LE PETIT GOURMET – GQ March 2009
Reprinted because the article on style.com is UNREADABLE being spread over 10 pages.
Between math class, student council, and swim-team practice, 12-year-old David Fishman pursues his true passion: writing reviews of some of New York’s most important restaurants. Our veteran food writer, Alan Richman, meets his underage match
By Alan Richman; Photograph by Bobby Fisher
DAVID FISHMAN suggested we meet at one of his favorite neighborhood restaurants, Hummus Place, and while I might ordinarily have complained that the locale was more convenient for him than for me, in this case I raised no objection. It wasn’t because he’s now the most famous restaurant critic in America. It was because he is 12 years old and his mother doesn’t allow him to travel very far.
This was our first get-together, and I thought I should arrive first so I could check him out. You’d do the same if a younger fellow was after your job. I wanted to sit where I could see him and he wouldn’t notice me. That’s what we restaurant critics do: slink in and hide out.
The hostess ignored my request for a corner table and led me to a remarkably unpleasant one, seating me where two uneven picnic benches came together but didn’t quite meet. Sharp edges jabbed my butt, and I made a mental, critic-like note: Comfy seats appear not to be a priority at Hummus Place. When the hostess wasn’t looking, I moved to a different table.
The kid came in. I could tell it was him. The average restaurant critic is fat. David is seventy-nine pounds. The average restaurant critic is taller than four feet eight. He isn’t. He was carrying his famous oversize leather notebook, now as emblematic as Linus’s blanket or Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone.
The hostess put him in the same dreadful seat I’d escaped. He grimaced and squirmed. I knew why. I looked over at him, nodded in recognition. He came over to my table, sat down, smiled.
“That’s the worst table in the house,” he said.
“Been there,” I replied. It was time he knew: People as unfashionable-looking as restaurant critics always get the most undesirable tables.
I looked at the menu. Hummus and more hummus. Hummus joints always make me feel as though I’m eating on a kibbutz. I asked him why he hung out at one.
“It’s our responsibility to publicize not just the popular places but the little places that might have food just as good,” he said.
Smart kid, with a conscience. That might keep him from going far in my business.
I told him to order for both of us. He had the hummus masabacha, which is ground chickpeas topped with whole chickpeas. For me he picked the shakshuka, which is two lightly cooked eggs with tomatoes, peppers, and onions. While we ate, we knocked back a couple of pitchers of fresh lemonade. We agreed it could have been more lemony.
He looked happier with his dish than I was with mine. I felt as though we were eating food only a vegetarian could love.
“Hey, kid,” I said. “You a vegetarian?”
“I wouldn’t dream of being a vegetarian,” he replied.
I asked him for a critique of his dish. I wanted to see if he had the goods.
“I like the whole peas in the center.”
I smiled. It wasn’t a pretty smile. I told him if he wanted to be a big-time restaurant reviewer, he was going to have to do better than that; he was going to have to articulate the distinctiveness of each item on his plate. Otherwise he was just another small-time, preteen wannabe.
He thought for maybe three seconds.
“I think the whole chickpeas give a history of what the dish really is.”
My mouth dropped open. That doesn’t ever happen unless I’m putting food in it. I felt a chill, the kind Wally Pipp must have felt when Lou Gehrig took his place in the starting lineup in 1925, or maybe that’s showing my age, easy to do around a 12-year-old. Maybe I was Jennifer Aniston the first time she saw Angelina Jolie.
DAVID FISHMAN was just another Upper West Side kid, formidable enough, on a fateful day last November when his mother sent him out to eat by himself, one of his favorite activities. He says he is generally welcomed, although a place in Montauk, where his family has a summer home, said no children were permitted to eat alone, and a restaurant in Vermont was snooty. He headed for Hummus Place but was diverted by a busy new restaurant, Salumeria Rosi, which features Italian-style cured meats. He walked in at 6:45 p.m. without a reservation but talked up the hostess and negotiated a deal, one common enough in New York: He promised to give up his table by 8 p.m.
What occurred was pretty much a reprise of Lana Turner being discovered at Schwab’s drugstore drinking a Coke. During dinner, while David was chatting with customers and taking notes, he was noticed by a woman who has a friend at The New York Times. She gave her card to David. He passed it on to his mother, who called and gave the woman permission to contact the Times. The story ran with the headline 12-YEAR-OLD’S A FOOD CRITIC, AND THE CHEF LOVES IT.
