Anton Ego from Ratatouille once whispered with demonic aloofness, “I don’t like food…I love it.” I imagine all restaurant critics to be similarly pompous, ass cheeks clamped tight enough to break walnuts apart. Critics seem to thrive on negative criticism (“intellectual analysis”), opting for verbal chainsaws over cleaner, more humane weapons.
Molly Flatt of the Guardian writes, “The language of praise is more difficult to wield; bile flows more easily than the milk of kindness. Admiring adjectives often seem too gushing, too pretentious or too fey; difficult to deploy without sounding like an Amazon spammer or a school book report. The vocabulary of cruelty is, on the other hand, deliciously diverse.”
And there’s no one with a lexicon more vicious than Mike Sula of the Chicago Reader. Sula’s earned a reputation for being an unpleasable critic, with a penchant for devastating remarks and dismissals. Apart from one or two blurry pictures on Google, Sula’s remained relatively anonymous behind a lucha libre mask, a disguise which I’m sure many people have wanted to rip off with indignant rage.
I meet Sula in Downtown Chicago at Travelle, a luxurious restaurant at the Langham where one is escorted to the restroom and can choose between four types of water. Sula’s prepping for his next autopsy and has, much to my surprise, invited me for a showing. For some odd reason, I imagined Sula to be some slow, bearded Midwesterner with a Nikon dangling over an impending beer belly. In reality, he’s quite the opposite: clean-cut, highly-critical eyes, fast-talker. I don’t have to wait long before Sula’s critical nature emerges. “They have a Mediterranean flatbread which is just a fancy hotel restaurant way of saying pizza. I don’t want to sound like I’m prejudging already, but this place has pretensions of being a fancy, fine-dining kind of place, and it’s a hotel restaurant,” Sula says, eyes rapidly scanning over his leather-bound menu. He says that Travelle’s need to cater to a variety of different audiences (from hotel-stayers to fine-dining snobs) stretches the kitchen too thin. Sula then proceeds to comment on the dim lighting, the menu’s small font, and the “ridiculous” foie gras cocktail before pausing. “Am I being a jerk?” he asks me. I shrug, unconsciously nodding. “I’ll try to relax,” he says with a slight laugh.
After an extensive walkthrough by our rather tense server, we ordered a “representative sample” of the menu: a “seacuterie platter”, saganaki chicken wings, grilled octopus with charred eggplant caponata, spring pea risotto, and a white fish entrée. Perhaps Sula’s presence elicited my inner critic, but everything tasted overly salty and unappetizingly bland. Despite experiencing earlier hunger pains, I was now more interested in chatting with Sula than eating.
When Sula first moved to Chicago from his hometown in Pittsburgh, he freelanced for the Reader until they hired him full-time as an editorial assistant, doing grunt work like typing movie show-times and proofreading drama listing. An eventual promotion to staff writer meant working from home, or in Sula’s case, scouring the city for story ideas.
“It was a revelation because I wasn’t making a lot of money, and there was an endless variety of inexpensive restaurants run by first or second generation immigrants. And every immigrant has story.”
At the time, the Reader had only one dedicated food critic reviewing prestigious restaurants with big budgets and publicists. Noticing this gap in coverage, Sula carved a niche for himself by writing one-capsule reviews of smaller eateries—an approach that served as both a creative outlet and more importantly, a survival technique. “Nobody makes money in journalism anymore; jobs are disappearing. I’m lucky to have a job,” Sula says, telling me stories about entire photo departments “getting shit-canned” and reporters taking iPhone picture-taking classes.
Though Sula underplays his abilities, he’s a fucking good journalist and an even better writer. (I can tell because all great writers are book junkies, and Sula’s an avid reader.) His narratives paint seamless portraits of his subjects, carrying the reader on a thrilling anthropological journey. Sula’s a storyteller, an investigative journalist with true writing talent. In 2013, his feature “Chicken of the Trees” (about eating city squirrels) won the James Beard Foundation Awards. “It was probably the most nerve-wracking stories I’ve ever written because I thought I was going to get arrested for it. But it turns out I didn’t. I got a letter from the mayor, in fact, congratulating me.”Sula’s also produced outstanding exposes on topics ranging from Burmese refugees to farm-direct food delivery services.
Given Sula’s incredible scope of food knowledge, I find it surprising that his childhood diet consisted of canned vegetables, “casserole-y things”, and tomatoes from his father’s garden.
“I had a very suburban, very straightforward lily-white upbringing. I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the things I write about now.”
Of course, now he’s eaten penne al la pajata (intestines of a weaning veal calf) in Rome and knows the most authentic food joints in Chicago. For instance, Sula explains that “the suburbs have [much better ramen] than the city has because that’s where all the Japanese are. It’s where their companies are based and where the expats have come to work. They have money, and they’re used to eating well. Japanese people won’t settle for ramen that slinks by in the city.”
In fact, I’m mesmerized by Sula’s extensive knowledge of Asian cuisine in Chicago. “I live in Albany Park, which used to be the Korean-town. In the last ten years, Koreans have been moving to Niles and Mt. Prospect, so now the best Korean restaurants are out there and not in my neighborhood anymore.” Fortunately, Sula married a half-Korean (contributor for a blog called Drinkers with Writing Problems), meaning authentic Korean delectables from his mother-in-law. “It’s like soul food to me; it’s so down-to earth, so homey. I just won’t stop eating it,” he tells me, adding that his favorite dish is a three-ingredient stir-fry consisting of pork belly, kimchi, and tofu.
