Special Sauce: Sam Sifton on Food in the Internet Age [2/2]

In part two of my repartee-filled interview with New York Times food editor Sam Sifton, we delved into the intersection of food and technology. When I asked Sam how he thinks the internet has impacted the food media landscape, he said “I think it has changed food for the better and for the worse. You know, there’s something kind of delicious as a critic, at least in the first years of being able to go to the internet, to get the photographic notes that you would’ve taken if you weren’t raised like a gentleman….You know, this is everybody obsessively photographing their food but, after a few years of that, now chefs are creating dishes that are meant to be photographed. That’s a problem, right? The sort of Instagram-bait platings are a problem, so you’ve got to kind of be careful about it but, on the whole, I can go on my phone and get a reservation in two seconds and order a car and get there and take pictures of the food and then get a news alert or have the president send an alert to my phone, as he did today. That’s amazing! That’s cool! That’s great!”

And, since Sam wrote a cookbook exclusively devoted to Thanksgiving, I also had to ask him for his top tips for the notoriously challenging holiday meal. “Okay, three things that you need to know about Thanksgiving that you don’t really know already,” he said. “Number one: everything is going to be fine. It really is. I promise you. It’s going to be fine. Two: you need more butter than you think. You really do. Three: Thanksgiving is not the time to litigate that issue [Whatever the hot-button of the moment happens to be]. It really isn’t. Let it go. Let it go for the meal.”

For a whole lot more New York Times food wisdom, including the origins of the newspaper’s cooking app, and a great deal of fun food-gabbing, check out this week’s episode of Special Sauce.


Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk with some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.

Sam Sifton: Okay, three things that you need to know about Thanksgiving. Number one: everything is going to be fine. It really is. I promise you. Two: you need more butter than you think. Three: Thanksgiving is not the time to litigate that issue. It really isn’t.

EL: We are back with my old running partner, Sam Sifton, my former editor at the New York Times. Sam is currently the food editor of the paper, and he’s also been at various times the Times’ restaurant critic, its national editor, its culture editor, so now you’re put in charge of all the food coverage in the paper. Was that something you asked for, like was food calling your name?

SS: Yeah, it was, or at least the chance to mess around with our recipe database was. I know you appreciate a historical story, so I’m going to spin back the years a little bit to say that there was a moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Craig Claiborne, then the food editor of the New York Times, did a kind of extraordinary thing. He managed to convince his bosses, Abe Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb, to allow him to take the many hundreds of recipes that he had already written or reported on or amassed as food editor of the Times and put them into the New York Times Cookbook. He did so with ease and alacrity, and that book with no pictures in it, with no top notes, with no blurbs from Alton Brown became a national bestseller for the better part of a decade. Now, it’s to the Times’ immense discredit that they just let them do that, and it’s his book! Like it never made a dime for the Times.

The Times at the time that the New York Times Cookbook was a national bestseller was not a national newspaper. It was hardly a regional one, yet the understanding in the minds of the buying public that the New York Times had a history with great recipes was even then the case, and I thought, “I bet we could create a digital version of that kind of a thing within the world of the Times,” and all we need to do to do that is take this archive of dead article assets, a file that says, “Cioppino, one fish, one thing of tomato sauce.”

EL: 1974.

SS: Right. All I got to do is make sure that’s a good recipe, tell the story behind it, get a nice picture on it, and it’s a good project. We can kind of get this going. So, four years ago, we were able to get it going.

EL: And that’s the cooking app.

SS: And that is NYT Cooking.

EL: Yeah.

SS: In order to do that successfully, I made the argument, the team needed control over all food coverage at the paper, and we got it.

EL: I remember having lunch with all kinds of people, including you while you were going through that process, and it’s never a linear process when you’re putting together something like an app. Can you get people to pay for it or how do you get people to pay for it? There was a lot of back and forth. Did you expect that that was going to be part of the drill?

SS: Oh, yeah. I started … I’ve invented apps since I was a kid. No, I didn’t expect it! I didn’t know anything about any of this! I’m a journalist! I didn’t know … These people would talk, and I didn’t even understand the words, you know?

EL: Hey, welcome to my world, Sam Sifton!

