thumb image

On the face of it, food writing seems to be about, well, food. But slice a bit deeper, and you realize it’s about so much more; it’s about culture, people and humanity. Good stories about food tell the stories of the people who are honoring their grandmother, their culture, their own history or their people’s history through the food they’re making. 

These are the kinds of stories Brett Anderson has been telling for more than two decades. The 49-year-old Minnesota native is one of America’s preeminent modern food writers. He has penned north of 1,000 articles, has three James Beard Awards to his name and is credited with creating the watershed moment of 2017 (more on that later). His admirers know him from his years as restaurant critic at New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, and now he’s signed on for a stint with The New York Times, among other projects.

But let’s back up a bit. Growing up, Anderson didn’t aspire to become a food writer. He wasn’t even what you might consider a foodie. “For starters, I grew up privileged,” he explains. “My father was a politician, so he was a person of influence, but neither of my parents came from privilege. We did not grow up gourmets or avid restaurant goers, but we ate well.”

His dad of course was hockey player turned politician Wendell Anderson, Minnesota’s 33rd governor, who served in the seventies. He then served in the U.S. Senate for a couple years after Walter Mondale vacated his spot, having been elected vice president under Jimmy Carter. Wendy, as he was known, is remembered for helping the U.S. hockey team secure a silver medal at the 1956 Winter Olympics, creating the 1971 tax reform dubbed the Minnesota Miracle and touting “the good life in Minnesota” on the cover of Time magazine in 1973. (That cover story extolled the Land of 10,000 Lakes as a “state that works,” noting that “if the American good life has anywhere survived in some intelligent equilibrium, it may be in Minnesota.”) He died in 2016 at the age of 83 due to complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

But back to the younger Anderson. Brett remembers dining out with his family at the Lexington, which was around the corner from the governor’s mansion: “My dad would show up, walk through the backdoor, and sit at a table with his handlers and deal with business. But it was also a time for cocktails, steak and walleye.” Indeed, his memories often align food with obligation.

“We’d end up at a lot of these big events where the food wasn’t showcasing the best of Midwestern cuisine, instead serving what you might call wedding food,” he says. “So I didn’t have a great understanding of what adults ate for pleasure. For a long time, I didn’t associate what adults did when they got together to eat with pleasure; I had to learn to do that as I got older.”

That’s not to say that the Andersons didn’t have strong food traditions — just that they didn’t necessarily involve dining out, something Brett’s life has revolved around for decades now. He grew up in a family of recreational fishermen, so there was always a steady supply of walleye in the freezer (frozen using the tried-and-true milk carton method).

Photography by Denny Culbert | Food styling by Andi Daniel | On location at Coquette in New Orleans

Brett also recalls spending time with his paternal grandparents in rural farm country near Hugo. “My grandparents on my father’s side were first-generation Americans raised by Swedish immigrants,” he explains. “Their lunch tradition was toasted homemade wheat bread, summer sausage and maybe some cheese. One of the reasons that memory sticks with me is that is very much how I like to eat in the middle of the day.”

The youngest of three with two older sisters, Brett learned his way around a kitchen early on. “We were a very busy family that wasn’t oriented around the dinner table,” he notes. “We all had different schedules, so I had to learn to make my own meals: omelets, pastas, things like that. Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a particularly gifted cook at a young age, I wasn’t intimidated by the idea of making my own dinner as a young man.”

So how did this non-foodie become one of America’s most respected modern food writers? By accident, really. Brett’s first journalism gig was in 1990 as an office assistant at the alt weekly Twin Cities Reader, which folded in the late nineties. “I was very much interested in writing and journalism, but I had just failed out of college, frankly,” he recalls. “I started at Drake University in Iowa but came home because my grades were really bad. So I got this job at the Twin Cities Reader, and a year or so into it, I became a music writer, which was my ambition.” (Brett went on to earn an English degree from the University of Minnesota, accomplished on a part-time basis while working.)

Wait, music writer? “I got interested in journalism because I loved punk rock and underground rock,” he says. “As a young kid, I’d read anything I could get my hands on about musicians. And in retrospect, there was a lot of pretty sophisticated, engrossing writing in music journalism in the late eighties and into the nineties: Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. I was also very affected by the kind of writing that surrounded music journalism, the kind of lefty politics and gonzo journalism.”

