Big Think Interview With Frank Bruni

A conversation with the five-year restaurant critic for the New York Times.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Topic: How did your childhood shape you?

FRANK BRUNI: I was born in White Plains, New York just outside the city and grew up there for the first 12 years of my life.  And I’ve never really thought about how that’s shaped me.  But I think probably like anyone who is born and who grew up in the New York metropolitan area, we’re exposed to a great range of things that I think expand our horizon in the future.

As a kid, well I grew up in big sports family.  And so I remember with my brothers and my father going into the city fairly often to see Rangers games and Knicks games.  And then I remember when I was, you know, 11 and 12, and probably too young to be doling it, going to Led Zeppelin, and Queen, and Pink Floyd concerts at Madison Square Garden on the train, and feeling very sophisticated and very grown up.

I was actually an incredibly good swimmer.  I used to travel around the country to go to swim meets, because when I was 11 and I was 12, I was one of the best swimmers in the country in certain events for my age.  So to find the right level of competition I would travel, you know, to the Midwest.  I would travel down to Washington, D.C. frequently to go to meets.

Topic: Journalism

FRANK BRUNI: I got into journalism really through reviewing, but not through reviewing food.  When I was in high school, and then when I began college, I was just a big movie buff – and to a lesser extent a music buff – and I wanted to write movie and music reviews, mostly movie reviews first for my prep school newspaper and then for the university newspaper where I went to school.  And so it was through writing, you know, criticism or whatever  passed for criticism in my 19 year old head that I kind of realized oh, you could do other things with this whole putting words into news print business and actually maybe make a living at it.

I’ve done a lot of different beats or whatever you wanna call them journalistically.  I was a news reporter for many years.  I always tended to write more news feature stuff.  Right before I came to the Times, my last job at the Detroit Free Press, which is the big morning daily in Michigan, was as the paper’s movie critic.  So I’d kind of come back to how I’d begun on the journalism road or whatever.  But when I came to the Times, I came there as a news person, and that was intentional.  During the, I guess, 13 years I’ve been at the Times, I’ve covered politics.  I’ve covered George Bush’s initial presidential campaign in 2000.  In 1999, 2000 I covered the White House for a while.  After that I was the newspaper’s Rome Bureau Chief for a couple of years, so I was covering European politics, the Vatican, and just general news features from that region of the world.  And then I came back to New York to be the restaurant critic.

Question: Will young journalists be able to have varied experiences in today’s world?

FRANK BRUNI: It may be more possible for any young person who wants to write about a range of things in his or her life to do that.  What’s uncertain now, I think, to all of us is exactly what the vehicle or format will be; you know whether that will be in a predominantly or largely electronic realm; whether it will be in a more traditional mold.  It certainly won’t be in a traditional mode.  But in a way now with the Internet, anyone almost can, with a certain amount of technological or technical know-how, have a web page or a blog on which he or she posts his or her writings on anything.  And there are no bounds for that person in terms of what they write about.  What remains to be seen is how – and this is something the Times is struggling with right now; as well as how, as everything moves to this kind of electronic, kind of public forum and all that – how people will be remunerated in a way that they can support themselves and fund their very own, you know, research activities, reporting activities that are necessary for certain kinds of journalism.

Question: When you review a restaurant, what are you looking for?

FRANK BRUNI: I’m not looking for any prescription or any formula. I’m looking to have a good time. I mean I think above and beyond all else, a restaurant is, in return for the money we spend, supposed to show us a good time. It’s a good time that is achieved through a combination of things beginning with food. You know we’re there to eat, and that’s why it’s a restaurant and not a movie theater or whatever. So first and foremost it has to please us and nourish us – because obviously eating has other functions as well – with its food. But I’m just basically hoping to have a good time; to pass a couple of hours in a way that feels entertaining, that feels fulfilling, and that justifies whatever expenditure of money I as a proxy for other diners is making.

Question: Are certain aspects of restaurants overrated?

FRANK BRUNI: It’s kind of an impossible question to answer because no two people look for the same things in a restaurant, you know? There are people who care not at all about décor, and would want all restaurant reviewers in every restaurant review to simply talk about food. On the flip side there are people who will not, no matter how great the food, will not go into a restaurant that they feel is ugly and that doesn’t kind of please their visual sense. When friends ask me for recommendations, I would say oddly enough more often the first question is, “I wanna go someplace pretty. Or I wanna go someplace with really good lighting.” That’s their first way of narrowing the universe. And then they want to know where among those options can they get really good food. Or they want to know where they can eat light if they ask about food. Everyone has a very particular set of prejudices or likes about restaurants, and those even change from occasion to occasion or night to night. So there is no one aspect of restaurants that one can say in an objective sense is the most important. And I think different restaurants need to be taken on different terms. If you’re assessing as a diner or as a critic a restaurant like Buddakan in the meat packing district, to not spend a lot of thought and energy as to what it looks like is to ignore the whole point of the restaurant. It is meant to be a theatrical stage set. I mean if it had existed back when they were filming “Sex and the City”, we would have certainly seen a scene there- it’s that kind of restaurant. And if someone were writing a review of that, and they began and ended with the food and never digressed to talk about the scene and the decoration, they would not be serving that restaurant or the people interested in going there well.

