Frank Bruni On Judging 'Top Chef' Restaurant Wars, Dining Room Noise, & More
Frank Bruni kicked off a two day guest co-hosting stint on Monday's "Morning Living" show on Sirius XM's Martha Stewart Living Radio, filling in for Kim Fernandez and appearing with regular co-host Betsy Karetnick. Bruni, the former chief restaurant critic for the New York Times, is the author of the acclaimed memoir Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite, just out on paperback.
After judging the show's "Restaurant Wars" episode, which aired last Wednesday, Bruni shared his thoughts on Top Chef and its format in a wide-ranging conversation that covered relay-style Quickfire challenges to the show's editing, and eventually to manufactured restaurant noise and food trucks. Here are some highlights, below.
Betsy Karetnick: How about being on Top Chef--was that fun?
Frank Bruni: It was fun. It's an interesting experience, they take themselves very seriously in a good way. It doesn't always necessarily come across in the editing but the discussions at Judges' Table were earnest, and I was impressed.
Frank Bruni: Top Chef isn't just about the restaurant world. It's a competition show...it's not the way that restaurants are run......what always impresses me about Top Chef is how much food information is conveyed through it, and I think there are a lot of people who watch it who have become much more sophisticated about food and restaurants because of their viewership of Top Chef.
Betsy Karetnick: Do you think that we think that we can compete on Top Chef?
Frank Bruni: I know I can't, can you?
Frank Bruni: I think what they're doing on Top Chef is a tough thing to do, because they're working...with a time limit. The circumstances, the challenges, are deliberately hyped up because....they're making you...go through paces that even a restaurant chef might not have to, just to see what you can take and what you can do.
Betsy Karetnick: The Quickfire [Challenge..on that episode]...that was a relay.
Frank Bruni: I didn't see that, because I came [in] after that...
Betsy Karetnick: ...three chefs were blindfolded at a time, the fourth chef was working, working, working, and when his ten minutes were up, the next chef had to take over.
Frank Bruni: It's interesting....
Betsy Karetnick: It's fun, but it's like a relay race in your backyard...how many times do we tie our legs to another human being and try to run that way?
Frank Bruni: Right, and that probably doesn't happen in Jean-Georges' kitchen every night. It's TV meets gastronomy--it's a hybrid.
Betsy Karetnick: ...it's fun to watch and I'm glad you were on. I bet they'll have you back.
Frank Bruni: We'll see.
Betsy Karetnick: They like honesty, honest talk.
Frank Bruni: (laughing) If nothing else, I'm honest.
Betsy Karetnick: Afterwards, do you think, 'Wow, did I say it was awful?' I meant to say, 'It could have been a lot better without the salty crust and that massive piece of goat cheese.'
Frank Bruni: Well, it was awful...I said a lot of other things too...it gets boiled down. I swear I did. I said nice stuff as well.
Betsy Karetnick: ...they cut you down to seven seconds, all that came out was 'It was awful.'
Frank Bruni: ...it's TV...that's why we love radio, Martha radio in particular.
Betsy Karetnick: You know what was nice about...the 'Restaurant Wars' episode on Top Chef...you really did distill what the restaurant experience is supposed to be like for the critic in all of us.
Frank Bruni: I hope so...I think that is a lot of people's favorite episode of Top Chef because it really...connects everything they are doing on Top Chef with the ultimate result, which is how does it work out in a restaurant? And it comes at a point in the season when they're down to eight contestants so the stakes are really rising... it was fun to do.
Betsy Karetnick: ...you brought up the service [on Top Chef], because it's not just about the way the food tastes, but about how it is presented and from whom it is presented.
Frank Bruni: I think that when we choose restaurants, and what makes restaurants successful or not, we think about ambience, we think about service. The food is most important, but it is really only the beginning. When you go to a restaurant, don't you often choose it based on how comfortable you are there, what it looks like, what the noise level is like...
Betsy Karetnick ...if you can hear...
Frank Bruni:...that's a big, big thing today. A lot of people won't go to certain restaurants because they literally can't hear themselves talk at the table.
Betsy Karetnick: Some people choose a restaurant because they can't hear the talk.
Frank Bruni: ...a lot of restaurants manufacture that amount of noise because people want to feel like they are at a 'happening' place and sometimes the easiest way for a restaurant to telegraph [the message] 'we're happening' is to be absolutely cacophonous.
Frank Bruni: You can't get extraordinary coddling at a low price point, but you can get excellent, excellent food. I think we are living in a food era where in fact you can eat better at the lower price points than ever before, because a lot of chefs are actually doing what they do, strutting their ambition, in unconventional settings.
Betsy Karetnick: Food truck[s]--are you a fan?
Frank Bruni: Yeah. Whether you're talking about food trucks, whether you're are talking about places like the Momofuku restaurants, which aren't cheap, but basically, they put you on stools...and what you're not paying for atmosphere is going into the quality of the food.