Know a good restaurant in New York City? Frank Bruni has probably dined there. For five years, the former New York Times restaurant critic ate his way through some of the best and worst menus the city had to offer. His meticulous, unforgiving reviews could make or break a new restaurant and the prospect of a Bruni visit regularly sent chefs into panics. But Bruni's relationship with food went beyond his day job: as he relates in his new book, Born Round, the man paid to eat had a history of eating disorders stretching all the way back to his childhood. Bruni, who assigned his last restaurant star on Aug. 19, talked to TIME about his issues with food, his job as a critic and why every restaurant menu is suddenly offering fried chicken.
Where do you think your issues with food came from?
Some people are prone to certain behaviors, and from the time I was very, very little I was a compulsive eater. I was prone to have a problem with food by nature. And to make a perilous situation worse, I was raised in a family where food was a big deal. My mother loved to cook. My grandmother loved to cook. Both of them used the act of feeding people as ways to express themselves. Food was pride, food was love. I think that context wedded to my seemingly congenital appetite was a recipe for trouble. And then of course I jumped onto the whole fad-diet train at a very, very early age.
Did you ever go to therapy for your eating issues?
No, I never did. When I was behaving badly throwing up meals, taking amphetamines to control my appetite I was always able to cut the behavior off on my own. I developed this belief that I was O.K. because I could pull myself back from the brink. I might not have ended up as heavy and miserable as I was in my mid-30s if I had dealt with all these issues earlier.
Do you think that your lifelong relationship with food prepared you at all for your role as a restaurant critic? Or did it work against you?
I think a little bit of both. You can't do this job without loving food in a deep and expansive way. My relationship with food was a love-hate relationship. I hated my inability to control my intake and I hated what food would do to my body, but the love part was real and deep. My family taught me that food was worth caring about and sweating over. I still believe that.
What was your weekly schedule like as a restaurant critic?
I reviewed one restaurant a week and to do so I ate there at least three times. I ate out six nights a week, sometimes all seven. Not only are you doing three visits per reviewed restaurant which are usually spread out over four weeks but you're also abandoning some restaurants after two visits because you've decided not to review them. Then you have the restaurants that you're checking out just to see what they're like. Of all 30 or 31 evenings in a given month, I would have eaten out 27 or 28 of them.
People are getting really into food. There are all these gastronomical blogs out there and people are watching the Food Network constantly. What is going on?
I think it's one of the most pronounced cultural trends of recent years. People are interested in food and they want to approach it with discernment. There are probably more reality shows that deal with cooking than deal with fashion. I know 17- and 18-year-olds who watch Top Chef and while they're responding in part to the competition, there's all this discussion of ingredients and what goes together with what. The fact that we have young people who find that as fascinating as they do well, it's amazing.
What restaurant trends are you noticing right now?
When I first started five years ago, everybody was doing some version of sushi. No matter what cuisine you were being served, it was like, "Oh, what do you know, there's uncooked fish in the annals of this cuisine!" Right now everybody is doing fried chicken.
Fried chicken? Really?
People were more flush with money and into the no-carbohydrate zone five years ago; that was when sushi was around. Now we're in a down economy, when people go out they eat to fill up. Even people who have money don't want to spend as much. Restaurateurs want to serve food they can keep below a certain price point. So it's fried chicken served by restaurants that don't normally do fried chicken.
In Born Round you detail all the fake names and disguises you used to avoid detection in restaurants, and yet you seemed to get recognized all the time. Sam Sifton is your successor and his photo is already on the Internet. Do you think he'll be able to eat anonymously at all?
It's going to get harder and harder as the years go by because of the advance of technology. It's easier for people to take pictures and it's easier to message them around. There's no way that a critic wouldn't have a deep digital footprint on the Internet. Everybody does.
Do you cook?
Not in 5½ years! I'm still eating out every other night, but that's out of necessity because of all of the publicity I've had to do for the book. I think that will change soon. I have never been a frequent or accomplished cook, but I look forward to doing it again.