The lifestyle of a professional restaurant critic is endlessly fascinating to people who aren't professional restaurant critics. I know. I used to be one. People always asked lots of questions: "Does that mean that you eat for free?" "How are you not fatter?" "Can I tag along?" There's a certain mystique attached to this particular line of work. That's partly because, yes, it's a mouthwatering assignment, especially compared to menial tasks like filing or filling out spreadsheets. Also, there's this long-standing tradition that critics should try to operate anonymously, which makes it sound like you're living in some spy novel, but without the same sense of danger. No diabolical death trap awaits, unless you count astronomically high cholesterol and maybe gout.
All the intrigue is one reason why, from time to time, you'll see a whole article devoted to answering common questions about how a certain critic goes about his job. Like this one, featuring The New York Times's Pete Wells — arguably the nation's top dining critic. Here, Wells dishes on all sorts of issues: how he chooses restaurants to review, how often he visits a particular location, how many dishes he orders and so on.
Perhaps the most suprising answer from Wells comes from the most obvious question: Have you gained weight since you started the job as restaurant reviewer? To which Wells replies — so counterintuitively — no. In fact, he suggests that he actually lost weight over the first six months in the job.
Now, Wells has been working as a critic for a good while longer than I did. And his position is unquestionably more high-profile. As such, his experience as a reviewer naturally differs from mine. But here's how I would have answered that question:
Q. Did you gain weight after you started the job as a restaurant reviewer?
A. Fuck yes, although I can't provide any hard data. I was way too busy to think about hopping on a scale and likely too scared by the inevitable results to even consider it. Anecdotally, anyway, people who knew me then and see me now are often quick to comment on the newly slimmer, post-critic me.
Wells attributes his stunning weight loss to a considerable change in lifestyle, with the new job allowing him to work in the field and write from home instead of being bound to a desk every day. My job was the exact opposite: confined to a cube, minding an insatiable blog from 9 to 5, followed by a rigorous evening dining schedule with little time for exercise in between. Well, there were a few harried sprints to feed expiring parking meters. That counts, right?
But Wells's weighty anecdote underscores a larger phenomenon within food criticism. And by larger, I don't mean in a waistline sense. I've met a lot of professional restaurant reviewers over the years, and few, if any, of them are overweight. In fact, many are downright skinny. Even the cartoon version from the Disney film Ratatouille turned out to be a total waif. That's not to say that weight isn't an issue for folks in the field. Former Times critic Frank Bruni wrote a whole book about his struggles with weight and having a job that required him to eat. Heavily. But his story is ultimately one of overcoming heftiness, despite all the caloric temptation in front of him.
So what is it about professional eaters that fosters such enviable abilities in the weight-management department? I suspect that some are naturally gifted with high metabolism. But don't discount the important role of on-the-job training. Becoming a professional eater means changing the way you approach food. Eating becomes a more thoughtful exercise. You don't clean your plate the way Grandma taught you. You take enough bites to understand what you're eating, and you move on. You also develop other strategies. Maybe it's chugging green tea throughout the day. Maybe it's cycling up steep hillsides on the weekends. Maybe it's putting the Marlboro man to shame with your fanatical devotion to pre- and post-meal smokes.
For so many Americans who struggle with weight, eating is like an addiction. For people who eat for a living, it's something else. It's a job. So you do what pros do: You figure it out.