Yep, that’s me.
During my 16-year tenure as a restaurant critic at the Star Tribune, I’ve kept myself hidden behind the cloak of anonymity. Or tried to, anyway. No more.
It’s a seismic change, one that runs counter to decades of restaurant criticism at this newspaper, reaching back to my 1970s predecessors at the Minneapolis Star and the Minneapolis Tribune.
I’m not the first restaurant critic to step out from the coat check’s dark recesses. During the past 18 months, colleagues in Dallas, Los Angeles and New York City have undergone a similar unmasking. It’s time for the Star Tribune to also make the change.
I’ve long maintained that anonymity is important in my line of work. After all, I want to have the same experience Star Tribune readers have when they’re dining out.
But here’s the thing: I’m a known quantity in the restaurant community, and I have been for ages. That’s true for any restaurant critic who has been around awhile. Log some time in this dime-store Secret Agent occupation of mine, and being recognized becomes a given, despite efforts to the contrary.
Blame it on the fluid nature of the switch from one gig to another. Those who identify me at Restaurant A will inevitably spy me when they begin working at Restaurant B, and on, and on, particularly when I make repeat visits over a short period of time. Realistically, the only people incapable of pulling me out of a lineup are Star Tribune readers.
Yet, until now, I have continued playing along with this pretense of anonymity, even as it has grown to feel unnecessary. A lesson I’ve learned from all these years at the table is that remaining undercover isn’t everything. The cooking isn’t going to turn on a dime because there’s a critic in the house. True, the service component is far more variable, but it’s almost immediately obvious if it changes. Going forward, I’ll continue to be watchful of the goings-on around me.
But the primary reason why I’m giving up my anonymity is rooted in practicality. Unlike every other reporter and critic in the Star Tribune’s newsroom, I don’t approach my beat — the restaurant world — from a face-to-face perspective.
On occasion, when I’m already known, I’ve met a chef or restaurateur in person. But generally, when I needed to speak with someone in my coverage area — which happens on a daily occurrence — I reached for the phone. As someone in an observation-based profession, that self-imposed — and, frankly, outdated — restriction placed me (and Star Tribune readers) at a disadvantage.
Being a familiar face will also give me more opportunities to engage with readers. For the first time, I’ll be able to participate in Star Tribune platforms that I have shied away from, including video and in-person events. In fact, come and see me at a (free) lunch-hour gathering on Thursday at the Star Tribune’s new downtown Minneapolis headquarters. I’d love to meet you.
A disguise-free career
Unlike some of my comrades in restaurant criticism, I was never one to go in for disguises.
The toupée-and-fake-mustache route might seem a necessity in a high-stakes environment such as Manhattan, which is why Ruth Reichl famously donned one personae after another in her quest for dining-room obscurity when she was critic at the New York Times in the 1990s. But in laid-back Minneapolis-St. Paul? Silly. At least to me.
Instead, I have long taken a kind of cold comfort in my ability, looks-wise, to disappear into the throngs of other middle-aged, out-of-shape and follically challenged men of Scandinavian descent who call the Twin Cities home. I mean, look at me. You can easily name five guys in your friends-and-family circle who could credibly pass for my cousin, or my brother, can’t you?
Flying under the radar in this social media era hasn’t been easy. Although, for the first time in my life, sharing a name with a dead pop star has, perversely, been a boon. Google “Rick Nelson” and you’ll find countless images of Ozzie and Harriet’s younger son, from his “Travelin’ Man” days through his “Garden Party” era. But pictures of me? Not so much.
I’ve also always counted on good-old Minnesota Nice to keep my shaky anonymity game afloat. Let websites in other, tougher cities toss aside a long-standing gentlemen’s agreement to refrain from publishing mug shots of restaurant critics. But here, in this small town masquerading as a big city? People are far too polite. So far, anyway.
In the future, I will continue to use the hiding-in-plain-sight tricks of my trade: I’ll arrive unannounced. Reservations will still be made in my guests’ names, using e-mail accounts that don’t bear my name, or calling from phones that aren’t connected to me. I’ll make multiple visits for starred reviews. The Star Tribune will cover all of my dining-out expenses. I won’t attend restaurant-related events. You won’t see me schmoozing.
All are among the useful guidelines devised for restaurant critics by the Association of Food Journalists, a nonprofit made up of food writers, critics and editors. We at the Star Tribune have always followed AFJ’s ethics-driven protocols, and we’ll continue to do so, with one key difference: No more anonymity.
Here’s another solemn promise: No selfies. Ever.
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