SS: It was incredible. It was incredible. We can iterate on that, but I have a hard stop at 4. What? So, it took a while to understand even what they were saying, but I had the very good fortune of working with a woman named Alex MacCallum who now runs New Products and Ventures for the Times. Alex said, “It’s very simple. We’re just going to get big. We’re going to get a lot of people using this thing. We’re going to get them to register, and then we’ll figure it out,” and that’s exactly what we did.

EL: So, this is important. You’re taking over the food coverage in the age of the internet. How did that affect your thinking?

SS: Well, pretty starkly. I said when we were talking earlier, I talked about how I kind of romanticized these print editors, and I was an early editor, or a late editor for him. Early in my career, I edited Johnny Apple. I worked with these titans of print journalism, and I love print journalism.

If you worked on a small paper as your first paper, as I did, New York Press, we laid the paper out together. We put it on the boards together. We took it to the printing plant together. I romanticized print journalism, but when I started this business of food, the new food section, Food 2.0 and MIT Cooking, I realized I can’t think about print at all, not at all. In fact, that’s probably a good thing because most people read our wares on their phones.

EL: Does digital media affect what you cover in the paper, like do you read blogs or sites like Serious Eats?

SS: What is that, Serious Eats?

EL: Yeah, yeah. It’s this little thing I started.

SS: I don’t know about that. Isn’t that what Gwyneth Paltrow said about the Cut. “I don’t know about that.” Of course. Look, we exist in a world in which there’s a mass audience for what we do, and then there’s a tiny little audience for what we do, so we’re spending a fair amount of time thinking about both.

EL: Do you think that the internet has changed food media, both for the better and for the worse?

SS: Well, that’s an open-ended question, so I can say yes, I think it has changed food for the better and for the worse. You know, there’s something kind of delicious as a critic, at least in the first years of being able to go to the internet to get the photographic notes that you would’ve taken if you weren’t raised like a gentleman.

You know, this is everybody obsessively photographing their food but, after a few years of that, now chefs are creating dishes that are meant to be photographed. That’s a problem, right? The sort of Instagram-bait platings are a problem, so you got to kind of be careful about it but, on the whole, I can go on my phone and get a reservation in two seconds and order a car and get there and take pictures of the food and then get a news alert or have the president send an alert to my phone, as he did today. That’s amazing! That’s cool! That’s great!

EL: Exactly, but it’s a matter of harnessing it and separating the wheat from the chaff.

SS: Correct.

EL: We need to talk about the Pulitzer Prize that you shared at the paper. What was it for? How did it come about?

SS: As an editor, I didn’t share it.

EL: Right.

SS: Reporters do. It was, I think, a year ago, if not today, then certainly a year ago this week that the first New York Times bombshell investigation into sexual harassment by big, powerful men came out, and that was the Harvey Weinstein story by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. It ushered in a period of reporting at the Times that saw virtually every desk involved and looking at the most powerful people in the worlds that were on those beats. Two of our reporters, Julia Moskin and Kim Severson, endeavored to do that themselves.

After a lot of reporting and a lot of tips coming in and a lot more reporting, they kind of came to the notion that the biggest, I won’t say target, that’s not fair, but the biggest name that was being bandied about was Ken Friedman, the owner of the Spotted Pig and The Breslin, John Dorian, many other restaurants. Along with his name, Mario Batali’s name was coming up a lot, and Kim and Julia worked together for months talking to women and men who had experienced the behavior of Friedman and Batali, as well, and working to gain their trust so that they would go on the record with their stories, which they eventually did.

That story was included in the Times’ submission to the Pulitzer Board, which resulted in a win for the Times for public service. Julia and Kim are, indeed, Pulitzer winners, and I’m proud of the work that I did on those stories, and that’s a Pulitzer that they share with men and women across the Times for coverage of this amazing and tumultuous time.

EL: That’s pretty cool! You mentioned briefly your time as a critic and how important you think the role of Times’ critics is in general and I, of course, always gravitate towards the restaurant critic. You were the restaurant critic. Do you think that restaurant critics continue to be relevant and, if so, why?

SS: I would like to think that restaurant critics continue to be relevant, but I would say that, wouldn’t I? I was a restaurant critic. I think that the business of restaurant criticism has changed, is changing, is in the process of changing, and I think that’s probably a good thing. Restaurant criticism, like most culture criticism, to me, is now divided between two very distinct boxes. On the one hand is what I like to think of as retail criticism. It’s simple, thumbs up, thumbs down, you should go to this place, you should not.

EL: Right. We had a pork bun. It was delicious.