I ask Sula to walk me through the process of writing a restaurant review. Like most major publications, critics dine anonymously, making reservations under a pseudonym. Sula often brings along company for ordering power and returns at least twice (sometimes on his own dime) to get a complete idea of restaurant’s capabilities. Occasionally, he brings along his family, although “my wife has gotten really tired of it because it’s not like we’re out for a nice dinner together. I’m taking notes and talking about food.” Despite his job’s obvious gastronomic and financial perks, he says that writing reviews aren’t particularly fulfilling.
“This is going to sound terrible, but I get bored of doing things like this. I’d much rather scouring the suburbs or neighborhoods for things that are just more interesting to this. [Travelle’s food] could turn out to be great, but I haven’t taken a bite yet.”
Though Sula sounds like an uptight snob, he’s not the petulant asshole you might immediately assume. Despite his self-admitted crankiness, Sula deeply sympathizes with those who work in the food-service industry, never complaining about the food or service. In fact, Sula doesn’t particularly enjoy writing negative reviews, despite his clear knack for delightfully-phrased vitriol. I ask Sula if he’s ever bothered by angry responses. He replies, “I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but I think I’ve been doing it long enough that I wouldn’t write something unless I was completely confident in it.” In other words, Sula gives no shits.
Although his bread-and-butter involves cranking out restaurant reviews, Sula’s true passion lies in writing features—no deadlines, no word limits, no tight-ass editors. But as I very well know, features are time-consuming, mentally-taxing, and sometimes, even morally confusing. “There’s been a lot of situations where I’ve agonized over publishing something that I thought might hurt someone. But you have to balance that with your obligation to tell the truth. Your story subject isn’t your friend.” Citing Janet’s Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, Sula says, “If you’re not hyper aware of everything everybody expects from you, then you’re not doing your job.” I tell him about a revealing expose that once landed me in sticky shit, and he says that unless I erred on matters of fact, it’s my obligation as a journalist to stand my ground.
Easy to say when you’re Twitter star backed by a reputable paper armed with libel insurance. But I judge with far too much haste, and Sula’s job isn’t as glamorous as I’d imagined. Sure, Paul Kahan has cooked a 6-course feast for him, and he’s met cool chefs like Philip Foss of El Ideas. Sure, he’s worked with blogger hot-shots like Mike Gerbert and won a fucking James Beard award. But Sula tells me:
“I’m pretty introverted. I spend most work days alone with my cat and my laptop. I don’t go into an office. Sometimes I don’t talk to people all day.”
And constant eating-out doesn’t bode well for one’s physique. “Since I started doing [reviews], my weight has gone up and down. I’ve packed it on this last year, but I’ve lost 30-40 pounds at pounds just by being super disciplined and eating really well at home. I’m in a period of excess right now” Sula admits with a light laugh.
I ask Sula what his ideal job would be if he weren’t a food writer. “I fantasized about making a lot of money and raising animals, but I wouldn’t do it for money. I definitely wouldn’t want to be a chef. I completely recognize how hard it is to make a living out of it. I’d want to be a travel writer,” he replies. A cop-out answer, but one that shows Sula’s a true writer at heart.
The Food and Drink section of many publications seems to lack the purport and seriousness of its counterparts. Compared with Business or Politics (and even Sports), food writers are petty pie critics, bourgeoisie burger snobs. From Best Sandwiches in the Loop to star-chef obsessions, Chicago food writing is one rancid, bubbling pit of food porn and second-grade prose. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t discovered anything better, but everyone and their mother owns a foodie blog, filled with elementary restaurant reviews, their chickpea salad recipe, or some other self-aggrandizing bulllshit. And I’m okay with that because I too masturbate over 10-foot hamburgers stacked with fried eggs, onion rings, and bacon.
And yet, I know in my heart of hearts that food writing is so much more. It’s an interdisciplinary field that involves history, psychology, economics, and culture. In an interview with Gapers Block, Sula says: “Food is a basic human right and I’m always most sympathetic to the person who is willing to do whatever it takes feed themselves and others; the eloteros who get harassed by the cops, the househusbands selling bacon and sausage out of their home kitchens, the garage taquerias, the basement distillers, the raw milk runners. It’s a challenge to write about them, though, because exposure can mean disaster.” Sula describes my sentiments perfectly. As a writer, how can I craft a piece of prose that stimulates the tongue, heart, and mind? How do I honor my subjects in a way that protects their values and mine? The concept of a serious food journalist seems to be an intrinsic paradox. How can I compete with “Top 10 Places for Cronuts” when people would rather ogle over Stephanie Izard’s new menu? How many charcuterie platters and flatbreads must I verbally blow before I win a James Beard Award for outstanding, weep-worthy journalism?
I don’t fucking know. I’d like to believe that I can change food journalism, change the way restaurants are reviewed, change the way laymen think about food. And though I don’t really know what the hell that means, I think I’ll start by listening to my gut.