Undercover Restaurant Critic May Be Unmasked A restaurant critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer is facing a lawsuit that could reveal his identity to the public and potentially end his career. Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, discusses why it is important for food critics to maintain their anonymity.
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Undercover Restaurant Critic May Be Unmasked

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Undercover Restaurant Critic May Be Unmasked

Undercover Restaurant Critic May Be Unmasked

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Wigs, costumes and credit cards under assumed names - these may sound like the tools of a secret agent, but it's all in a day's work for a restaurant critic.

Now, Philadelphia Inquirer critic, Craig LaBan, is facing a lawsuit over a bad review, and it could reveal his identity to the public and perhaps end his career as a restaurant critic.

Ruth Reichl knows just how important anonymity is to a restaurant critic. She is editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and former restaurant critic at The New York Times. She joins us from her office in New York City. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. RUTH REICHL (Editor-in-chief, Gourmet Magazine; Author, "Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise"): Good morning. Hello.

ROBERTS: So, how serious do you think the threat is it to unmasking a restaurant critic? Does it really hamper your ability to do your job?

Ms. REICHL: Oh, absolutely. And, you know, when you're a restaurant critic, you're really trying to tell people what's going to happen to them, not what happens to someone who has enormous economic clout. And once you get recognized, the red carpet gets rolled out, and suddenly you are getting food that nobody else can get, and that's not what you want to happen to your readers. I mean, you really want to be able to say, you know, this is what your experience is going to be like, so it's very important to be anonymous.

ROBERTS: You went through pretty extraordinary lengths to remain so, I mean, pretty complicated costumes and wigs and girdles.

Ms. REICHL: Yeah. I went to an acting coach. I really - I got the back story for each of my characters. And I really tried to become that person because I didn't want to be unmasked. There's something a little frightening about being - sitting in a restaurant and having someone come up and say, aha, I know who you are.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Or, Ruth, I haven't seen you since high school.

Ms. REICHL: Exactly.

ROBERTS: So when you took on these different characters, and I recall from your book, one was sort of a frumpy older woman, there - they had very distinct personalities. Did you find that some got better service or better food than others?

Ms. REICHL: Oh, absolutely. Now, Betty, my frumpy old lady, got terrible service.

ROBERTS: Really?

Ms. REICHL: Yes. Chloe, the blonde, got very good service. And Brenda, who was just a lovely person, a free spirit who smiled at everyone, got the best service of all.

ROBERTS: Hmm.

Ms. REICHL: And then there was Emily who was a real meanie. And everybody hated Emily. And they - you know, I always had the feeling that they were going back behind the closed doors and spitting in her soup because she was so mean.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: My guest is Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine.

If you're a restaurant review fan, if you make your choices based on what reviewers have to say, give us a call, 800-989-TALK, that's 800-989-8255. Or send us e-mail, talk@npr.org.

You know, this suit going on in Philadelphia, this was - there's a restaurant review where Craig LaBan, the Philadelphia Inquirer critic, called a steak - he said it was a strip steak and said it was, I think, tough and fatty, or something equally unflattering. And he's being sued not because what he said was unflattering, because that's protected under the First Amendment, but they're now saying it wasn't a strip steak, that it was a rib-eye. And is this just a target of someone who has some power and the ability to change the business model of a restaurant by what he or she writes or what do you think is going on there?

Ms. REICHL: Well, I think it's two things. One, I have to say, that, when I was restaurant critic, I lived in terror of making that kind of mistake. Of, you know, calling a turnip a rutabaga. And I would go over and over obsessively -am I sure? Was it really a strip steak? Was it turnip? Is the tablecloth pink? Because you really don't want anyone to be able to say that you've made that kind of mistake.

But secondly, it is true that restaurant critics have an extraordinary amount of power. And in the end, you're really just one person. And, you know, what's going - what you're talking about is what's going on in your mouth. And it's very private. And none of us knows if what you taste is the same thing that I taste. And, you know, it's important for people to remember that these are very subjective criticism.

So, you know, all a restaurant can really do is catch you out in some mistake of fact.

ROBERTS: But why bother? I mean, why bother going through a very public trial and the expense of litigation, and all of that? Can a restaurant critic really make or break a restaurant?

Ms. REICHL: Well, I think there are two things on that as well. One is that any publicity is probably good publicity for a restaurant, especially one that's gotten a bad review.