SS: Right. All that has to be is correct, right? Yelp is not correct. Yelp is a rando screaming about how the pork bun was dry and they didn’t give it to them for free, but professional critics can assay a place and kind of determine, “This is a good restaurant or this is not a good restaurant,” or “If you are coming to this restaurant, this is what you should eat, or don’t come to this restaurant at all. It’s horrifying.” That retail criticism is all the more important in a world in which the number of restaurants we’re dealing with and the quality of the restaurants we’re dealing with is so much larger than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

I’m sure you have a very young median age listening to you because you’re so young at heart, but I know the facts, Ed, and I know that you will remember that, when Ruth Reichl took over as restaurant critic, I was in high school, but you were not. When Ruth Reichl took over as restaurant critic from Bryan …

EL: Bryan Miller.

SS: Bryan Miller. He issued this blistering memo that got leaked about how she was destroying the star system because she was writing about a noodle place. Well, in Bryan’s day, and Bryan was a brilliant critic but, in Bryan’s day, there were like 500 restaurants that mattered to the New York Times, and they were all in Manhattan. Now, there are probably 500 restaurants that matter to the New York Times in the top 15 travel markets of the world, right?

EL: Right.

SS: It’s a huge number, and we can’t expect Pete to deal with that, so solving for retail criticism is going to be a challenge to the New York Times and one that I’m looking forward to and Pete’s looking forward to. When I say Pete, I mean Pete Wells, the current chief restaurant critic. We’re looking forward to tackling that issue. The second and, in some ways, more important from the culture’s point of view box is the one in which the critic let’s you know what’s happening in the world in which you live through the restaurants that we go to.

EL: Right. Right? Which is what you tried to do. You tried to make …

SS: Tried? Ed!

EL: You succeeded in having the restaurant critic also be a social critic, …

SS: Right.

EL: … which is really what you’re saying.

SS: Yes, and it’s what I think culture critics can do at their best. If you look at the work that Amanda Haas is doing currently at the New York Times or that Wesley Morris is doing at the New York Times, …

EL: Or Pete Wells, I would say.

SS: … or Pete Wells is doing at the New York Times. You’ll see they say that journalism is the first draft of history. I think culture criticism can be the first draft of social history, of explaining what is happening in a culture at a given time in terms of our mores and our beliefs and how we eat and why we’re eating it.

EL: It’s interesting because you’re right. Even someone like Bill Addison of Eater, who I think is a terrific restaurant critic, but he is much more of a retail critic. He’s a great retail critic, whereas I think Pete does delve into the social mores of the world that he is encountering. Today, he reviewed a Pakistani restaurant,

SS: Azerbaijan.

EL: … Azerbaijan in Brooklyn, and it was brilliant in its own way!

SS: Yeah, it was terrific.

EL: It was amazing! One more question before we get to the buffet. You wrote a Thanksgiving cookbook, and it’s coming up.

SS: I did.

EL: Thanksgiving is coming up. What’s three pieces of wisdom you would give to serious eaters everywhere to help them with their Thanksgiving angst?

SS: Okay, three things that you need to know about Thanksgiving that you don’t really know already. Number one: everything is going to be fine. It really is. I promise you. It’s going to be fine. Two: you need more butter than you think. You really do. Three: Thanksgiving is not the time to litigate that issue. It really isn’t. Let it go. Let it go for the meal.

EL: That’s so awesome! I can’t tell you. If we had those three things in my family, like people would still be talking to one another.

SS: You gotta be careful on Thanksgiving.

EL: So, now it’s time for the All You Can Answer Special Sauce Buffet. No time clock, although I will bust you if you take too long.

SS: Wait. So, what’s the deal? You’re going to ask me lots of questions like bang, bang, bang? Are there right answers and wrong answers?

EL: No. No right answers or wrong answers.

SS: I’m a little nervous.

EL: Yeah, you should be.

SS: Okay!

EL: I see you sweating!

SS: Yeah.

EL: So, who’s at your last supper? No family allowed. It could be people living or dead. It can be artists, musicians, politicians.

SS: I hate these things!

EL: I know. That’s all right, man.

SS: All right, so today’s edition of my last supper, I think we’re going to have Stephen Sondheim. We talked about him earlier.

EL: Okay.

SS: It’d be really nice to have him there. I think I’d like to bring Jim Harrison back from the dead because he’d bring cigarettes, and I think in a weird way would get along with …

EL: Sondheim.