Any personal dislikes or likes that are peculiar to you, you’re trying to tamp down a little bit because you are there as the eyes, and ears, and most importantly taste buds of the entire city or country really because we have a lot of visitors to New York who dine out all the time. But obviously objectivity is impossible. There’s no such thing. Criticism is by its nature subjective. So hopefully over time what readers do with any one critic – be that critic a movie critic, or a book critic, or a restaurant critic, is develop some sense of where their opinions diverge or dovetail with the critics, and find a way to kind of use that critic as a barometer; not necessarily as a perfect predictor for what they’ll think of places, but as a point of reference if they’ve learned, okay, we know we never agree with him on French, but we usually agree with him on Italian. We know we don’t agree on pretty restaurants, but we agree on other things – that sort of thing.

Question: How do you believe you stack up as a reviewer?

FRANK BRUNI: I certainly don’t think I achieve the right thing in all or maybe most reviews because it’s an imperfect science and I’m just doing my best every week. But it’s my hope with each review that there’s enough description in the course of the review of a restaurant that beyond the critical elements of a review, people will be able to get enough of a sense of a place that they may even say, you know, this may be one star, but it sounds like one star that in my universe would be a very pleasing one star or two stars. Or this may be three stars to him; but when he tells me why he likes it those are things that aren’t important to me.

So I think a review should be descriptive enough within the context of criticism to give people an opportunity should they come at it that way, to disagree or figure out some things for themselves. I also think, unlike movies where hundreds of thousands of people will go to see a movie, and are reading a movie review or theater review sometimes as well, as a very specific guide do I want to see this or not – I think the number of people who cycle through a given restaurant – the fraction of readers of a review who are likely to cycle through that restaurant or even consider it. They might live outside New York. They might not have that sort of budget. They are also looking for just a vicarious eating experience. And so I think a restaurant review ideally should be a somewhat entertaining reading experience for those people who are never going to set foot in that restaurant, and aren’t beginning the review for a signal as to whether they should or not.

Question: What do you say to people who think your reviews make or break a restaurant?

FRANK BRUNI: I don’t dwell a lot on the making or the breaking because I think that would paralyze you, and you do have a job to do. Your primary obligation – both in terms of pointing them to certain places, and in terms of just entertaining and illuminating them – is to readers. That said, one of the reasons why it’s always been a tradition for the Times critic to visit a restaurant so many times before reviewing to kind of follow certain procedures in terms of working his or her way through the menu. And that’s all done with a very heavy awareness that we do have an economic impact on these restaurants. And I’m aware that there are a lot of restaurants I never write about because they are small enough restaurants that there aren’t that many people clamoring for information about them. And if I were to write about them it would be in a negative vein, and it would probably have a horrible impact on them. So there’s just no reason to visit that upon a restaurant that the readers aren’t standing around saying, “But what do you think of . . . What do you think of . . .?”

There’s gratuitous negativity, or what I would think could be gratuitous negativity that I absolutely avoid for that reason. But beyond that, at the end of the day people want to read restaurant reviews. People deserve restaurant reviews. While these reviews cut hugely in the favor of some establishments, they’re going to cut against some other establishments, and that’s just the nature of the beast. And you try to just be as responsible as you can in light of that economic impact.

Question: How do you avoid cliché?

FRANK BRUNI: Well you fall into clichés. You tumble headlong into clichés because it really is difficult not to. And that’s not a defense of that. It’s just an admission. But it’s difficult not to if you are writing about food with the kind of frequency that newspaper and magazine critics are. You use the word “succulent” a lot. You use the word “tender” when you’re not using the word “succulent”, although they’re not exact adjectives. I’m joking but not really, which it is true, and it is a liability, and a problem, and a challenge, and an obstacle and all those things that the vocabulary for taste and flavor is not an enormously broad one. So to a certain extent you just have to kind of acknowledge that and move on, and try not to reach so far for new ways to describe taste that you just land in the realm of the ridiculous, which you also end up doing nonetheless. You just do your best. You try to work with the associations that people have – the associations that you have. Sometimes you realize that lengthy descriptions just aren’t going to be able to avoid those sorts of things. And so you shorten them. You do what you can.

