Meet Mike Sutter, Fed Man Walking
These are glory days for the Austin restaurant congregation. Food & Wine magazine, Bon Appetit, "Top Chef." They've all joined the hallelujah chorus. In the middle of all that, I took a buyout and left my job as the restaurant critic for the American-Statesman in June. What am I, crazy or something? To answer that, I'll respond to three questions I'd ask somebody in my position, the same kind I asked New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni when he changed jobs in 2009. — Mike Sutter
► Why would you ever leave that job?
You mean why would I leave a job as the restaurant critic in one of the country's most explosive restaurant markets? It came down to money and opportunity. In an industry not known for its generosity, the Statesman's buyout offer meant we could afford a college tuition contract for my youngest daughter. I miss being at the paper though, and not just for the 500 places I ate in the past three years. For 25 years, the Statesman was a badge of identity for me. I was proud to be a part of it. In my dreams, I'm still in the office trying to file that one last story. What's my deadline for that?
► What's next?
When the news of the buyout offers broke in June, a friend approached me with a business proposition: Let's build a website around what you do. Fed Man Walking was born. The name came to me a few years ago when a waiter saw me taking pictures of my food, something every third table does these days. "I've got an online thing," I said. "It's called Fed Man Walking." It popped into my head fully formed, like a clip from "The Green Mile."
With FedManWalking.com, I'll keep doing what I did for the Statesman: restaurant reviews, interviews, theme stories and news. Not a blog, but food journalism, with the same standards I practiced at the newspaper. If you have a blog and you're comfortable with that word, I respect that. But "blog" always sounded like a gag reflex to me.
► Will you remain anonymous?
The video answers that question. No, and I thought I'd be taller in real life. Does this mean I'm going to announce myself like a guest at the royal wedding? No. I'll make reservations under fake names, pay with suspicious credit cards, wear Clark Kent glasses and speak in European accents. Badly. I won't accept free meals, handouts or special treatment. I'll write the same review whether they know me or not.
The point is, I'll keep a low profile when I'm reviewing — and believe me, most places are too busy making a living to care whether a critic walks through the door. The ones who do care? Maybe I'll get better service if they spot me, but they can't suddenly have better produce.
On the other hand, now maybe they won't seat me at all. That's the lesson I took away from what happened to L.A. Times critic S. Irene Virbila. In December, a restaurant owner took her picture and kicked her out. When he posted the photo, he shot down 16 years of relative anonymity. Bloggers and aggregators fell on the story like leeches. Anonymity is the way we equalize the restaurant experience, to give people a sense of how they might be treated. But anonymity is a non-renewable resource. When it's gone, it's gone. I wanted to break cover on my own terms.
That cover's been broken before, really, in smaller ways. The circle of restaurants where a critic's identity matters is a small one, and the most vigilant. The resourceful ones have already figured out who I am, through friends in the business, by the number of times I ate there, by the kind of food I ordered, by the covert food photos I took and from that one and only time I used my own credit card. That guy sat right down at our table. When people know who you are — but you still think you're anonymous — what do you call that? Unanymous? Nononymous?
The best stories I wrote for the Statesman came from looking people in the eye. When I couldn't get Larry McGuire on the phone to talk about Perla's, I showed up at his other restaurant one morning. Because of that, I got to ride with him to meet with a menu designer. When Annies Cafe and Bar was a dusty shell, I walked in while owners Love Nance and Sherry Jameson were interviewing a chef candidate. They let me sit in.
I took Uchiko chef Paul Qui to lunch and watched him make spring rolls from a whole fried catfish at Le Soleil. We talked about his on-the-job training and the mosaic of burn marks on his arms. I stood with Parind Vora in the burned-out shell of his Restaurant Jezebel as water dripped from the ruined ductwork. I worked kitchen shifts at P. Terry's, Backstage Steakhouse and Pizza Nizza.
Some stories you can't get over the phone, and those are the stories I want. Letting go of my anonymity is a small price to pay.