Frank Bruni revealed
In time for his final week as The New York Times' restaurant critic, Frank Bruni releases Born Round, an unlikely memoir about making peace with food.
Tue Aug 18 2009
Photo Illustration: John V. Smith
Why did you decide to tell this story? It certainly isn’t typical food writing.
When I was getting ready to take the [critic] job, I was reading a lot of food books and food memoirs. All of them communicated this gauzy romantic relationship with food. I thought a lot of people have a relationship with food that’s way more complicated than that. I felt like I hadn’t read that story.
The struggles you describe—eating disorders, yoyo diets—have persisted throughout your life. How did you do your job without gaining weight?
Having lived in Italy was really instrumental to this. All around me I had great examples of how to eat sensibly. The way Italians eat and make food the focus of life is really healthy. It’s not about abundance and 24-ounce king size prime rib cuts; it’s about quality, and I think that was a crucial bridge to be able to do what I did for the last five years.
When you became the Times critic, did you notice if you had any prejudices against or predispositions towards certain types of restaurants?
My tastes go all over the map. I love sushi. I haven’t gone back to look at what my star ratings were, but I’ve probably been very kind to those sorts of restaurants. But on the opposite side, I love grabbing those tongs and ripping off the pork fat in the bo ssam feast at Momofuku Ssam Bar.
Do you think that your reviews helped create the major dining trends, for instance, the rise of David Chang?
I think the big trends in dining are way bigger than The New York Times. Every so often we amplify them or underscore them, but David Chang was on a huge and glorious trajectory long before the Times started weighing in on him.
You mention that restaurateurs don’t fall for disguises. Was that a jab at Ruth Reichl?
That’s me passing along what other people in the industry have said to me. People would always volunteer that critics who wore disguises were often recognized just as much as if they hadn’t. When they are recognized, they would think that person clearly wants to believe they haven’t been, so they’d play along with it.
Where do you stand on anonymity in restaurant reviewing?
I could make a great argument that critics should be as anonymous as possible, and I could also turn around and make the argument to you that it’s overrated. I’m going to refrain from doing either because I’m not sure how my successor is going to handle it.
Are there any ratings, positive or negative, that you regret having given?
There are ones on the day the review came out, I worried that I didn’t get right. I haven’t done the arithmetic but I am thinking I probably wrote more than 250 reviews. There’s no way that I didn’t get some of those wrong.
Will it be strange to pay for your own dinner again?
I started doing that already, and it is strange. My guess is in one or two months I’ll realize that I’ll have to be a little more careful because I’m not fully trained in the consequences of my consumption. But on the other hand, I probably won’t have to spend as much on trainers.
So you’ve had your last review meal—how did it feel?
It felt great. My history at the Times was that I was never at a job for more than three or four years. I never thought I would be in this job for more than 5 years. I enjoyed it the whole time so I wasn’t desperate to get out, but as soon as it was coming to an end, I realized I was happy to be turning the page. It’s also a mandated structure that becomes difficult to maintain enthusiasm about over a long period of time.
Since you’ve been so honest in your book, I have to admit, I identify with the moment when you come home from a review dinner and buy all this junk food at the deli and eat it. I’ve done that.
Literally two nights ago I had one of those moments when I was like, I’m sorry, but I have to have a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. I don’t even think Ben & Jerry’s is a high level of ice cream, I know the difference between Grom and Ben & Jerry’s, or Il Laboratorio di Gelato, but I just wanted a junky Ben & Jerry’s pint, and I wanted all of it.
I get it. I could never have Oreos in my house because I’d eat them all.
I think part of weight management is making sure the things that tempt you are not around all the time. You will never, ever find peanut butter in my cupboard, because for some bizarre reason, it’s my kryptonite. I am powerless around peanut butter. If I have a jar of really good—especially natural crunchy, not like Jiff crunchy—peanut butter, if I have it in the cabinet and allow myself to take one spoonful, it’s gone.
In the book, you write about a good source of tartines near your place on the Upper West Side. Were you talking about Levain Bakery?
Yes, I live in Levain Bakery.
Their cookies to me are like kryptonite.
They’re horrible. I mean they’re great! But they’re cookie dough! I mean, that cookie is half cookie and half dough! I love peanut butter cookies, too. I wish Levain did a straightforward peanut butter cookie because they could probably do an amazing peanut butter cookie.
I bet if you asked them they would.
I would never do that.
The annotated Born Round
Page 108 During college, Bruni’s preferred midnight snacks didn’t exactly befit restaurant royalty in the making. Among the junk: popcorn popped in “butter-flavored Crisco.”
Page 221 Best quote, taken entirely out of context: “No one was going to out-fruit me.”
Page 253 Bruni is chastised in an Italian gym for wearing “shorts that didn’t adhere tightly to [his] legs.”
Page 277 First chef to spot Bruni: Alain Ducasse, while dining at BLT Steak shortly before the critic wrote his first review for the Times.
Page 295 Bruni makes a reservation at kosher midtown eatery Solo under the name “Gentile.”
Page 303 A blog commenter believes he’s spotted Bruni wearing a fanny pack while piloting a scooter. No and no.
Frank Bruni’s book goes on sale Thursday 20.