Friday, September 25, 2009

In the Attic with Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni, the former New York Times restaurant critic, is the author of Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, a wonderful and witty account of his lifelong struggle with his weight. He will be talking about his book with Times columnist Maureen Dowd at Politics and Prose in D.C. on September 29 at 7 p.m. Bruni and I talked last week for an article I wrote on him for the Washington Blade. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

What made you decide to put your story down in a book?

It sounds so simple, but I thought I had a story to tell. When I was offered the job of restaurant critic, there was a span of time when I was reflecting on how ironic it was to feel like I could do it. I remember thinking that if my wager is correct and being a restaurant critic doesn’t send me back to a really bad place in terms of bad eating an weight gain, then I should think about at some point writing this story.

I had read many food memoirs on the romance of eating, and I felt there was unmined territory in talking about overeating, which is a big part of a lot of people's lives. In my first year on the job, I would go out to eat with food writers and people connected to food as a profession in the restaurant industry, and people who lived foodie lives were among the most watchful, disciplined, careful eaters. They knew that being around food all the time, if they left themselves go, they would let themselves go. All of us write in such exultant and celebratory ways about eating, restaurants and food, and we coax people to come into restaurants. You have to be disciplined if you want to enjoy food without being undone by it, and I thought that was the book for me to write.

With the Internet making anonymous critiquing harder, and so many bloggers writing about restaurants, what do you think the future of restaurant criticism is?

The real danger to the future of conventional restaurant criticism is an economic danger. Restaurant criticism done the best way, by visiting a restaurant repeatedly, and trying to make a thorough survey of a menu is expensive. This is true for periodicals of any kind, print, online, whatever, to fund a restaurant critic's beat. The future is tied up in how institutions will be able to afford restaurant criticism in the way it should be done.

A lot of stuff on the Internet that is kind of expanding the universe of restaurant criticism isn't really restaurant criticism per se. I'm talking about user generated content on Citysearch or Yelp. You really have no idea who is rendering an opinion or what it's based on. It could be the shilling of a relative of the chef, or your don't know it you're reading someone who got a free comped meal, or you don't know if the person raving about a restaurant had two dishes or ten, or if they went one time or three.

People always ask food writers how they get to do what they do, and how it must be a dream job. Do you think it is?

Yeah, I think absolutely dream job but when you use that phrase for it, it includes the word 'job.' As soon as you make going out to eat a matter of obligation, as opposed to an option, it does take on aspects of being a job. You aren't going out to eat in a purely hedonistic pleasure driven way, you're making a scientific survey. Among those jobs we do, having your job be to go out and eat, sit in restaurants, which are often just wonderful places to be, bring along loved ones and friends to your table, among those things one must do in the course of a job, having to go out to eat is a pleasant one.

You talk in the book about how you've never been much of a cook. Have you been able to improve at all?

I'm just kind of making that effort now. I've never been much of a cook, and in the last five and a half years I haven't improved because I haven't had the occasion to cook. I've been eating out seven nights a week, and if it wasn't seven nights, it was six nights, and on the off night I didn't want dinner to be a long thing that involved lots of cooking, but a quick thing. I have a great appreciation for what makes great food than I did five and a half years ago, and I'm improved over time with exposure to more and more great food.

There are a lot of cities that have great food reputations. What are some off the beaten path cities that you've enjoyed eating in?

I keep wishing I could spend more time in Austin. There's really good, casual Tex Mex, and a couple restaurants that don't get an enormous amount of attention. One is called Hudson's on the Bend, and they serve an array of exotic game, and the other is Fonda San Miguel, which does Mexican food at a level it's not usually done at. They go way beyond guacamole.

You've written about so many different topics for newspapers. Is there one in particular that you find most fulfilling?

It's the variety itself I really like. My little brother has teased me that I don't have a career, I have attention deficient disorder. Journalistically that's correct, and to me the great opportunity and joy of journalism is being able to get into and ping between so many different worlds. I'm lucky enough to be a quick enough study and quick enough writer that I've been able to do that. I think if I had to write about one topic, it would be difficult for me.

So you're going to be writing for the Times magazine next? What are some topics you'd like to cover?

I'm going to be a committed dilettante at the magazine. The job enables me to cover the things I've been interested in over a long span of time — culture, politics, and food, based on what story presents itself at a given time.

Photo credit: Soo-Jeong Kang

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