Frank Bruni spent a great deal of his career as the New York Times’ chief food critic. In this interview, we dig into the Bruni’s earlier life and his food journey.
Janice Negvesky: What shifted your interest from food to being an op-ed columnist?
Frank Bruni: I became the restaurant critic of the New York Times in 2004, but I’ve worked in journalism since the early 90s/ late 1980s. I worked at the Times for a good nine years before I became the restaurant critic, and in those 9 years I was a religion reporter on the Metropolitan Desk, I was in our San Francisco Bureau for four months, I covered the Bush presidential campaign in 2000, I was a White House correspondent, so the oddity wasn’t me leaving food to do what I’m doing now, the oddity was me going to food.
Tys Sweeny: What brought about that change? Was it something you wanted to do, or was it a new assignment?
Frank Bruni: I’ve done a whole bunch of different things in my journalism life. Before I worked at the New York Times, I worked at the Detroit Free Press, which is sort of a very pale shadow of its former self now. It used to be sort of the New York Times of Michigan; it was the robust morning newspaper of record for the state of Michigan.
When I was at the Detroit Free Press, my last job for them was as the chief movie critic before I came to the Times, so my approach to journalism is […] that I wanted to use it to explore the incredible diversity of interest I have. And I felt like as long as the editors I worked for […] trusted me to take on new things, I would take those chances with myself.
[When] I was in Rome as the New York Times’ Rome Bureau Chief, a job I almost held for two years, the Times was looking for a new restaurant critic. It’s not a job I ever in my life thought of doing. They were unsatisfied with the conventional choices they had, and I basically got a call one day [asking] if I’d be interested in writing a test restaurant review and [being] considered [for the position].
I didn’t think it would go anywhere, but I sort of entered the process, and it turned out that they wanted me to do it. I knew a lot about restaurants and food, so I thought it’d be quite an adventure. If they thought I was up to it, I gave it a shot.
Chriss Liu: As a restaurant critic you’ve probably had a lot of good food and a lot of bad food; can you cook well, and did your job influence that in any way?
Frank Bruni: I wasn’t much of a cook before I took the job, and that’s largely a function of the fact that for many years prior, I lived alone, and when I wasn’t living alone, I was living with someone who had to work full time, and we didn’t have kids. So I had a lifestyle that never really compelled me or encouraged me to cook all that much. When I was a restaurant critic, I mostly ate out 7 nights a week, and if it wasn’t 7 nights, it was 6 nights.
But it did get me more curious about cooking than I had [been] before. It put food in my thoughts in a different way. After I stopped being a restaurant critic, I did begin to cook more.
I’m not an incredibly skilled and accomplished cook, and I don’t have the patience nor the time for it, but I became a much better cook. In February, four-and-a-half months from now, my cookbook is coming out, and it’s an all-meatloaf cookbook.
(Copyright 2016 Janice Negvesky)