiquing restaurants comes with its own set of nitpicks from chefs, readers and even the critics themselves.
“You don’t always have fun when you go out and sometimes you have to pull out your Blackberry and take some notes. Bottom line is, your job is to convey this experience to the reader,” said the aforementioned Mr. Pallazzo, known in real life as Ryan Sutton.
“When it comes down to it, if you have to choose between having good conversation and taking notes – whipping out the Blackberry wins.”
Sutton has been the critic for Bloomberg News for the past six years. On average, he eats out four to five nights a week – with some of those meals clocking in at upward of 15 courses.
For each restaurant he reviews, he visits that establishment at least three times. Of those visits, he dines at the bar – if there is one – at least once.
He typically brings a couple of eating companions. Sometimes it's other Bloomberg employees, Bloomberg clients, food writers or even friends. The only stipulation is that he gets to choose what his guests order – and they had better believe he’s going to extend a fork into their dish to give it a taste.
All Sutton’s visits are anonymous by way of pseudonyms, fake telephone numbers and OpenTable.com reservation accounts. He pays at the end with Bloomberg-funded credit cards.
Since ending their tenures, former food critics like New York Times ex-critic Ruth Reichl have revealed the measures they took in order keep their identity secret – from applying wigs to donning horn-rimmed glasses.
Mimi Sheraton, another former New York Times critic, wrote this of the hairy situation of anonymity in Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life:
“Few things embarrassed me more than being recognized in disguise, feeling idiotic as some captain said, ‘Good evening, Miss Sheraton.’ I always debated whether to go into the ladies and, à la Superman, revert to my real self (whichever one of me that might be), or just sit there feeling silly, steaming under the wig.”
But Sutton says being recognized – at least as a regular patron – isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“I don’t mind being recognized by the third time. I should be – I’m a regular at that point and I like to see how the service changes on the basis of the fact that you’re a regular. There is some worth in being recognized at the end of the review. That said, I still believe in anonymity – but being recognized is important in trying to replicate the experience of a normal patron,” he says.
Along with occasionally scratchy hairpieces, the occupation certainly has its other physical hazards.
During his six-year tenure, Sutton admits he has gained close to 30 pounds.
“It screws with your body image a little bit. You look at yourself in the mirror and you don’t look like you used to,” says the former athlete who also just happens to come from a family of speed skaters.
Another former New York Times critic Frank Bruni wrote in his memoir Born Round of the same toll on his body:
“I had to sample it all. And in order to work my way through a restaurant’s entire menu over the span of several visits and to try at least a few dishes twice, I sometimes ordered even more than the three or four courses that the place normally served.”
“…None of these meals could be constructed in a way that reflected health or weight concerns. If the restaurant took pride in its twenty-ounce rib eye, I took the measure of that steak. If fettuccine with a heavy cream sauce and a blizzard of pancetta was on the menu, it would also be on my table during one of my visits.”
But beyond the health concerns, the relationship between chef and critic, critic and reader has never been an easy flavor to balance. Judgment is subjective – a matter of one person’s taste.
“The awful truth is that, to my mind, at least restaurant criticism under the best of circumstances is by no means cake and ale, Champagne, truffles and caviar," wrote former Times critic Craig Claiborne in his memoir A Feast Made for Laughter. "I disliked the power. It burdened my conscience to know that the existence or demise of an establishment might depend on the praise or damnation to be found in The Times.”
In 2003, master French chef Bernard Loiseau took his own life following a bad review of his restaurant, the Cote d'Or, by GaultMillau and a fear of simultaneously losing his third Michelin star – the highest rating a restaurant can attain by the Michelin Guide.
“Negative reviews are fine, as long as they're accurate and fair. Critics must always be conscious that they are dealing with people's livelihoods,” states the Food Critic’s Guidelines developed by the Association of Food Journalists. The chefs are keenly aware of this.
“When I was younger and working in San Francisco, I took every word the critics said so personally. When I knew a review was coming out, I would find out which stand would get the first paper and wait for it until around 2 a.m. The next few days following, I would pore over every word and adjust my menu according to each critique,” says Boston chef Ken Oringer.
He continues, "I place just as much importance on the opinions of the people who come to dine at my restaurants nightly. …While I want the critics to come and have positive experiences, I know that giving the diners a great meal is just as integral to building my business.”
Noah Ellis of Red Medicine in Beverly Hills took a different approach, not allowing L.A. Times critic S. Irene Virbila to eat at his restaurant after he spotted her.
"We find that some her reviews can be unnecessarily cruel and irrational, and that they have caused hard-working people in this industry to lose their jobs – we don't feel that they should be blind-sided by someone with no understanding of what it takes to run or work in a restaurant," he explained on his Tumblr along with the kiss of death for an anonymous critic: a recognizable picture of her.
Sutton agrees in that regard. He says, “The key is most of us in the critical profession are not trained chefs, and I think that’s a good thing because we aren’t writing for the chefs, we’re writing for the public.”
As for the public, the even bigger question that looms over critics’ heads is: who died and made them food god?
Especially in the days of Yelp, everyone is a critic. That doesn’t mean their criticisms are necessarily fair or balanced, as witnessed by chef Graham Elliot Bowles in August 2010 when his restaurant Grahamwich – which had then yet to open – received a negative review.
The tongue-in-cheek Tumblr “F*ck You Yelper” curates some of these most outlandish online criticisms, like this one of Los Angeles restaurant Wurstküche:
“They are trying to get peple [sic] from downtown who work and can't take forever for lunch – pretend like you are trying to move it. They don't even start cooking the dogs until you order. You must be kidding. This place could be great – but right now it is just a place to wait."
Sutton, who himself worked front of house in several restaurants before his current stint, says to such unfettered commentary: consider the facts.
“A critic is a journalist. We’re reporters and journalists first – it’s not ‘I like this’ and ‘I don’t like that.’ The critic is a hard-working reporter trying to impart knowledge and protect the consumer.”
“…It’s not like a play where the same thing should happen every night. Something different happens every night at every single different table in the restaurant. It’s individualized, customized theater. To take that and make that intelligible to the reader, it’s extremely difficult," adding that if there’s anything that keeps him up at night as a critic – and a journalist – it’s getting the facts right.
As for how much weight you as a diner put on the importance of professional reviews – well, only you can be the judge of that.
How much stock do you put into restaurant reviews?