So Brett finds himself working at the Twin Cities Reader as a music writer under legendary journalist (and notorious addict) David Carr. He was another Minnesotan who got his start at the aforementioned alt weekly. Carr went on to edit another alt weekly, the Washington City Paper, write for the Atlantic and New York magazine, and pen a popular media column for The New York Times. His 2008 memoir details his long battle with addiction and his journey to sobriety: “If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story? What if instead I wrote I was a recovered addict who obtained custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare and raised them by myself, even though I had a little touch of cancer? Both are equally true.” In 2015, Carr collapsed in the Times newsroom and was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. His autopsy revealed he died of complications of metastatic lung cancer at the age of 58.

But back to Brett. “The first restaurant critic I ever read avidly was [the Star Tribune’s] Rick Nelson when we both worked at the Twin Cities Reader,” he recalls. “Even though I couldn’t afford to go to most of the restaurants he wrote about, I found the way he would evoke the life of the city through these places very interesting. And Molly O’Neill wrote a cooking column for The New York Times Magazine in those days that I thought was really beautifully written. I used her recipes a lot.”

In 1995, Carr departs the Twin Cities Reader for the Washington City Paper and takes Brett with him. Then Carr decides that not only should the publication cover restaurants but that Brett should be its first critic. “It wasn’t my idea; it was David’s,” he emphasizes. “I wrote a column called ‘Young & Hungry’ for about five years. But at that time, I didn’t think that was where my career would head.”

Brett had some culinary catching up to do. The first time he ever ate sushi, for example, was when he was covering a sushi restaurant. “I had significant liabilities when it came to experience, and it was way harder to write a coherent restaurant review than I thought it would be,” he admits. “But people were nice and patient with me.” Among his mentors? Former Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman and current WaPo critic Tom Sietsema. And his idols — M.F.K. Fisher, A. J. Liebling, Joseph Wechsberg — lent a sense of glamour to the first wave of mainstream food writing, which at that time was reserved for a niche audience (more on that later).

Pretty soon, Brett’s professional identity is cemented as a food writer (albeit an accidental one) and “one day in 2000 I got a call asking if I was interested in coming to New Orleans to interview for the restaurant critic job at the Times-Picayune, so I did,” he explains. “It wasn’t really what I was shooting for; I wasn’t shooting to live in New Orleans, and I wasn’t shooting to work for a daily newspaper. But then I took the job, and here we are, nearly 20 years later.”

So Brett finds himself in a city he’s not sure he wants to reside in doing a job he’s not sure he wants to do. But soon enough he’s a NOLA die-hard explaining the intricacies of the city’s unique food culture to its citizens and beyond. Did he grow tired of it after all those years? “I thought there would be a limit to how interesting it could be to write about food and restaurants,” he says. “But to this day, I’m still not even close to sick of it.”

But as we know, good food stories are about more than food. During his tenure at the Times-Picayune, Brett’s work transcended simply restaurant reviews and the publication’s popular dining guide. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, for example, he wrote about restaurant owners trying to rebuild what was. Brett returned to the city a week after evacuating to Oxford, Mississippi, joining a troop of reporters who were putting out the newspaper despite a lack of electricity and phones. He didn’t review any restaurants (there weren’t any functioning ones) and instead helped cover the aftermath of the storm.

In fact, he didn’t pen a review for three years after Katrina, noting there wasn’t any reader hunger for it and that he “would not want my name associated with the implication that things were back to normal.” Brett’s five-part series crafted over two years following father-daughter team Tommy and Cindy Mandina as they painstakingly rebuilt NOLA institution Mandina’s earned him a James Beard in 2008 (his second, following a 2006 win for his oral history of Paul Prudhomme’s revolutionary impact on NOLA cuisine). “As a restaurant critic, you don’t expect that you’ll come to appreciate the courage of the people you cover,” he says. “It turns out that some of them are made of stronger stuff than I would have predicted. People in the restaurant community knew that if they didn’t do something, the traditions of New Orleans would die.”

