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Interview Fri Oct 07 2011

Michael Nagrant Joins the Sun-Times: Exclusive Interview

When news broke that the Sun-Times had fired Pat Bruno, its long-time restaurant critic, one of the first questions asked was, who will replace him? The paper chose to keep that a secret until just before the new critic's first column appeared -- which is today. Michael Nagrant's byline is at the top.

nagrant sun-times teaserNagrant is well known in Chicago's food circles. He got early attention and acclaim for his now-dormant Hungrymag blog and podcast; soon he seemed to be writing for everyone in town, filing freelance stories for the dailies, weeklies and even national magazines. His dedication to food writing earned him a spot as one of the essayists in the Alinea cookbook. The economy and a growing family caused Nagrant to pull back a bit from food writing, taking a day job in ecommerce and limiting himself to regular reviews in NewCity and CS; his new position as dining critic for the Sun-Times he sees as a step back into the scene.

I spoke with Nagrant earlier this week about the new role, the state of food writing in Chicago, and whether anonymity is important to a dining critic today.

To start off, how long has this been in the works? How did it go down, if you can talk about it.

How did it go down, I don't know exactly internally how, what the thought was. You know, I suspect more than anything it's a reflection of me having a goal on the dream and pursuing it for that as deeply as I could for the past six years. Since I started doing this, I think it was always a goal to work for one of the major dailies, whether in Chicago or somewhere else. I've been sort of vocal about what I wanted. I worked for the Sun-Times doing feature stuff for Janet Fuller for a long time. I never made it a secret, I was always pretty active telling her that if the opportunity presented itself to be the food critic for the Sun-Times I would definitely welcome it. You know, it's one of those things -- not to sound too like The Secret, but you put something out there and you work towards it and that goes a long way. It doesn't always work out, but I think part of that was being actively in the ears of people who matter. They kind of saw what I hopefully saw in terms of what I wanted.

So when did you hear from the Sun-Times, before or after Pat Bruno was let go?

We definitely had some conversations before Pat was let go. I don't know, it seems to me they were obviously looking to replace him, of course, but I don't know if there's a correlation or not. So they definitely talked to me before Pat was let go. I've known for I'd say like six weeks or something like that, it's been a big secret to keep inside, I'm obviously very proud of it and very excited about this, but you know, sometimes good secrets are worth keeping.

What are the details of what you will be doing -- will you be picking up where Pat left off or are you doing something new?

The roles a little bit reduced relative to what Pat was doing. Pat was a freelancer for the Sun-Times as well. I'll be a freelancer as well so I won't be full time. However, the way it's going to work is we're looking at three columns a month. Two of them will be critical reviews. One of them will be a non-critical but dining related column. The critical reviews... one of the conversations we had in talking about this was that, as you've seen over the years in my work in NewCity and other publications, of course I like to dine at the high end, but I also like to hit the neighborhood and ethnic joints around town and so my intention here is that were going to try and rotate that, of course you know if whatever the next Alinea is, I want to be there, however for example, tonight I just had a great meal at Couscous in little Italy off of Taylor Street. Small place -- you know, it's one of those places for UIC kids. Nobody ever goes there but you get take out or whatever. And there's probably a Middle-Eastern joint on the corner of the city just like there's a taqueria or a sushi joint, but I think this is one of the special ones. And if I can talk about that kind of thing and get people interested in those kinds of places, not only because there's a great story but also because the food is really really good, that's what I really want to do with this position.

It's sort of, you know, not that I'm anyway equating myself with a Ruth Reichl or Jonathan Gold out in LA, but that's sort of the tradition that those guys started where they were, and I think it's been missing from the major dailies in our city even to this day. So I want to take out that tradition and bring it here. Anytime people talk about ethnic things, or they talk about small neighborhood joints, they tend to talk about giving it "four forks," like it can't have four stars. But you know, you pick a place like Lagniappe on the South Side in Auburn Gresham, and you sit at her table and you eat. And you know what, anybody with half a palette and half a heart would easily say this is probably a three star experience with the quality of the food and the honesty with which she's cooking. I think it's a conversation we haven't had in this city yet, and I wouldn't be making any kind of nod to [Lagniappe] just because it is a small mom and pop; literally the food is really that good because it's made from scratch. If Schwa can get three stars, why can't this little place in Auburn Gresham get three stars? That's the kind of thing that I want to peruse here.