That led to the kind of media attention that contestants on American Idol dream will someday be theirs. An appearance on The Early Show, where he was described as a “true culinary critic”; dinner at the restaurant Jean Georges with Tim Zagat, where he was shocked that Tim thought about skipping dessert; and his story optioned by Paramount, although the film probably won’t be about his life, since David hasn’t had much of one yet, being a few months short of his bar mitzvah. Variety hinted that it was going to be a “youth-themed empowerment film,” which sounds to me like one of those wacky comedies where kids get to tell adults what to do.
“I didn’t want a movie,” David protested to me. “If this was an adult aspiring to be a food critic, nobody would care.” (In case you’re wondering, he does use words like aspiring. Bigger ones, too.) He seems wise beyond his years, not just about food but also about the movie industry. “They’re going to have to make it interesting, put in some conflict. They can’t just have a movie with facts.”
Since then, everybody has been after him. His agent—well, his mom, Pam Fishman—and I agreed on a deal. If David and I played nicely at Hummus Place, we could go to three more meals. I asked David if he would write a review of each of them, so we could print excerpts. He is, after all, America’s most famous unpublished writer, going J. D. Salinger one better. He agreed to my terms. I tried to explain deadlines to him, but he was a little naive.
“What do you think a deadline is?”
“The due date?” he suggested.
“Correct. And how does a true professional writer respond when the deadline approaches and the story isn’t done?”
“He stops what he’s doing and gets it in.”
“No. He whines and makes excuses and says his dog got sick.”
“I don’t have a dog. I’m allergic.”
There’s much to like about David besides his being quick beyond his years. He’s not particularly keen on snooty waiters at fancy restaurants—“They think they’re the bomb,” he says. He appreciates bargains, big portions, and his mother’s cooking (“You wouldn’t believe it; she’s better than any restaurant”). His father, Don Fishman, a physician, appears to be less adroit in the kitchen. David told me his dad had recently prepared shrimp and put them on the balcony of their apartment to cool, but a forty-mile-per-hour wind blew the bowl over, and the shrimp dropped into the courtyard below.
Our second meeting was at an Upper West Side sushi restaurant called Kouzan. To be honest, Manhattan’s Upper West Side is hardly the Ginza district of New York, and I would not have elected to eat raw fish there. Kouzan is oversize for a Japanese restaurant, with a waterfall just inside the front door. David selected it on the recommendation of two teenage friends. I suppose that when you’re aspiring to become a teenager, real teenagers can seem knowledgeable and sophisticated.
He arrived before I did and settled into a corner table. He immediately took his leather notebook out and started taking notes, but he thought management was fooled because he didn’t appear to be a critic; he looked like a schoolboy doing homework while he ate. His approach is probably more sensible than what we professionals do, which is to try desperately to conceal our spiral-bound notebooks under the table while we blindly scribble notes we can’t decipher when we get home.
I showed him my genuine reporter’s notebook, slim enough to slip into the side pocket of a sport coat. He didn’t seem impressed by the notebook or by my sport coat. Reporters carry so much junk in their pockets that their jackets are always misshapen, and they don’t make enough money to buy new ones. I conceded that he dresses a lot better than I do, but he has a mother at home to make sure his colors don’t clash.
He has another advantage: At 12, everybody looks good. It doesn’t matter how you dress or how much you eat, and David eats plenty. “I’m known for that among my friends,” he says. “From the time I was in second grade, I’d eat my lunch and then, when everybody else in my class left to go outside, I’d stay and eat again with the next shift. That was fun, and the teachers thought it was cute.”
He asked me if I thought he should get rid of his signature leather notebook, and I replied that carrying it around might make it difficult for him to be, uh…
“Discreet,” he said, finishing my sentence for me.
“You do that a lot?” I asked.
“I do that for everyone,” he said. “I fit in the word you want.”
“I’d say 93 to 94 percent.”
“You a mind reader?”
“They don’t exist.”
I let him order. He said he was thinking of getting the soft-shell-crab roll. So was I. It was like he’d read my mind.
It turned out that sushi was David’s weakness. He did point out, correctly, that Kouzan’s sushi was too warm, and he didn’t think much of the restaurant’s overly elaborate sushi concoctions, with names such as Double Heart Roll. The fish in these rolls was so mushy, I suspected the kitchen had been waiting to pass it off on some 12-year-old, which doesn’t explain why I got the stuff, too.
