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Former NY Times Food Critic Recounts Food Issues

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Aired 9/16/09

Former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni talks about his battle with food in his new book "Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater."

Former New York Times food critic dishes about his secret battle with weight loss.

Above: Former New York Times food critic dishes about his secret battle with weight loss.

Former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni will speak at the UCSD Revelle Forum on Wednesday, Sept 16, 2009, at 7 p.m. at the Neurosciences Institute.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Imagine getting a call asking if you want the dream job of restaurant critic for the New York Times. Think of the glamour, the food, the power, the food, the food! Then, imagine getting that call after a lifetime of struggling with weight issues and after finally taking off about 70 pounds. What do you do? Would you take the fabulous job and risk getting fat again? Frank Bruni decided to take the plunge and found that becoming restaurant critic for the Times was not only a fabulous job, but a turning point in his battle with weight. He's out with a new book, about his life and his work, called "Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater." It's a pleasure to welcome former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni to These Days. Good morning.

FRANK BRUNI (Author): Good morning. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you have a question about how to eat and stay slim or if you have – would like some advice on how to enjoy a restaurant experience, give us a call with your questions and comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Well, Frank, I'd really like you to start out by telling us the story of how you went from covering politics to becoming a restaurant critic.

BRUNI: Well, you know, part of the answer to that is between the two jobs, I went to Rome for two years and I was the New York Times' bureau chief in Rome. And while I was in Rome, I mean, I was writing about abroad – a broad array of things, you know, not just Italian politics and the Vatican, but also Italian culture. And I was spending a lot of time thinking about, and eating, great food. And during those years I think my kind of erudition as a diner increased greatly and my love of restaurants really came to the fore.

CAVANAUGH: And in your book, I just want to make it clear, you know, there are pictures of you interviewing George W. Bush and so, I mean, this was your – a hard news beat you were on. So when this telephone call came asking you if you might be interested, it really changed the focus of your career.

BRUNI: You know, yes and no. I was always doing hard news subject matter but I was always the feature guy. I mean, I was always the guy who did the long profiles and did the sort of feature takes on the news. So when the Times called me about the restaurant critic job, it was in part because they liked my writing style and they thought that I wrote in a style that would befit reviews, that would really kind of go well with that sort of format and a more columnist voice or something like that. The odd part of it was that I had never written about food. I mean, I'd certainly been a lifelong eater, as the book goes into in great and sometimes lurid detail, but I hadn't actually written about food until I got the call about being restaurant critic.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you about the art of writing about food in just a minute but first to set the scene, when you get this call, in context to your entire life, what you've been dealing with, is a lifelong battle with weight.

BRUNI: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: And you've finally conquered that battle.

BRUNI: Right, I hope I have, yeah, that's the question.

CAVANAUGH: And then you get this phone call that's going to plunge you into a world of eating.

BRUNI: Yeah, that two and a half years before I got that call, I had ballooned up to about 275 pounds. I'm 5'11", a little under 5'11" so that's much too much weight. I was wearing size 42 pants. And it was like my worst nightmare come true. All my life, I had battled my weight but more often than not had never been more than 15, 20 pounds overweight but was worried always it would get worse. Then it did. And in my mid-thirties, I carried around that weight I just described for a couple of years, finally took it off about two and a half years before that call came. And then had maintained my lower weight for two years up until that call came. And one of the last questions that a boss at the Times asked me, as we tossed back and forth this idea of me leaving Rome and going back to New York to be restaurant critic, was are you prepared to lose the great shape you've gotten into? And I just had a very strong feeling, you know, based on some things we can continue to talk about, that that wasn't going to happen, that, in fact, restaurant criticism was going to help ensure that I didn't get back into trouble with food.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to assure our listeners that that, indeed, did not happen. Frank Bruni is here, lean and mean, and…

BRUNI: I'm not mean. That's not nice.

CAVANAUGH: And he certainly had – was able to maintain his weight. So, Frank, you know, we often hear about women, I mean, so – women, all women practically, struggle with dieting and weight and issues with weight and I'm wondering why this was such a crucial – crucial aspect of your life because a lot of men, you know, gain a couple of pounds, lose a couple pounds, they don't care.

