Frank Bruni: On Food Blogs, Restaurants He Would Have Liked to Review, and Advice for Sifton
Frank Bruni's last review for the Times came out yesterday, and today marks the official launch of his new memoir, Born Round. (Check out our review of the book.) Bruni has been promoting the book everywhere from Nightline to The New Yorker, but he was nice enough to make time to answer Fork in the Road's burning questions.
In Born Round, you're very candid about the disordered eating in your past, even when it's dark and embarrassing. Did you worry about exposing yourself too much?
You know, as journalists interviewing other people for THEIR stories, we coax or even demand as much candor and as many details as we can get, because we know that a full, precise, unvarnished account of the truth, with as many particulars as possible, makes for the most interesting, compelling narrative. I wanted to make this book as interesting and compelling for people as possible, and I held myself to the same standard I'd want to hold any profile subject to.
How does your family, who figure prominently in your writing, feel about the book?
So far, they seem fine with it. Most of them are more private than I am, so it surprised and unsettled them to see me laying bare as much about myself as I was. And in a protective way, they asked me, "Are you sure you're OK with this?" But they had no complaints about the way they're portrayed, nor did I think they would. I was judicious when writing about them; it's not my place or right to tell the secrets they wouldn't want me to, though they really don't have any or many. And I'd never repay their incredible love for, and support of, me with an invasion of their privacy. No way.
Are you still sticking to a moderation diet and frequent visits to a trainer? Has that worked throughout your tenure as NYT critic?
That's exactly what I've done, and it has worked. My diet isn't that moderate, actually. It's just not crazy-excessive, as it once was, and what I do eat, coupled with the very regular I exercise I do, keeps me at a pretty steady weight. I could probably stand to lose 10 pounds, even 15, but I don't worry about it the way I once did, and I no longer need to lose 75 pounds. When you've gone up that high and worked as hard as I did to get back to normal, you don't sweat an extra 10 pounds.
Do you have advice for people who struggle with their weight as you did?
Tons of advice (if you'll pardon that terminology), and the book is stippled with it. I made sure of that. While I had no interest in writing a didactic book full of tip boxes, I wanted to make sure that I talked in enough detail --- and with the right details --- about my own recovery from extreme overeating that readers could easily see and wring the lessons, which include NOT getting too panicked about minor pig-outs and temporary, incidental weight gain, NOT allowing a binge-purge psychology, and being ruthlessly self-honest about what you're really eating and how much you're really exercising. Deception is dangerous.
In the years that you've been the NYT critic, there's been an explosion of food blogging and user-generated sites like Yelp. Do you think that the Internet has changed the nature of food criticism? How can a critic from a print news outlet best respond?
It has created a greater number of opinions, and enabled readers to get a whole lot of restaurant information, through those opinions, without having to turn to a handful of traditional print sources. That's good. And, yes, that makes readers less reliant on a big print news outlet, even though print is a misnomer: We're an online news outlet, too, with many more readers on the Internet than most blogs have.
I think the new world will actually leave the Times and the NYT critic in a good, trusted place, because with a lot of the opinions in a lot of new Internet venues, a reader doesn't know what's what. Is the Yelper a shill for the restaurant? A relative? Is the blogger getting free meals and feeling indebted? Is he or she too cozy with the industry? The Times is an unswerving standard with an established method of operation. That's true across many disciplines, not just restaurants.
Are there any reviews that you would change in retrospect? A place you were too easy or hard on?
There probably were. But I don't ever name names, because I may be as inaccurate in my second-guessing as I was in my initial judgment. At a certain point you have to make a call, explain it and then stick, unless you're prepared, as I was on some occasions, to go back and do the new cycle of three visits and really re-review a place all over again, perhaps because the chef has changed, perhaps because it has taken a new direction or really obviously raised its game. (Or lost its way.)
Are there restaurants recently opened or about to open that you wish you could have reviewed?
I would have loved to review Marea in some ways, because it's an interesting place from an interesting team of people and there's lots to say about it. I think Sam's review of it will be a real treat, and I think it's important to leave that restaurant, one of the biggest and most freighted openings of this year, to the new critic. Because I'm intrigued with the people involved, it would have been fun to take the measure of Joseph Leonard, of Civetta, and my one brief meal, not as critic, at the Standard Grill filled me with thoughts about it that would have been fun to share. But the people who DO review these restaurants will have their own thoughts, which will be just as interesting and rendered with as much care and verve. The Times is blessed with terrific, terrific writers.
Are there certain gaps in the New York restaurant landscape that you'd like to see filled? A particular kind of restaurant we're lacking?
I'd like to see better high-end Chinese. I think we could use a few more avant-garde standouts: a Jose Andres-type place, a Grant Achatz-type place.
Any advice for Sam Sifton?
I would tell Sam to have fun, meaning this---keep your enjoyment level high. Keep your spirits up. Readers, I think, want to follow a critic on his or her adventure and dine vicariously through him and her. It's important to sustain energy in the exploration and the writing, so that readers get that opportunity. In the end it's about readers, first and foremost: It's not a set of notes to the restaurant industry, though the best reviews --- and too many of mine fell short of this mark --- do instruct the reviewed while they illuminate and engage the reader.