I first encountered Frank Bruni when we were both covering George W. Bush’s first presidential race in 1999 and 2000 – he for The New York Times, and me, far less regularly, for Vogue and Newsweek. In his wonderful new memoir, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater, he points out that the campaign coincided with – indeed, contributed to – one of his most overweight periods. But that’s not what I remember about him. I remember a generous, funny, fun-loving colleague who was great company on the road, and always good for a much-needed drink or two at the end of a very long day. Later, after Bush was elected and we both covered his first European tour (I was profiling Condoleezza Rice for Vogue), he seriously saved me. There had been a small dinner with Condi and only three journalists. I was one of them, but the code her press secretary used to issue the secret invitations was so arcane that I somehow missed it. The next day on the plane, Frank walked – and talked – me through every aspect of the evening, quoting Condi’s personal stories almost verbatim so that I could weave the gist of this intimate off-the-record evening into my own story. He was – and is – a complete gent, and when I read about his family in this book, I understand why. Now he is also an extremely svelte gent. I read about that with great interest, too – for few among us haven’t struggled with at least some of the weight and body-image issues that Frank has. Anyway, the book is completely charming, just like its author, so without further adieu, I will let him speak for himself.
JULIA: I have to say, you’ve got a great title and you’ve got a great opener on the very first page: “I was a baby bulimic.” It sounds almost apocalyptic, but I know it’s true. As a toddler, you ate two hamburgers, and when your mother refused you a third, you promptly threw up.
FRANK: The story came from her because, obviously, that’s not something I would remember, since I was 18 months old. That’s why she was so appalled. But she always told that story – I think because she thought it was in equal measures amusing and scary. It was also the moment that she realized she had an extraordinarily big appetite on her hands.
JULIA: When you were little, didn’t that story embarrass the hell out of you?
FRANK: I guess it really did. But it was so, you know, so freakish that it didn’t even seem real.
JULIA: And, as you say, you couldn’t even remember it.
FRANK: You know, it embarrassed me, Julia, but in a weird way it also comforted me because it was like an explanation. I mean, I knew I had a really big appetite and a problem controlling my eating, and when I would hear that story there was part of it that was embarrassing. But there was another part of it that was like, “Well, OK, see? It’s not a failure of will. This is the way I was made.”
JULIA: I totally get it. And your mother sounds very much like mine. I love the part where she is fixing platters of egg salad and tuna salad sandwiches for the guys raking the leaves in the yard.
FRANK: Yeah, my mother loved doing that. She was the consummate hostess.
JULIA: And she sounds completely charming.
FRANK: I was really lucky. With my metabolism, I was not lucky, but with my family I was triply lucky, and it more than made up for it.
JULIA: That comes through so beautifully in the book. But before we get on to your family, I want to go back to your obsessions with food, which were very much like mine as a kid. I, too, like Snickers over Three Musketeers – and then there’s that satisfying sound you describe when you snap off those pieces of the Kit Kat bar.
FRANK: And don’t you remember having very definite opinions about the relative merits of candy bars? It wasn’t a meaningless thing.
JULIA: No. A Reese’s Cup for me was serious nirvana.
FRANK: I was just saying the other day when I was eating something in the vein of a Reese’s Cup – a restaurant version, I think. I was saying that it is really not acceptable that we have national holidays where we pause to celebrate Washington and Lincoln, but we don’t pause to celebrate whoever put peanut butter and chocolate together for the first time. I mean, that’s a national holiday I would really get behind.
JULIA: Me, too. And I too have had many haute versions of the Reese’s Cup, but I don’t really think you can improve on the real thing.
FRANK: You really can’t. And now I remember what I was eating: a really good supermarket brand called Hood. It was their version of classic peanut butter/chocolate ice cream – chocolate with those thick veins of peanut butter marbled through. And it was a really, really good iteration of it, and as I got one of those peanut butter hard parts in my mouth, I just thought, “We really need a national holiday.”
JULIA: I’m with ya, honey. Where did this experience take place?