Something else that changed in the immediate aftermath of Katrina? Brett’s urge to stay anonymous at all costs, as most restaurant critics strive to do so as not to receive special treatment when visiting eateries. “Before the storm, I always did phone interviews because of the anonymity thing,” he notes. “But that went out the window in 2005. I didn’t want anonymity to keep me from reporting the best stories I possibly could, and it seemed silly to think about not compromising my identity when 80% of the city was underwater.” When he returned to reviewing, it was back to business as usual.

And then in 2017, that watershed moment of the year. It started with a tip received during the Mardi Gras parade (yes, really) and ended with notable NOLA chef/restaurateur John Besh stepping down from his eponymous restaurant group, which at the time comprised such acclaimed eateries as August, Domenica, Shaya and Willa Jean. Brett spent eight months investigating claims that Besh, his partner, Octavio Mantilla, and others in the company fostered a culture of sexual harassment and coercion. All told, 25 women came forward with allegations, nine of whom went on record for the Times-Picayune story.

It’s interesting and important to note that Brett worked on this exposé before the Harvey Weinstein allegations came to light, before the Me Too Movement was in full force. In fact, it likely would have been published before that news hit if Brett hadn’t been trying to give Besh an opportunity to answer some hard questions.

“There are two reasons that’s an important contextual piece,” he explains. “One is that these sources talked to me before the trigger of the Me Too Movement. They didn’t have this sense that the public would be in their corner, and in fact, there was nothing in their past life experience that suggested that would be the case. And still they spoke — and that takes a lot of courage. The other reason it’s relevant is that, when the Besh story came out, the American public was freshly outraged by these revelations of workplace abuses. And it triggered a sense of recognition about what life is like for women in corporate America and in all workplaces. The Besh story had that effect particularly with the millions of women who’ve worked in restaurants.” It was the first major restaurant exposé of the Me Too era, receiving praise from the likes of chefs José Andrés and Anthony Bourdain as well as food writers Kat Kinsman and Julia Moskin.

After the story broke, Brett received more than a hundred calls and emails from restaurant industry workers with stories to tell. “I felt like it was my duty to hear out every single one of those people,” he says. “To me, that was a labor story, and it made me interested in stories about restaurant workers in ways I had not been before. It made me realize I didn’t focus enough on that as a journalist, and I think most food writers are guilty of that. We’ve focused on the creativity, on the fun side, on the rise of the stars, not on the worker bees. We’re celebrating this industry and not asking the hard questions, like is this an industry that takes care of its own?”

Eater credited Brett with creating the watershed moment of that year, noting that “it takes a journalist with integrity, patience and resources to take this kind of story and see it through to publication — all the while ensuring its accuracy and that it will hold up to the intense scrutiny of the court of public opinion.” Indeed, it was an arduous but incredibly rewarding experience for Brett, and one he thinks transformed how he is perceived in NOLA and among his fellow food writers. Although there were consequences — resulting lawsuits and a notable departure from the restaurant group by rising chef Alon Shaya — Brett points out that it’s unclear if Besh has actually divested or abstained from major decision making at the company, plus partner Octavio Mantilla is still active with the group.

Brett was predictably nominated for a James Beard in 2018 for his exposé — and shockingly did not win. The prize for investigative reporting instead went to The New Republic’s Ted Genoways for a pair of reports about a group plotting to kill Somali refugees in a Kansas meatpacking town and about small-town environmentalists fighting alongside anti-Muslim xenophobes to stop a potentially toxic chicken plant. That Brett didn’t take home top honors didn’t diminish the impact of his work; instead, it highlighted the wealth of important food stories being told.

Admittedly, not every piece Brett has penned has been so noble. He’s cranked out restaurant reviews aplenty in his day, and readers haven’t always loved him for it. “There’s always pressure around how you depict a place,” he explains. “Are you painting it in too favorable a light? Or are you being too harsh on it? I’ve been in this career for a long time, and I’ve heard from a lot of angry readers. There’s often a charge that’ll be made by an angry reader: ‘You’re in the pocket of this restaurant’ or conversely, ‘No one would ever slam this place for this reason.’ Every time I file a story, I ask myself, Can I defend this to someone tomorrow? Can I defend this to the subject even if it’s critical of them?”

