Gawker reports that the embattled alt-weekly continued its ongoing series of brutal layoffs this morning by firing three of its most influential writers, New York legend Michael Musto, venerated theater critic Michael Feingold, and restaurant critic Robert Sietsema. During his twenty-year tenure at the newspaper, Sietsema covered his share of white-tablecloth places, but he really made a name for himself by finding wonderful restaurants in the city’s most far-flung neighborhoods, particularly at a time when few diners ventured outside of Manhattan for dinner. He also inspired a few generations of food writers and bloggers to do the same.
Sietsema has been writing steadily about food since the early nineties, ever since he started a zine called Down the Hatch, which devoted ample column space to all kinds of restaurants — most sold ethnic foods like fufu and biryani — that other newspapers and magazines did not cover. "Around 1989," he said in the summer 2012 issue of Lucky Peach, explaining his food-writer origin story, "I thought I’d do a fanzine, a foodzine."
So I created Down the Hatch. At the time I was working for Pfizer or something like that — I had some office job. I would Xerox the zine using company paper, I had to staple it and do the art, which my wife helped me on.
The New York Times discovered Down the Hatch in 1992, catching up with the future critic and a pal at a makeshift Senegalese restaurant called Bettye and Fatou’s that existed inside the proprietors’ two-room apartment near Times Square. The article describes Sietsema as a "struggling rock musician who earns a living as a secretary at a Manhattan real estate company" with a strange knack for finding food no one had heard of, despite having grown up "in the Midwest on his mother’s meatloaf, instant mashed potatoes and cherry Jell-O." The reporter even printed Sietsema’s home number, imploring would-be subscribers looking for thiebou dieune and more to give him a ring.
In addition to winning awards and contributing to Gourmet and Lucky Peach, Sietsema wrote a number of cover stories for the Voice, including one that blew the lid off of the made-for-TV theatrics of Iron Chef. His relationships with small restaurant owners not only led directly to the creation of the paper’s annual, sold-out "Choice Eats" event, but his written reviews literally changed the economic fortunes of several hundred small business owners throughout the five boroughs over the past two decades and left an indelible mark on the city’s food culture.
He stayed anonymous while doing all of that. Here he is from 2010, mask and all, making bucatini all’amatriciana at home for Chow.
* This post has been updated throughout.