FRANK: Actually this was classic. This was a dinner with my Uncle Mario and Aunt Carolyn and it was so funny because just by happenstance it was the weekend before the book came out. And my aunt and uncle are in the book, as are all my relatives, and it was just a classic Bruni experience. I was going to see them with my boyfriend, and they were going to be traveling that day so I was emphatic. I said, “Listen, we are going to bring food. I’m not going to cook because that’s a scary thought” – and it should be, because I’m a horrible cook! But I said, “I’m going to bring plenty of food.” And I got two roast chickens, two pounds of baby back ribs. I had butternut squash … and I made it really clear: “For once, don’t worry about it.” I got there and they had rearranged their schedule so that they weren’t just coming in, and my aunt had an enormous crudités platter with blue-cheese dip; she had baked some brie and she had all these crackers; she had several bowls of almonds; she had a big platter of barbecued shrimp – and that was just the appetizers. Then she had salmon, and then they had like 13 quarts of different flavor ice cream. And I was like, “Which part of ‘I’m bringing the food’ did you not understand?”
JULIA: Well, having read about your family, that sounds like something they would make if they thought somebody WAS bringing the food.
FRANK: It’s true – they were actually apologetic. They were saying to my boyfriend, “I’m so sorry we didn’t have time to throw something better together,” and he was just looking at all this like we were insane. And I said, “OK, now you see. Now you see that you’re very lucky you’re not looking at a much, much rounder version of me right now.”
JULIA: The descriptions of the family feasts are just amazing. And your grandmother – now we know why there is the stereotype of the Italian grandmother who presses food upon you and then is shattered if you turn it down.
FRANK: Oh, yeah. It’s very real … I was lucky she didn’t die young. I mean I would have had her die at 150 if possible, but through high school, through college she was around. And it was so much fun to bring friends home to see her because she was so archetypically, stereotypically southern Italian. In their eyes, it was as if she stepped right out of a Ronzoni commercial. She was straight from central casting, down to the big boobs and everything.
JULIA: But she was short, right? Little bitty?
FRANK: She was about four-eleven.
JULIA: One of my favorite lines – and you have a lot of great lines – was something like, “She was four-eleven, but if she had just gone to the hairdresser she could be five-three.”
FRANK: What aging Italian woman doesn’t love a nice updo, you know?
JULIA: In addition to the feasts, there are the fads. Your mother again reminded me of mine with all the fad diets that we all went on. I first went on Atkins, I think, when I was 12 or 13, copying my mother, so I’m right there with you. And you mention the sugar-free Jell-O and the Diet Center and the cases of Tab and Fresca – I hadn’t thought of Fresca in years.
FRANK: I still miss Fresca. I think they make it, but it’s not that easy to find.
JULIA: You mention all those touchstones of growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, like we did. And nobody really exercised. My mother had a friend with one of those machines where you just strapped yourself in and it shook you. And people believed it worked.
FRANK: I loved that machine because it’s just absurd on the face of it – the notion that something could just jiggle your fat away, and all you had to do was stand there, like you could almost smoke a cigarette.
JULIA: Unless they played sports, people didn’t just go out and exercise that hard and that aerobically that regularly.
FRANK: You’re definitely right. Right now, flashing in my mind, is the Jane Fonda video, the Jamie Lee Curtis movie “Perfect” – that era. There was some sort of fundamental pivot where, all of the sudden, people realized, “Wait a second. If you really, really want to be fit, you’ve gotta sweat.”
JULIA: And it really was not that way when we were kids. I mean, you might eat like crazy, but then you’d be drinking Fresca and eating crackers for a week and a half to get over it.
FRANK: Exactly. My mom was big on air popcorn, and nothing to me is as revolting as air-popped popcorn. It has no taste. You might as well eat the Styrofoam packing chips from a crate.
JULIA: Well, the feasts certainly are more colorful in your book than the fasts. I totally love the description of Thanksgiving in your house, from the preparation “countdown” to “the 30-minute pause.” Tell our readers a bit about it.
FRANK: From the moment people sat down at the table until the moment they got up was at least six hours. There was so much food to get through in so many courses. And there was this seemingly inviolable rule that the table could never not have food on it. So, what would be considered a pause would be right after they’d cleared away all of the main-course-type dishes, and they would put out all these fruits and nuts because, while you were decompressing and trying to make some space for dessert, you still had to have something to eat.
