How is Reviewing a Restaurant Like Reviewing a Book?
Critics John Freeman and Robert Sietsema Compare Notes
We asked Lit Hub editor John Freeman (and past president of the National Book Critics Circle) to sit down with renowned New York food writer Robert Sietsema (former Village Voice restaurant reviewer) to see if they could figure out the similarities—and differences—between writing about books and writing about food in the age of the Internet. Appropriately, they met at Hudson Bar and Books for their conversation.
John Freeman: What year did you move to New York?
Robert Sietsema: 1977. How about you?
JF: 1996. So you were reading a lot of the Voice?
RS: I came to the career really late. I worked as a musician, and I also did a lot of secretary shit. I came here thinking I was going to be an editor. You know, at the time I came—this is one of my favorite jokes—editors were riding around in limos and living in Westchester, but by the time I came it was like you lived in a tenement, and you barely had enough money to live. I don’t know what happened, but the career just went down the shithole. I was working for a publishing company which was this crazy rich guy who wrote dirty novels and published them under pseudonyms, and then I worked for Dover, or as we called it, do-over—all that kinda shit.
JF: So you were working on books?
RS: I was working on books. The first thing I did, I was a picture editor and compiled files of line drawings from the 19th century literally ripped from old books and magazines. You know, there’s still some in the New York public library. Between art publishing and Dover, I must have been 25 or something. I also worked for a book-packaging firm; I did a lot of work for Random House and the Museum of Modern Art. One of the things I did was layout—it was a crazy method then. But very enjoyable.
JF: Yeah, working in newspapers was the same way. Then pagemaker came and changed all of our lives.
RS: Yes, but by then I was already on a different career. I worked as a secretary in a real estate company for a while, which is how I got my rent-stabilized apartment. When I moved here it was possible for writers to live in Manhattan. And now because of the changes in the economy and the country…
JF: When you arrived at the Village Voice, did you come in as a writer?
RS: I was very lucky. I had been a secretary at a real estate company, and I was also a part time rock dude. This was back in, you know, the very late 80s, and my parents who are very scientifically inclined gave my daughter a computer. And this was before anyone had a computer at home. They were available but who would spend the money back then? So she had this PC, and I’m like, Well, this is really cool but what do I do with it? All my friends down in the East Village, we made our living by being computer charlatans. We knew we could get away with claiming to be able to run a computer because everyone in the office was terrified of computers. So we would say, Yeah, I know how to do word processing. And of course there wasn’t much to it. So that’s why we made an amazing amount of money. We were working for Pfizer for two years as freelancers and getting $20/hour in the 1990s and late 80s. That was like a king’s ransom. On top of that, the $20/hour was paid to you in an entire sum—there were no deductions.
JF: So did you come into the Voice as a computer person?
RS: No, I came into the Voice because the hapless previous critic… Well, I took my daughter’s computer and started a fanzine about food. Fanzines were directed mostly towards one person’s opinion about a bunch of different bands and record releases, or else they would be dedicated to a single band. It was a personal Xerox. We had this store called See Here where they had nothing but rock fanzines. So I thought I would apply it to food. Every couple of months, I would put out this Xeroxed thing on colored paper. It would just report on these ethnic restaurants, and the whole idea was to turn my fellow musicians on to places they should eat. And they did. I pretentiously sent my zine to various editors because I was pissed nobody was covering good restaurants, and eventually the Voice asked me to sub for Jeff Weinstein. As I’m fond of telling people, in those days, anybody could be a food critic. Nobody knew what it entailed, and nobody wanted to do it. It was like, “Why would you want to do that?”
JF: And this was the first time you’d written about food?
RS: I mean, I had never written before. I went to grad school—I never tell anyone about it, but it was horrible. I went to college for Psychology and Chemistry, and I went to grad school for English because it was easy to get into and you could get teacher assistant jobs. So I had done that, but I was the worst academic writer you could imagine. I saved a couple papers. But then I found something about food… the necessary condition about something is a love of the subject and an obsession with it. That’s easy as a writer who has 20 to 25 years under their belt; that’s another way to wow them. I used to spend two weeks agonizing over a piece, and now you just get the fucker done. Sometimes it’s better; sometimes its worse.
JF: Do you remember at the time if the New York Times and others were covering food?
