Sam Sifton’s Golden Ears and Million Dollar Taste Buds

Photographer John Francis Peters
June 29, 2010 is obsessed with Sam Sifton. The still semi-new New York Times food critic has been gleefully stalked by the website as though he were a rare bird. Sifton's writing has an occasionally dramatic flair that has both riled and inspired heavy foodies, though it's also inspired a lot of 25 cent ramen gobblers to open up the Dining section. We fall somewhere in between. Aside from peppering his writing with zest (sorry), as Eater has noted, Sifton loves music, which is another of the reasons we love reading—even when he's writing about restaurants at which we will never be classy enough to dine. Take a look at Eater's collection of Sifton's greatest music references and after the jump read our interview with New York's most important eater from issue 67.

There are only two photos of Sam Sifton available online. The rest were removed last October, just before he was introduced as the new New York Times Chief Restaurant Critic. In order to ensure they receive no preferential treatment, restaurant critics must be faceless, anonymous visitors at restaurants varied not only in choice of food, but in price, patron and attitude. Sifton is a longtime newspaperman, and his acute
attention to New York’s very mixed organs makes his reviews more than just toasts to a multicultural city. One of his first was of La Grenouille, a 47-year-old French institution. He was loving in his description of the restaurant, alternately minutely detailed and broad in scope, as though setting the scene for a play in the dining room. All of Sifton’s reviews utilize this same delicacy, restaurants being the perfect medium for him to write the narrative of a very diverse city.

Your La Grenouille review read like a short story. Half of it was not even about food.
Well, half of what we go to restaurants for is not even about food. Restaurants are theater, restaurants are tribal, restaurants are about theme, restaurants are about experience, and at their best, they’re about all those things at once. At Grenouille, they’re all of those things at once. What I like about that restaurant is that it is like a short story. You walk in the door and there are prostitutes there, there are priests there, there are rich people there, there are somewhat less than rich people there. There are no poor people there, I presume it’s too expensive. But that’s okay, I’ll hit the poor people later, I’ll go to their restaurant later.

The concept of authenticity often pops up in your writing. Is that conscious?
We never have these debates about European cooking. There’s never any question about whether Daniel Boulud is cooking authentic Lyonnaise food. He’s not. He’s making his food. It’s informed by his childhood in Lyon and by his experience as a chef. We never get tied up in whether Whitey McEuropean is making authentic Whitey McEuropean food. It comes up all the time with so-called “ethnic cuisine” and I think that’s really, really unfortunate. Tanoreen [Brooklyn Middle Eastern restaurant]—it’s not like [chef Rawia Bishara] is doing something completely off the charts that is not Middle Eastern. It’s within that for certain. But I did want to make the point—if not explicitly then implicitly—that it’s good. That’s the point. It’s really quite excellent and you should go there. The same is true of music, particularly in the rap world, which is obsessed with questions of authenticity. And does it matter? Probably less than we think.

There are simple sentences that pop up regularly in your writing like, The food was very good, which is how regular people speak about eating.
That’s short hand. You need to take three paragraphs that follow “the food was very good” to explain what you mean by that. The uni tasted like this. The carrots tasted like that. That thesis statement, “The food was very good,” leads to a lot of abusive adjectives. Adjectives are the death of the food writer, right? But, “The crowd was amazing,” I mean that in the literal sense. There is literally a priest right there. There is literally a prostitute right there. There is literally a businessman whose name you would recognize right there. I just find the juxtaposition of those things to almost take the breath away.

You’ve reviewed a very diverse array of restaurants since you began.
Yeah, I mean some of that is because the economy is not so great and there are not a ton of restaurants opening. That said, there are what, 15,000 restaurants in New York City? And of those 15,000, you want to go back and look at some of them and you want to know, is someone resting on his laurels? Has someone been forgotten about? How is that place, anyway? What is the real experience of eating out in New York City in 2010? I’m trying to do a little bit of re-reviewing, a little bit of new reviewing, a little bit of—not of advocacy, but of seeing the city the way the city really is, as more than just the island of Manhattan.

Is there ever a time when you eat at a restaurant and you are like, “Oh shit, this is good,” and then know it’s going to cause a stir when you write that it’s really good?
Listen, you’ve got to trust your gut, man. I don’t mean to be a dick about it, it’s just like, they pay me for my opinion. If I think it’s pretty good, it’s probably pretty good.

Sam Sifton’s Golden Ears and Million Dollar Taste Buds