JULIA: And God forbid there was a blank table.
FRANK: The ethic was that if somebody literally had the impulse to reach for a morsel of food, and it wasn’t instantly available, then you had utterly, utterly failed as a host or hostess.
JULIA: I just loved the portion planning – the dilemma over “what if everybody wants white meat and no one wants dark meat?” which was solved by having twice as much of both as necessary.
FRANK: There was none of that “but children are starving in Africa” philosophy. Waste was fine. What was not acceptable was running out. If you only had one yam left over, it meant somebody had gone to take that last yam and had seen there was only one and had turned back. So you had to have 20 yams left over because that was the only assurance that everybody had taken as many yams as they wanted.
JULIA: It sounds like everybody in your family, at least a little bit, was dealing with the same kind of weight yo-yo thing that you did – but maybe not as intensely.
FRANK: Early in her life my sister dealt with it I think nearly as intensely as I did. My approach to the book wasn’t academic; my writing wasn’t in that vein. But I have to believe – from what reading I have done and from what anecdotal information I have from just looking at the world around me – I have to believe that one of the reasons my sister and I had a tougher time with this than my brothers did is because, I think, there is a difference when it comes to women and gay men and body image versus straight men. I think everybody in my family had a larger-than-usual appetite. I think I, and maybe my sister, have particularly large appetites, and then I think we had a kind of different feeling of ourselves in the world because of just … matters of identity. I think we were prey to anxieties that manifested themselves through overeating at some times, or over-dieting at other times.
JULIA: Well, I can certainly speak as a woman, and I have had so many moments of feeling the same as you did, wearing the oversized windbreaker, or when you went on one of your first dates at UNC and you wouldn’t take your coat off even though you were sweating. Or when you would run from the pool to your locker. I have so been there. I was never the girl that preened in the bathing suit, believe me.
FRANK: I think a lot of people have been there to varying degrees. My story is extreme. The average person doesn’t throw up his or her meals. And I’m fortunate – I only did that for a period of about six to eight months. The average person doesn’t invent as many stupid diets for himself or herself as I did. But I think all of those things that I write about in the book are extreme versions of something that the average person does go through, especially in this country, which is a land of plenty and has all these messages of “bigger is better” and all-you-can-eat buffet and that sort of thing. And that is what I think the average person struggles to integrate – a love of food and a joy in eating with weight management and good health. I think my story is just a sort of crazy funhouse mirror held up to that very common challenge and struggle.
JULIA: I do too, and I think that’s why it’s going to strike such a chord. I think the other thing that you deal with so beautifully is the death of your mother right after a Thanksgiving meal. It was almost like she willed herself to get through that last family feast. It was so touching. You talk about it so movingly, but you do it very unsentimentally. I couldn’t help but think of the irony of her dying right after Thanksgiving, which is when she finally gave in.
FRANK: Yes. And I think it was not accidental. I think once she pulled within shouting distance, so to speak, of that Thanksgiving, she was going to last as long as that. And there was also the birth of another grandchild, and I think she wanted to live to see that. I’m really happy that you found the part about my mom moving. One of the motivations – in terms of deciding to write this book and in terms of getting through it – one of the motivations was that this particular story afforded such a great opportunity to pay tribute to my grandmother and my mother. And it pleases me and moves me almost to tears when people who have read the book say, “Oh, I wish I’d met your grandmother,” or, “I wish I’d met your mother.” Because I really did want people, when they put down this book, to remember those two women. I wanted this book, even if just 100 people read it, to be some sort of lasting tribute to them.
JULIA: Well, you definitely accomplished that. As much as I would have adored meeting your grandmother – and certainly eating her food – I really, really liked your mother. I just knew her immediately after the first few pages. And I loved the way she handled finding out that you were gay. She reads a letter of yours and then lets you know that she knows, but then says, “For God’s sake, don’t tell anybody else in the family.” And then she proceeds to tell everybody else in the family.
FRANK: That’s right. That was my mother in a nutshell. That was the perfect and imperfect of my mother in a nutshell. She was a total control freak and that was part of what was going on there. But she also really wanted to navigate it for me; I think the impulse there, more than controlling everything, was just about her form of caretaking. She wanted this to go smoothly; she didn’t want me to have my feelings hurt, so she was going to be the one to take it upon herself to tell and to coach everybody to the right place.