Question: What do you think of the democratization of food criticism, especially online?

FRANK BRUNI: In a lot of ways I think it’s a great thing because I think a restaurant consumer or a restaurant aficionado trying to get a clear bead on what they might think of a restaurant has a lot of different things that they can triangulate between now. They can get their hands on a broader array of opinions; on a longer and wider stream of information, and maybe make decisions that are all that more informed. The thing that is important for the people who read all this stuff to bear in mind is not everybody is taking as scientific an approach to restaurants. Some of what one might read on a chat room for example is someone reacting to a single visit to a restaurant as opposed to multiple visits. Some of what you read in some blogs reflects meals that were not paid for by the critic. None of which invalidates it, but it’s important to know that not every single voice out there is operating within the same parameters or in the same fashion.

Question: What makes a great restaurant?

FRANK BRUNI: Well a great restaurant is a restaurant that fires on all cylinders. It’s one that you feel comfortable, and privileged, and even a little bit pampered to sit in. Pampered by the way everything around you looks; pampered by the way the servers are dealing with you. It’s a restaurant that has terrific service. But that means service that is calibrated well to the environment; that is as and no more stilted than the environment calls for, or as and no more informal in the environment calls for; that is certainly attentive, but without being unduly intrusive and obsequious. So then there’s that whole element. And then first and foremost, a restaurant that gives you food you want to eat; food that is distinguished in its genre; food that makes sense, in terms of the menu’s entirety; again in terms of the menu’s environment; in terms of the service. So it’s a restaurant that knows what it is, fires on all cylinders, and sends you out the door three hours later or two hours later. Or it can be 90 minutes later if it’s Momofuku Ssam Bar; that sends you out the door feeling utterly content and feeling like its promises were kept.

Question: What makes a great dish?

FRANK BRUNI: You can have just, you know, one perfect Boudin Blanc Sausage. Is that a dish? Well sure. It again boils down to something that does exactly what it means to do, and that delivers exactly what it promises in its written description and in its kind of visual form as you look at it.

Question: Does being a critic get in the way of you enjoying food?

FRANK BRUNI: In technical ways it does. There are not many nights where I can just go to whatever restaurant I want to because I have a schedule to keep, and a list of new restaurants to try, and a list of restaurants that are going to be reviewed that I have to visit a second and third or, you know, sometimes fourth or even fifth time. So in that sense yeah, I just don’t eat like a normal person. I don’t just kind of in the morning or at 4:00 p.m. say, “What do I feel like for dinner tonight?” I sometimes know four weeks in advance exactly where I’m going to be on February 28th.

Does it get in the way of just eating in terms of sitting there and just enjoying a piece of food without thinking about it to death? No! No. I mean eating is such a primal, visceral thing that I think you’d have to get very, very jaded not to be able to just bite into a juicy hamburger, you know, and just kind of hum all over without wondering exactly what composition of ground beef is in there, you know?

Topic: Italian food

FRANK BRUNI: The Italian food in New York is extremely good. It’s different in a lot of ways. If you go to most good Italian restaurants in Rome or in most parts of Italy, the approach is much simpler than it is here. One of the things that invariably happens when you’re a restaurant serving an ethnic cuisine in a city where rents are as high as New York, and where ambitions are as large, and vanity as keen as it is in New York, is you start fussing with the food a lot. And so I think inevitably and predictably the finest and most ambitious Italian restaurants here do a much more, you know, articulated, embellished, elaborate version of Italian cooking than some of your best restaurants in Rome do – Rome being actually a good example, but that’s true of other areas of Italy as well. Taking that out of the equation, and taking out of the equation the fact that we still even in this day and age don’t have quite the same kind of farm to table or shore to table systems in place as they do in certain European countries, including Italy. Beyond all that the Italian food here I think is quite, quite good.

Question: What’s your favorite Italian restaurant here?

FRANK BRUNI: I can’t do that either; again too many of them. There’s just too many. I mean there are a lot of very good ones. If you’re in a kind of laid back, don’t want a lot of fuss but want something that feels warm and homey mood, there are a lot of options, including Al Di La out in Park Slope in Brooklyn. Sfoli on the Upper East Side. But everything has an asterisk. And you talk about those two places – both of which I gave two stars to. And Al Di La doesn’t take reservations. And Sfolia it’s almost impossible to get a reservation between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. So you know when you start dealing with like short lists, everything kind of has an asterisk or a qualification. If you’re talking about very fancy Italian; or not even very fancy, but kind of a price point above those places, there are wonderful options including, you know, Babbo and A Voche. And for a very Frenchified kind of quasi Italian, Fiama in Tribeca; Alto on the East side. I mean there are a lot of options, and it’s hard to single any one out as the perfect one.

