- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 20, 2009

NEW YORK — When Frank Bruni stepped on the scene as the chief restaurant critic for the New York Times more than five years ago, many industry insiders and observers thought the choice was odd.

Mr. Bruni had no previous experience reviewing restaurants. He hadn’t sweated long hours behind a hot range in a well-regarded kitchen learning his craft. He knew how to shape sentences, but what did he know about simmering sauces?

But even odder was Mr. Bruni’s love-hate relationship with food, something he now acknowledges in his new memoir, “Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater.”

The revelation isn’t exactly shocking, but it is unusual. Mr. Bruni, the man who had volunteered to eat out six nights a week, had obsessed about his weight for most of his life. He had battled bulimia briefly, toyed with laxatives and torpedoed many a diet — all the trimmings for his third book.

“I remember thinking if I look up after a couple of years and I am right, and I have figured out a better way to manage my relationship with food, it’s probably a pretty interesting narrative how I got to this point,” Mr. Bruni says about the moment he decided to take the job.

If waist size is an indicator of success then Mr. Bruni, with his close-cropped hair and athletic build, has been wildly successful curbing his prodigious appetite. After ballooning to around 275 pounds and sporting 42-inch pants while covering a presidential campaign in 2000, Mr. Bruni can now take a moment to brag.

He wears size 34 jeans and doesn’t look round anymore — despite eating his way through approximately 700 restaurants in New York alone during his stint as critic, which officially came to an end this month. Sadly, Mr. Bruni left with a whimper instead of a whammy Wednesday, his final review about an unremarkable joint in the East Village known for its fried chicken.

“I like eating, and I prefer eating in great volume to eating in minor volume,” Mr. Bruni, 44, says in an interview at a wine bar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side near his home. “No question. Having been through everything I describe in the book, I am fully aware, and I struggle to remain conscious of the consequences.”

The consequences have plagued Mr. Bruni throughout his life, but they came to a head when he decided in April 2004 to leave his post as Rome correspondent and tackle restaurant reviewing in New York, perhaps the most important dining city in the world and one filled with know-it-all foodies.

For Mr. Bruni, danger loomed. A sea of calories awaited him. He took the plunge — one that has local restaurateurs now scratching their heads since learning of Mr. Bruni’s anguish over food.

“It’s like an alcoholic becoming a winemaker,” says John Fraser, whose New York restaurant Dovetail faired exceptionally well under Mr. Bruni’s withering gaze, earning three stars.

Mr. Bruni knew the task ahead of him was great. He adjusted and learned on the job. He “ate more widely and in a much more inquisitive and thoughtful manner.” He developed a “frame of reference” that was “extremely broad and unusual.”

He not only wrote about places in New York but also ventured across America and Europe, alerting readers to gems such as Alinea in Chicago. Mr. Bruni at times could be snarky in his reviews, but he was mostly right when he decided to bring out the knives, according to chefs.

Sometimes, restaurants caught him; sometimes they did not. A well-worn picture floating around of a heftier Mr. Bruni aided his cause to slip into restaurants unnoticed.

“We had the fat picture. You would never guess that’s the same person,” Mr. Fraser said about Mr. Bruni’s most current photograph posted on the food blog Eater.com and the one found inside the cover of his book.

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