SS: … Sondheim. I think that I would like also, I’m going to bring another food person back. I’d like to have Laurie Colwin there.

EL: Laurie Colwin is someone that I think about all the time, wonderful novels and that involve food, and people don’t talk about Laurie Colwin enough.

SS: We wrote an interesting story, or we ran an interesting story, by Jeff Gordinier when he was working for the Times about a group of women who feel as you do and feel as I do and gather to kind of … It’s like a …

EL: Celebrate Laurie Colwin!

SS: … Colwin book club.

EL: That’s great.

SS: My mom was her editor.

EL: Really? I love Laurie Colwin. Jim Harrison, of course, is this Falstaffian figure who passed away last year who wrote about …

SS: Hunting and fishing and guns …

EL: Exactly!

SS: … and magic and love and red wine and great eating and living in the outdoors. I just, I guess, Rabelaisian is one of the other things they could say about him, and I never met him. I would like him to be there. I think he and Laurie Colwin would get along well.

EL: Alright, one more woman.

SS: Janet McTeer, the great actress. Why not?

EL: This is so cool because you’re mentioning people that nobody else has mentioned. So, what are you eating?

SS: Oh, at the meal?

EL: Yeah!

SS: Jeepers! Again, I hate answering this because it changes all the time, right?

EL: I understand. It’s today.

SS: But it’s for this crowd, how about this? We’re going to use my time travel machine …

EL: Okay.

SS: … to have the meal, not shipped from. We’re actually going to go to the restaurant in the time travel machine, and we’re going to eat in the old Odeon, like 80s Odeon, full tilt boogie Odeon.

EL: When you were working down there.

SS: No, this predates. This was like when I’m in high school.

EL: Okay.

SS: You know, the only Odeon Restaurant that I’ve gone to since 10th grade, so I’ve probably eaten in that restaurant as much as any other restaurant in New York City but, when I was in 10th grade, it seemed to be to me the single-most sophisticated, scary, cool, racy place. I believed everybody was having sex in the bathrooms, that the sugar bowls were filled with cocaine. That place … So, that’s where we’re eating!

EL: Alright.

SS: We’re going to start with country salad, and then we’ll all have steak, and it’ll be really good. Take a long walk home over the Brooklyn Bridge.

EL: Dessert?

SS: No dessert.

EL: Okay.

SS: Another glass of wine. I don’t think Harrison ate dessert. I think he had another cigarette.

EL: I know you have many guilty pleasures. What’s one that immediately comes to mind?

SS: First of all, I have no guilty pleasures, right? I have pleasures. I don’t feel guilty about it.

EL: Okay.

SS: But, I’ll tell you about some stuff that I do …

EL: Okay.

SS: … that you’ll think this guy should be embarrassed about that, but I’m not embarrassed about it because I’m not guilty about it. It’s delicious. Occasionally, in the morning, particularly if I’m going fishing and I’ve got a long drive ahead of me, like some people would make a delicious cafe au lait or something like that? I like to make a big Nescafe with a lot of cream and sugar in it, and I think of it as like …

EL: Coffee ice cream.

SS: Yeah, exactly, and it’s fantastic! Don’t at me!

EL: All right, that’s perfect. No more. We don’t need any more. What’s on your nightstand right now, book-wise?

SS: What is on my nightstand currently right now? I am reading, at once, the new Mike Solomonov book from Zahav in Philadelphia called Israeli Soul, which I think is pretty interesting. I have to interview him in a couple of weeks.

EL: I do, too!

SS: Oh well, everybody’s talking to Solomonov.

EL: Yeah, exactly.

SS: Let’s trade questions. So, I’m reading that, which I think is pretty interesting. I’m reading the new Robert Galbraith novel, Robert Galbraith being the pseudonym for J.K. Rowling.

EL: Everyone loves Robert Galbraith.

SS: I have some issues with some of her writing takes that … I read aloud those Harry Potter books to my kids, and it always bugged me how Harry’s scar could not be more painful until, four pages later, it was more painful, and it’s a little bit with these Galbraith books, the same thing with Cormoran Strike, the hero’s prosthesis, his stump is always hurting, and then it hurts more. I just think, “Come on.”

EL: Yeah. You know, I am writing this series, this memoir that I told you about, and I want to have a playlist for each chapter. My editor at Penguin told me that Galbraith, J.K. Rowling, does that in his books.