BRUNI: Well, I – Part of it was I was a fat kid. And I think we're all different and the same way that I was definitely, definitely born with a bigger appetite than most other people, I was also prone to self-consciousness. So I think there are guys or there are girls who could be teased at the age of six and seven about being fat and just kind of slough it off. That wasn't the case with me. I was a really, really – I internalized that and even by the time I was a teenager and very active in athletics and thinner, I was still that fat boy in my brain because the teasing was significant enough when I was seven and eight and when I was really heavy that it really became a fundamental part of my self image. I also think, you mentioned women usually being more self-conscious about their weight than men, I think the fact that I'm gay factored into it because I think what heterosexual women and homosexual men have in common is we seek the romantic favor of men. And in our culture, when you look at movies, when you look at magazine images, you get the message that the most eligible men seek their romantic partners largely based on physical appearance. So I think you feel an added pressure to look good and, again, in our culture, looking good often begins with thinness.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni and we are taking your calls. 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. You know, there is a picture of you on the front of your book and you're – you are a little bit chubby but you're adorable.

BRUNI: Well, thank you. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And…

BRUNI: That's the seven-year-old me, I believe you.

CAVANAUGH: And I wonder what kind of acceptance you got at home. I mean, where were the pressures to eat? Where – Was eating love? How was that all wrapped up for you in your childhood?

BRUNI: You know, I belong to a sprawling Italian-American family that was an immigrant family, so food was a measure of wealth. Food was definitely the way you expressed generosity and, yes, food equaled love. And if you had a big appetite in this family, it had a lot of room to wander and roam, and mine did. And I don't think I understood it so much at the time but I think my overeating then or rather my ability to put away a lot of food, it actually kind of put me in special standing with my mother, with my grandmother. They were extremely proud and exuberant cooks, and the fact that I enjoyed their food so much and could put away so much of it, while they were worried about my weight, on some other level I think it gave them a lot of pleasure and I think I was, to some degree, kind of getting in good with them by wallowing in their food to the extent that I did.

CAVANAUGH: And give us an idea of what kind of diets that you were on before you reached that point in your thirties where you finally did succeed in losing weight and getting a grip on things.

BRUNI: You know, I think I did most of the diets that were out there but, I mean, the ones that come to mind, I was on Atkins at the age of eight.

CAVANAUGH: Eight?

BRUNI: Eight years old, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

BRUNI: That was the year Atkins came out and I remember this because we had the hardcover in our house. My mom was a champion fad dieter…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

BRUNI: …and she was always convinced there was some Holy Grail of weight loss out there, so when Atkins came out promising that you could eat as much as you wanted, you had no restraint of appetite, you just had to eat on this narrow part of the nutritional spectrum, you know, I mean, that sounded great and my mom bought that in hardcover. You didn't wait for softcover when there was a truth that profound, you know. And I remember reading it at home, or trying to read it, and seeing those words 'ketosis' and 'ketones.' I don't know – I don't know if you're familiar with the Atkins diet or know anyone who's been on it but I think it still comes, or at least it did then, with these urine strips that you would use to see if you were in ketosis. And I remember as an eight year old going into mom and dad's, you know, the bathroom off the master bedroom, you know, opening the medicine cabinet, getting out those little strips to see if I had achieved ketosis.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, my. Count the ways…

BRUNI: But anyway, from there it was all downhill from there. I mean, I did, you know, I did many other fad – I mean, I'm sure I was on the Beverly Hills diet. But I would also do diets of my own invention. I did an all bread diet, at one point. I – In college, there were a couple of months where pretty much all I ate was Branola toast with Shedd Spread and a side of a Metamucil shake because I had decided for some reason during that phase of life that fiber was going to be my salvation. I think I'm an exaggerated mirror of so many dieters who want to find a magic bullet. You know, who think there's some secret formula that's going to fix things for them and prevent them from having to do the really hard subtle work of restraining appetite and curtailing portions, which it's really all about at the end of the day. And so I went through all of that. Like so many people, I just kind of did a little bit more of it and ended up in a few darker places than some people do.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Frank Bruni, a former New York Times restaurant critic. His book is called "Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater." I want to talk just a little bit about the dark places that you mentioned because when we talk about a struggle with weight, a lifelong struggle with weight, well, you know, we can laugh and there is a lot that you can find amusing in that kind of, you know, crazy diets and the things that you'll go to but there is an awful lot of angst that goes along with that.