JULIA: And she even tries to get you a date when she comes to visit you in college.
FRANK: In so many ways I’m a really lucky person. Once she kind of wrapped her mind around the fact that I was gay and that I wasn’t going to have a life that conformed to her exact expectations, she just kind of got right on board and found it sort of exciting, you know, to have this adventure in her life. That’s the way she was. I mean, she wasn’t going to waste an opportunity for some fun and some new experiences. So she was constantly scoping guys out, pointing, “Do you think he’s cute?” It was almost like a little secret conspiracy she could have with me.
JULIA: You were indeed lucky.
FRANK: Oh, yeah. When you’re gay, a lot of people ask you, just as a matter of course, “Was it hard to accept the fact that you were gay? Did you hesitate before telling people? Did you have a traumatic time with your family?” And I always say my realizing I was gay and owning up to it and talking about it was always very easy. And I think it’s because even before my mother did these things, I could just tell that she was the kind of person and the kind of extraordinarily loving parent who was not going to have this become any sort of division between her and me. And I kind of knew that with her on board, everything would be OK.
JULIA: The chapter that also rang true with me was your description of the Bush campaign, the constant waiting and eating and drinking that is part of the landscape of every campaign.
FRANK: I think if you are someone who is prone to excess eating, absentminded eating or nervous eating, a campaign is the perfect storm. I mean it’s just the worst thing that can happen to you. And I was well on my way to a personal apogee before I got on that plane. But once I did get on, and had to stay on it for a year – I mean, that was just a disaster for me.
JULIA: You have to be extraordinarily disciplined, and you have to already be well into some kind of exercise routine – like running – that you can do anywhere. The food is always there. And then of course, there is the requisite blowing off of steam in the hotel bars.
FRANK: Now, knowing the cost of all that eating, and knowing how particularly dangerous that eating is because it’s in a context where it’s difficult to find time to exercise, I think if I did another campaign I would be able to avoid the food. I think I would just literally kind of put blinders over my eyes. The drinking, I don’t think I could get through the campaign without. I think if I do another campaign, I’m just going to reserve my calories for the alcohol.
JULIA: It was after that campaign that you realized you were going to have to work at it. You write that Maureen Dowd very sweetly wrote you a check and said, “Here’s two sessions with my trainer,” which ended up being a very thoughtful thing to do.
FRANK: That was tough love at its best.
JULIA: And so you found the trainer and you’re still a gym junkie now, right?
FRANK: Yes. You know, lately I’ve been having a little more trouble with it, just because everything gets a little boring. So I’ve realized I’ve got to come up with a new routine, because I think it’s really, really important as the years go by to keep on changing things just enough to keep them interesting. I’m still doing strength training. I’m still running. But I’m just about at the end of one of my Pilates packages, and I think I’m going to move on – not because it’s not great, but because I pause frequently and say to myself, “Well, what have I learned? And let’s make sure I apply what I learn.” Being very fat, which I was when you knew me first, isn’t the worst thing in the world, and for a lot of people, it isn’t necessarily a recipe for unhappiness. But it made me really unhappy. I was a miserable overweight person, and so for me it was important, and remains important, not to be. Because I live a fuller, happier life when I move through the world with less weight on my legs and with less weight on my conscience. For me, exercise is crucial. I’ve never been in one of my trimmer phases when I wasn’t exercising heavily. I’ve never been able to control my weight solely through the amount of eating I do. So I think long and hard all the time about how to vary routines or change routines so that I don’t stop exercising.
JULIA: So what do you think is going to be next after you give up the Pilates?
FRANK: I’m 44 now, and it used to be that the difference between running ten miles a week and running 30 miles a week was simply a matter of will. Now – and God, this is going to make me sound really old – when I go above 12 miles a week, my knee hurts or my ankle hurts or my hip hurts. So I’m at that moment where I’ve got to start thinking longer and harder about impact. I think I’m going to try to get over my bad memories of all those laps in the pool [Bruni was a competitive swimmer in junior high school] and get back to some fairly serious swimming, because that really is kinder to the body than a lot of the other exercises we do.
