When eating is a job

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, November 22, 2009

After Thursday's Thanksgiving dinner, when your stomach is groaning from gluttony, take a moment to reflect on Tom Sietsema.

As The Post's food critic, he dines out every evening and dispatches many lunches. In a typical week, he spends 40 hours at restaurant tables devouring a galaxy of gastronomical offerings as research for his Sunday Magazine, Travel and Food section columns.

That's about 80 days a year of nonstop eating. It can include mouth-watering chateaubriand or tasty foie gras. But just as often, it's brick-weight dumplings or soggy salads.

"I eat bad food so you don't have to," said Sietsema, 48, who recently marked a decade as The Post's restaurant critic.

The one-time assistant to legendary Post food critic Phyllis Richman, Sietsema is among the nation's premier food writers. His critiques often praise, but also skewer.

A recent review of Sou'Wester, a new District restaurant by celebrated chef Eric Ziebold, said the kale-and-bean soup would be "fine if it wasn't doubling as a deer lick." A March review of Grace's Mandarin at National Harbor said the service was so bad that if the waiters pool the tips, "in fairness, the customers should get a cut."

That kind of colorful censure has helped Sietsema build a large and loyal audience. His weekly online chats frequently include questions from foodies around the globe.

I called eight restaurants that received negative reviews to ask whether they thought Sietsema had been fair. Most declined to comment. Not surprisingly, two that did were disappointed.

One was Ziebold, who was philosophical. "Was it the review we hoped for? No," he said. But, "I think it was informed criticism." In last month's fall dining guide, Sietsema gave a four-star rave to Ziebold's other restaurant, the upscale CityZen in the District's Mandarin Oriental hotel.

Sometimes his critiques stir controversy. In a Food section preview a year ago, he trashed Commissary, a District eatery near Logan Circle. A subsequent Editor's Note said Sietsema "should have recused himself" because of a prior "personal relationship" with one of the owners. "It was hugely embarrassing for me," Sietsema recalled.

Sietsema never does a Sunday Magazine review without visiting a restaurant multiple times. "I'll go Monday when it's slow, Saturday when it's really busy and then I'll go during lunch," he said. Most times, he dines with several from a "core group" of about 40 people so he can get a broader sampling from the menu.

"They know the drill," he said. "They can't just order what they want." And no special orders. "They have to order food the way it's prepared." The Post covers all costs.

To ensure he doesn't get special treatment, Sietsema is obsessive about anonymity. He's used elaborate disguises in elite restaurants such as the District's Citronelle and the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. He has a dozen aliases and sometimes feigns a foreign accent. Concerned about restaurants using caller ID, he may have friends make the reservation. He has nine credits cards with different names so restaurants can't identify him through receipts. Sometimes he pays cash. He even took acting lessons to alter his physical demeanor. It can help, he said, because "people get used to seeing you in a certain way."

When assessing a restaurant, "food counts for about half" while service and ambiance account for much of the rest. "People don't go to restaurants just for the food," he said. "A lot of times, people are looking for theater, or a place to socialize." He typically notes the architecture and noise level.

There are occupational hazards, such as high cholesterol. Food stains have driven his annual dry-cleaning bill to $700. He controls his weight through exercise and portion control, sometimes salting desserts after a few bites to spoil them.

He strives for each month's reviews to include two District restaurants and one each in Maryland and Virginia, mixing cuisine and price range.

His most expensive recent meal: About $700 for two at the Inn at Little Washington (including a $105 bottle of wine he purchased personally for an anniversary celebration). But most meals are moderately priced. "I have as much fun eating low on the food chain as eating high," he said.

When dining at home, Sietsema said he cooks "simply" for health reasons because "it's the one meal I can control." But he's not above eating fast food, sampling the menu at KFC, Taco Bell, Wendy's or Burger King.

"That's part of the job," he said.

Bon appetit.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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