My Dinner with Frank Bruni


[Note: Frank Bruni did not pose for that picture.]

The dinner was set for Monday, October 22nd, and the e-mail came on Thursday, October 18th. It said: “We’re going to check out ___… at 8:30 p.m., reservation for four under surname ___.” (E-mail’s been censored for obvious reasons.) Then, on the 21st, another e-mail came with the subject: “Monday night location and slight time change.” A new place was named for 8:45 and the instruction was given: “They don’t take reservations, so first person there should just check in and give a name, any name other than mine.”

Me being an anxious, obsessive person, I arrived at said location 15 minutes too early and was stunned to find that the place was closed. How could this be? Did I get the place right? Were there two places with this name and was I at the wrong one? What if I got the night wrong? The time wrong? I did all the research I could on my cellphone and concluded that this had to be the place and that I was, indeed, here on the right night at the right time. As if on cue, Friend of Bruni #1 arrived and introduced herself. She too was surprised that the place was closed but assured me that we were in the right spot. The street was a bit empty and soon a man came walking across the street and Friend of Bruni #1 called to him.

“Is that Frank?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “That’s (Friend of Bruni #2.)”

“Oh,” I said, embarrassed. But what did I have to be embarrassed about? Isn’t it Frank Bruni’s job to be unrecognizable?

I met Friend #2 and then, a few moments later, another man came walking across the street.

“It’s closed,” called Friend #1.

The man laughed. By process of elimination I knew who he was but I almost couldn’t believe it: he seemed so young, so calm, and–dare I say it–skinny that I couldn’t believe this was the food critic for The New York Times.

I put out my hand. “Hi,” I said and then added, unnecessarily: “I’m Adam.”

He smiled and shook. “I’m Frank,” he said, also unnecessarily, and with that I’d officially met the city’s most powerful critic.

The group (minus myself) instantly began assessing the situation: didn’t the P.R. for this place say it was open seven days a week? Bruni checked the paperwork (which he had with him) and, sure enough, it said it’d be open Mondays.

“Ok,” he said. “So where should we go instead?”

He was asking us? I was completely silent: what could I possibly suggest? Friend #1, who we’ll call Layla just to make things easier, began rattling off places that’d just opened.

“There’s __,” she said, “and __ and __ and __. Oh and __ is supposed to be good. Oh and __.”

It was wildly impressive: I’d never heard of any of these places, any of these chefs, and they were all viable candidates, it seemed, for a New York Times review.

Bruni considered and then presented his own options. I’d also never heard of any of them (shows how disconnected I am from the frantic world of New York dining) and after some discussion we settled on a place that was a cab ride away.

Finding a cab was a bit of a chore since cabbies were on strike at that time (seems like everyone’s on strike these days) but finally we climbed in and on the way to our destination, Frank kindly asked me about my book, my blog, my traffic, etc. I got the impression–and I think it’s a correct one–that his world is so inundated with food personalities, food writers, food experts, bloggers and the like that it’s impossible to keep track of who everyone is and what they do. But I was glad to have something to talk about.

Once at the restaurant, Friend #2, who we’ll call Brian, spoke to the host while the rest of us sat at the bar.

Frank, Layla and Brian all ordered “normal” drinks–meaning drinks that you can get anywhere (I don’t remember specifically what Frank got)–and I ordered a frou frou drink off the special drink menu. We waited about 30 minutes for our table, during which time I spoke to Brian and Frank spoke to Layla. It was a cool space with candles and such and the drink helped me, a bit, to calm my nerves. I felt a bit out of sorts in such highly distinguished company.

Once at the table, Frank explained the process: we would all order an appetizer and an entree, each of us ordering something different. He told us what he’d had the last time he was there (he was there once before) and so we were to avoid those dishes. Still, there was plenty of room to choose what we wanted and since I like eating everything I waited until everyone else made their choice before choosing mine.

After we ordered, I had a glass of wine (to catch up with everyone else, having finished their drinks and moved on to wine by the glass) and joined in the conversation. It’d be uncouth of me to report on what was said, and so this is the point where I’ll pull away from the story and offer some general observations about the meal, about Frank, and about the process of reviewing a restaurant for The New York Times.

When most of us go out to eat, we don’t hold a restaurant’s fate in our hands. We can relax, soak things in, make observations about the food, the service, and the decor without feeling like these observations will impact lives and livelihoods; without worrying that the gum we chewed before dinner might throw off the taste of that lobster bisque, rendering an unfair review that might humiliate a chef, putting a knife in the heart of his or her signature dish.

Bruni handles all of this with grace and good humor. That’s what struck me most about him: his humility and his sense of fun. He has perspective on what he does and when it comes to evaluating food, he is measured and thoughtful. He doesn’t exclaim, he doesn’t pout–he eats, he considers, and then he softly shares his opinion.