And what about the ramifications of harsh reviews? Has Brett ever felt guilty for being brutally honest, for potentially affecting a business’s success? “Of course I think about the fact that stories can be consequential,” he says. “I grew up in a house with a father who was in the news all the time. So I’m always thinking, particularly when I’m writing harsh stories, about how it’s going to impact that person’s family. Because I’ve been there, and it can hurt. But I don’t want to just paint everyone as a hero. So sure, I think about the consequences, but I also believe it’s untrue that restaurant critics close businesses. Audiences can think for themselves. There have been plenty of restaurants that I’ve been critical of in my career that fly and continue to fly. Yeah, I might have pointed out flaws that suggested where a restaurant was failing, but I don’t believe there’s ever been an instance where one of my stories led directly to a restaurant closing that otherwise wouldn’t have closed.”

So what’s changed during his 20-plus-year tenure in food writing? First, there’s the undeniable democratization of food content. “The first generation of mass-market food writers had a fairly small audience; they were writing for an affluent or aspirational reader and not for younger people, people of different economic means,” Brett asserts. “There’s been a move toward the democratization of food coverage particularly in the past 10 years thanks to the Internet and social media. Food wasn’t entertainment culture that captured the attention of young people like it does now.”

Plus Brett thinks there’s a clearer path for wannabe food writers — certainly clearer than his was. “There are way more young people who see covering food as a career path they’d like to take, so they’re training themselves accordingly,” he says. “It seems like a more common path today than when I was young. And social media does create opportunities for people to become influencers or gatekeepers who straddle the line between public relations and reporting. Which is fine, but it’s different than what newspaper writers are supposed to do. That’s a new development.”

But it isn’t all gravy. “There’s a perception that restaurant criticism is a cake job,” Brett notes. “Of course, in many ways it is. Most people work for a living. Dining out at restaurants is by any measure a bubble bath of a way to make a living, but the actual writing is quite difficult. Writing a 1,000-word restaurant review that is entertaining and not formulaic is, to me, the hardest thing you could be asked to do as a writer. But I do think the career path of the restaurant critic is fading; that job was created in an era of monopoly advertising in daily newspapers, which no longer exists.”

And then there’s the claim that food reporting is, well, not real reporting — a belief that becomes more complicated as the line between food writers and food influencers blurs. “People who write for legacy media companies have different mandates on them than bloggers do,” Brett contends. “I do believe there’s a misconception that food writers aren’t reporters and that their job is basically to advance the interests of restaurants, to amplify the story that a chef or a restaurant wants told. But that’s not what my job is. I’ve worked at a daily newspaper for 20 years now, and I’ve always taken impartiality and independence seriously.”

But really, when it comes to food, is it possible to truly maintain objectivity? After all, it comes down to matters of taste. “Yes, it’s possible,” Brett asserts. “The job of a journalist — and a restaurant critic is a journalist — is to be open-minded, to factor in your own biases and to try to overcome them in the service of the reader. That’s true for a restaurant critic as much as it is for a court reporter or a politics reporter. I ate out in New Orleans for eight to 10 meals a week for almost 20 years, and I would always question my initial reactions to restaurants. I’d ask myself if I was thinking too much about what I personally want to see in a restaurant instead of if the restaurant is living up to what it’s telling its community it is. Those sorts of questions are tools I’ve long used to make sure I’m not just favoring the place I would choose to go to with my own money on a night off.”

Wait — so where does Brett like to dine on a night off? Perhaps surprisingly, it doesn’t always involve five stars. “Those  top-rated restaurants are incredibly rarified experiences, and that’s not always what I want,” he notes. “I’ve lived my entire adult life in five-star restaurants, and they serve all sorts of different occasions. But to me, a perfect restaurant is a bistro that suits my tastes and moods most nights, or a corner bar with a good menu, or a pho house. It’s not that I don’t love a good wine list; I do. But a list of my favorite restaurants is different than a list of the most impressive and high-achieving ones.”

And then there was the time he was fired — and quickly rehired. It happened in 2012 as part of a mass layoff that is all too familiar in today’s media landscape. The Newhouse family’s publishing behemoth, Advance Publications (which owns everything from smaller market newspapers to the Condé Nast empire, including Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the like), made the decision to “disrupt its own business,” as Brett puts it, cutting 200 employees from its payroll to reorganize as a digital-centric company and ceasing daily publishing in favor of printing a few times a week.