Topic: The farm table movement

FRANK BRUNI: I think chefs and restaurateurs are constantly fiddling with and tweaking the degrees of formality and informality that they put in their restaurants. And one of the things that’s really interesting to watch now is the ways in which different chefs and restaurateurs – both in terms of settings and in terms of what they put on the plate – try to find some sort of perfect sweet spot between formality and ceremony, and informality and total laid-backness. The ways in which they’re trying to figure out what are the bits of coddling and pampering that diners really, really need; and that you want to hold onto to keep the restaurant experience as it’s always been. And what can you jettison, and for many diners actually improve the experience by jettisoning? So this constant search for a perfect midpoint between coddling and utter informality is just not so much a trend as a preoccupation that I think we’re going to see worked out, and thought about, and sweated over for years to come.

The whole farm to table movement, as it’s called, which is kind of over named because you don’t exactly have many farms right here in Manhattan that the food is coming from. But the quest to bring people dishes and a menu that is as reasonably seasonal and local as it can be. I think that’s here to stay, and I think that’s going to be amplified in the coming months and years.

Not many restaurants are gonna be able to achieve that sort of proximity to their food. If you look really long and hard at the menus – even at restaurants that claim to be doing this sort of, you know, low carbon footprint, Alice Waters blessed, you know, as organic as possible to the extent that organic has meaning. There are always exceptions and asterisks that come into play at the end of the day when you want to give diners a certain range of foods.

For instance Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which is often held up as the model of this kind of approach to food – in order to serve a broader diversity of things at any given moment of the year, it’s using an enormous greenhouse on the property to stretch out the existing seasons. And there are times there when you will get a piece of produce that seems suspiciously ahead of its season or behind its season, and that’s because they’re using another set of seasons in this greenhouse.

My point is this ideal is not really possible for almost any restaurant to achieve in a four season climate like ours where there are just kind of certain times of the year where what the land would yield is not going to be sufficient. It’s funny. In winter I see a lot of restaurants in Manhattan still have a page of their menu which says seasonal stuff. And on it there will be a lot of dishes using citrus – which that is seasonal in terms of where that citrus is coming from. But at that point the word “local” has exited the local, seasonal cuisine emphasis. So it’s a difficult ideal to achieve. And I think what everyone is trying to do is get as close to it as they can without asking people to eat only root vegetables during a certain month.

Question: How will the recession impact the trend of fancy/casual balance?

FRANK BRUNI: Well that’s something that predates the recession. And that’s something that is about things that are larger than just price. That’s about the way people wanna address and feel they have control over their dining experiences. So I don’t think the recession is going to affect that in the sense that I don’t think that quest could be any more intense than it is. I also think that in New York there are an astonishing number of people with a lot of money. And there’s an astonishing amount of money from outside New York cycling through the city. So I don’t think the formal restaurants are going to suffer as much as one might off the bat think they would. Or I don’t think you can use some economic ruler or barometer that’s going to affect restaurants the exact some way, or maybe it would retail or something else. Restaurants inhabit a peculiar universe that isn’t influenced as directly as some others might be by economic indicators.

Question: Will some restaurants be hit harder than others?

FRANK BRUNI: You know I don’t know. I don’t know. I think more than anything else it’s going to boil down to in large measure to how good certain restaurants are and the degree of enthusiasm, you know, for them. Restaurants that are terrific, and that have won the affections and the loyalty of their diners are probably going to be okay. Their margins will probably be eaten into. I’m sure many of us affected by a recession are going to look at that wine list in a different way; buy a less expensive wine, on which the kind of markup differential means a little bit less profit for the restaurants. So I think everyone will be affected, I mean I don’t know. I’m not an economist, so this really isn’t a great question for me to answer. I don’t think, or at least I hope, that the really good restaurants are certainly not going to be put out of business.

Question: Do you think this new found environmental consciousness will change restaurants?

FRANK BRUNI: That is so hard to say because it’s a question that’s predicated on a certain common sensical assumption that people are learning more through writers like Michael Polland about what it takes to produce their food; about the carbon footprint that leaves. And people are approaching eating, or at least presumably they are approaching eating with a higher degree of consciousness because of these books and all that. But it’s hard to know whether that population of people is really, at the end of the day, large enough to have a big influence on the restaurant scene. At the same time that people were growing more conscious of the stuff already in certain ways and more health conscious in certain ways, we’ve seen a boon in steak houses in New York over the last couple of years. Probably the openings of new steakhouses over the last three years probably outpaces any similar three years before. So for every move in one direction, there’s other universe of people who are either impervious to it or don’t have the same sorts of concerns. And it makes it really difficult to predict where this stuff all ends.

Recorded on February 22, 2008