This morning, I woke to a tweet from the Village Voice featuring a link to the latest from food critic Robert Sietsema—a passionate ode to the humble diner burger, which included a line that literally made me pump my fist over the breakfast table: “This is food that is simply good, and defines a sort of normalcy in eating that no longer exists.”
A similar experience happens every week, sometimes multiple times: A story from Sietsema that cuts through all the pretense and snobbery and PR hype of New York’s hypercharged food world and reminds me of two very important things: 1) Food has many ways of being good, and none of them are related to how many times the chef has appeared on TV, and 2) You can eat remarkably well in the five boroughs without ever following the zeitgeist.
These dependable reports might be about be a primer on where to get durian, or a review of Nigerian restaurant in a neighborhood you’ve never even heard of (as New York Times critic points out, who else in media has the chops to knowledgeably write about African food?), or a breakdown of all the tacos on Roosevelt Avenue (in 2007, he ate 48 tacos in 3.25 hours to find the best)—it was mind-boggling to think how he did it. Just look at the archives: 20 years of nonstop pavement pounding to every imaginable corner of this city, to eat Xian food and Tibetan food and blood jell-O and anything else someone in this city bothered to make, from the lowliest back-alley vendor to the most fanciful dining rooms. Jeffrey Steingarten may have nabbed the “Man Who Ate Everything” moniker, but in NYC, Sietsema is that man.
Jeffrey Steingarten may have nabbed the “Man Who Ate Everything” moniker, but in NYC, Sietsema is that man.
Today, though, that very familiar sense of Sietsema-induced joy gave way to incredulity as rumors emerged, via Gawker, that the legendary critic had been fired in a “bloodbath” at the Voice, which also saw the canning of nightlife writer Michael Musto and theater critic Michael Feingold. The shitshow of the Village Voice, which reached fever pitch with the departure of its top editors last week, is something everyone in media is aware of, yet that knowledge doesn’t dull the sting and senselessness of this news. Could you ask for a better critic—more respected, more knowledgeable, more hard-working—than Sietsema? The guy may be old-school, but he played the Internet game with gusto, producing lists (ones you wouldn’t find anywhere else, mind you) and churning out as many posts on the Voice’s “Fork in the Road” blog as scribes half his age, all while making it to Forest Hills and back to check out a new Dominican spot. In a city of hustlers, Sietsema makes everyone else look lazy on a daily basis.
When I first had the pleasure of meeting Robert last year, we went to get some noodles he was interested in trying, served out of a tiny kitchen in the basement of a bar in Greenpoint. We got to talking about nachos, one of my passions, and while some food writers’ eyes would gloss over at this point, Sietsema launched into a learned theory on nacho construction, as well as a laundry list of places to get them in New York, almost none of which I’d heard of. We made plans to go to El Cantinero, an old and decidely unglamorous Tex Mex spot that I’d passed by without a second glance countless times, because he wanted my brother and me to try the fajitas, which he said were tremendous (they were). A New York food critic who celebrates Tex Mex unironically? Give this man every award ever.
As this website found its legs, I was honored to be able to publish a few of Robert’s outside-of-NYC adventures—he hit the trail of the mysterious mini hot dog around Troy, NY; found a Middle Eastern burger in Buenos Aires; and ate everything from celery-root tortelli to fried-chicken ramen in San Francisco. I would tell you about being his “editor,” but let’s be real: It’s Robert fucking Sietsema. He wrote copy brimming with quirky enthusiasm, took all of his own photos, and one time even delivered the files on a flash drive via bike, before we went to get Korean-Mexican tacos on 29th Street. All I had to do was hit publish.
There’s no doubt that we’ll hear plenty more from Sietsema. Already the Twittersphere has erupted with offers from websites and editors looking to enlist his invaluable services, and you get the sense that he has to eat and write every day, no matter who’s running the story. Still, the news is a gigantic kick in the balls for restaurant criticism in New York City, and journalism in general. As big names and big budgets continue to take over the food world, Sietsema’s work is more indispensable than ever—a perfect foil to the glitz and glamor, and a constant reminder of why food matters.
Here’s hoping he finds a place that appreciates him very soon.
Click through the gallery above to see the food world’s outraged response to firing of Robert Sietsema.
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