JULIA: In the book, you describe how anxious swimming made you because there was so much pressure when you first started – you were so naturally good at it that everybody immediately began envisioning you as the next Olympic champion. Was there ever a moment when you just enjoyed being in the water?
FRANK: I was away twice this summer for beach vacations, just by happenstance – and, in terms of how completely one does or doesn’t heal, I don’t ever think I will find joy in walking around in a bathing suit in front of other people. That’s a degree of comfort and content with my own body that I’ll never have. But I have kind of been reacquainted with it recently, which is one of the reasons swimming is on my mind. I’m graceful in the water. I’ve always moved through the water with ease, and it’s a lovely, lovely sensation. I just need to focus on that when I’m doing laps and not hearken back to a time when I had to do four hours a day and it felt like calculus homework.
JULIA: The other “Aha!” moment in the book, in terms of your weight, is when you were in Italy as The New York Times’s Rome bureau chief, and you figure out that the European secret is not smoking or red wine but simply that they just don’t eat as much as we do. They savor a meal slowly over lots of small courses – they don’t wolf down huge portions. It’s not like your Italian grandmother, who has moved onto the new country and is now laying pounds of pasta on you.
FRANK: I know. Hasn’t it always struck you that if you really look closely at these people in these foodie paradises, they don’t dive into food in the same gluttonous way that Americans almost seem exhorted to do by the value-pack and the super-size meal and the Big Gulp at 7-Eleven? It’s that concept that the most joyous eating is the most voluminous eating. And that’s a concept that doesn’t exist in the western European countries we’re talking about. And I really do think that’s the biggest difference. It’s not that they walk everywhere. No, they don’t. They hop on their mopeds. The truth is they just don’t eat as much.
JULIA: And that is what you figured out how to do. I saw you in a TV interview where you said you finally had to stop being afraid of food. Before, to be healthy, you felt like you just had to push it completely away. But now you’re sort of in the European zone where you can integrate it into a healthy, happy life.
FRANK: I think my problem in the past – and I think some people probably share this – is that I was so afraid of how I would behave in the face of fattening or delicious food that I would try to banish it entirely. And the sense of deprivation would build up into this sense of undue sacrifice. And then the next thing I know, some combination of feeling victimized by my own self-denial and low blood sugar would lead to these epic binges that were just … I mean, it still amazes me, looking back, how much I could fit in my stomach when I used to fall into one of these patterns. I still have those nights when I allow myself to eat way more than a person should. But I don’t have binges like that ever anymore.
JULIA: So you can allow yourself a Kit Kat bar?
FRANK: Oh sure. Absolutely. If you have a psychology where the only way to stay slim or to get slim is to utterly, utterly, utterly go without, I think you are setting the bar so high you’re going to fall way short. And when you fall short, you’re going to fall short in a way where you feel so deprived and so hungry that you’re going to go way, way off the rails. And I’ve just kind of learned what standard of moderation I can and can’t hold myself to, and I don’t let myself set the bar anywhere where I’m bound to fail, and to fail spectacularly.
JULIA: Well, what I love about this book is that it’s such a journey, and so many of us have been on it in one form or another. And it is also a loving and lovely portrait of a family. What I particularly like about it is that it is a memoir by and large about food, but unlike most people who write about food, you don’t, as I heard you say once yourself, write about “dreamily falling into a cloud of arugula.”
FRANK: Well yeah, and I think the vast majority of people who write frequently about food are not graced with perfect metabolisms either. They have to some extent struggled to find a way to indulge this passion without being completely undone by it. And that delicate art and that tall, tall challenge weren’t reflected in any of the memoirs I’ve read.
JULIA: You’re right. If it’s the case with other writers, they certainly don’t talk about it.
