restaurant reviews

Here’s Another Look at How Far Restaurants Go to Trick Influential Food Critics

“It’s like a fire drill.”

Hell hath no fury in fine dining like an executive chef with a one-star review. The Washingtonian has published a long profile of critic Tom Sietsema, less about him as the Washington Post’s 17-year food critic than as the enemy in restaurants’ midst; it traces the craziest things chefs do to “identify and manipulate” him, as well as the city’s other critics. Read these and be doubly thankful — both that you don’t work in a Michelin-starred kitchen, and that you’ll never have to visit a steakhouse wearing a toupee and false teeth.

Even the restaurants in D.C. have to rely on oppo. Dossiers get circulated on the town’s “anonymous” critics like they do in most major cities — only here, they’re done with a little more professional-politico flair: The creator of one handbook that rates reviewers’ abilities and pairs an appropriate server “type” with them is by a political insider who “considered the information to be opposition research of sorts.” If “somebody’s there to criticize you,” he tells the Washingtonian, “you need as much information about that person as you can get.”

Managers who need pics happily engage in “a little resource trading.” Pity the manager who lets a restaurant critic slip by unnoticed. Identical shots of big-name critics are pinned up all around town, partly because, even in the year 2017, they’re all anybody has. There’s one Sietsema photo in particular that everybody uses: “He appears to be in a winery — there’s a barrel behind him — and he’s looking down and to the side, unaware of the photographer,” the story says. It hangs in Le Diplomate (three stars from Sietsema), plus in José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup restaurants. Sietsema tells the mag that he has no idea “where it came from.”

Confederates get strategically placed at nearby tables. Le Dip has also been known to call in diner stunt doubles — people who aren’t there to eat so much as they’re managers’ friends who’ll “ooh and aah” within Sietsema’s earshot. They can also eavesdrop on him, then sneak off “to the restroom” to pass intel along to the kitchen.

Once, a chef actually ate off of Sietsema’s returned plate. Their nemesis left “more than half” of his starter untouched, so the chef and three or four others gathered around over it. “The chef took a bite of the leftovers … and announced it tasted good.”

But sometimes they trick themselves. Le Diplomate did so back in February 2016, when Sietsema booked a table for eight. A receptionist saw right through his “Dane Cook” assumed name — they ran his reservation against a database of all known aliases and contacts he’s ever used. The day of his visit, they got busy “masterminding a culinary version of The Truman Show.” Peppy regulars were seated adjacent to his table, all entrées were photographed before and after the meal, and the pastry chef even sent out an off-menu gâteau St.-Honoré for dessert. Unfortunately, Sietsema was only there because it “was his partner’s birthday.”

Another Look at How Far Restaurants Go to Trick Food Critics