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Bye, Sam!

The tenure of New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton has ended. As of Monday, he took over as national editor, a position he’d had his eye on for some time. His departure is not a surprise. When Sifton was announced in the job, he already had a foot out the door:

For the record, it is our expectation that this will not be the end of Sam’s career as an editor/manager/entrepreneur/mentor. He has run two departments exceptionally well, and nobody would be surprised to see him running something in the future.

The guy who picked Sifton, former executive editor Bill Keller (who was also responsible for picking Bruni), practically admitted that Sifton hadn’t even applied for the job:

In the weeks since the announcement that Frank Bruni would be hanging up his napkin, we’ve received numerous applications for the job of NYT restaurant critic. We narrowed the list, and then narrowed it some more. We had some really impressive candidates, writers who know their food and have interesting things to say about the way we eat.

Then we threw out the list and drafted Sam Sifton.

Restaurant criticism burns people out, but Sifton had one of the shortest tenures on record. The Eater.com timeline shows just two New York Times critics with shorter stays: John L. Hess for nine months in 1973–74, and Marian Burros for a year in 1983–84. Burros, however, was never billed as a permanent replacement, which leaves Sifton in the dubious company of the now-forgotten Hess.

Here’s hoping Sifton has more enthusiasm for editing than he did for reviewing. I don’t think dummies get to be national editor, but as a critic, he was vacuous, bored, and intellectually lazy. At least half the time, he was more interested in reviewing the guests than the food—more fascinated with their shoes, clothes, hairdos and gadgets, than with what they were eating.

Sifton was a man of simple pleasures, seldom interested in being challenged, seldom engaged thoughtfully on any culinary subject except fishing. His reviews were full of empty adjectives like “delicious,” “terrific,” and “good,” and laden with obscure references to second-rate fiction. He embraced mediocrity, and neither established nor recognized trends.

He didn’t even work very hard. Frank Bruni, may have had no experience reviewing restaurants, but he at least realized he had a lot to learn, and worked his tail off. Here’s a comparison of Bruni’s first two years to Sifton’s:

  1. Starred Reviews. In his first two years, Bruni filed every Wednesday but two (and for those two, Julia Moskin filed in his place). In Sifton’s first two years, he skipped four Wednesdays (and no one replaced him).
  2. Critic’s Notebook. These are the longer “thought pieces” that appear roughly every couple of months In his first two years, Bruni filed 17 of these. Sifton filed 12.
  3. Diner’s Journal. Before the blog came along, Bruni used to file a shorter review (unstarred) on Fridays. He did 80 of these. The closest equivalent in the current system is “Dining Briefs”. Sifton has done 26.
  4. The Blog. That leaves the blog—difficult to quantify, because the NYT search engine can’t filter out blog posts specifically. Bruni often used the blog to write about restaurants he wasn’t going to review, whereas Sifton almost never did. Bruni generally filed at least 1–2 substantive blog posts per week, while Sifton’s average is near zero. (A short post linking to that week’s newspaper review is not substantive.) In lieu of writing about restaurants, Sifton posted near-useless “Hey, Mr. Critic!” Q&A pieces every so often.

If you don’t care for the numerical approach, just read Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema’s devastating lampoon of Sifton’s laziness or Josh Ozersky’s takedown in Time. These are notable, because critics seldom attack one of their own, whatever their private opinions may be. Why The Times was willing to pay Sifton to do so little work is utterly beyond me.

Industry people I spoke with found Sifton unimpressive. His predecessor, Frank Bruni, came in with a thin resume, but at least he worked hard, wrote well, took the job seriously, and established a clear voice that readers could relate to. Sifton treated it like a two-year vacation.

Fortunately, The Times needed a new national editor, so after two years we are done with him, and he is done with us. Sifton gets an early out from a job he never wanted, and management gets another chance to find someone competent to write restaurant reviews.

If this seems harsh, I offer no apology. There is no other critical discipline at The Times that is treated like a hobby—a mid-career sabbatical before moving on to greener pastures. In books, architecture, theater, film, music, and other fields, the paper has critics who’ve honed their craft for years—decades, even. Whether or not you agree with them, at least you’ve got someone dedicated to his craft.

For restaurants, The Times first gave us a dabbler who had never been to a Michelin-starred restaurant in his life, outside of Italy, before being appointed restaurant critic. And then it gave us someone who had his eye on management, and coasted along while he waited for a better job to open up.

The Times can do better. It must.

Reader Comments (1)

i agree with you generally about sifton and his lack of capacity for the job. but i don't think that's what sietsma was explicitly or implicitly saying in his piece. that would be reading into it way more than the words allow. he was talking about the challenge. sure, he says, sifton wasn't up to it and two years isn't much of a tenure. but "devastating lampoon of [his] laziness" seems a little much and maybe projected.

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermatt

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