BRUNI: Sure, absolutely. I mean, there is, and there are behaviors that are far more self-destructive than the fad diets, which are bad enough. I mean, in the book I write about my freshman year of college. I thought the secret would be throwing up my meals, and so for about six, seven, eight months, I'm not sure of the exact time period, I was fairly regularly throwing up my meals. I was very lucky. That episode, whether you call it bulimia or not, I kind of ended on my own but, I mean, that's the kind of thing that can really, really do great physical as well as psychological damage to a person. And I feel that both then and more later on, I lost out on a lot of my life because I was so consumed by worry about being overweight or, eventually, kind of fell prey to that and was horribly overweight in my mid-thirties, which I mentioned before when I reached my zenith or maybe I should call it my apogee. You know, there were years on end when I didn't go out on a date, when there was no romantic dimension to my life whatsoever, and as I look back at that now or when I was writing about it in the book, it made me really sad. And I would love it if maybe there's some wisdom in this book that will stop someone else from losing out so many years of their life and maybe kind of go, you know, coax someone to figure out how they can right their relationship with food as soon as possible.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, do you think that if the people at the New York Times had known how deep and desperate this struggle was at times for you with your weight that you would ever have been offered the restaurant critic job?

BRUNI: You know, that's a great question. Probably not. They probably wouldn't have. I mean, they knew that I'd been overweight years earlier, but they had no idea about all of this. I mean, they didn't know about the short-lived bulimia and that sort of thing. I think they probably would have been at least q uite hesitant, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: So, I – so in – let's go back to that phone call that we started with then, so now that we have the background on all of this. So did you immediately want to take this job? Or how long did you have to think about it?

BRUNI: I thought about it for a good long while. I mean, when I first got that call, I mean, the irony of it was just so, you know, blazing and triumphant, it was all I could focus on. And I really, I laughed a lot about it, and I thought this is the most ridiculous, surreal thing that could happen in my life. But as I thought more and more about it, I became convinced that I had figured out where I'd always gone wrong with food and what I was doing right with food at that time because at that time I was maintaining that, you know, 70-ish pound weight loss. And I became increasingly convinced that the structure of nightly eating that was called for by restaurant criticism, both as a reality and as a metaphor, was the perfect thing for me. I don't know that that would have been true for some other kind of recovered overeater but, for me, it was.

CAVANAUGH: Why?

BRUNI: You know, my problem in the past had always been a feast/famine approach to food. I was either – There was no such thing as a normal day in my psychology and in my mind. I was either being very bad or very good. And I – It was that dichotomy ruled the way I thought about food and, of course, the days when I was very bad ended up outnumbering the ones when I was very good and so I tended to be overweight. Restaurant criticism said to me, every day you're going to have to eat a substantial amount of food and if you don't want to get heavy, your only option is to stop eating at a certain point, to contain your portions and to exercise regularly and diligently. And because those were the only options and I couldn't tell myself the lies of fad diets anymore, those are the options—they were not really options—those are the tools I used to manage my weight. And as you know, as fate has it, these are the tools that are the most reliable and time proven.

CAVANAUGH: As you're saying now, you use a word in your book that's startling when applied to eating in America. It's the word 'sensible.'

BRUNI: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And what in the world do you actually mean by that?

BRUNI: Well, you…

CAVANAUGH: What is sensible eating? I don't know…

BRUNI: Well, you just said something…

CAVANAUGH: …that people know that.

BRUNI: You said 'in America,' and I'm glad…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

BRUNI: …you said that because part of this whole story and part of what enabled me to take that job after I got that call was that I was living in Italy. It was those two years in Italy. And when I talk about sensible, I'm – I'll tell you what's not sensible. What's not sensible in America is you drive down the highway and you see signs for the all-you-can-eat buffet. And the message of that is that eating all you can possibly fit in is a kind of celebration and virtue in itself. It's not. There's no reason to stuff yourself. You know, we have the Big Gulp at 7-Eleven. You know, we, of course, have, as the movie made famous, supersizing. These concepts didn't exist in Italy. I mean, they don't exist in Italy. The western European cultures have a more refined relationship with food, and better food than we have. You know, France and Italy, they don't eat the portions we do. They don't see a glory in gluttony. You know, they channel their obsession with food toward quality, not quantity, and toward greater discernment. And that's essentially what restaurant criticism was also going to egg me to do.

CAVANAUGH: And we have to take a short break. When we come return, we'll continue talking with former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni about being New York Times restaurant critic. The number to call to join the conversation is 1-888-895-5727. These Days will continue in just a moment.

# # #

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni. He's written a new book and it's called "Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater." Frank is here talking about his own struggle with weight, and we're about to talk about his own career as restaurant critic in New York. We're taking your calls if you'd like to join the conversation, 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. So tell us, how glamorous is life as the New York Times restaurant critic?