RS: They didn’t when I started out, and I did it for several years. Then one day, I got a call from Eric Asimov, who I knew was kind of the honcho. He was the nephew of Isaac Asimov, but his father was my correction manager at Newsday… He’d worked at the Times for a number of years and he called me and said let’s go out and eat. We went out, and I thought, Man, I’m finally getting the nod from the Times. I’m going to get a job that pays some money. And then I open the paper one day, and he himself was doing the Cheap Eats column! He had eaten out with me a couple times to figure out how the fuck I did it. How I did it was an invented process. Even discovering the restaurants. It was more research than writing. Writing was trivial compared to rest of the process.
JF: Are you a walker? Is that how you discovered your restaurants?
RS: There are probably about ten different ways. One is that whenever I passed an ethnic food store, I would pick up one of the newspapers, the throwaways as they called them. That was one way to locate them. But at the time there were also useful bulletin boards which would talk about food. And Chowhound was getting along. People would send in tips oftentimes, like a carryout menu in an envelope with a stamp on it and nothing else. There were fans back then. It’s hard to believe there was mail.
Starting in the 80s and 90s, we had the greatest renaissance of immigrants in New York that we’ve ever had. Now, the Mexican population is falling and so is the Chinese population. But we had a golden age of 20 years when food was so cheap and plentiful, and every day you’d discover a new region of Uzbekistan… It was wonderful.
JF: Obviously that’s changed, especially because of the rise in rents, particularly Manhattan and Brooklyn.
RS: Oh yeah.
JF: Is that why everything’s in Queens now?
RS: Not only is everything in Queens…Well, the thing is, immigrants must still eat, and they’ve had to find their own workarounds. One of them is living in Queens ten to a room and coming in and working for almost nothing in a Chinese restaurant. Even though the amount of money that’s charged for a meal in an above-ground restaurant has ballooned. You know, restaurants frequently written about are now $300 a plate. Who the fuck goes to those? Even for a modest bistro in Brooklyn, they want to charge $100 per person. But at the lowest end of the spectrum, it’s remained consistently cheap. And even in parts of Manhattan like, there are places that, against all logic, are still really cheap, because people must be fed.
JF: That’s right. This is a larger, theoretical question… but as critics, one of the things that’s changed for food writing and writing about books is just the exponential growth of the Internet. It’s enabled so many people who were previously having spoken conversations about food to now have written conversations on food sites and on Goodreads. Earlier, you were elaborating on a much much broader ethical context for the consumption and enjoyment of food, tied to the migration of populations. One of the most important things happening right now in books is that when populations move, they carry with them stories, and stories eventually are told. The Internet has enabled much broader conversations about food and books and music. But is this sense of context, the one you’re talking about right now, getting lost?
RS: It has made the role of the critic, ironically, even more important. Someone who can tie the things together, who can study the broad view, is more valuable than ever. Yes, there are a hundred people gassing about a restaurant the minute it opens and cursing the fact that the waiter is slow, or whatever. But that’s what makes the actual criticism, you know, valuable. You must have in your field too, where a literary critic can cut through the bullshit and can render an opinion that makes sense and stands out from the vast mass of people who are just writing bullshit all the time. And who have been enabled to write bullshit by the Internet. I mean, that’s not a bad thing. It’s made us more valuable in a weird sort of way.
JF: I think to go further with this, people who are commenting on books or food or music or art on the Internet are not always having to do it comparatively. They go to a museum, and they think, The Tate Modern sucks, I don’t like watching textual art. But they’re not looking at that show in the context of the hundred other shows that happen simultaneously. It seems like one thing that a critic brings isn’t just the ability to render that opinion into a narrative and drop in a kind of cultural context, but to make cross comparisons.
RS: Well, that’s how we develop followings. But the wonderful thing in the context of today and all the web crap is that you don’t really have to have that many people following you to do well. I mean, at the Voice you might expect 450,000 readers as a standard, whereas on these websites if you get 20,000 views you are just flying on the spot. The expectations are so much lower.
JF: Have your interactions with those readers changed though? The half a million that’s kind of opaque vs. the 20,000 you can tell have read your article
RS: I think in social media and on Twitter, you kind of get a better feel of who your fans are than from the website itself. But remember, we have such precise metrics, and one of the reasons I’m able to keep my job is that I’m very attuned to that. I look at chart feed; I look at Google analytics. I am, every minute, studying how many people—I can pull up my phone right now and tell you how many people are reading or are on this very instant.
JF: Thats fascinating.
RS: It’s astonishing. So you get an impression about what people like and tailor your pieces to them. And one of the things that people consistently like to stumble onto is a piece that has ten restaurants that you like, or they’re ranked, or there are descriptions of them. People are hungry for opinions that are not completely crackpot. That are not based on personal bias.
