Eating His Way to the Top

Why the New York Times’ new food critic could be the paper’s next editor

It might seem odd to claim during the week that Condé Nast closed Gourmet magazine—famously presided over by the former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl—that the newspaper’s new restaurant critic has a shot at becoming the paper’s next editor. Yet Sam Sifton, who starts this month, is unlike any other previous choice for the paper’s restaurant critic. He has more management experience than the job has ever called for.

When Bill Keller announced in August that Sifton, who has been the culture editor of the Timesfor the last four years, would become the paper’s new restaurant critic, he took great pains to point out that the fast-rising 43-year-old was not being put out to pasture. In his staff memo, Keller wrote, “For the record, it is our expectation that this will not be the end of Sam’s career as an editor/manager/entrepreneur/mentor. He has run two departments exceptionally well, and nobody would be surprised to see him running something in the future.”

OK, but all the way to the top? Really? Here’s the case.

The New York Times has always subscribed to a lead-husky style of editorial management. The paper’s top editor is expected be able to pull the sled harder, longer, and faster than any other writer on the team. To establish the editor as alpha reporter, the job has always gone to someone who has distinguished himself on a prominent beat. And, in the modern era since mid-20th century, the job has always gone to someone who has won himself a Pulitzer Prize.

But the prize does not have to be from some bomb-strewn battlefield. Yes, Keller, Max Frankel, Joe Lelyveld, and A.M. Rosenthal all won theirs for international reporting from the central hotspots of their respective eras. But Howell Raines, tellingly, won his for mythopoeticizing his Southern upbringing. Under Raines’ leadership, the Times was criticized externally and internally for bringing a broad range of nonnews subjects from the dark wings of their respective sections to the center stage of page one. And it is with Raines that the complicated history of the 21st-century New York Times begins.

Consider this bit of Times gossip about a confrontation between Managing Editor Jill Abramson and Adam Moss, then editor of the Culture and Styles sections. In the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, the Times was trying to recover its dignity, re-establish its authority, and still deal with a rapidly shifting mediascape. Moss was being wooed to take over the editorship of New York magazine. Abramson is said to have rushed into Moss’ office with an armful of periodicals. In a fit of frustration with Moss—who clearly had one foot out the door—she threw a copy of theTimes on the desk between them and said forcefully, “This matters.” Then, pausing just a beat as she dropped a copy of New York magazine on the desk, she said drily: “This doesn’t.”

True enough. The Times has a national and international reach that eclipse the self-absorption of New York, both the city and the magazine. But as it has grown from the 1 million readers who get the newspaper to the 20 million who access the Website, the New York Times has become more like New York magazine than it would care to admit.

Cultural stories, trend topics, and service journalism of every stripe defines what differentiates one outlet from another these days. And in the soft-news sections, the Times needs to continue to increase its authority. Consciously or instinctively, this is where Keller has taken the newspaper. And he has done it more aggressively than Raines ever did, even while constantly paying lip service to the hard-news side of the paper.

Any honest appraisal of the Times recognizes that a good part of its authority comes from the opinion pages, features, and packages that it produces. In other words, the Times is a daily magazine that values not only those reporters who get to the story first but those with the ability to spin it best.

That’s where Sifton and the restaurant job become so important. There is no doubt that Sam Sifton is the most capable food writer of his generation in the Times building or anywhere else for that matter. Like Reichl, he possesses the rare gift of being able to construct his food stories as tales with an unfolding plot.

Sifton has done this in a number of his food essays but possibly, most memorably, in thisdetective story. “The note came from a friend,” Sifton opens his tour de force of food history, cultural anthropology, cooking technique, and name-dropping. “It was brief and irresistible. ‘Have you heard about this item?’ it asked. ‘It can roast a 50-pound pig in four hours.’ ”

Dashiell Hammett has nothing on that. Sifton himself has always affected a hard-boil persona, too. From his earliest experiences as a public school teacher and writer for the scrappy, free weekly New York Press, Sifton has always sided with the common man and his authentic pleasures. Not that he’s up from Canarsie; his father is a federal judge and his book editor mother once conducted her editorial meetings in French. More than that, Sifton’s grandfather, Reinhold Niebuhr, was the pre-eminent theologian of Cold War America.

But biography is not destiny. To say that Sifton’s talents qualify him to become the editor of theNew York Times isn’t to say that he wants the job. (I haven’t asked him.) He will still need some kind of international experience. The concept of foreign bureau chief sounds quaint and romantic today. But in the next decade, someone is going to have to plot the Times’s transition from the national paper to the international authority on the American sphere of influence (presuming the U.S. will continue to have a sphere.)

What makes Sifton the man who ought to be considered a future editor of the Times is his ability to attack and explore popular subjects with intellectual rigor. Combine that with an ability to attract readers to stories with compelling headlines, art, and ledes, and you have all the tools necessary for leading the Times into the future on the web. Because out there on the flat, infinite plane of the Web, all stories have an equal opportunity to become the story of the day. The challenge for the Times is not to promote the soft news over the hard but to be able show, when relevant, that what happens in the kitchen (or on the playground or on television) can be just as important as what goes on in Afghanistan.

If Sifton can imbue the restaurant critic’s weekly grind with the intelligence and off-beat humor that have colored his food stories so far, perhaps he will earn his Pulitzer for criticism and, in the process, continue to refine a formula that sets the tone for the Times of tomorrow. The publication will need it to compete in the nanosecond news cycle. And that’s all that really matters.