Will you continue to freelance or is this it now?

Yeah, yeah, I just finished an article for Chicago Magazine last night. I'm going to continue doing work for CS, Chicago Social, as their dining critic as well. The importance the Sun-Times has in the history of our city, it's hard not to take a job like this and think about Royko or Ebert or Kupcinet and all these guys -- and again I'm not trying to equate myself to them. But to somehow be attached to that history now, you know, no matter what's happened or what's gone on in the industry, this is still a great paper of record in our city, and to be in that fold so to speak... I guess I don't know if I'm being nostalgic because I'm a journalist or whatever, but I carry that as a great responsibility. And I think as far as people will identity me and how I'll sort of identify, even though I'm a freelancer I'm going to be the Sun-Times dining critic, and I'm really excited about that.

What are you excited about in the food scene right now? Give us the lay of the land as you enter this new role.

I've sort of been tongue in cheek about how I don't miss fine dining and how, you know, if white table cloths and snotty waiters and that kind of thing has gone away, OK great, good riddance to fine dining. However, the flip side to that is, I'm glad we have a more democratic scene in terms of dining, it's nice you can go and wear jeans wherever you want to go. But I think what I'm seeing now is people are taking that as an excuse to be more casual on the business side. Waiters don't consider their jobs necessarily as seriously as they once might have.

I just wrote an article the other day about how I'll go back to suburban Detroit at an Applebee's, and you don't expect good service because it's an Applebee's -- but it's the best service I've had in years, compared to the better places in Chicago. And then you start to look at it on the surface and you realize that person at Applebee's isn't using this as a second job, they're not trying to make it as an improviser at Second City or going to law school. This is how they pay their mortgage. You know, maybe they work in the auto industry and maybe they're doing this now that those jobs are gone. They're recommending the rib platter but they're earnest about it and there's something about that honesty that I feel is missing these days, and so I'm sort of concerned a little bit. I love that I can go to Urban Belly or I love I can go to Big Star -- those guys are sort of doing it right, I think. But for every one of those guys there's also 10 restaurants that use this "casual" idea as a license to just put stuff out there and not do it in a thoughtful way. That's what I'm concerned about. It's not to say there aren't a lot of bright lights, because there are. But that's sort of how I see the lay of the land now.

It's not to say I'm going to be like, "Ooh, we need more four star temples of cuisine." What's interesting is when I went to Henri? When they opened last year and it was one of those things where it was almost, like, more punk rock than Schwa. Because everybody is trying to be like Schwa now. But to be like, "Hey we're going to put down the white tablecloths down again and invest in architecture and make the place look like Louie Sullivan and your waiter is going to wear a vest and actually know about the wine," that's sort of punk rock these days. It's nice those things and hopefully well get some of those things coming back.

Speaking of it being a democratic scene, the blogosphere is at least as important to the food world as the papers are today. How do you deal with that? How do you fit in with that now that you're a critic at the Sun-Times?

I mean I guess I got here that way, right? I started Hungry and you know I've been all over the place, and in that sense I don't think I'll ever give up those roots or forget about those roots. As much as I can I want to bring that spirit to the paper, which is to say I'd like to establish a Twitter feed and if we could do something with the blog I'd also like to do that. As a culture the Sun-Times is starting to come around to those type of things and I'm pretty optimistic we can do that. That being said, one of the things that's been in the works for a long time is a digital archive for my work, which I haven't had time to stop and pause to do for the last six years. I've just started to kind of put that together and am hoping to have done within the next couple of months. So even if the Sun-Times doesn't work out as an official outlet to keep up with the rest of that, I intend to have a web presence in a way that I haven't had in the last year when I took some time off.

