Server, Busser, Manager, Spy: Inside the High-Stakes World of Restaurant Oppo Research

With the rise of crowdsourced restaurant reviews on Yelp and its many peers, you’d think old-school, print-media critics would be a thing of the past by now. You’d think wrong: as Jessica Sidman shows in her Washingtonian story, restaurant owners go to incredible lengths to identify prominent critics like the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema, in the hopes of manufacturing a flawless, multiple-star-worthy experience. A lot of the energy is spent preemptively, creating and updating dossiers with blurred photos of critics and detailed notes about their culinary (and other) quirks. But there’s also a field-level aspect to these operations — the intricate choreography that kicks into gear as soon as Sietsema or another top critic enters the house.

To communicate about a critic, some restaurants have their own code words. One Italian joint called Sietsema “Neapolitan,” because it didn’t sound too weird to say out loud in the open kitchen. Others, including the kitchens of Fabio Trabocchi, refer to Sietsema as “Papa Bear.”

“I heard ‘Papa Bear in the house,’ and it’s like a fire drill,” says a sous chef for one of Ashok Bajaj’s restaurants, which include Rasika and Bibiana. The sous chef was in the middle of butchering 150 pounds of salmon for a large banquet that night, but when the alert came in, sous chefs kicked line cooks off their stations and began preparing Sietsema’s lunch themselves. (In other kitchens, the executive chef might take over complete prep of a dish. That way, only one person is to blame if the review is terrible.) “It is a huge wrench in the operation, because what you’re basically doing is interrupting the regular flow of service to stop and concentrate on one table and the other tables surrounding.”

With the executive chef orchestrating, the sous chefs prepared triplicates of every component of every dish. Nerves, as always, ran high. “I’ve burned more shit trying to cook something perfect for Tom Sietsema than I ever would have if I didn’t know that he was there,” the sous chef says.

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