And secondly, restaurant critics do have a lot of power. Although I would say that, today, in the age of the Internet, the power of the restaurant critic is being chipped away at, because now, everybody who goes to the restaurant can go online and have their say. And increasingly, they are, and there's a kind of democratization of the - of the whole process, which I think is a wonderful thing.

ROBERTS: Although at the same time there's a parallel trend of more people paying attention to food, maybe more people eating out, a whole sort of foodie culture.

Ms. REICHL: There is. But it's also true that people increasingly know a lot about food and are capable of making their own judgments. And often, you have a public that is so knowledgeable about food that they know as much or more as many of the critics.

ROBERTS: There's also - going on in New York - a restaurant owner, Jeffrey Chodorow, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, which is really expensive, blasting Frank Bruni, the current restaurant critic of the New York Times, not just for a bad review of his restaurant, but attacked his credentials, said he didn't know enough about food.

Ms. REICHL: Well, you know, that happens all the time. I think it's sort of a badge of honor. I had people take out full-page ads about my reviews. And I was very proud of that. And I think that Frank should be, too. This was sort of - it was sort of a crackpot complaint that, you know, it's - you can always attack someone's credentials, but in fact, this one seemed sort of mean spirited to me.

ROBERTS: Well, you know, you talk about the democratization, a word I wouldn't have chosen to say out loud on the radio, on - with blogging about food and the increase education of the average diner. On the other hand, do you think that there is, you know, a place for someone who's been to culinary school or served in the kitchen themselves to have an angle on this that the average diner doesn't?

Ms. REICHL: Well, it's not only that. It's - there is a place for someone, who is knowledgeable, who spent a lot of time thinking about it, who's worked in restaurants, had restaurants. But there's also a place for someone that you know.

And I think the big thing that - the big service that critics do is, over time, the public gets to know them, and so you get to judge your own opinion against the sort of - the accumulated group of reviews.

So, I mean, I know when I go - when I read movie reviews, I know that there are some critics who have completely different tastes than mine, so that if they hate a movie, I know I'll probably like it.

ROBERTS: Right. Right.

Ms. REICHL: And, you know, that is a big part of the joy of reading criticism over time, is that you really get to know this person and know their taste. So, you have something to judge their review by.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Peter(ph) in San Francisco. Peter, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

PETER (Caller): Hi. How are you today?

ROBERTS: Good.

PETER: I just wanted to say that I'm a subscriber to Zagat online. And I frequently read other reviews focusing more on, like, the negative reviews that I find from people who visited the restaurants, because they tend to reveal aspects of the restaurant that I might want to know about. It might be more informative. You can get 50 people saying, yeah, we had that meal. But the -some of the details that someone who had a bad experience might have to say might tell you a little bit more about what to expect.

ROBERTS: Well, also, Peter, you have the luxury in San Francisco of so many restaurants to choose from, you need some way to weed them out.

PETER: Yeah, definitely. There's always something new going on here. So, anyway, I love your show. Thank you very much.

ROBERTS: Thanks for you call.

Ruth Reichl, do you, as a critic, did you sort of ponder negative criticism more carefully than praise?

Ms. REICHL: No. I would say, it's really the opposite. Because everybody loves mean reviews. They're fun to read. They're sort of fun to write. The ones that always made me nervous were the really glowing reviews, because I would think about people, who didn't have a lot of money, who read this review and went running out to eat in that restaurant, and you wanted to be really sure that they were going to have a great experience. So I was always much more nervous about the really great ones.

ROBERTS: You know, this is actually a plot point in the movie "Ratatouille." Have you seen it yet?

Ms. REICHL: I haven't. No.

ROBERTS: There's a very evil restaurant critic who talks about how much fun it is to write bad reviews and how his reputation has been made off of them. Let's take…

Ms. REICHL: Yet all people love them.

ROBERTS: Right. Right. It's, you know, it's just shading(ph) for it, I suppose.

Let's hear from Blair(ph) in Greensboro, North Carolina. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BLAIR (Caller): Well, thank you very much for taking my call.

ROBERTS: Sure.

BLAIR: I've worked in the food service business and kitchens for my entire adult life since I was 14. And I just want the readers to know that every extent that Ms. Reichl goes to hide her identity, kitchen staff and chefs and managers go to farther lengths to expose her, expose it.

By the time Craig LaBan left New Orleans, his name, picture, aliases and favorite dishes - meats, fishes, what have you - were at the podium of every single fine dining restaurant in New Orleans. And it basically made him irrelevant because we could pick and choose what we served him when he came in.

ROBERTS: And…

BLAIR: That's basically it. Thank you very much.

