Food Critic Howard Seftel

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Arizona Republic food critic Howard Seftel is hanging up his fork after 23 years as a restaurant critic in the Valley. Hear about Seftel’s career and his thoughts on Phoenix area restaurants over the years.

TED SIMONS: The "Arizona Republic's" Howard Seftel recently retired after 23 years of serving up restaurant reviews in the Valley. Joining us now to talk about his career is Howard Seftel.

HOWARD SEFTEL: Great to see you, Ted.

TED SIMONS: I've had you on my radio show in the past. I could never get you on this show because you couldn't be seen.

HOWARD SEFTEL: I am the last anonymous person on earth. In the social media age, I'm such an anomaly that it actually helped me in my job.

TED SIMONS: It did. I want to get to more of that. First, why are you retiring?

HOWARD SEFTEL: It's time. 23 years, I've eaten everything, seen everything. I'm 65. I have new grandchildren. It's time.

TED SIMONS: Okay. I didn't sense a lot of heavy lifting in the restaurant criticism business.

HOWARD SEFTEL: More than you would suspect, especially when you come home after ingesting 10,000 fat grams and you're drinking gallons of water because everything was over salted.

TED SIMONS: Oh, oh.

HOWARD SEFTEL: It's interesting waking up the next morning sometimes after you've eaten out.

TED SIMONS: Did you always want to be a dining critic?

HOWARD SEFTEL: No. This was so bizarre that I came to town, I had been working on a doctorate, I had been teaching at Antioch University in Los Angeles. My wife got a job here so we came here. And soon after I came I picked up the new times and it said, looking for a restaurant critic. I had traveled, I have written, so I just wrote something up, sent it over the transom. And to my complete and utter astonishment I was hired. Then eight years later the republic hires me.

TED SIMONS: And I know it was a long time ago because no one says over the transom any more.

HOWARD SEFTEL: Well, yes, you might have to alert viewers to Google over the transom.
TED SIMONS: What is the difference between a critic and a reviewer?

HOWARD SEFTEL: That's a very good question. They say that reviewing is the cousin of criticism. I would say criticism is a higher art form. I'm not making a judgment on the worth of a piece of literature or cinema or theater. My job is to help people to a restaurant on a Saturday night, if it's a special occasion or a Tuesday night if they are too pooped to cook. There is an element of criticism but reviewing is sort of a lower form of criticism.

TED SIMONS: So do you consider yourself a reviewer or a critic?

HOWARD SEFTEL: I'll let others make the judgment.

TED SIMONS: So how do you then review or criticize a restaurant?

HOWARD SEFTEL: I spend a lot of time, Ted, and a lot of agony. I wake up in the morning, say it's a Monday. I've eaten out over the past week and there's a blank computer screen. And I have to somehow find a thousand words grammatically placed, hopefully entertaining, informative, accurate, fair. And tell people where they might want to go.

TED SIMONS: How many times do you go to a restaurant?

HOWARD SEFTEL: Almost always at least three. The operative word is or technique is, I have to eat enough of the menu so that I can look at myself in the mirror and say, I've eaten enough of the food. If there are 25 main dishes and I've had a ham sandwich and shrimp scampi, I can't make an accurate judgment.

TED SIMONS: Were you ever recognized at a restaurant?

HOWARD SEFTEL: There have been occasions over the 23 years and more towards the end of my stint than at the beginning, where restaurant owners have figured me out. Usually it's the servers. A server who worked in one restaurant then sees me in another.
TED SIMONS: Oh interesting.

HOWARD SEFTEL: A server who moves among restaurants. And the reactions are always interesting. Invariably the restaurant owners are very classy. They try to make sure that, well, they sort of know who I am but we're going to keep it quiet.

TED SIMONS: So from where you sit you are retired. You can look back and read the other critiques and critique the others yourself. You can critique the critics. Now, what makes a good restaurant critic?

HOWARD SEFTEL: People are not, my former bosses perhaps and anyone who runs a media company is not going to want to hear this. Anonymity is absolutely critical. The reason is, if the purpose of your review is to tell consumers, people, you know, you might like this restaurant, you might not like this restaurant based on your experience. Well, if they know who you are, if you think you're going to get the same treatment as someone whose picture is on the restaurant kitchen wall, you know, I have earmuffs to sell you in August.

TED SIMONS: So all right, with that in mind, there are so many things I want to ask you. Was there a restaurant that you went to, and everyone said this was the top, this was the best, this was premiere, and Phoenix has finally made it. And you went there and it was the opposite?

HOWARD SEFTEL: Well, I wouldn't, you hear more of that now in the last 10 years with social media, that there's buzz. Of course 95% of this buzz is completely artificially generated. So we don't even know what's genuine buzz and what's insincere buzz. It's all buzz. You can't distinguish it. But restaurants that try to be, that look like they threw darts at the buzzwords, seasonal, local, organic you know, they just throw darts and then there's a menu which seems to be generated by some algorithm rather than by a chef's personal vision, that happens.

TED SIMONS: Interesting. So favorite restaurant of the last 23 years? It could be closed now, but favorite restaurant.

HOWARD SEFTEL: This popped into my head right away, was Roxanne's.

TED SIMONS: I remember that, at the Biltmore.

HOWARD SEFTEL: A brilliant chef. She won a James Beard award. She was 15 years ahead of her time doing all sorts of global flavors in an era in Phoenix when this was the most, I mean, this was a Durant's town. This was the most white bread Midwestern town. I had a restauranteur, an owner, complain to me after he closed his restaurants here, two restaurants, and that was year or two ago. He said, this is still a steak and baked potato town. He was trying to do something interesting. And I don't agree with him, we've come a very long way. But we're not New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or San Francisco.

TED SIMONS: Not yet. Although I think better than some would expect, don't you think because of the resorts? The resorts help, don't they?

HOWARD SEFTEL: The resorts are key because these are world-class because these are resorts that people would come from Europe and New York and Hong Kong to stay at. They created a fine dining element. But as you know over the last few years a lot of these gorgeous luxury elegant fine dining restaurants have closed to be replaced by steakhouses.

TED SIMONS: Yes, they have.

HOWARD SEFTEL: So there you go.

TED SIMONS: Okay. All right. Your favorite dish. And again, this could be long gone but your favorite dish.

HOWARD SEFTEL: There was a dish at a restaurant called Davanti Enoteca, the restaurant lasted about a year.

TED SIMONS: On Scottsdale Road?

TED SIMONS: We went there. It was a huge restaurant.

HOWARD SEFTEL: That was one of the mistakes. It sort of had its own zip code essentially. The food was too interesting for the number of seats that it had. But there was a focaccia there that the chef made, focaccia di recco, which is an Italian city. It's stuffed with a creamy mozzarella and drizzled with honey. My tastes are really simple even though I've eaten the most interesting elaborate food, frankly a jug of wine, some good bread, some good cheese, I'm a happy man.

TED SIMONS: Well, you sound like a happy man now that you've retired. What are you going to do now?

HOWARD SEFTEL: We've got a lot of traveling planned. I have new grandsons and one daughter lives in Paris and one in San Francisco. We told our children, if they live anywhere between the coasts we're not coming. So they got the message.

TED SIMONS: It was nicely planned. Sounds like you've got a lot of travel ahead of you. Congratulations on a great career.

HOWARD SEFTEL: It's good to see you again.

TED SIMONS: Good to see you as well.

Howard Seftel:Food Critic, Arizona Republic;

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