Thought for Food

By Matthew Breen

Originally published on Advocate.com August 05 2009 12:00 AM ET

Dressed well but determined to call as little attention to himself as possible -- he even dons wigs and fake moustaches when necessary -- Frank Bruni enters a chic restaurant. He gives the hostess a bogus name. His dining companions have been instructed not to reveal their true identities. Aliases are assigned.

The group's members dine heartily, sampling as much of the menu as possible, testing their new personas on the service staff. Bruni periodically slips off to the restroom to text top secret messages or whisper surreptitiously into his mobile phone, careful not to be overheard. When the bill arrives Bruni already has passed a pseudonymous American Express card to a companion to give to the server as if it were her own. If there's a camera anywhere in the room, Bruni senses it and ducks out of sight.

Secretive as his work is, Bruni, 44, isn't an undercover agent. But as the New York Times restaurant critic, a post carefully scrutinized by the entire gastronomic world, he had a job that demanded extraordinary measures, and yet his carefully guarded anonymity was not the greatest of them. His work took him to grand restaurants and tiny diners, sampling haute and comfort cuisine, sometimes eating four or five dinners in a single evening, all in the city that prides itself on epic dining. But Bruni had a problem. A problem with food.

"It amazes me to this day that you'll hear people say, 'Oh, I've been so busy, I forgot to eat,' " he says, incredulous. "If you're the kind of person who is metaphorically born round, you never forget to eat."

Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater , Bruni's new memoir, traces his life through his defining relationship -- with his stomach. Throughout his youth and into his adulthood as an award-winning journalist, Bruni was a voracious eater plagued by his growing and shrinking waistline, half-baked fad diets, periods of bulimia, and popping amphetamines and laxatives, all the while looking for a magic bullet for weight control.

"I'm fully aware of when my last meal was and what I want my next meal to be," he says. "There are those of us who are just wired to obsess about food. If you're not in the tiny minority who are blessed with one of those amazing rid-you-of-all-sins metabolisms, you've got a challenge in your life."

His career led him to posts at the Detroit Free Press , the New York Post , and The New York Times ; he worked in Washington, D.C., as well as Detroit and New York, and, for a time, on the road. "Some of the compulsive feasts that I would stage at night alone at home bore little relation to hunger," Bruni says. "They resembled nothing so much as a drug addict's nose dive into his or her drug of choice."

While he was following George W. Bush on the 2000 campaign trail, where an endless buffet greeted journalists at every whistle-stop, Bruni's weight ballooned to 268, and he was miserable. Then, when he was in his 30s, he finally, slowly got his weight under control through the unremarkable formula of portion control and exercise. He took a post at the Times ' bureau in Rome. He had a boyfriend, the first after nearly seven years of celibacy, and he was happy. Then a fateful phone call in 2004 changed everything.

An editor was calling from New York, asking Bruni if he was interested in filling the restaurant critic vacancy at the Times . He laughed, involuntarily. To have this job dangled in front of him, the job of eating for a living -- it was simultaneously a dream job and a potential nightmare. He took it, but not without a plan (to push back from the table) and some perspective.

"Given how screwed up in my thinking I was about dieting, if I hadn't been through this whole adventure, I probably would have looked up after a year in this job and been 300 pounds," he says. "That would have led to some really awful work done by a really miserable person. I've had a great time with this; I've embraced a lot of seemingly gut-busting assignments," including a cross-country tour of fast food joints.

His tenure as restaurant critic comes to an end this month (Bruni will become a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine ), but he has clocked some appropriately spectacular moments, including forging a nemesis in restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow. Chodorow, who owns 20-plus restaurants, harangued Bruni in a $40,000 ad he placed in the Times opposite Bruni's column. He also offered a trip for two to any of his staff who spotted and evicted Bruni from the premises, hence the wigs and moustache.

"The Chodorow thing was really disorienting," Bruni says. "The prospect of one of his employees physically removing me from one of his restaurants in order to win a trip to Seattle, which was the prize at one point -- I couldn't imagine it. And I felt a little cheap. I didn't rate a trip to Venice? Or even Vegas?" An archrival and a virtual bounty on his head -- it was all very "Spy vs. Spy." Bruni need not worry about where his next meal will be coming from. He'll be able to dine out on the stories for years.