FRANK: No, and I think there’s a reason, because when people turn to books about food, they want to have a kind of joyous, vicarious adventure and I think they want to celebrate food. My challenge in this book – and I have no idea whether I rose to it or not – was to frankly discuss all of those issues and nonetheless still seem to be celebrating food, which in my own life I do celebrate. I took great heart when I was doing that horrible thing all of us authors have to do, trawling for blurbs. And one came in from Tom Perrotta, whom I really admire, and he said, “This book makes you laugh and it makes you hungry.” And I thought, “Well that’s exactly what I’d hoped.” I wanted somehow to admit to that short period of bulimia, admit to ridiculous fasts and an amazing amount of self-punishment – and yet still make you hungry. Because at the end of the day, food managed correctly is one of life’s greatest sources of joy.
JULIA: That totally came through. I mean, the fact that you overcame your struggles helps us understand that we all can. At the end of the book, you also talk about your tenure as restaurant critic at the Times. I will absolutely miss you in that job, by the way. Not only did you really know what you were talking about, there was such wit and such passion to your reviews. But when you were offered the job, even though you already had your weight well in hand, there must have been a bit of fear, no?
FRANK: I had a tiny bit of fear. I mean, I have a tiny bit of fear as I’m talking to you right now – that here I am holding myself up as someone who has managed a healthy relationship with food, and now I’ll go gain 20 pounds and look horrible and people will say, “Who the hell is he to say …?”
JULIA: Oh, stop …
FRANK: You know what I mean? I don’t get on the scales, but I’m probably ten pounds heavier than I was a year ago, just by happenstance. You know, some of it is just aging. But one of the things I don’t do anymore is freak out about it. If it becomes more than that, more than ten, then I get a little bit more concerned. But, yeah, I had a tiny bit of fear, but I also had a strong hunch that tethering myself to a constant eating schedule would actually be healthy for me. Because where I’d always gone wrong was the extreme swings between excess and deprivation. And I just kind of felt in my gut, if you’ll pardon the phrase, that this was going to be a very right thing. And I just … I had confidence in that.
JULIA: How many years were you the critic?
FRANK: It’s been five and a quarter years.
JULIA: Wow. Did you love it?
FRANK: I loved it, yes. But at the end of the day it’s a job, and one of the reasons I’m leaving it now – or one of the reasons I timed a book to come out now, knowing that I would have to leave the job when the book came out – is because five years is a long time to be tethered to a schedule of dining out for a minimum of six meals a week. And I don’t mean that as a matter of calories, I mean that as a matter of …
JULIA: Having a life.
FRANK: Yes, having a life and some flexibility. It became – as a scheduling matter, as a social matter – grueling over time. But the ability to eat such a variety of great food on somebody else’s dime, to be honest, and the ability to bring along friends and loved ones for the adventure, I mean that’s … I grew up in a family that was so generous and so that impulse toward generosity is bred in me. And being able to carry so many other people in your life along to an experience they had a lot of fun with as much as I did, that’s really been cool. Very few of us have jobs where we can invite our social mates and our family members into the job with us in a way that’s going to bring them as much happiness.
JULIA: The hardest part must have been the ridiculous lengths to which you had to go to hide your identity. I did not know until I read the book that my very good friend, the great hairdresser John Barrett [of the John Barrett Salon on top of Bergdorf Goodman] outfitted you in a ludicrous wig to go to one restaurant. I mean you must have felt like a crazy person half the time trying to hide.
FRANK: Um, I did. There were a few times when I had to resort to disguising myself, and I didn’t do that too often because it felt so foolish. I mean, I had John put me in, I think, two different wigs, and I remember my scalp was sweating; I couldn’t pass a mirror without looking and laughing. And I just thought it was the most ridiculous thing in the world. And in the end, I don’t recommend disguises for restaurant critics, because you become so distracted by your own ludicrous disguise, you barely remember whether you had corn chowder or gazpacho.
JULIA: Right. I was thinking that you couldn’t possibly concentrate fully on the food.
FRANK: No. I don’t think you can, unless you’re a born performer. I have many talents and many shortcomings, but I’m not an actor.
JULIA: You write that Le Bernardin’s brilliant chef, Eric Ripert, directed his staff to find television footage of you.
FRANK: Oh, yeah. Le Bernardin recognized me the very first time I walked in. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I put this particular anecdote in the book, but I think it was in my first year as restaurant critic, when I first went to Le Bernardin in that context, and oddly enough it was Christmas Eve. I had this one Christmas Eve where, because of various odd family permutations, I was atypically alone on Christmas Eve.
