Should Food Critics Be Anonymous? My Talk with Jonathan Kauffman

This picture of me (left) with Jonathan Kauffman in a San Francisco park would have been unthinkable before May. Here's why:

The anonymous restaurant critic was an innovation of the 1960s, when consumer protection was as fashionable as giggly grass-smoking parties in suburban living rooms, and to our glassy eyes now, about as quaint.

The idea was that nobody dropping money in a restaurant should be treated like they didn't matter, so restaurant critics would pretend to be nobodies and report what happened. Mimi Sheraton was the New York Times’ no-bullshit everyman; Gael Greene and Ruth Reichl wore disguises (though, come on, wouldn’t a lady in sunglasses and a Carol Channing wig provoke more suspicion than she squelched?). But these days, anonymous critics stand a good chance of getting busted, either because Eater or some raging restaurant owner will out them, or else they'll win a Pulitzer and be photographed drinking Champagne from a clowny glass, or because they simply cannot spend a decade as a critic without everybody eventually getting to know their face.

Plus the demands on writers to make money means that sooner or later, tape is gonna roll—ask food and travel writer Brad A. Johnson, the one-time Angeleno critic who's about to host a TV reality show. If you're a younger writer, taking a critic’s job means reverse-engineering a state of official anonymity, prorated from the time you took the gig, marked by swapping out your full-frontal avatar on Twitter for a less revealing one. These days, as Elvis Costello sang on an album called Momofuku that was somehow not about David Chang or Christina Tosi, there is no hiding place.

Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema might be the most famous of the anonymous left standing, but that hasn’t stopped him from getting in front of a camera. Sietsema donned his now-shticky satanic half-mask to cook pasta in this 2010 CHOW video (left), in which he called himself one of the last anonymous restaurant critics “on the face of the Earth.” That sounded sadly post-apocalyptic.

In May, Sietsema's post-apocalypse got a little lonelier, as one of American food writing’s faceless holdouts outed himself. Jonathan Kauffman managed to hold on to his anonymity for more than a decade—Kauffman worked in the Village Voice Media stable as a food writer and critic for more than a decade, has a James Beard medal dangling on a wall somewhere, and like Sietsema, was one of America’s last diligently anonymous critics. His final faceless gig was as critic and staff writer for SF Weekly in San Francisco, where Kauffman and I worked together (before that, I succeeded him as restaurant critic at Oakland-based East Bay Express). Anonymous no more, Kauffman's now San Francisco editor of TastingTable.com, an email newsletter with regional and national editions. He's got a fantastic San Francisco-focused food blog, too.

I invited Kauffman out recently. Over coffee, I asked him if it felt weird to finally reveal his face after more than a decade of paranoia, whether the age of anonymity is truly over, and if anybody outside the industry even cares about an old-fashioned thing like a food critic’s ethics anymore.

Birdsall: So, you swapped out your generic Twitter avatar for a smiling headshot…

Kauffman: That was a strange moment.

Birdsall: Did you feel weirdly naked?

Kauffman: Exposed, yeah.

Birdsall: But did you also feel relieved not to have to hide anymore? The few times I went out to eat with you, before I took over your critic job at the [East Bay] Express, I think I inadvertently blurted out something about food writing—nothing that would ever have busted you, but I think you were really freaked out that I’d somehow exposed you.

Kauffman: (laughs) I totally was paranoid, I know! Kind of ridiculously so, and I would make fun of it myself. Sometimes I feel like that was being megalomaniacal, but other times I look at the fact that I lasted 11 years and I was never outed.

I think there’s always been this tension with being anonymous. I think that anonymity made me a more fearless, honest critic. That doesn't mean it holds true for everyone—there are critics whose faces who are well known who aren't afraid to be brutally honest about a restaurant's failures (in Britain, particularly, where restaurant criticism is a blood sport). But for me, it seemed to be the condition that allowed me to write most frankly—keeping readers, instead of people in the industry, in mind.

Birdsall: But being known—even if it's just having some Facebook photos out there, and not being exactly sure if anybody in a restaurant recognizes you—couldn’t that make you a more responsible critic, in a way? More likely to temper your judgments, since you’d be personally more answerable? Less likely to lob bombs at a restaurant, or deliver cheap shots while hiding behind anonymity?

Kauffman: Sure, if that's the type of person you are, and those are the kinds of checks that are going to keep you fair rather than nasty. Even in the age of Facebook, JPEGs, and critic-busting blogs, what I think is even more important than actual anonymity of the Michelin guide kind is the practice of anonymity: Making reservations and paying under other names, keeping a low profile, not attending public events, keeping personal relationships with restaurant people to a minimum. Restaurant critics often have more in common, interest wise, with industry people than the general public does. We're both insiders in one way or another. But it's easy for those shared interests to feel like alliances, which may sway reviews independently of the actual dining experience.

Birdsall: But the whole job model for a critic changed at some point in the last 10 years—didn’t it?—when the restaurant critic couldn’t just be this purely isolated, purely anonymous writer anymore. They also had to do food journalism, even do their own research for the restaurant review, like calling up to check the hours and staff names. There used to be paid assistants or interns to do stuff like that, but the economics changed.

Kauffman: Well, I always had to have a secondary column, a reported column—that was always part of our responsibilities. So there was a certain amount of reporting I always had to do. I just chose my stories differently so I didn’t have to talk with chefs so I could try and break scoops. That just wasn’t who I was.

Also, frankly, the practice of anonymity can be a marketing tool for a restaurant critic. I certainly have had numbers of people in the industry tell me that my devotion to it earned their respect. Outside the industry, well—whether anonymity has benefited me as a writer in the long run, since many general readers don't pay close attention to bylines, who knows? Guess I'll find out soon enough.

Photo of John Birdsall, left, and Jonathan Kauffman, by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.