Brett’s massive fan base protested. “Brett is not just anybody,” noted Anthony Bourdain. “He’s a serious food writer with a nationwide reputation in a town whose whole economy is built around the hospitality industry.” “I disagree wholeheartedly with the decision to lose somebody like Brett,” said acclaimed NOLA chef Donald Link (Cochon, Herbsaint). “He brought huge credibility to our city by the way he wrote and talked about what we have been trying to do here, giving a new framework to traditional food.” “Nobody’s po’boy, Anderson will no doubt find something even better,” quipped New York magazine’s Alyssa Shelasky.

But it turns out it was all just a miscommunication — sort of. You see, Brett had just learned he’d been awarded a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. Although it would take him away from the Times-Picayune for a year, he had pursued the opportunity with the full support of his editors. And yet Brett was told the reason for his firing was that very fellowship. He took to Twitter to announce the news (including an oh-so-appropriate reference to the song “Godddamn Job” by Minnesota’s own the Replacements), sparking the aforementioned outrage. But then in short order Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss explained it was all just a misunderstanding, that the paper intended to honor its commitment to Brett and that “his work has been integral to the recovery of the dining scene in New Orleans.” So that’s that.

Brett did go after that Nieman Fellowship, spending a year in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When he returned to NOLA in the fall of 2013, he signed back on with the Times-Picayune, albeit in a part-time capacity. He wanted to leave some brain space for other pursuits, like the occasional New York Times byline.

He was laid off (for real this time) last spring along with the entire Times-Picayune staff when the Newhouses sold the award-winning 182-year-old publication to rival newspaper the New Orleans Advocate. Once again, the news made big national headlines. Coincidentally, around the same time, Brett won his third James Beard, the first-ever Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award paying homage to the late great food critic and intended to honor “writers who are telling stories of their cities and regions, just as Jonathan continually shone a light on his beloved Los Angeles.” An apt conclusion for an incredibly important chapter of Brett’s career (and his life, to be quite honest).

It wasn’t long before he was scooped up elsewhere, quite fittingly by The New York Times. For now, it’s a one-year stint under renowned editor Sam Sifton covering food culture in America. Brett’s doing this from his home base of New Orleans, to be clear; after all, that’s where he’s created a life with his wife of seven years, journalist turned hotelier Nathalie Jordi, and their two boys. Thus far, his work has ranged from detailing how Minneapolis chef Ann Kim is defying assumptions (a fortuitous return to Minnesota to kick off his full-time Times tenure) to examining how the crisis of dying Gulf oysters is putting Southern food traditions at risk (an unfortunate ripple effect of the Midwest’s heavy rain and snow last year, which prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to open the Bonnet Carré Spillway northwest of New Orleans, which caused the Mississippi River to flood Louisiana waterways with freshwater, which in turn killed millions of the mollusks).

That might sound like activism of sorts, but Brett assures it isn’t. “We’re seeing the emergence of food writers who practice activism in their criticism,” he says. “The leader of this movement is Soleil Ho of the San Francisco Chronicle, who actually used to live in Minneapolis. [Ho famously squashed Andrew Zimmern’s Lucky Cricket amid the restaurant’s 2018 controversy, in which the celebuchef said he was ‘saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horseshit restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest.’] I’ve been reading the Chronicle with great interest, and I think she’s doing really interesting work. Because I’ve always worn two hats, as both a critic and a reporter, I’ve been able to choose how to address potentially controversial issues that transcend restaurants and food. And for the most part, I’ve chosen to do that in reported feature stories, not in restaurant reviews. That’s just always been my instinct.”

“I don’t see myself going back to criticism,” he adds. “I did that for a very long time. I feel very fortunate to have been a restaurant critic, and I got so much amazing experience that I feel lucky to draw on as a reporter. I guess I got lucky in a million different ways.” 

Sure, luck may have had something to do with Brett’s rise to become one of America’s most important modern food writers. Happenstance, most certainly. But there’s also been a great deal of thoughtfulness. Plus a lot of hard work and, more recently, hard questions. And of course there are all those good food stories he’s told, shining a light on the culture, the people and the humanity of it all. 

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This