BRUNI: It's a very interesting life. I mean, it's an interesting life in part because it's a number of different jobs jumbled into one. I mean, you're a reviewer but you're also this sort of gastronomic double agent. You know, there – You make great – There a whole sort of system and a great effort that you make to stand apart from restaurants and to make sure they don't know when you're coming and, in a perfect world, not know when you're there but that's harder to control. But – So it's this sort of weird – it's this sort of weird covert operation.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us some of the maneuvers you made to not get recognized as the New York Times restaurant critic.

BRUNI: Well, my big goal was always to make sure there was no way they would know I was coming in because that was the thing I had more control over. And so I used a different reservation name every day. I used a different imagined phone number, and I wrote it down so I could call back and confirm my reservation before they called and found out it was a nonexistent number. I always called from blocked phone numbers. You know, all of my – my cell phone, my office phone, my home phone all were like specially blocked so you'd never see caller ID. And, you know, the name thing, it was – I would often forget. When I picked up the phone to make my reservation, I'd be so focused on when I need to eat in the restaurant vis-à-vis my review deadline that I would forget to pick a name before they said, and this reservation is for…? So I dined out as Mr. Webster, Mr. Fodor, you know, Mr. Roget, you know, because I was always looking at the spines of books above me.

CAVANAUGH: That's funny. I wonder, did you ever wear a wig? Or a disguise or anything like that?

BRUNI: I did a couple times when a restaurateur in town who did not like a review I'd written threatened to have me ejected from the new restaurant he was opening. He offered the employee who spotted me and threw me out a reward. And I thought, you know, I can't let someone who thinks I'm going to review him badly win by just kind of saying you can't come. I can't let that precedent be established. And so for my visits to that restaurant, I actually got very serious about disguises. I even entrusted myself to a hairdresser friend who owns the salon atop Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue and he got wigs specially designed for me. He styled them on my head. It was a real production.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. Velma is calling from Holtville. And good morning, Velma. Welcome to These Days.

VELMA (Caller, Holtville): Hey, good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, hi, how can we help you?

VELMA: Well, you know, I'm listening to the program as I'm getting ready to go out bike riding because I had a great weight loss many years ago in 1995, took me a whole year to lose 100 pounds. And I'll – did it by exercise and watching what I ate and what he was talking about right now is like it's just bringing back memories because recently I quit my job to take care of my seven-year-old grandson and I find myself back with a 25 pound weight gain. And I'm listening, I said, okay, this is a wake up call for me to actually go back and start my exercise program because I'm no longer taking care of my grandson. And I just love what he's saying about the buffets because I've been there, done that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Velma, and good luck to you.

VELMA: Thank you so much, and thank you for being on today because it was just like telling me, go, go, go.

BRUNI: Great.

CAVANAUGH: You're a wake-up call, Frank.

BRUNI: I like that. No, I mean, that's good. That's a positive effect. We love that.

CAVANAUGH: Savannah is calling from Chula Vista. Good morning, Savannah. Welcome to These Days.

SAVANNAH (Caller, Chula Vista): Good morning. Hi. And I guess I maybe just want to reiterate what the last caller said but I think that as society, Americans, have brought their WalMart mentality to almost every aspect of their life including their food, we want to get more for less. And that's really sad because look at the problems that have been created because of that mentality, especially with obesity. And so I'm really glad that he brings up how other countries prefer quality over quantity, and it'd be great if that could be a new trend for America because it's sad for our health and for many other ways, the trend that we're going towards, with food and trying to get as much as we can for cheaper. It's not always the best.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for your call, Savannah.

BRUNI: Absolutely right.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Frank, you mentioned earlier in our conversation that when you came back to the U.S. as the restaurant critic for the New York Times that you'd never really written about food.

BRUNI: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: So I wonder what – is there a certain style? I mean, you know, how people describe wine, you know, it's flirty with a little edge and all of that. Is there a sort of way that you can describe food that gets across to people what it's really like?

BRUNI: You know, food is tough to write about because there's a limited vocabulary of taste. I mean, I struggled every month with that and I struggled to the end. I don't really have an answer for you except I think that it can be helpful, at least if you're reviewing restaurants, to remember you're not just writing about food. You're writing about restaurants. And I think one of the reasons the Times picked me was because they wanted someone who was taking a wider range glimpse of things. You know, restaurants are microcosms of the society in which they exist. They're microcosms of the time in which they open. And I always tried to approach it that way. There was the food writing aspect of it, but I was really writing about something larger. I was writing about the scene, this theater, this microcosm that we call a restaurant.