ROBERTS: And - thanks for your call.

You had a similar experience, Ruth, when you we first moving to New York.

Ms. REICHL: Yeah. I got on the plane, and I was coming to be the restaurant critic of the New York Times. And the woman sitting next to me on the plane said that she was a waitress in a fancy restaurant and there was a picture of me in the kitchen. And in fact, she knew a scary lot about me. She knew what my husband did. She knew how old my son was. She knew virtually every detail of my life.

ROBERTS: And this was pre-Google?

Ms. REICHL: This was pre-Google. It was - they had solicited out. And it was what decided me to start wearing disguises, because I thought, okay, they think they know who I am, I am going to be someone different. And it was why I went to such elaborate lengths to, not just put on, you know, a mild disguise, but to really go the whole way and get to know these people that I was turning myself into. And I have a - had a few disguises. I happily don't have to do it anymore. But, you know, I had a couple that took four hours to get the makeup on. And I guarantee you…

ROBERTS: Admit it, do you every so often miss being Mean Emily?

Ms. REICHL: No, I don't miss Mean - actually, Mean Emily was what when I decided it was time for me to stop being a restaurant critic. I thought, I can't stand being this person. And if I've run out of the nice people, it may be time for me to do something else for a living.

ROBERTS: My guest is Ruth Reichl, no longer restaurant critic, now editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's hear from Becky in Tucson. Becky(ph), welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BECKY (Caller): Hello.

ROBERTS: How are you?

BECKY: I'm fine. Thanks. I was just calling to say that when I was in high school 27 years ago, I used to write a dining out column. And the places that I wrote up were basically one step above a fast-food restaurant. We didn't have a lot of money and we were barely scraping together enough to pay the bill, let alone leave much of a tip. And I think I wrote bad reviews 95 percent of the time. So now, I tend to just overtip everywhere I go, because I'm making up for bad karma.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REICHL: Now, did you write bad reviews because they were fun to write or because the restaurants were really that bad?

BECKY: Oh, because they were really that bad. We couldn't afford to go to any place nice. We were in high school, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Becky, thanks for your call and for your honesty.

Let's hear from Amy(ph) in Boca Raton, Florida.

AMY (Caller): Hi. I'm actually calling for some advice. I have kind of a similar experience like the reviewer, who felt she was treated differently based on the persona she was when she entered the restaurant. And I don't have a lot of money, but I don't really enjoy going out to eat when the food quality's not really good. So I'd rather go twice a year to a very expensive dinner. And yet I feel like when I do that, I clearly am not a person who can afford to do that often. And I feel like I don't get very good service. Now, it turns out my husband is Asian, and we go to Asian restaurants we get much better service because of who he is. And…

Ms. REICHL: Well, I have to say that the thing I learned from all of these costumes is that you are much more in control of how you're treated than you're aware of. You know, I was - underneath all of that, I was still me, but the air of assurance, I had two older women or two old ladies - I'll be frank about that.

BECKY: All right.

Ms. REICHL: One was a very frumpy old lady and one was basically my mother, who was a force of nature. And my mother - who I sort of channeled as I was in costume as her - was someone who would not countenance getting bad service. And she just demanded, you know. No, I don't want that table. And I found myself, to my surprise, really becoming her and demanding this, and discovering that you can demand that people pay attention to you and give you good service. But it really is - you have to go in and say to yourself and to the restaurant, you're here to please me. I am paying good money. And I am not going to accept anything less.

ROBERTS: I think we have time for one more call. This is Andy(ph) in Portland. Andy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ANDY (Caller): Hi. I'm a restaurant owner here in Portland. I just wanted to talk about the use (audio gap) Internet chat groups as far as food forums and stuff goes. The - luckily, I've been - had overwhelmingly good press, both in the print and on the Internet. But one thing that I've noticed is that the newspapers and the magazines got their information before they publish.

And for the most part, the Internet is just wide open to anybody who says whatever they want. So - and there's no way to really, without getting into, like, a mudslinging match if something comes up that you find inaccurate, there's no way to kind of correct that or to present your side of the - point of view without actually entering the forum, which is always not such a great thing to do if you're a restaurant owner.

ROBERTS: And I'm going to give Andy the last word because we're out of time.

Ruth Reichl, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. REICHL: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

ROBERTS: Ruth Reichl is the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and author of the book "Garlic and Sapphires." She joined us from her office in New York City.

Tomorrow, it's SCIENCE FRIDAY. And Neal Conan is back on Monday.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

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