Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Sifton Gong Xi Fa Cai
For the first 1/3 of Sam Sifton's tenure at the Times, I didn't know who he was. Why should I? As a kid who would watch critics fumble around and fuck up reviewing ethnic food, why would I pay attention? I remember seeing rating plaques or local newspaper reviews framed at the worst Chinese, Lebanese, or Vietnamese restaurants in the neighborhood. Most of us don't read the Times to figure out where the best place to get ropa vieja or soup dumplings is. We ask people at pot lucks, Church, barber shops, and karaoke. I remember in the 90s when people actually thought asian-fusion was the hardest shit since MC Ren. My family would go back to East Asia in the summer and when I got back, I really didn't have much respect at all for American food. It was bullshit, watered down, compromised versions of the realness. It was like kids who sweat transformers when East Asia was already on that Dragon Ball Z and Gundam-ish. The only things I wanted from America were Eddie Murphy Raw, Barbecue, and shawties with pink nipples.
Even as owner of a NYC restaurant, I only mildly followed $25 and Under. But, one day a friend sent me this link to a Diner's Journal post about Wo Hop so I wrote this. I didn't know who Sifton was, but I did think he missed the point at Wo Hop. So, I wrote a faux-letter not understanding his role in the "industry" but I quickly figured it out. Mad customers came into Baohaus asking why I wrote that post and wondering if I knew what it meant to be the NYT Critic. I didn't care. But, I went home, read more of the man's shit, and loved it. I didn't jock him cause he was a gatekeeper, but because he referenced things I understood and cared about. Like a shitty movie with Coolio on the soundtrack and a teacher breaking through to kids, Sifton got it. As Prodigy would say, he spoke the dun language.
I didn't give a fuck whether there was a table cloth, two forks, and maitre d, I wanted to know who was in the God damn room, what music they're playing, is it a ill date spot, what are my odds of smashing after Fat Radish? Things people who are still alive care about. He understood that dining extends beyond the plate. I give a fuck who's sitting next to me. I give a fuck what scene I'm buying into by patronizing the restaurant. As a kid who still has ideals, aspirations, and a tribal mentality, I needs to mother fuckin know. I don't want to know how xyz French restaurant compares to abc French Restaurant from the 80s. I want to know that M. Wells "recalls the moment when Greg Ginn, of the punk band Black Flag, wore a Grateful Dead shirt onstage." And in the same vein, Sifton's time at Dining was like Snoop rockin' Tommy Hill on Letterman for hip hop heads. We had a vote.
Additionally, I still didn't go to the Times or any newspaper for that matter to decide where the "best" restaurants were. I think that's an unrealistic concept. Is it REALLY possible to create a system to determine the BEST restaurant? I'm not trying to pose an existential argument that doesn't apply in reality but I truly believe that it is impossible to rank restaurants across genres. The Times rating system understands that. The stars have more to do with the room than it does with the food. And restaurants get stars when their food, room, and service meet the standards and expectations of a restaurant of that "ilk" or that star rating. Del Posto might or might not be the best restaurant in the city, ditto for Per Se and all the other usual suspects. They aren't objectively the best, they just happen to meet the requirements for restaurants of that nature. If you ask 10 people where the BEST meal they've ever had was, 9 out of 10 will say their Grandmother's house and the odd man out will say his Mother's. Only some asshole from the yelp generation is going to say Per Se. For lack of a better comparison... Some of your friends like tall skinny meatpacking types who look like geometry problems #PerSe. Some of your friends like strange Asian women from Williamsburg who wear men's shoes #FattyCue. Then there are the guys like myself who like girls with the 40 oz bounce #PiesnThighs. 4-star, 1-star, $25 and Under... Like Pokemon, I just want to catch em all.
Either way, I peeped old Eater articles about how Pete Wells threw a curveball tabbing Sifton. I started to read all the old Bruni and Reichl reviews. I liked them, especially Reichl, but there didn't seem to ever be anyone like Sifton. While other people knocked the decision because he wasn't a "food guy", I thought it was the perfect choice because he wasn't. While Sifton clearly has an expert level of knowledge in matters of food, his real contribution is that he saw food in it's proper cultural place as a part of the STYLE section.
What people need to admit is that Dining is the ugly step child of the Style Section. I've always felt that people need to embrace restaurants like we do the rest of the Style Section. It's theatre. Yes, Food TV, Big Homie Tony Bourdain, Top Chef, and all that other shit had a effect, but in print, I don't think there was anyone who had a bigger effect on the culture of food as lifestyle in NY like Sifton. His reviews recognized that food in NY shares a space with art, music, fashion, and film... and he rep'd it.
People love Jonathan Gold and I do too. I've shouted him out numerous times cause he does the damn thing. But he's perfect in LA. A place where people have cars and venturing outside their neighborhoods isn't like going to another planet. People in LA love loving things and their urban sprawl shuts down at 2am. Dinner IS the event. This is NY... I need to know if it's worth going uptown to Boulud Sud and if there's a place to hang afterwards because the Girl and I must hear Rick Ross yell "Tupac Back" after seeing Mike Madrigale and his '76 Cristal tonight.
Sifton was the perfect guy at NYT because he WAS New York. He told inside jokes, understood stigma, used code words that we would get, and became someone we could trust to steer us away from scenes that weren't for us. He was able to applaud a restaurant for one group while warning those that wouldn't fit in to pass. He had a genuine interest in sub culture. He could see food in relation to things that other writers/chefs/restauranteurs can't. Look at the culturally relevant guys like Roberta's, Frank's/Prime Meats, or RuthBourdain, they understand their place in food in relation to other sub cultures. I mean, have you guys chilled with some of the chefs and food writers out there? THEY ARE FUCKING HERBS. Did you see that bullshit G-9 food summit in Lima? It reminds me of the time KRS-One decided to form a Temple of Hip Hop. Once it's academic, it's over.
Sifton is the first to really integrate and rep for youth culture in the Dining section. Old people just keep shit copacetic. For the first time in a while, food is holding it's own in the style section and kids are paying attention. Hypebeast is covering Hainan Chicken, Entourage got Don Pepe's, and Fashion's Night Out is as much about food as it is halloween for 15 year old wanna-be "it girls". No one sums up Sifton's era like Pusha-T:
"Who else could put the hipsters with felons and thugs? And paint a perfect picture of what sellin' it does. This is for the critics who doubted the chemistry, two different worlds same symmetry. In this black art, see the wizardry, when you at the top of your game, you make enemies..."
Pete Wells-Sam Sifton had the game on smash and ran 'tings the last 2 years. #TroubleOnTheirMinds They had every one talking about restaurants, take-downs, and double-downs. All I can hope for is that the next ninja recognizes the ground work that's been laid and understands food's place in American Pop Culture today. To the next critic... "Come on homie, we major..."
Lastly, Sam... Mom wanted me to say: "Gong Xi Fa Cai" Congrats homie, the kids will miss you. But on a positive note, does he have to be anonymous now? Can he come get lifted at Baohaus 2? LET ME FIND OUT.