JF: Just to play devil’s advocate… This feeling is probably more prevalent in book reviewing—no one writes a food review, I think, as if the point of it was not to send people to eat that food—but in book reviewing, people will read a book review and have no interest in buying the book.
RS: That’s important in food reviewing too. You’re always trying to figure out what motivates people to read the review and go out and eat, or go out and read the book
JF: Well what do you think that is?
RS: Well, that is the beauty of it: it’s unpredictable. Writing for a website its not a reproducible phenomenon. You can have a piece that goes viral and then try to clone it, do something similar, and it falls flat. People can be inflamed by almost anything if it comes at the right time and you’ve written it effectively. That’s the most satisfying part of being a critic. I’ve been told probably 15 times in my career, which has spanned 30 years, that I’ve saved a restaurant. That a little tiny mom-and-pop place was about to go under, but I wrote this glowing review and suddenly there are lines out the door. But that doesn’t happen that often. I mean, the saddest part about the real estate climate now is that 95 percent of the restaurants are doomed to a certain and immediate death.
JF: It’s a little bit like writers
RS: It’s true in my brief literary experience. Having written a few books, you get the same feeling—it’s just hopeless. There’s no chance that it’s every going to earn out. And if it does, it’s like God is coming down from heaven. But then there are those writers who have an easy time of it. They just barf up the thing.
JF: Did you ever think about writing about books?
RS: You know I have an inferior attention span so–
JF: It’s like a meal-length attention span…
RS: And that is one of the reasons that when I meet literary critics, I’m wowed. I’m reverent and amazed that they can sit down and read a fucking book from beginning to end, even a mediocre one. To me, if I get a couple chapters in and its no good, then it’s gone. But if you go to a restaurant and you get a meal that doesn’t go well, you can’t just get up and leave.
JF: I do have an early warning sign; you might have the same thing with books. This is how I choose what to review: I look at the first page, I look at the end, I read page 99 or something, and if what I’m reading is cliché, I probably know…
RS: And yet what about your own relationship to clichés? Do you sometimes find them useful?
JF: I’ve had editors who’ve expunged all the cliches, and I’ve kind of missed them.
RS: I think in newspaper writing it’s kind of useful.
JF: People expect them. Do you ever sort of walk in the door of a restaurant and walk right out?
RS: All the time. As a matter of fact, there’s nothing I like better than going to a neighborhood I’ve never been in before and going to a street I haven’t been to before and seeing three or four restaurants. The first thing I do is I look at the menu in the window. Then I look at the faces of the diners, and I look at what’s left on their plates. As a final test, I walk in and smell. And if it fails any of these tests, I’m out of there. I don’t want to eat shit.
JF: Faces… to see if they’re smiling? If they’re engaged?
RS: If they seem like they’re enjoying themselves. If they’re there because they want to be. There are funny restaurants full of business people, and you look at their plates and they’re full of food…
JF: That’s the terrifying part of reviewing books, that there are no obvious warning signs. There are certain things… if there are too many blurbs on the back cover, for example. I’m curious if at a certain point you became so visible that it was a problem, as people might recognize you.
RS: Oh god no. I have successfully remained anonymous. It is the easiest thing in the world to be anonymous. And it’s the fault of restaurant criticism that critics want to be recognized. They want adulation; they want to be rock stars; they want people to kiss their ass. There’s nothing worse… I’ve probably been recognized six times in my career, and it was a horrible experience.
JF: Were they the obvious places?
RS: They were places I probably shouldn’t have been in in the first place. If I had more faith in the dining public, I would only review obscure places no one’s heard of. But those places take so much more effort. We’re always susceptible to what’s known as critic bait.
JF: Oh absolutely.
RS: You must have it with certain books that are so easy to review?
JF: There are forms of critic bait. Norman Mailer wrote a novel towards the end of his life about Hitler where he posited that the devil had a bird’s eye view on insemination. He would be looking around at all the people having sex and then would choose one or two or three people at the moment of inception to jump into the—
RS: It’s like Rosemary’s Baby.
JF: Yeah, to jump in that moment and inhabit the growing fetus and baby. Random House had a luncheon for Mailer at a New York steakhouse; he came in his jacket and sat there and told old stories, and that was absolutely critic’s bait. Because you think this is one of the greats. A 60-year career, and here he is. So yeah, there are definitely forms of that. And obviously parties. If they spend enough money on a book, there’s going to be a lunch at a nice restaurant. One of the terrible things about these luncheons, and the reason I don’t go, is that I really like my colleagues, book editors and critics, but you sit there and there’s way more of you than the author. The author has to get moved around and around.