One of the things I'm really toying with in addition to representing the work I've done so far is -- I still want to be saying something new and I want it to be quick and dirty and not beholden to anybody, and being able to have a voice that's entirely 100 percent yours makes you a better writer wherever you're working. And one of the things I've toyed around with is pulling back the curtain and sort of getting rid of the black box of what's going on as a critic and maybe doing some running commentary every week about that. Obviously you can't do that when you have 700 words, you don't have a chance to do an aside or, sort of, do a David Foster Wallace on the review. And so, wouldn't it be kind of fun to do sort of a metacommentary on, you know, OK, here's my review in the Sun-Times this week -- what was really going on behind that? Why did it get two stars, or one and a half stars? Why didn't it get more stars? You can obviously derive from the review why that happened, but I think there are certain people who even kind of want to know and be in on that discussion, so I think that might be fun to do.

Speaking of the black box, you've been to stay relatively anonymous as a critic -- your face is not well known. If you're pulling back the curtain a little bit and peeking in the behind the scenes of being a food critic, how long do you think you can hold up this anonymity, or have you thought dropping it? Or is that too important to let go of?

Every day it seems like your reading a non-anonymous critic make some commentary about anonymity being dead, and for me I feel like that asking a Catholic priest to talk about the state of porn. Of course you don't believe in anonymity because you killed it yourself. You made that decision so why would you ever defend it? Some people have made some very cogent arguments about how, in today's era with social media and cameras everywhere, anonymity is much tougher to achieve and total anonymity is certainly mythology. I do believe that, I agree. However I think in this type of position, it's still worth the endeavor to push through. I can argue just from the first couple reviews I've done here, I'm 99 percent certain that the owners and chefs at the restaurants had no idea who I was, and frankly, they could care less. Maybe they'll care when the review comes out.

What I can tell you about that is, they are experiences I received that I probably wouldn't have received if they knew. I ate at a restaurant that was for the second review in a couple weeks, and it was just, frankly, one of the visits was one of the second or third singular worst restaurant experiences I've had in the last six years, and there's no way that would have occurred if they knew I was in the room.

It's not that I'm out to get the restaurant. I am out to see it in its true form, its democratic form, if that's a fair way of assessing it. For every person who says, "Oh, I know who are," I believe even today there are nine people don't know who I am. There are a lot of critics around town who are committed to anonymity. Julia Kramer and David Tamarkin, when you're looking at their stuff relative to other people who are feature writers, you can see the difference in their writing and the difference in the reaction of the restaurant they're reviewing, and I think it's worth while. I don't think it's about being a dinosaur. The thing for me is, if I wanted to be Steve Dolinsky, then I would go on TV. I'm a writer first and foremost and it's what I'm best at. It's really how I want to make my living. I don't want to have a Food Network show, partly because I don't want to have to wear sunglasses on the back of my head at Smithfield Farms or whatever these things are. I think there's a question: can you make it as a strictly food writer in America today, and I don't know the answer to that but that's what I want to do.

You brought up a good point. How important is celebrity in the dining world now? There are people who trade quite a bit on their name, gossip in the food world etc. How much of that will fit into your work at the Sun-Times, and do you give any credence to it at all?

Yeah, I think it goes hand in hand with anonymity. When you love food as much as I do there are a handful of people who understand that. You know, people like my best friends who aren't hugely into food look at me like I'm a Trekky or Star Wars geek, you know? Like, what's wrong with you, why would you call the French Laundry three days in a row for three hours trying to get reservations? So the people who understand you the most and the people who empathize with you the most are chefs and food personalities, and so it's sort of a double-edged sword. I would want to be great friends with these people because we share a passion. However, I've always said that if that's what I really need to do I should probably write about music.

Even on a broader level that's not applicable to me, I think with all these other people, I think if you're going to be a very good feature writer, I think you need to establish a rapport with your subject and spend time and see them in their natural element. At the same time, there is a line there and I wouldn't personally want to get in the position of wondering if people are friends with me, or providing me with an ulterior motive or because they truly want to be my friends. I don't know if a lot of people worry about that, but I think it's a weird place to put yourself in, and I think that's what a lot of these people are doing. They can't even be true relationships because people are scared of the gossip columnist or they're scared of the person who established their above board celebrity relationship, and it's just not healthy for anybody. Restaurants start to make compromises in what they do for these people, and those people also make compromises in their reporting. It's not for everybody, everybody has a different style, but I think it's best to avoid it if you can.

