Sam Sifton is a man of few words. The newly appointed restaurant critic for The New York Times describes his favorite food as "delicious food."
So what, you might ask, qualifies him to take on one of the most influential jobs in the business? "Like many Americans," he says, "I've eaten my entire life."
He's done a bit more than that: He's a former dining and cultural news editor at the Times. And if his manner seems a bit elusive, it's because his new job demands anonymity.
Since the Times' current critic, Frank Bruni, announced in May that he would be stepping down, restaurants have been playing the guessing game about his successor. Maitres d' are now on the lookout for Sifton, whose picture is readily available online.
"The managers know what he looks like, the servers know what he looks like; you know, we have to be on our guard," says Kevin Garcia, executive chef at 'Cesca, an Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side.
In fact, Garcia has trained his staff to spot any professional critic: to look out for someone who orders from the menu with a certain confidence or knows the wine list a little too well.
But there are thousands of diners and restaurants in New York City, and only one Sam Sifton. His "forehead isn't branded," says Barrie Simon, who tends bar at Amsterdam 106, a Manhattan pub. Simon doesn't think she could smoke out a critic, let alone the unassuming-looking Sifton.
Sifton says he plans to visit the "dirt cheap" establishments as well as the fancy ones. A glowing review could mean a big boost in business for a restaurant, while a scorching critique could bring disaster.
But restaurateurs have several more weeks to guess about the peculiarities of Sifton's palate, and the pointedness of his pen: The Times says Sifton will begin his new job in October.