RS: And to see your colleagues humiliated prostrating themselves… a lot of food writing is 99 percent the food writer’s connections on the web. Critics are not supposed to do this. But all the other food writers write based on going to free meals provided by publicists. Which is horrifying.
JF: You know, with book criticism, the problem is that when you’ve met the author, you have a lot of information about the book before you’ve even read it. And you also might know that he’s this aging star and he’s gone to shit. What can you possibly say about it? But I always feel that it’s not done cynically—the desire to get a book by an author someone in the publishing house loved, out in the world to find readers. And the critics are the intermediaries.
RS: This is still at a higher level of endeavor than the food journalism world. Which is much driven by envy and sloth and gluttony; it’s just like the seven deadly sins on display. When food writers are just responding to these kitchens and kissing chef’s asses it can drive you out of your mind.
JF: It seems you’re operating quite independently of that.
RS: I’m very lucky to be enabled to be that. But I consider it like a gift from God. I don’t consider it part of my own merit. It’s more like I have taken a strange path that has allowed me to slip by this stuff.
JF: I think in some ways we’re more similar. It sounds like you kind of DIY-ed your own career. Made a zine…
RS: It was lucky. The fortunate thing was even getting a job like this. You could never plan on getting it. Nowadays people would kill to be a critic. They would do anything, you know.
JF: But you backed into by accident.
RS: It was an accident. But in those days, nobody wanted to be a critic. In a way, I helped to invent the world that I now inhabit.
JF: I sometimes wonder about this. I started out as a book reviewer for alt-weeklies like the Boston Phoenix, now gone, and others now gone too. I was freelancing, sending clips out to these places, calling them. And eventually, for about ten years, I made a living as a freelance book reviewer.
RS: That’s amazing.
JF: Basically, I was able to syndicate some of my own reviews, and on the basis of this and that was able to live in Manhattan. Have you seen anyone of our generation or two behind you who emerged on the web in a similar fashion?
RS: They are now retired, and there are children of the rich who all went to fancy private schools and just feel that these jobs are their birthright. And just food writing in general… restaurant reviewing as a specialty is so incredibly narrow. There are so few jobs. Even in this metropolis of New York there are probably not more than seven or eight actual reviewers.
JF: Oh my god. There are like eight million people.
RS: There used to be a lot more of them but that is the downside. But even in the heyday there weren’t that many. There are more book reviewers. It seems like book reviewers enjoy a national stage, whereas nobody wants to read about a restaurant in New York if they live in Cleveland.
JF: Except for a very high echelon of income
RS: Yeah, a weird kind of person; who reads the table for two New Yorker section.
JF: Restaurant reviewing has obviously become gentrified. Libraries still exist. People still read bestsellers. It has always been an act of class assertion to talk about books or have a book on your table, but it’s not like the entirety of book discussion has been brought into economic aspiration.
RS: It’s a relief in a way because some of the people I know who love food the most have a literary connection with it. They are pining for the age of foodie-ism to die. In other words, this is a climate where Guy Fieri is God. Where people of obvious opportunistic and inferior quality are running the show. Leading vast masses to the slaughter. And so it’s a sine wave. I mean, we’ve had eras in the past where food was an obsession…
The 70s and 80s were a pretty good time for food. As certain as I’m sitting here, the age of food is coming back down. Some other popular obsession will take over. Things are kinda happening now that could hasten its downfall. One of them is just like what’s happening in real estate. The difference between classes has yawned open. How long are these people going to care about a place called Brooklyn Fare, about a place across the street where the meal is $250 before you even add the wine and the service. Who are the people patronizing these kinds of places? Initially, they get a bump from the free previews they’re giving to all the food journalists. But after that, who are the people who are going to those restaurants and paying that much money?
JF: I have a similar feeling about—not trying to completely smash together our disciplines, but—
RS: Well, this is fascinating to me, that there are some of the same things going on.
JF: I think its true not so much in criticism per se because the downfall of book reviewing in the US has a lot to do with the ways that the newspaper industry is being consumed by other corporations. Oil barons and media conglomerates. And so the cutbacks on the book review sections are part of the paradigm shift in newspapers. But on the other hand, there’s certainly a gap between what American literature is and how it’s talked about; what is being talked about within American literature and what America is. I think it’s similar to the gap you’re talking about with food.
RS: I watched CBS this morning with Charlie Rose and all those people. It took me a couple years to realize that every book that they brought on is only by the conglomerate that owns CBS. What are the chances that a book of tremendous literary merit would sink like a stone given a lack of Viacom ownership? Does that happen?
