Most Portlanders who read Michael Russell’s restaurant reviews have never seen his face. That’s impressive in an era where it’s basically impossible to remain unphotographed, and when struggling media outlets obsessively attempt to promote their big names. Yet the Oregonian’s everyman food critic remains hidden behind a crude avatar that depicts him as an elderly hobo eagerly awaiting a pot of possum stew. Russell doesn’t do TV or have a public Facebook page. He generally does not attend media preview dinners. A Google image search turns up nothing on him.
Until now. This photograph from a slideshow of Portland barbecue restaurants appears to be Russell’s sauce-splattered face gnawing on a bone from Pine Shed Ribs. (Russell had no comment.) I’m not sure those who’ve never seen him could identify him from this—half his face is out of the frame and the other half is greatly obscured by a bone and the restaurant’s overly sweet and syrupy sauce—but this still strikes me as a watershed moment.
Food critic anonymity, already a farce in Portland, might finally be dying. That’s something to celebrate, because it’s been a sham for a while.
Food critics ostensibly remain anonymous for a good reason, which is that they don’t want special treatment. We want the same overly fatty steak you get, the same charming but slightly flaky Portland service and no free aperitifs. We want to be able to tell you exactly what to expect when you show up because it’s the same thing we got.
In some cities, critics go to great lengths to remain anonymous. In Phoenix, where I worked before WW, Michele Laudig of Phoenix New Times and Howard Seftel of the Arizona Republic were known to use wigs or credit cards issued in other names. Seftel had previously been at New Times. When he left for the Republic, the paper drummed up a reason to publish his photograph, which was widely considered an attempt to kill his career. Laudig left for New York, and New Times’ new critic also fronts a garage rock band, so she's hardly anonymous. Seftel remains secretive and touchy—recently, one of my friends accidentally snapped a photo of him at a food festival, prompting a call from a Republic editor who asked if he could remove it from his blog.
But Seftel got into the game long before every phone was also a camera, and before social media shared our drunken Kentucky Derby party photos around the world. Food critics don’t descend from Mars. Actually, every staff critic in Portland previously worked another beat, where they weren't anonymous. Russell, for example, was famously characterized as "a cops reporter who had washed dishes in a restaurant kitchen" by former Seattle Weekly food critic Hanna Raskin. As the old guard moves along—or, like Karen Brooks, the dean of Portland food critics, gets an offer to judge on Top Chef and has a new book to promote—most people in the generation that replaces it will have been photographed daily from birth. Russell, who is about 30, is already an odd bird in this regard.
And, honestly, in Portland, anonymity has never been much of a concern. The Oregonian has long published food reviews from David Sarasohn, whose picture appears in the paper next to his politics column, and other never-anonymous food reviewers like former WW staffer Ben Waterhouse. Meanwhile, Russell sometimes interviews chefs in person, meaning plenty of people in the industry know what he looks like.
Portland's best-known food critic, Brooks—who started at WW and worked for the Oregonian for many years before being shunted in cost-saving maneuvers and landing at Portland Monthly, where she hasn't been able to use all her talents—was asked about this last year by Food Republic.
“Not sure I was ever all that anonymous.” she said. “In the age of bloggers and a radically changed media landscape, few established critics haven't been outed. My system has always been the same: sneak attack (make reservations under a fake name); always pay my way; stay gracious and respectful; don't pull punches. Can a kitchen play favorites? Sure. But so far, my sudden appearance has yet to magically transform a kitchen into El Bulli... Manipulating critics is more an obsession in the high-end world of big-money restaurants. Portland isn't in that game.”
And she’s right. First, to Portland’s great credit, no one knows or cares who anyone is. I doubt Phil Knight could get bumped to the front of the Apizza Scholls line unless his kid plays in a band the hostess likes. Also, kitchens generally don’t have special ingredients around for critics. WW’s policy is to use several critics, make reservations under a fake name (or, better yet, not at all—God bless Portland!), pay for our meals and pad our own experience with intelligence from our shadowy network of trusted informants.
Have I been made? Well, sure. A few weeks ago, a hostess seemed overly attentive. Sure enough, the next day she started following me on Twitter. I pushed that review back a few weeks. I’m planning to return about 15 minutes before the end of service on a busy Saturday night and order everything on the menu.
That, of course, is the real giveaway. Wanna spot a food critic? Look for the person ordering three or four appetizers for their table of two. If one of the menus disappears, you know you’ve got a live one.
Also, here’s a handy reference to every food critic in town...
David Sarasohn, a longtime Oregonian columnist before he was a food writer, as he models for Rodin’s The Thinker.
WW critic Matthew Korfhage, on a mug shot site.
Oregonian contributor Ben Waterhouse, who is in an uncharacteristically chipper mood here, presumably having found a $100 bill while watching a kitten spar with a puppy immediately before this photo was taken.
Karen Brooks with Teri Gelber, who is attempting to steal her look.
Chris Onstad, a cartoonist who writes reviews for the Portland Mercury.
Kelly Clarke, who is one Street Roots byline away from writing for every reputable Portland publication in the same month.
Portland Monthly hype man Ben Tepler.
WW contributor Michael C. Zusman, who is trying to hide behind a coffee shop but who still wears those very recognizable glasses.
And, of course, a photo of me during my brief stint as a professional soccer player in Slovakia.