JULIA: Well, for the readers’ sakes, I should interrupt here and say that your grandmother used to make seven fishes on Christmas Eve, so at Le Bernardin you would have been having a very haute version of the seven fishes.
FRANK: Yes. I hadn’t thought about that … So a friend and I went to Le Bernardin and someone immediately recognized me and must have immediately told Ripert. We hadn’t even gotten our appetizers and he bounded up to the table. No other restaurateur or chef ever took this approach. He said, “I just want you to know, I know who you are. I’m honored that you’re in my restaurant tonight and I hope you have a nice time.”
JULIA: What I find phenomenal about this story so far is that Eric was in the kitchen on Christmas Eve.
FRANK: Well, you know, I have my suspicions that he wasn’t … this was about 35 minutes after we arrived, and one of the things I learned through the grapevine is that if a restaurant staff spotted a prominent critic in house, and the chef was in town, they immediately got on the phone and the chef showed – and the chef made a point of bounding through the dining room. The chef’s there not only to make sure the food’s right, the chef wants to send a visual signal to the critic – “I’m never at rest. I’m always here manning the stove.”
JULIA: Well, did you like his direct approach or not?
FRANK: I preferred not. I never penalized anybody for it and I now know that Eric … I know from mutual friends we have that as he waited for his first review from me, he wrung his hands a lot about whether he had hurt himself by doing that, and whether it would be reflected in the review. I would never have let something like that factor into a review. But I did prefer it, just as a kind of dining matter, when we both kept a wall up and I pretended not to know. I pretended not to know that I knew they knew I was there, and they pretended not to know that I was there. There’s a nice little moat, then, that I think is appropriate between the critic and the criticized.
JULIA: How many stars did you end up giving Le Bernardin?
FRANK: Oh, four. I think it’s one of the most reliable, fantastic restaurants in the city.
JULIA: I know you have to go, but please, will you spill some of your other favorite spots?
FRANK: If I had all the money in the world I would dine once a week at Masa [the sushi sanctuary in the Time Warner Center] and I’m assuming that it’s as good as it was four years ago. I love Japanese food in general. I love the whole sushi and sashimi tangent of Japanese food, in particular. And Masa is as great as that experience gets. I mean, having your sushi made for you a piece at a time by someone who’s waiting for you to swallow one piece before he cuts another and scoops the rice from the temperature controlled —
JULIA: You’re killing me, Frank!
FRANK: It’s just amazing. I just frigging love, love, love that. But in a more casual vein, I like going to this restaurant on Elizabeth Street called Peasant. I would never say it’s one of the best Italian restaurants in the city, or even close – but I’m just always happy there. It’s got a wood-burning stove, and the right dishes come out of it really well. It’s got a sort of industrial feel. It’s just a great place to let your hair down. And I love eating either Mario Batali’s or Michael White’s pastas … you know, when you have as many index cards as a critic does, it becomes really hard to dabble in favorites.
JULIA: I can’t imagine.
FRANK: It ends up being about a particular mood. One of the big flaws of restaurant criticism at the end of the day is that it rightly concerns itself with the intrinsic merits of a place. But I’ll frequently prefer, on a given night, if I’m on my own time and all that, to go to a one-star restaurant than a two-star restaurant because it just may intersect more neatly and tidily with my mood. And that’s the way a lot of people make their dining decisions.
JULIA: I think so. One of the things you did on your watch was pick the ten best new restaurants in the country, year before last, I think.
FRANK: That was fun.
JULIA: You chose Cochon in New Orleans, so you’ll have to come back down and eat here again. There’s a new place behind Cochon called Butcher that will rock your world.
FRANK: Oh, I love Cochon. If it were in New York I’d be there all the time. I love Momofuku Ssam Bar here – it’s another local favorite of mine. And while the cuisines are actually very different – except that both are pork obsessed – those restaurants feel very much of a piece to me. They have the same ethos.
JULIA: They really do. And everyone who has read you knows your abiding appreciation for pork products – which I share! So, now that you are set free from your six-night-a-week dining schedule, please come visit us in New Orleans. In the meantime, good luck on the book tour. I’m sure it will be a huge success.