JF: Of course! For some reason, right now is a good time to be a small publisher in the US because I think—and I think this is also reflected in what you review and how you write about it—that the most interesting things in general happen at the margins of culture. The mainstream borrows from what becomes successful on the margins and makes it mainstream, and then something interesting and new happens on the margins again, and that’s the kind of cycle of American life. Jazz or hip-hop or something that’s over here becomes the mainstream. This is happening with the publishers because almost all of the main publishers were bought by media conglomerates. And they have different metrics and numbers to make. This is not to say that Penguin or Random House, which are now one, are not publishing great books because they are; it just leaves wide open the inventive margin. If you look at the margins you can be very optimistic about American literary culture. But if you try to find everything from the mainstream, it can be very depressing.
One problem I have, similar with food, is that we live in a very global city. There are Nigerians and Uzbeks and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. All over the world. But the problem with publishing is that we only translate three percent of what’s being published in the world. And we have a a kind of “just one” policy with one popular Indian writer, one Chinese writer, that can be kind of—they’re often expected to speak for entire populations. But I’m slightly exaggerating.
RS: You’re not exaggerating. I have a friend who used to work at Penguin, and she was called into the big editor’s office. She was from Vietnam and was asked, “Is there an author in Vietnam, a single author, that you’d recommend?” because their stated purpose was to find one person from each country to speak for them.
JF: You know, with a publisher of that size, there should probably dozens of Vietnamese writers we should be reading, but we only get one! In North American publishing, African writing is having a moment. There’s a hugely talented generation, but it’s also about the moment. And meanwhile, there are all these other populations with literatures that are available, but it’s not the Icelandic moment. Or the Norwegian moment. I wonder if it’s the same with food.
RS: Things enjoy vogues. All of these publications are trying to balance the cost of doing these reviews against how much they make in the long run.
JF: Dwight Garner came up before we started recording—I really enjoy reading his reviews because there’s a force of intelligence and personality. He shatters the books he likes. And I’m trying to think of others, obviously James Wood, Zadie Smith… Who are the other people in your field?
RS: Definitely Calvin Trillin. And I love historic writing. I mean, I enjoy reading Pete Wells. I don’t know if you get the same problem, but if you’re writing about the subject all the time, you don’t spend as much time reading your peers. You spend more time polishing your prose. I’m almost afraid to read people writing in the same field because they’ll either be better than you, or you’ll be disappointed.
JF: That’s interesting because I probably read more film reviews and food reviews than I do book reviews.
RS: And I read more film reviews and book reviews than food reviews. Partly because food reviewing has crashed in a fundamental certain way. Certain people who are fine writers have just turned into clowns almost. They’re desperate for people to love them. And a great critic doesn’t’ strive for the love of their readers.
JF: I think it’s more the collision of your sense with the sensibility of what you’re eating or what you’re reading.
RS: In England, they just say nasty stuff. It’s a whole different paradigm.
JF: Have you ever thought of making a collection of recent pieces?
RS: I do, but there’s no market for it. In the Voice days I used to do a collection of columns every three or four years, do four editions with various publishers. I’ve had a couple of nibbles, but my most recent venture was working with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. That was just an amazing experience. In my old life as a book packager and those kinds of jobs I worked with Random House and a lot of different publishers, it was a different day back then. It was so slow. But when I did this, it was like, Get this fucking done, really fast, let’s get this out so it can dive bomb. I loved it. That was some of the most fun I’ve had in the last decade, writing a book quickly.
JF: It’s more possible now with the way books are printed and distributed.
RS: It was a year and a half between when the idea first occurred and when the book was ready. And I was accustomed to the earlier days when it took four years. Now they’ve realized, the idea is hot, let’s get this idea out fast. But they’ve burned out a lot of editors.
JF: It’s very stressful. So where are you eating tonight?
RS: I’m going down to the new City Vineyard, which is on the water. I’m doing a series called Summer Places, places where you might want to go in the summer: river views, or where the food is summery, both downscale and some upscale places. This is a midrange place run by the ex-owners of City Winery. It’ll be easy enough.
Do you have to think about how long will it take you to do something? Because the maw of the web must be fed.
JF: I think it was George W. S. Charles, he has a book called In the Context of No Context, and he has this thing called the Memory Hole. And I think the Memory Hole is the web. Because the web constantly needs to be fed. Part of that’s the joy of writing on the web though.
RS: Yeah, it’s ephemeral.
JF: Do your best, have the best reaction you can possibly have to a book or to a meal.
RS: It’s liberating. You don’t have to tarry over which sentence. You write them, and they’re off.