Rick Nelson may have shed his cloak of anonymity as a restaurant critic last Sunday, but there’s more to the mystery of restaurant reviewing than a photo or two. It’s time to turn the tables on him and give him his Oprah moment with the interview questions he usually reserves for others.
Q: Were you ever really anonymous?
A: No. Before coming to the Star Tribune in the late 1990s — this was vaguely pre-Internet — I was a reporter at another local media outlet, and my picture ran in that publication every week for a year and a half. Anyone can go to the public library and look up that photo (but please don’t, because it’s a lousy picture, one that still elicits a cringe when I think about it), so it’s not as if my identity went into blank-slate mode the moment I started punching the Strib’s time clock. Still, I’ve made an effort at anonymity. I make reservations in names that are not my own (using e-mail and phones not connected to me) and I don’t announce my visits in advance. I pay the bill in cash, or use a credit card that bears a name other than mine. Still, bells seem to ring the moment I cross the threshold of most restaurants. I recently asked a chef if he could estimate the percentage of local chefs who don’t recognize me. He just laughed and said, “One.”
Q: Why make this change now?
A: When you hired me 16 years ago, the Star Tribune didn’t produce video, or stage events. That’s changed, and I’d like to engage with our readers through these initiatives. In addition, preserving my anonymity meant I conducted most interviews over the phone, rather than in person. I think that places me at a competitive disadvantage, and that’s a disservice to our readers. Also, it’s probably just a matter of time before someone posts an image of me on social media, so why not beat them to the punch?
Q: Do you get recognized a lot?
A: Constantly. That’s what eventually happens to everyone in my line of work, whether they care to admit it or not, and despite precautions to the contrary.
Also, I don’t live in a cave. I meet people in the world outside my work, and sometimes those people — at my gym, for example — work in the restaurant industry. I can’t be Steve Olsen in my spinning class (that’s a once frequent pseudonym chosen because it’s easy to remember, as it belongs to my uncle and my cousin).
Last August at the Minnesota State Fair, I was buying something — deep-fried, no doubt, and probably on a stick — and I watched as someone working at the stand turned to her colleague, pointed at me and said, if my lip-reading was correct, “That’s Rick Nelson, the guy from the Star Tribune.” If that wasn’t a total the-jig-is-up moment, I don’t know what is.
Q: How does it feel to be photographed after avoiding the limelight for so many years?
A: Bizarre. For the past 16 years, I have operated under the assumption that the only time my picture would appear in the pages of this newspaper would be on the occasion of my obituary. I’ve never posted a photo of myself on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, and I’m not starting now.
Additionally, I have a newfound empathy for all of the people over the years whom I’ve casually told, “We’d like to have our photographer take your picture.”
Q: Your thoughts on disguises for restaurant critics?
A: I tried it once, and spent the evening preoccupied with the notion that everyone in the restaurant was thinking one of two things: “Who’s the loser in the bad rug?” And, “Why in God’s name is Rick Nelson wearing that Burt Reynolds toupee?” Being in so-called disguise made me feel far more conspicuous than just being myself and keeping a low profile. I’ve always banked on my ability to blend, looks-wise, into the Scandinavian bald guy crowd. There are a million of us living in this town.
Q: How does a restaurant’s staff react when a critic is in the house?
A: The smart ones treat me like every other diner, because shouldn’t all customers get the same consideration as the guy from the newspaper? The not-so-savvy ones lay it on thick, which makes me uncomfortable.
Q: How do you conduct reviews, and will that change?
A: For a starred review, I visit at least three times — it depends on how many people I’ve had as my guests (I prefer parties of four or fewer) and the size of the menu. I aim for a variety of dates and times: weekdays, weekends, breakfast, lunch, dinner, late night. None of that is changing. The Star Tribune will go on covering all of my dining-out expenses. My visits will continue to be unannounced, and I’ll keep my name out of the reservations book. As of this week, the only element in my routine that’s different is that I’m no longer anonymous. Correction: I’m no longer pretending to be anonymous.
Q: Have other print publications done this?
A: Yes, three critics have dropped their anonymity in the past 18 months: Adam Platt of New York magazine, Leslie Brenner of the Dallas Morning News and Pulitzer Prize-winning Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times. I’m a huge fan of their work, and I appreciate the precedent they’ve set.
Q: What’s your favorite reviewing story?
A: It’s not Lucy Ricardo levels of shenanigans, but stealing the menu (it’s useful reference material) can sometimes lead to restaurant critic hijinks. At one restaurant — I think it was the 510, that’s how long ago this was — I’d managed to semi-discreetly shimmy the poster-size menu under the back of my sweater. Just as I walked past the host stand, the menu slipped out and landed on the floor. So much for making a clean getaway. I play-acted as if I’d dropped a Kleenex, grabbed the menu and made a run for it.
Q: How did you start out as a critic?
A: I was writing about dance at the Twin Cities Reader — this was 22 years ago — and my editor, the late (and oh-so-great) David Carr suggested that I turn my attention to restaurants. I’m forever grateful to him for that.
Q: Do readers contact you for personal restaurant advice, like where to take their mothers to dinner?
A: All the time, and I’m more than happy to toss my two cents their way. The best way to reach me is via e-mail, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: How often do you dine out weekly?
A: It depends upon what I’m working on, but it averages out to about four or five times a week.
Q: Do you cook at home?
A: Sure. I wish I were better at it, but what I appreciate most about cooking is that it is a never-ending learning process. I really enjoy baking. I’m in no way a Kim Ode-level baker, but I’m making progress.
Q: What’s your one piece of advice to restaurants’ service staffs?
A: I say this with all due respect — because I have enormous admiration for people who choose to make their livelihood in the eternally challenging restaurant business — but could you please come up with a different way of asking, “Are you still working on that?” We’re dining, not ditch-digging. There’s nothing wrong with, “May I take your plate?”