I’m sitting on the edge of my seat wondering who the next Times restaurant critic will be. It’s significant that Sam Sifton bailed after only two years, rather than the usual four or six — especially since the general public was just growing to love him.
One of the problems with the job as currently defined is that it requires extreme overwork. I’ve seen several critics come and go at the Old Gray Lady, and I can tell you that the sheer number of hours per week now required to do the job is flabbergasting. I think Sifton had to be in a perpetual frenzy to do it. (Why do you think he looks so harried in all the photos?)
Back in the Age of Ruth, it was merely a matter of going out to eat all the time at high-end restaurants, where a meal usually took three or four hours. You do that, say, 11 or 12 times a week, lunch and dinner plus travel time, and you’ve used up 40 or more hours per week already just eating, weekdays and weekends included. Goodbye family. To then have to sit down and write a long prose masterpiece of 1100 or 1200 words week after week required stamina, even back then. Times reviews are significantly longer than those at other papers, and crammed with details that the critic himself must initially fact-check.
Nowadays, in addition, the critic must blog extensively, answer reader questions, write best-of lists, tweet, and see to other social media concerns, as well as write extensive features that require him to travel quite literally around the globe. Plus spending time with editors, fact checkers, copyeditors, etc., as all this prose is processed into print. Given all this, you can easily see why someone could burn out in two years, and come to the conclusion that all the glamor and good food has to be weighed against a monomaniacal existence in which you don’t have time for family or friends, and life is just one giant Vegas-style buffet.
In the current climate, the Times will have to vet all the candidates even more thoroughly than ever before to see who can actually turn out such a huge volume of prose, not to mention constantly traipsing around the city in cabs like a nomad. It’s a fragile life the new critic will have to lead, where the pleasures of the table are subordinated to work, work, and more work. Good luck to the fortunate guy or gal who lands the job!