For a dexterous fellow, a swimmer and a tennis player, David is horrible with chopsticks, requiring a rubber band in the center to hold them in place. “All these years going out for sushi, I’ve never learned,” he sighed. He also understood none of the rituals of eating sushi, such as what to do with ginger (eat it after each piece of sushi to refresh the palate) or how much soy to utilize (a smidgen, barely accenting the fish). He slipped each of his sushi items into his dish of soy, much like a fat man slides into a bathtub, and each piece soaked up at least a tablespoon of sauce. Then he layered the top of the fish with ginger.
I told him that his sushi skills had been subverted by the Upper West Side and that he had much work ahead of him to eradicate these ingrained wrongs. “It’s like tennis,” he said, “when you learn the wrong grip.” On the other hand, he was able to differentiate between the house mustard-soy dressing and the house ginger-fruit dressing, which I could not. They both tasted like toppings for ice-cream sundaes.
He found it odd that I had studied up on Kouzan by means of the Internet, while he had learned about it from friends. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that critics didn’t have any friends, only acquaintances interested in free dinners. I told him I had seen Kouzan on Citysearch, where the listing included a promotional offer: “Mention Citysearch and get a free glass of wine.”
“Should I?” I asked him.
“Sure,” he said, true to his reputation as a bargain hunter.
The waitress came by. I smiled brightly and told her I had seen the restaurant on Citysearch and was looking forward to my free glass of wine.
“No free wine!” she exclaimed, considerably louder than was necessary. Perhaps she wanted the whole restaurant to know what a cheapskate I was.
David had told me he wanted tips on being a critic, and I told him how amusing that little scene might appear in a review. He looked at me as though I hadn’t learned a thing in journalism school. “Maybe it was Citysearch that wrote that and not the restaurant,” he said. “You’ve got to burrow into that, see how Citysearch came up with it.”
Forget Jennifer and Angelina. Now I felt like a hack after a real reporter enters the room.
Kouzan tries…and fails. Starting with the salads, this restaurant moved lower and lower in my opinion. The mustard dressing was as sweet as sugar and tasted like fruit. The sushi for two loomed in front of us, looking like a dish prepared for a TV show, almost fake. One bite and it tasted it, too. Carrots all over the plate were shaped into flowers or animals. The fish itself lacked a certain freshness and firmness, giving you the feeling you were eating warm mush. A dish called Double Heart Roll that came with our platter was tuna with cucumber shaped like a heart, to draw people into thinking they were eating good food. This restaurant has a far way to come in my opinion to even reach traditional Japanese standards, and something tells me it isn’t even going to try.—David Fishman
FOOD: 11 out of 25
SERVICE: 14 out of 25
DECOR: 16 out of 25
JEWISH CHILDREN have always been gifted, if you don’t mind me saying so. Somehow the piano virtuoso of yesterday has become the food critic of today. I don’t know how that came about, what event triggered the materialization of the first known underage culinary prodigy, or even if David Fishman really is a genius—his father believes he is not. I don’t know David’s IQ and didn’t ask, although I tried several times to get him to admit he was smarter than me. Out of courteousness, he refused to address the question. Instead he kept rolling his eyes and looking away. We both knew.
His parents, to my knowledge, did nothing out of the ordinary to encourage his development, advocated no bizarre lifestyles you hear about that are designed to boost natural abilities. They didn’t feed him raw food or play tapes of the great books while he slept, none of that alleged brain-enhancing stuff. They did make certain he would endure few tribulations. David says the worst moment of his life was when he was 5 and stayed up all night to see the tooth fairy, only to discover that it was his mom.
He seems perfectly normal, except for the knitting. I don’t believe I mentioned that. When David was younger, he had an aunt who knitted when she babysat, and then he started knitting, too, a scarf for his father and a hat for himself. When I heard this, I figured I finally had a little ammunition, a chance to roll my eyes at him. “What’s with the knitting?” I asked. He quickly replied, “Well, it wasn’t like I was going to be a professional knitter.” I decided not to mention that a kid good at knitting should be a little more deft with chopsticks.
Of course, it does not require brilliance (or even dexterity with cutlery) to be a food critic; the consumption of thousands of meals qualifies practically anyone to take the job, providing that most of the dining hasn’t taken place in fast-food restaurants. David’s earliest influence seems to have been a Jamaican housekeeper named Daisy who made jerked chicken so warmly remembered that it might well be David’s madeleine, his equivalent of the comfort food that riveted Proust. “I remember her chicken with roasted carrots, a perfectly cooked, firm, and tender chicken that she fed me in little bites when I was 2 or 3.” (He says he finds it “unsettling” that he can’t remember what he was thinking or what he ate before that, when he was 1.)