CAVANAUGH: Was there something that continually surprised you about the restaurants you would go into in New York, either positively or negatively.

BRUNI: You know, I think I was struck increasingly through time by just how hard it is to run a good restaurant and just how much work people put into it. I'm kind of amazed we have restaurants of the caliber we do because, A, as – where profit margins are concerned, a restaurant is not a safe business to open, not at all. I mean, you can do much, much, much safer and much, much, much better. Most of them don't make big money. And most of their employees, be it the servers or the people back in the kitchen, are making not a lot of money either, you know, in terms of other jobs. And a lot of them have an education level where they could expect to get bigger salaries elsewhere. So they are such extraordinary labors of love and we're so lucky to have as many good ones as we do because it's not about mercenary stuff. It's sort of about the love of food and of hospitality and of that theatre called a restaurant.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Stephen is calling from Hillcrest. Good morning, Stephen, and welcome to These Days.

STEPHEN (Caller, Hillcrest): Hi. My question isn't food related but business related.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

STEPHEN: In a new business model for news probably dominated by online, does that change the way either you monetize the casual sections of the newspapers and your column, and does your column have more value online versus the traditional print?

CAVANAUGH: Stephen, I understand that the way that newspapers are changing, criticism is changing. What's your take on that, Frank?

BRUNI: Well, you know, the main problem right now is, I think, the number of newspapers that can afford to have a restaurant reviewer. I mean, I'll address that since that's the job that I just vacated. The number of newspapers that can afford that, or magazines, dwindling very rapidly because it is a job that costs a certain amount of money and our ad revenue is down. A lot of people say, well, that's okay because on the internet we now have all this user generated content. We have Yelp, we have City Search, we have all these things. And while those can be very informative tools, the thing to remember before we let traditional newspapering and traditional criticism fall by the wayside, is when you're reading a Yelp review, quote, unquote, of a restaurant, you have no idea if that's the chef's aunt. You have no idea if that person ate anything more than the fried calamari appetizer and then went on his or her way. If I were opening a restaurant today, the very first thing I would do is line up a 100 friends and relatives to go on Yelp and write me a nice review. So I don't know what's going to happen with newspapers and with their restaurant reviewers and other reviewers in any sort of beat-the-cost money but if we lose these positions, and if we lose these newspapers, the user generated content on the web is not going to be an exact replacement of it.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Janet is calling from Vista. Good morning, Janet. Welcome to These Days.

JANET (Caller, Vista): Good morning. I'm really looking forward to reading that book.

CAVANAUGH: Terrific.

JANET: And I love the way you speak, so I know I'm going to enjoy your writing. I'd like to…

BRUNI: I love you now.

JANET: I'd like to know if you've ever been a judge on "Iron Chef?" Or would you be willing to? I've missed a few of the shows so maybe you've already done it.

BRUNI: No, I only left the Times restaurant critic position about a month ago, and for the duration of my tenure it was best for me to keep a low physical public profile because even though I was often recognized in restaurants, I didn't want to make it easy for restaurateurs. Right now, as we're speaking, I've been fielding a lot of those inquiries and I have not yet decided whether to go on TV and do some of that sort of judging but those calls and opportunities are just now coming my way.

CAVANAUGH: That's a…

JANET: So I assume if I Google your name, I could find out if you are going to make a TV appearance?

BRUNI: I am keeping a website, www.bornround.com, and it mentions all of my upcoming appearances. Like tomorrow night on the Colbert Show, and it also gives you links so you can see all my past appearances. So now everybody can see what I look like, should they care to. It's no great, you know, it's no great joy but it's there.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much, Janet, for the call. Now, not only did you call in and you gave different names but I read in the book that people actually pretended to be you when they made reservations at restaurants in New York. Is that right?

BRUNI: I would hear through the grapevine constantly that people would, you know, who weren't me, weren't related to me, would sometimes make reservations as Frank Bruni, thinking, oh, that means when I get there I'm going to get a really good table. But, of course, I mean, even though restaurateurs didn't always recognize me, you know, you could even a year ago do a Google image search and find some pictures of me. And so someone who looks nothing like that going into a restaurant as Frank Bruni is going to be found out. Also, restaurateurs knew that if the reservation was in the name Frank Bruni, it almost certainly wasn't me because that's not the way I operated.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, you thought I was that Frank Bruni.