I didn’t always agree with him. There was a lamb dish that he adored that I simply enjoyed; there was another dish he didn’t care for that I did. What was clear, though, was that his evaluations were careful and considered–he doesn’t mince words, he speaks his mind and then listens to what others have to say. To me, that’s model behavior for a food critic: rational, thoughtful, and open-minded. In fact, that’s model behavior for most things in life

By the second bottle of wine, I was feeling a bit dizzy and the desserts weren’t helping the situation. Before I knew it we were outside and I was walking by myself to the subway. Dinners sometimes unfold that way: you get so caught up in the event, time shoots by and then you’re outside and it’s over.

But I’m grateful to Frank for having me along (after an e-mail exchange, I asked if I could meet him and he said yes). The evening was many things for me: evidence that people are just people, no matter how seemingly important and/or powerful; validation of my own efforts here on this lowly little website and, mostly, just a fun evening out with lively, intelligent people. I hope I get to do it again.

18 thoughts on “My Dinner with Frank Bruni”

  1. I know what you mean about being amazed how REAL these people are. When I first started culinary school I was scared of my Chefs. I’ve got very talented Chefs, most of them from Europe that have so much experience and accreditation. My baking teacher is a Master Baker from Scotland! But then as I got to know them they were all so down to earth and helpful, its insane.

  2. What a wonderful essay on meeting the man behind the curtain of culinary mystique! I agree with Cheyanne: there’s so much hype around food personalities, and it’s very reassuring to know that in real life many of them are wonderful and kind people pursuing their dreams and passions just like the rest of us.

  3. Adam I can’t tell you how horribly jealous I am of you. I love the Bruni, and look forward to his reviews every week, not because I will actually end up going the restaurants he writes about (most of them are so out of my budget as to be almost laughable) but because I think his writing is often so entertaining, it hardly matters what he’s writing about. I’m glad to see that his sense of humor and humility really shows when you’re actually sitting at the table with him, and I think there’s a simple reason for this: as a food critic who has also been many other things (including a political correspondent, I believe?), I think he realizes the sad but true fact; that in comparison to a lot of other things, what a food critic does is less important and more frivolous in terms of what I guess we should call the “human condition.” In order to make it worthwhile, then, he has to make it lighthearted and funny, and I’ve always appreciated the fact that yes, as you say, he does hold the fates of many restaurants in his hands, but that doesn’t distract him from just having fun with it (as I certainly would if I could eat at whatever restaurant I chose with the Times footing the bill).

    Now of course, knowing how receptive he is to people emailing him and asking to meet him, I should perhaps make up a story (or a blog) about who I am and try to have dinner with him as well?

  4. It’s always nice to hear that my personal assumptions about a person are correct–your description of Bruni as humble and full of fun is exactly how I’ve always imagined him. His reviews and blog are a delight to read, and I’m jealous that you got to witness him at work! What fun.

  5. You are very lucky. I’m glad you got to meet someone you look up to. Even though I live in Chicago, I love reading his reviews. I just wish I could eat in some of the places he writes about!

  6. Well, you’ve learned well! This was measured, considered AND interesting without intruding into the man’s life. Good for you!

  7. wow, that sounds like a cool experience. it’s nice to hear about Bruni’s approach to his job. will you let us know when that review comes out and what you thought of the dishes you tried?

  8. Yep, thats usually how it is Adam…

    Some of the cool humble people that wield and yield a lot of power (or can if they so choose) are just down to earth and sometimes get really TICKED when they are ‘fawned’ over or think that you can’t use your own brain to assist you in your own endeavors…

    I would think it would be along the same lines as Ruth (in your book) finally snaps and just lets you know it comes down to ‘what do you want’ then act and be persuasive with passion about how you like or want something…its your power.

    Don’t let people intimidate your hunger or your own personal being.

    I am sure Bruni feels the same way and would hope that people can be the same way around him…believe it or not, the majority does not like ‘groupies’ it becomes irritating…probably kinda like being recognized and getting chef ‘specials’ pushed on ya, after awhile there not even good even if there free…not because they don’t taste good, but its not what you want.

    (lifting up current bottle of water) Here’s to more real cool people like you…getting famous and popular, and unknowns like me. Salute.

    …cook, chef, culinary sponge, traveler, volunteer, missionary.


  9. Kudos to you Adam – not just for the coveted dinner that leaves us all green with envy – but congrats on an interesting detailed story that was every bit as well written as Mr. Bruni – and I think you both have a lot in common; journalists who are also writers. You’ve come a long way in stature with your blog, book and commentary (on Serious Eats, Food Network and no doubt soon to be other stellar locations) and I don’t doubt for a minute that this one “story” off your blog will one day be the beginning of one of the more important chapters of your autobiography. Stay in touch with Mr. Bruni and inculcate that burgeoning relationship (perhaps you could put a list of out of the way places only you and Craig have discovered and opt to take him out to lunch on your dime. . .) – it’s a great beginning! Roberto desde Miami

  10. I love the photo…you actually got a New Orleans Ain’ts fan to wear a suit and tie. Brilliant.

    Glad you had fun: I don’t envy anyone who lives in NYC and has to wait for cabs in the loud traffic.

    A nice place to visit, though!

    Good work, Adam. Enjoy your continuing success.

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