At the John Dory, a restaurant I selected for our next meal because he loves seafood and asked if we could try a new place outside his neighborhood, we talked a lot about food and reviewing. He’s given both considerable thought. “I like to focus on food, service, and atmosphere in my reviews,” he said. “I’m not interested in decor, really, unless it’s awful. I don’t think you come into a restaurant to look around. If you want to look at a place, go to a museum. Don’t go to a restaurant to go sightseeing. And I think it’s a waste of time to put too much work into decorating food. Those carrots shaped like birds at Kouzan? That’s playing with food.”
In truth he doesn’t just talk well about food. He talks well about everything. I found myself not noticing the difference in our ages, but then he is an only child, and they learn early how to relate to adults. He should be remarkably successful when he begins going on dinner dates, but my attempts to delve into his social life were unrewarding. There is a girl, or perhaps was one. He admitted he took her to see Leatherheads. I suggested we discuss her further.
“Let’s not,” he said.
“Okay, just her name,” I suggested, very reasonably.
“Because she’s kind of my ex.”
“So what have you got to lose?”
“Just drop it.”
“I think she’s going to want the world to know she once was the girlfriend of the world’s first rock-star food critic.”
“I have no reply.”
At the John Dory, he ordered Dungeness crab in a black-pepper sauce, even after I warned him that it was delicious but too messy. He said he didn’t mind messy but soon admitted I was right. He had to continually wipe his hands on the multitude of warm towels brought by our waitress.
I said to him, “I wrote something pretty funny about that in my review of the place.”
He seemed willing to listen, so I repeated the line to him: “Should you order a dish requiring use of your fingers, you’ll get so many hot towels you’ll wonder if the staff trained at a Turkish bath.”
Among the qualities that enhance professional food criticism is something known as “attitude,” a certain crankiness or irreverence or edge, whatever you want to call it. I wondered if David, such a polite boy, possessed it. I need not have worried.
He replied, “That’s pretty good for someone too old for modern times.”
Tiled blue walls surrounded me as I walked through the door of John Dory. Each table had a red candle, and in the middle of the room was a very large fish tank. The waitress welcomed us with a bottle of seltzer called Natura, made in-house, and said the restaurant was very proud of being ecofriendly. She plopped down a small dish of crispy plantains and fresh-smoked fish that made you feel as though you were by the ocean. She was a nice woman who kept cracking little jokes and explaining the dishes very thoughtfully. We felt she really wanted us to enjoy the meal.
The grilled octopus with parsley, fennel, celery, and lemon juice was so intense, I felt blown away into another world. I don’t know who came up with the idea of sliced scallops with pomegranate and lemon juice, but it was brilliant. A good-looking fish soup threw so many flavors at me, from peppery to sweet, I decided it was too intense. A fish soup should be simple broth with good fish.
The main attraction was Dungeness crab. Huge crab legs towered on a small plate with home-roasted black pepper in every little crack of the crab. It was delicious, but the way it was presented did not fit the decor of John Dory. It was almost not worth the time and mess to get such little crab. Partway through our entrées came a side dish of Jansen’s Temptation, slices of potatoes with melted onions and cheese, a fabulous dish that we devoured in a second. The John Dory sundae was the main dessert, hot fudge on top of vanilla ice cream with homemade candies. With my tummy bulging, we walked out full, feeling like we were traveling through a wondrous, wavy, ocean experience.—D.F.
FOOD: 19 of 25
SERVICE: 23 of 25
DECOR: 17 of 25
If you happened to have been born Jewish in New York City, it’s likely that the Upper West Side of Manhattan—home to the Dakota apartment building, Lincoln Center, Columbia University, and most important, the three competing food emporiums of Zabar’s, Fairway, and Citarella—would have beckoned. The well-to-do Jewish kids who live there usually attend private schools—in the case of David, Fieldston in the Bronx, which is respected for turning out smart, well-adjusted kids with a sense of perspective and a social conscience. David says that he is basically an A student, with weaknesses in grammar—he hates proper nouns—and history. He says he does well in subjects he can experience, less well with those he has to memorize.
“At least three years ago,” David’s mother told me, “David said, ‘I want to be a food critic. How do I do it?’ I said, ‘Start taking notes.’ What he did first was to engage the people around him, to talk to waiters, waitresses, friendly people. The note-taking is recent.”