BRUNI: Right, right. But as a kind of joking response to this…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

BRUNI: …I was once directed to a website, it's a merchandising site, that actually was selling tee shirts, bibs, coffee mugs, and even dog sweaters that say 'I am Frank Bruni' on them. The joke being like, put this on yourself or your pet and watch the restaurateurs snap to attention.

CAVANAUGH: Now, that's fame.

BRUNI: No, that's not fame. That's infamy.

CAVANAUGH: Chris is calling from La Mesa. Good morning, Chris.

CHRIS (Caller, La Mesa): Hey, hi. Yeah, I was wondering with your vast experience in Italy and especially in losing weight, is there a way to make food that tastes good and has that sort of rich flavors and you get the characteristic olive oil flavor and the sauces and everything without being fatty food?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Chris.

BRUNI: Well, I mean, you mentioned olive oil, olive oil is a very healthy thing. Do you know, I mean, I want to be careful to say here I'm not a nutritionist but, I mean, I think you mentioned Italy and what I would say about that is you're not in a lot of the Italian food and a lot of the way Italians eat, you're not eating a lot of refined sugar. You know, you're eating complex carbohydrates, you're eating more olive oil than butter. So, I mean, all of those things are the kinds of nutrients that aren't going to send you on that, you know, upward spiking, downward falling blood sugar rollercoaster that I think is a big component of a lot of people's overeating.

CAVANAUGH: Frank, are you a good cook?

BRUNI: I'm a horrible cook.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, are you really?

BRUNI: Well, because I'm very impatient.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

BRUNI: I mean, I – I'm a creature of appetite. And when I think about eating, I want to eat then. I don't want to eat two hours later. So every time I've tried to make like a bunch of chocolate chip cookies maybe three or four survive because I go through the cookie dough, you know.

CAVANAUGH: I do know.

BRUNI: You can't cook…

CAVANAUGH: I do know.

BRUNI: You can't cook well if you eat the ingredients before they're combined, you know, or cooked.

CAVANAUGH: In the last column that you wrote as restaurant critic for the Times, you had – you gave a number of short bits of advice under different headings and one of the headings was, is there any best, safest way to navigate a menu. Do you remember some of the advice points…

BRUNI: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: …that you gave for that?

BRUNI: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Would you share them with us?

BRUNI: Absolutely. Yeah, when you look at the menu, the appetizers and entrees that are most familiar, that you've seen in some of the other restaurants, scratch those off because that's the restaurant playing to caution. That's the restaurant, you know, playing to the lowest common denominator. Then look for the kookiest and most elaborate-sounding and strange-sounding things in both the appetizer and entrée category. Cross those off because that's the chef falling prey to his or her vanity. Look at what remains, cross off anything with truffle oil and once you've done that, whatever's left, order from that limited, you know, survivors.

CAVANAUGH: Whatever remains…

BRUNI: Right, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …is good to eat. So is it possible that the next time we see you we might – outside of Colbert, we might see you as a judge on "Top Chef" or something like that?

BRUNI: I don't know. I don't know. Yeah, that fate rests in – that decision rests with other people but I also – I'm just not sure what I want to do. I mean, I'm a – At the end of the day, the thing that I value most and care most about is writing. You know, I loved writing this book. I like to kind of hold a thought and play with a thought for a good length of time, and I don't know if doing those sorts of TV appearances would fit in with where I want to spend my energies. But we'll see.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I don't want to, you know, sour the deal that you might make in the future for one of these shows. What do you think about them, though? Have you watched a lot of food programming? What do you think about the competitions? The food competitions that are on TV?

BRUNI: Well, you know, I think two things about them. I think in one way they've actually done us a great service because no matter how garish the program, and – and, by the way, I think "Top Chef" is on the very non-garish end of the spectrum. They talk, in the course of those competitions, they talk about food, they talk about ingredients, they talk about the way flavors and different things go together or don't go together. And I think they're helping to raise a generation of future gourmands especially because I do know a lot of teenagers who watch those shows. The flip side that concerns me is they send a message to young chefs that being a chef is a quick route to celebrity or can be. And that's not the best reason for someone to go into the kitchen to make a living because very few people who go into cooking as a profession are going to become celebrities and if they want to be great cooks, what they need to be most concerned about is the actual work they're doing and not whether it's going to put their name up in lights.

CAVANAUGH: Frank Bruni, thanks so much for talking with us today.

BRUNI: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni is the author of the new book, "Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater." And Frank Bruni will speak at the UCSD Revelle Forum this evening at 7:00 p.m. at the Neurosciences Institute. And you can go to KPBS.org/TheseDays for more information. You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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