So we won't be seeing an Alan Richmond-style character assassination from you?

One of the things I've been thinking about over the last week or so... I mean, I've had one sort of eviscerating review in the past six years -- the review of Yat in the Loop. And you know, part of that was I really felt that they broke the social contract between what a restaurant is and what a diner needs. You know, something in me said to me I'm going to go after these guys. They're not honoring diners, they're cooking food off site, there's no service to speak of -- the place just wasn't very nice. But that being said, while I certainly I know I have a little bit of an acerbic wit, I genuinely wish all restaurants I ate at were four stars. That's sort of a goal, what would be better. It sounds like a cliché, but I truly believe that a rising tide lifts all ships.

That's why I get sensitive. You know, I think Michael Carlson is a great chef at Schwa. At the same time, when he cancels a whole room of reservations on a given night, he's possibly dashing the dreams of somebody celebrating an anniversary or a birthday or someone who made the trip from out of town, and that sort of behavior bothers me and I'm going to be sensitive to it. I want everybody to be good and it would make my job a lot easier, nobody wants to eat bad food. If I go after something, hopefully nine times out of 10 it's going to be constructive. If it's under-salted I'm going to say it's under-salted, because I want you to be able to learn from that.

I don't want to be, to use a former Sun-Times staffer as an example, I don't want to be Jay Mariotti. I don't want to be the guy who's afraid to go in the locker room. Anything I say on the page I want to be able to say to a chef's face. That's always the litmus test for me. Even if it's a little hard, I've asked myself that question, would I be able to say this to the guys face, and that's the standard I use.

Last question: What can we expect? What's coming?

I really, in addition to the high-end stuff, I want to expose people to the ethnic joints and neighborhood joints they might not have thought about. The other thing too is, I think people understand my voice and know it's conversational, and occasionally it's loaded with some pop culture references -- although I don't hang my hat on that for various reasons. I also like the analytical context for where we are in society in my dining reviews -- and I know it sounds kind of high-falutin' or whatever, and that's not my intent. But what I believe more than anything is that story is the bottom line. To be able to listen to Ira Glass on "This American Life" and listen to them cover the credit default flops and all these things related to the financial crash and how we got into this double dip economic crisis and be entertained by it blows my mind, and it's such a reminder that you can talk about anything as long as you start with the premise of a good story. I don't know if I'll be able to achieve that with the first review or if it'll take a couple of reviews to hit my stride, but what I do know is that that's the goal. I want people to feel like they're listening to a good story, and not the expense of restaurant or expense of the review. I will be fair with my stars, but I also come from a philosophy that stars are cheap. They allow people to short-cut and not read a review and really evaluate a restaurant but instead to just put it in a box. And you know, while it's a requirement of the venue -- as Frank Sennett once said to me about Time Out's rating system -- it's not the whole thing. It's really about telling the story, and that's what I want to do.

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Doreen / October 7, 2011 10:48 AM

Jesus Christ, get a copyeditor in here. This is barely readable for all the misspellings and weird shit.

Doreen / October 7, 2011 10:48 AM

Jesus Christ, get a copyeditor in here. This is barely readable for all the misspellings and weird shit.

Andrew Huff / October 7, 2011 3:42 PM

Thanks, I fixed a bunch of stuff I missed last night. You're right, there were some errors -- but really, barely readable? There were a handful of misspellings -- all homonyms unless you can point something out -- and a couple of transcription errors I missed. Everyone's fallible -- as evidenced by your own double-posting of a comment.

Gapers Block is an all-volunteer organization. If you'd like to help copyedit, get in touch.

Zack / October 7, 2011 7:07 PM

Well, Jesus said that if you call him, he will answer. He allowed you to be blessed with the opportunity to be copy-editor, Doreen.

You are going to do great things at Gaper's Block. Just make sure you don't disrespect your editor. You don't want what happened above to repeat itself.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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