Don said that his son’s greatest gift is affability, the ability to charm. “People follow him. They notice him. He has lots of friends. In restaurants he talks to people as though he is an adult. In a way, he has a perfect public-relations personality.” Second only to David’s sociability is his capacity to ingest. When he was 6, David joined his father at a fish restaurant in Montauk, and both ordered one-and-a-half-pound lobsters. “He ate every damn bit,” Don said. “When it comes to eating, David and I are more like siblings than father and son. His perspective has always been: If Daddy has it, why can’t I have it?”
Again and again, David mentioned lobster with pasta as his favorite food. I told him if that was the case, he and his family had to accompany me to the restaurant Vetri, in Philadelphia, which specializes in Northern Italian food but also prepares what I believe is the world’s greatest Sicilian-style pasta and lobster. It’s now off the menu but available as a call-ahead special.
Pam, who works in educational publishing, consented, as long as we took a side trip to the National Constitution Center. David was preparing for a major test in American history. We traveled on an Amtrak train that lost its electrical power halfway between New York and Philly, and David felt compelled to point out, “If we were on an airplane, we’d be dead.” (That, I mentioned to him, is why Amtrak is not allowed to own airplanes.)
Pam and Don both mentioned a worry of theirs, that David was so interested in writing about food that he would lose interest in other aspects of his education. They suggested that I help convince him there’s more to life than just food writing. I tried, of course, but my heart wasn’t in it, since I rarely write about anything else. (Well, there’s wine, but he’s a little young for that.) When David left the Constitution Center, I did congratulate him on broadening his intellectual vision.
“Does this mean you’re going to become a constitutional scholar?” I asked.
“I don’t want to dash your hopes of getting rid of me, but I’m not,” he replied.
On Saturdays chef Marc Vetri serves his grand tasting menu. He selects the dishes, but he had agreed beforehand to include the lobster with pasta.
“This blows me away,” said David when it came to the table. “God, it’s good. It’s so complex; it tastes like a lot of work went into it. It’s not just tomato sauce—it’s spicy and peppery, and the lobster isn’t frozen. It’s the real thing.”
To be honest, I felt unreasonably proud of myself. I had finally managed to impress the kid.
On Saturday nights, everyone is at chef Vetri’s mercy when it comes to food. He chooses everyone’s meals, according to what he thinks they will like. A platter with all kinds of charcuterie arrived, first tender venison salami, then tiny portions of foie gras, and creamy mozzarella cheese that would have been even better with a touch of fresh ground pepper. As we ate, we were offered fresh home-baked bread, and as I tasted the soft warm insides, it was as though I could eat just this for dinner. I realized the next dish was a replica of a dish at John Dory, raw Nantucket scallops, sliced and served on a long plate with pomegranate seeds and lemon juice. One thing was different about this dish at Vetri’s. Instead of lemon juice, he uses chunks of grapefruit. The originality caught me, so I give this dish to Vetri. Next was a dish I’d never heard of or thought about, a salt-cured egg yolk with a creamy anchovy sauce. It was like an orchestra with one extra instrument.
My all-time favorite dish, lobster with linguine in a tomato sauce, came steaming onto the table, already rickety from so much food. I took a deep breath and dug in. This is what I live for. Our waiter explained how they had taken this off the menu because in the past, people would come in and order the lobster and then be too full for anything else. Next to pop out of nowhere were the Brussels sprouts. I could rave about these forever. They were soaked in vinegar, chopped up, and cooked crisp on high heat. Candy would bow down to these.—D.F.
FOOD: 23 of 25
SERVICE: 22 of 25
DECOR: 20 of 25
SOMETHING ELSE took place in Philadelphia. I brought David to my favorite gelato shop, Capogiro, for a face-off. He patronizes Grom, on the Upper West Side, and loves their stracciatella, basically chocolate chip. I love Capogiro’s stracciatella. “A lot of people can’t tell the difference between gelato and ice cream,” he pointed out, implicitly making the point that he could. I wondered if he was hinting that I could not.
Eagerly, he dug into Capogiro’s stracciatella.
“This is not good,” he said. He thought that the stracciatella lacked both vanilla and chocolate intensity. Suddenly, he didn’t seem quite so innocent.
I tried the gelato. The kid was right. I told him how much it hurt to be out-gelatoed by a 12-year-old.
“It happens,” he said sympathetically.
ALAN RICHMAN is a GQ correspondent.