Food Celebs Advise the ‘NYT’ on Picking New Restaurant Critic

Bill Buford, Gail Simmons, and others weigh in

The job of New York Times restaurant critic is a highly coveted—and heavily debated—position. Even with the rise of numerous food blogs, the paper's critic is still the one who can really make or break the biggest of restaurants in New York City, and set trends for the entire country to follow. Spotted Pig co-owner Ken Friedman says whoever succeeds current critic Sam Sifton in the wake of his promotion to national editor will be “the most important restaurant critic in the world.” In interviews and emails with Adweek, food world luminaries, from Anthony Bourdain to the night manager at Katz’s Deli, weighed in with their thoughts on who the next critic should be.

Anthony Bourdain

Chef, Author, Host of No Reservations (Travel Channel)

“I think the best you can hope for in a subjective enterprise like food criticism is for an honest broker of opinion. The Times has almost always been pretty rigorous about that—as straight as it gets in an otherwise often compromised field. I'd hope that the next critic is like Sifton: entertaining, sharp, unafraid—and occasionally, sentimental. A food critic should like food—and chefs. Should have a soft spot for tradition. And Sifton's warm review of La Grenouille announced that he was something of a softy when confronted with heartfelt, old school stuff. His reviews of Tom Colicchio's restaurants went past the lazy observation that Tom's a TV star now and recognized both his skills and his past accomplishments. Both reviews spoke well of him. Young would be good—as food critics get jaded and increasingly bent with age. It's an occupational hazard of writing about food.”

Michael Anthony

Executive Chef & Partner, Gramercy Tavern

“I would love to see a restaurant critic who would convey a sense of interest, even passion, for eating in restaurants—someone who admires the restaurant industry, someone who is able to share insights into the industry and the quality of service, and the quality of food, and the interesting and exciting details that make us so excited about what we do. So, rather than simply a critique of the cultural moment, we’d love to see a reviewer express an admiration for the industry itself. It seems that there’s always, at least in my experience, an adversarial relationship that comes from the pressure of the critic’s job. What I would love to see is someone who comes to it with that genuine sense of admiration for what happens in the restaurant, and a great sense of insight into the experience of dining out at restaurants.”

Gail Simmons

Judge on Top Chef (Bravo); Special Projects Director, Food & Wine

“[A]ny critic needs to have a sense of wonder and fun in their style to make it approachable and interesting to readers. It's important that the new critic is somewhat at a distance from the world of restaurants for obvious reasons, but also so they can speak as an average diner in a language that appeals to the wide range of readers of the New York Times Dining section, in real, practical terms. New Yorkers need a critic who has a palate just as discerning and adventurous as they are, with an appreciation and understanding that ambiance and service can make or break a restaurant. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, it also has to be someone who can easily go undetected and not allow their own ego or bias to get in the way of the service they are providing to their readers.”

Faye Weisman

Night Manager, Katz’s Deli

"A good restaurant critic is somebody who is open minded and open to new things, but also takes past into account. This food has been around forever, since 1888. For a lot of people, coming over around the turn of the century, this was so close to their food at home—this was the first place many of them ate. A lot of people who are interested in nouveau-type things—this gets discarded. [Critics] buy into trends. New is great; I love new restaurants and I’ll try almost anything. But most of the comfort foods for people are those things we grew up with. To dump them is terrible; it’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Walk over to Chinatown, to Little Italy—best places in the world. The restaurants have been there a really long time. That’s not to say the nouveau restaurants are not good. I’ve tried them, I love them. But you can’t discard the old."

Bill Buford

Author of Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.

“Great food critics are: (1) writers before anything else; (2) always hungry; (3) can learn everything else on the job. [Dining editor] Pete Wells would be overqualified because he is a writer before anything else and actually knows food. But I, for one, know that I would read him with pleasure, and it would be a great experiment—someone who is actually perfect for the job. Meanwhile, very sorry that Sam Sifton is becoming an editor again. He writes like someone who has been finally let out of the cage, has a ferocious voice, and crazy firecrackers in his sentences. Why give that up?”

Dana Cowin

Editor-in-Chief, Food & Wine

“The most important thing for the next Times’ restaurant critic is to eat everywhere, and to eat from sunup to after sundown. The food scene has changed so much. There are amazing restaurants that are only doing breakfast and lunch. There are amazing places that are doing dinner and late night. There’s a whole range of restaurant experiences that a New York Times restaurant critic should tell the reader about. There’s a danger of somebody who comes in who is of the food scene, of this moment in time, which means they would have an enormous appreciation of the hipster food world, which feels like it’s taken over New York, but it isn’t the whole food world here. Which is why I feel like it’s so important to have somebody who eats everywhere and tastes everything.”

Jacques Pépin

Chef, Author, Host of Essential Pépin (PBS, KQED)

"I remember reviewing a lot of restaurants with Craig Claiborne and Bryan Miller many, many years ago. But I also remember that when Mimi Sheraton left, I wrote a letter to Sulzberger at the New York Times to give him my opinion. My opinion was that the important name is The New York Times, not really the person. In that context, I feel that it should be more than one person, and they should keep it anonymous. They shouldn’t even give the name. Keep it in the style of Michelin. If you have half a dozen or a dozen people, there would be some people who are experts on Italian food, or Asian food, and you won’t get saturated eating at a restaurant three times a day. A lot of people would want to know who they are, of course, but if one of the names is revealed, they should be removed from the panel."

Ken Friedman

Restaurateur, The Spotted Pig, The Breslin, Monkey Bar

The New York Times restaurant critic should understand that he/she is the most important restaurant critic in the world. He/she should know that the rules have changed over the past seven or eight years, since The Spotted Pig, Momofuku Ssam Bar, and a few others showed that there can now be two- or three-star food in a formally non-two- or three-star setting. The rules have changed. A restaurant doesn't need to have white tablecloths and comfy chairs and no music to be considered good enough for multiple New York Times stars or a Michelin star anymore. Thank god.”

Bonny Wolf

Author; Food Commentator, National Public Radio

“I find some restaurant criticism a little too inside baseball. Readers should be able to get a sense of the place without knowing the week's food trends or how to read a menu in French. We all forget that the general reader doesn't have the sophistication of the expert. A restaurant critic needs to know what he/she is talking about but maintain a sense of wonder and an appreciation of whimsy. And always, a sense of humor. I appreciate context in food reviews—neighborhood, history, and a little sociology/anthropology. I think a restaurant critic needs a strong personality and voice so the reader gets to know him/her and if their tastes converge.”

Publish date: September 21, 2011 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT