San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer has been writing about food in the Bay Area for 25 years-- a feat worth noting considering the ever morphing state of journalism. He also manages the biggest newspaper food and wine staff in the country and his “Tower of Bauer” includes an (often thriving, sometimes experimental) rooftop garden, recipe test kitchen, photo studio, beehives, and a wine cellar with 10,000 bottles. When I was a food department intern in 2002, I saw that Bauer received and ultimately declined scores of invitations to appear at events or, say, be the commencement speaker at the California Culinary Academy graduation ceremony. The organizers of SF Chefs have sweet talked Bauer into appearing behind a screen for what is billed as an “intimate interview” with restaurateur Drew Nieporent tomorrow at the Westin St Francis. As of Friday afternoon, tickets were still available. Bay Area Bites caught up with Bauer via phone interview and his comments have been edited for clarity and length.
What’s the state of Bay Area food? What's trendy -- both good and bad?
As far as what’s happening here it’s going really strong. Two years ago was the best year in my 25 years here. It slowed down a little bit and now it’s really good. I’m finding interesting things around the bay and in San Francisco.
The biggest trend is the further casualization of décor & service which can be both good & bad. I’m also seeing the implementation of tasting menus: like Commonwealth and Saison, where you get this high-style fixed menu in a barn. Then we have Central Kitchen and Dixie. Every chef now wants to do a tasting menu. Which is interesting because I thought the tasting menu was dead in the water five years ago. I think they’ve found ways to make it go quicker because diners don't want to be at the table beyond two and a half hours and chefs want to show off their skills. Also, diners like that guidance.
What’s the state of restaurant reviewing after you’ve spent 25 yrs doing it? Is there anything you wish you knew then that you know now?
No because when you’re in the middle of it, it’s just an ongoing process. It’s hard to look back. Obviously the biggest change has been the internet. But that’s changed everyone’s lives. It’s too soon to see how things will shake out and what the role of traditional media will be.
You were close with Marion Cunningham. Can you share any thoughts on her recent passing?
It was a long slow decline for her and it’s very sad that someone that vital ended up in the situation that she was in. It’s weird that if you talk to a young chef, they have no idea who she is. I was talking to Gayle Pirie over this and Marion’s not been out of circulation even five years. The world is moving so fast that history is getting lost so quickly. What she has to offer and what Julia Child has to offer is starting to get lost.
Is there a culinary elder now that Marion has passed away?
She’s different but Cecilia Chiang is still very active.
What is it like doing a public Q&A event? Yes, you’ll be behind a screen, but how are you preparing for SF Chefs?
Frankly I don't even think about it. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I don’t know what Drew will ask. I told him to ask whatever he wants. That's what it's kind of like when you live your life in public. I am hopefully anonymous. I can’t think that anything would surprise me. I think the internet has been a good skin thickener.
By "skin thickener" do you mean comments that people leave on your SF Gate posts?
Yes. I think that generally -- I’m not just talking about where I’m concerned. There seems to be a real lack of civility. I did this dinner with Nancy Pelosi and the comments online were just horrible. And I had a similar experience when I did a dinner with Mourad Lahlou. I think people go on with the worst comments and it doesn't matter who it is. I’m not saying “poor me.” I’m just saying in general it just happens. If I had my way, you’d have to actually sign in to comment on any site, not just our site. It’s okay to be spirited and disagree but you should at least put your name to it. Then at least people have the passion. You may still disagree and you can explain it. These comments come out of left field you don’t know who they are and how to deal with it, and what the background is.
What about comments on sites like Open Table & Yelp?
If you look at comments on Yelp, at least three-fourths of the comments, the people weren’t treated well and they let that color their experience about everything else. This is where I think a restaurant critic is someone who does this differently. I’ve had bad experiences in restaurants but I don’t let that affect how I feel about the food. If you do a good job, you separate the different elements as a critic. If I have a really creepy waiter that does not reflect on the tomato salad I have. That’s the discipline that we have that a consumer does not have.
How has social media changed the landscape of food culture and reviewing?
I don’t think it’s completely changed what I do and what other critics employed by publications do. It’s probably the same. It’s probably less now about discovery for readers. People used to tune in to find out what’s new. Hopefully you’ve built up respect and people want to read you and see what your opinion is. As we get more information, people will see and want it filtered.
Where do you shop for food and do you cook at home?
I don’t cook much because I’m out every night. I’m often out on weekends during the day. I do quick lunches that I’ll cook. It could be Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or Safeway, where I’m picking up food for lunch.
What do you do to stay healthy?
Eating in restaurants. That’s the healthiest thing you can do, at least the caliber I eat at. I’ve never understood people going on about the rich food at restaurants. To me it’s all about pacing yourself and moderation. I’ve existed on a restaurant diet for 25 yrs and maintained the same weight the whole time. I may go up or down one or two but if that happens, I watch it. I weigh in every day or every other day and go to the health club Monday through Friday.
That shows discipline. You’re at work early each day, right?
I’m usually at the Chronicle by 5:30am every morning.
Have you experienced homophobia as a writer and critic in the food world? What’s your perspective on the gay community, Chick-Fil-A and politics?
I’m sure when you go with a few men for dinner there may be something that happens…. But not here. It’s not like the Midwest.
I don’t agree with the Chick-Fil-A protest on either side but I think people should make up their mind. It’s fine to make people aware of that but it’s an individual decision on whether or not to patronize them. I guess I’ve never really thought about the gay aspects. You just do your job. So the whole sexuality issue has nothing to do with that. It’s kind of a non-issue.
On the whole thing of discrimination: a lot of people think that they’re discriminated against because (for instance) it’s a table of women and waiters may not like that. I’ve had African American and Asian people write me because they think they’re discriminated against. And people get discriminated against because they don't dress as well. You can’t really know. Just cause you get a lousy seat it may not be discrimination. It could be an ignorant host who just doesn’t know better. I can tell you that more times than not, I usually go out to restaurants very early. At the most popular restaurant, I’m there when it’s half empty or half full. The majority of the time I’m led to the worst table or nearly the worst table. It’s not because I dress bad. I think it's the inexperienced host; and if they have poor tables that they want to get rid of. If you protest, which I don’t... I’ve seen a host try to seat four different people at the same table. It’s “Okay, let’s give that table and see if anyone’s gullible enough to take it.” And people are not speaking up. That bad table should be saved for a walk-in. People would be happy because they walked in and they get it. It shouldn’t be for people who made a reservation two to three weeks ago and they get it. That can be the point of discrimination--but actually it’s really not a point of discrimination it's the lack of knowledge of person seating. It’s one of my pet peeves. Apparently it’s never gonna change. I’ve written about it so much.
How was Sunday's SF Chefs four-star dinner with Thomas Keller, a benefit for the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank?
It was amazing and mind boggling to have those chefs (Douglas Keane, David Kinch, Christopher Kostow, Corey Lee, Roland Passot, Daniel Patterson, Michael Tusk and Alice Waters) there cooking, and that their wine directors came. It was an amazing collaboration that showed why it’s great to live in the Bay Area. You may not get that in other parts of the country and have all these chefs helping each other out. Every chef has an ego but you’re also willing to help others. Quince did an amazing job and it was flawless.