SS: Wow!

EL: His/her books.

SS: Maybe that exists on the Kindle version of it. I hadn’t seen that. I think that’s a smart idea. I don’t know if it’s a smart idea for the book itself, but certainly for like, “Here’s this modified playlist that goes with my book.” That’d be pretty cool.

EL: So, what’s the most influential book you’ve ever read.

SS: I’ve read a lot of books.

EL: I know, man, I’m sorry. See, with me, it’s really easy since I’ve only read 50 books.

SS: What is it for you?

EL: No. Well, that’s a good … I’ll tell you what it is for me, and you’re not going to believe this, and it really shows you how lowbrow I am.

SS: Okay.

EL: It’s a Ron Suskind book called A Hope in the Unseen …

SS: All right.

EL: … which I don’t know if you. It’s the story of a kid from a really bad neighborhood in Washington, D.C. who transcends his environment and ends up at Brown, and Ron Suskind is a fly-on-the-wall, and it’s one of the most wonderful books you will ever read.

SS: That sounds great! I’m going to have to pick it up, and I know your readers will, as well. I’m going to trump you for going in the opposite direction toward like … I think it’s probably a children’s book. I think, thinking about under the bright lights of the studio, there are a lot of directions that one can go with the answer to that question, but I think that the children’s books that I read by Robert McCloskey, …

EL: The greatest!

SS: … sort of What Do People Do All Day? and Time of Wonder and all instilled in me a kind of curiosity about the world and a desire to identify different people doing different things.

EL: No Time for Ducklings?

SS: Make Way for Ducklings.

EL: Make Way for Ducklings.

SS: Make Way for Ducklings, it’s a little Bostonian for a New Yorker, …

EL: Got it.

SS: … but What Do People Do All Day?, for sure, was helpful to me. I guess, now that I’m thinking about it all these years later, probably as a journalist, I spend a lot of time trying to make a quick sketch of a person to explain who he is, and that’s what the McCloskey paintings do.

EL: In terms of food writing, who’s had the most influence in your career?

SS: There’s not a lot of food writers that I love, love, love, but …

EL: See, I would say Calvin Trillin.

SS: Yeah, Calvin Trillin’s bananas and a great pick. I was going to pick in that vein, as well, and kind of throw my lot in with my employer and say Johnny Apple.

EL: Yes! I love Johnny Apple!

SS: Both Trillin and Apple show the truth of something that we’ve banged on about for the course of this conversation, which is they’re not simply writing about food, and they didn’t just write about food.

EL: No!

SS: Johnny, brilliant conflict reporter and war correspondent who also was the Albany bureau chief, but no one could write better at this altitude.

EL: No, I love Johnny Apple so much, and he used to say to me, he said, “I’m going to talk to Sifton! We need more Ed Levine in the paper!” That was his thing.

SS: Yeah, he definitely … I remember once with Johnny, Johnny also loved print. He was the only person allowed to cut his own stories. You had to send him faxes, and they had to be H&J’d or laid out as they would be in the paper, and then he would cut the windows over the phone with me, never with the copy desk. He didn’t talk to the copy desk. He was too grand for that. I had to cut a story. I couldn’t find him. He was in Ohio. This was 2004, I think, and I found him in three calls, and he said, “How the hell did you find me?” I said, “Well, Johnny, there are a limited number of 4-star hotels in Ohio. I got you on the fourth one” or whatever.

EL: That’s awesome! So, it’s just been declared Sam Sifton Day all over the world.

SS: Oh, interesting.

EL: What’s happening on that day?

SS: Holy cannoli! It’s Sam Sifton Day! There are a lot of outdoor fires burning for various barbecues, and grill activities are happening. There are outdoor pizza ovens going. I think it’s an outdoor holiday that celebrates the preparation of food in the wild, so there are people sliding pizzas in the homemade pizza ovens and turning whole hogs in the North Carolina tradition over on these big point in time barbecues. There are people laying out clambakes in the sand of New England. It’s a pretty magical day, Ed!

EL: I thought it would be. I thought it would be. Thank you so much for sharing your Special Sauce with us, Sam Sifton.

SS: Thanks so much, Ed! It’s a pleasure to be here.

EL: It’s been an honor and a pleasure to catch up with you, my friend. So long, Serious Eaters, and we’ll see you next time!