After campaigning for one of the last remaining front-row, beachfront property reviewing jobs left in Chicago for most of the past decade, Michael Nagrant is the new food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. The announcement came, bizarrely (and one wonders, possibly a day early by mistake?) in an ad in Thursday's sports section. (An extended version of its text is here.) Nagrant, whose reviews begin today, takes over the post from Pat Bruno, a reviewer who had been a frequent target of Nagrant's.
Among the looseknit group of food freelancers (that includes ourselves), Nagrant long stood out for his devotion to the idea of landing the job of reviewer of record for a major daily newspaper. Although he's written a wide variety of pieces for virtually every food-oriented publication in town (including a guest stint here at Grub Street Chicago), at a time when food writing and opinionating was exploding in every direction, he remained focused on a pre-internet vision of the print restaurant reviewer as the pinnacle of the profession, a trusted expert who owes his readers anonymity, incorruptibility and a vigorous engagement with the food before him.
This has often led him to tangle with other food writers, who don't share his focus on the job of reviewer and are willing to accept comped meals or other forms of insider access in order to gain a better appreciation of the food scene. Many regarded him as insisting on an ethical stance which is a privilege of the well-off unaffordable to working freelancers— or simply irrelevant to the way they cover the scene, as in the case of a frequent sparring partner, Audarshia Townsend, whose site 312 Dining Diva is unabashedly about trends and buzz, not introspective examination of food.
Although Nagrant isn't entirely anonymous to local chefs (he worked on the Alinea cookbook, and conducted a series of podcast chef interviews for Chicago magazine several years ago), he's paid his own way, generally guarded his identity in public and, more importantly in a city where the faces of major reviewers are posted in many kitchens anyway, paid close attention to whether his experience matched that of the paying diners around him.
He also made himself somewhat notorious by going after his predecessor, Pat Bruno, for what he saw as lazy dining and writing. He explained why it offended him when writers fortunate enough to have prestigious posts (and an actual salary) phoned it in, in a dialogue with ourselves on Sky Full of Bacon in 2010:
If there’s anything to learn from This American Life, it’s that the bottom line to everything about life is the story. If you tell a great story you can get away with anything, even reporting on mortgage backed securities or health care reform. Ruth Reichl was a storyteller in everything she did. At her very worst she was still an intrepid discoverer of something previously overlooked by the haute bourgeoisie foodies. That’s why we love her.
That’s what frustrates me so much with Chicago’s major reviewers, Bruno, Vettel, and Dennis Ray Wheaton among others. Their work is a checklist type affair of blow by blow course descriptions punctuated with cheap adjectives. Anatomy of a typical review: Open with joke about noise or hot blondes or history of the chef. Then, start talking about décor. Get annoyed at noise level or server. Finish with an anecdote about dessert...
I appreciate Bruno from say 25 years ago. There was a time when he was actually ferreting out the fringes, the far off Mexican spot or the mom and pop Italian joint that opened in a bad neighborhood. He was actually kind of a treasure in the mid eighties. I don’t know what happened, but at some point he discovered he could collect a paycheck as long as he wanted by doing whatever he wanted and then writing a few bad paragraphs about it and he continues to do so.
What amazes me more than anything is that the organizations don’t demand more of these people.
And now he is one of those people, and Sun-Times readers used to predictable reviews of 20-year-old Italian joints are going to wake up with a jolt to more intense and decidedly more culturally aware writing, and spend their mornings deciphering what it means if your pasta is like Dr. Dre but your sauce is all Mazzy Star. Many of us questioned the career wisdom of taking such potshots at the king, newspapers being large corporations and large corporations rarely having much love for public criticism, so all the more in the way of kudos to Sun-Times food editor Janet Rausa Fuller for being unafraid to bring the gadfly in house and let him loose. We look forward to tumultuous good reading.