Restaurant critic's talk fills Gannett

Posted by Erin Dillon

The New York Times' chief restaurant critic, Sam Sifton, drew a large audience to Gannet Auditorium on March 7. His presentation on the purpose and process of his work as a critic lasted for nearly two hours, including a question -and-answer period.

Sifton holds an A.B. degree in history and literature from Harvard University and has worked as a restaurant host, cook and social studies teacher in addition to his work in journalism. Sifton began his work with the New York Times in 2002 and progressed from the dining section editor to the culture editor before landing the position of chief restaurant critic in 2009.

The lecture began with an explanation of why a restaurant critic's role in journalism is so appealing to the public. "Food is the great equalizer of journalism," Sifton said, "Everyone has something to say about eating food."

Throughout his talk, Sifton spoke about his responsibility to "find the narrative of the restaurant." Sifton's job is much more elaborate than eating a meal and whipping up a review, he said.

When asked by an audience member what defines a top-notch food critic, Sifton responded, "The ability to tell a story, to enable people to live vicariously, to be right."

Sifton also spoke about his reviewing process, saying, "I eat, I observe, I take notes in the bathroom, then I write a review," he said. Sifton spoke about the advantage of being a restaurant critic in New York City.

"It is such a vital food scene—it's unparalleled," Sifton said.

Sifton said he dines out six times a week, and visits a restaurant at least three times before reviewing it. The aim is to experience a medley of restaurants, Sifton said, and to investigate almost any dining option.

"You have to go in there believing it will be great," he said.

Sifton went on to say his anonymity, as a reviewer is essential to his success in restaurant criticism. "Facelessness," is the only way to achieve an honest and fair review, he said.

Sifton described his methods of disguise, which range from invented names to wigs.

Sifton said he tries to go unnoticed, but currently there is one photograph of him on the Internet in addition to several snapshots taken by bloggers.

"It's hard to erase your digital past," he said.

He also dines in groups to help stay anonymous, Sifton said, but does not take his companions' opinions into consideration in his reviews.

While food is the focus of a restaurant, there are many elements that compose a dining experience, Sifton said.

"I want to figure out the story of the restaurant. Décor, ambiance, music, and environment all matter. There are good restaurants with terrible food, and vise-versa."

During the question-and-answer period, audience members asked questions ranging from progression of the American palette to the health effects of being a food critic. Sifton responded to each question in a lengthy manner, usually accompanied by an anecdote that produced laughter from the crowd.

Sifton disclosed that he grew up in Brooklyn Heights, prompting the audience to ask what his favorite pizza place is. Sifton responded by explaining his "pizza cognition theory," saying that he believed people always like the pizza from their hometown most.

"The truth of the matter is, all pizza is awesome," Sifton said.

Sifton also told the audience he went to Hattie's Restaurant in Saratoga Springs before the lecture. "I didn't eat," Sifton said, "I fed."

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