So long, anonymity -- it's been swell. For nearly ten years now, I have done my job incognito. Now I am joining the ranks of no-longer-anonymous restaurant critics. Last Friday, I gave a lecture to the students and faculty of the Texas A&M Meat Science Center without the usual hat and sunglasses. I didn't wear a disguise on Sunday when I appeared at the Texas Book Festival either. Soon you will be able to Google grainy photos of me to your heart's content. I also have given my publishers an author's photo to use for publicity.
Jason Sheehan, the critic for our sister paper, the Denver Westword, also appeared at the book festival in Austin on Sunday. Sheehan's photo appears on the back flap of his new book Cooking Dirty. For good measure, he also published his photo on Westword's food blog. "No one ever recognizes me anyway," Sheehan told me at the book fair. Since he shed his anonymity, Jonathan Gold, who reviews restaurants for our sister paper the LA Weekly, said he has "noticed absolutely no difference in being recognized in restaurants. None. Zero."
In an article by Regina Schrambling called "Restaurant Critics Are Blowing Their Own Covers," some media wags contended that the whole idea of anonymity is dated and faintly ridiculous in the Internet age. According to the article, any prominent reviewer who thinks he isn't already being recognized at high-end restaurants is fooling himself.
The ethical guidelines shifted in August when Sam Sifton took over as the restaurant critic for the New York Times. Everybody already knew what Sam Sifton looked like, and his photo was ubiquitous. When asked about Sifton's lack of anonymity, NYT executive editor Bill Keller said the previous critic, Frank Bruni, wasn't really all that anonymous either and, for all her disguises, neither was Ruth Reichl. Thanks to cell phone cameras and Google, anonymity just isn't possible anymore. Keller concluded that he wasn't losing a lot of sleep over it. And so the anonymous restaurant critic went the way of the dinosaur.
But I didn't decide to ditch my anonymity just because everybody else was doing it. The fact is, my job is changing. I was hired as a newspaper restaurant critic and feature writer. Today I am, first and foremost, a blogger. It's a little ludicrous to try and maintain your anonymity while you are photographing your plate. And sometimes you need to identify yourself to get a interview. The time has come to adjust to fit my new job description.
None of this is going to make any difference at most of the ethnic mom and pops, taco trucks, and hole-in-the-wall burger joints I review. I won't be making reservations at high-end restaurants under my own name or otherwise calling attention to myself either. And I won't be hanging out with chefs or judging any Chowhound throw-downs, as much as I would like to. It's business as usual, more or less.
I just won't be fooling myself anymore.