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  • Writer's pictureAine Dougherty

Adapting to the changing world of food journalism: critic Mike Sula responds

Light chatter filled the high-ceilinged, airy, modern, candle-lit space. Waiters scurried back and forth, attentively taking care of every customer’s demands. I took a bite of my meal – tender braised lamb wrapped in soft eggplant sitting atop a tangy yogurt sauce and a flavorful tomato sauce. My dining partner, a mustachioed, middle-aged yet youthful man with glasses, stared down at his phone, typing furiously as I waited for our conversation to continue. He glanced up at me quickly before returning to his screen, apologizing for being that “jerk” texting at the table.

I let it slide, because I knew he was busy recording notes about our meal to use later on.

Despite these occasional lapses, my time with food critic Mike Sula flowed effortlessly. Less of an interview than a conversation, our chat easily moved beyond simple questions about his background and experience to a discussion about our favorite restaurants and food trends in the Chicago area.

He even offered me advice on how to be a successful food writer: “You have to be willing to try everything, even if it repulses you initially. You have to be able to get over that.” Sula spoke quickly and casually, his thoughts tumbling out unedited. He wasn’t afraid to curse or to speak his honest opinion, making me feel like an equal.

Our dinner at the Gundis, the only Kurdish restaurant in Chicago, was just one of the many meals he eats out in order to write one restaurant review per week for the Chicago Reader, the second-oldest “alternative news weekly” in the country, after the Village Voice in New York City. According to Sula, the Reader got its start in 1972 when a group of “hippies” who had just graduated from college decided to start a publication around their kitchen table.

Sula said the Reader was unique because it “put a premium on magazine-quality feature writing,” and it still does to this day, even though the paper has gone through three other owners since then, and the world of journalism has changed drastically.

Sula moved to Chicago with a girlfriend in 1995 after receiving an English degree from the University of Pittsburgh, and immediately began freelancing for the Reader, writing about anything and everything. His eventual goal was to become a staff writer, so he worked his way up the ladder as an editorial assistant, doing copy-editing and other routine tasks, until he eventually pestered the Reader into giving him a position on the staff.

At the time, Sula didn’t have a specific beat, and the Reader already had a food and wine critic. However, he quickly realized that there was a hole in the coverage of restaurants around the city.

“[The old food writer] wasn’t doing a lot of neighborhood places, places that were catering to specific ethnic groups,” he said. “I saw that as an opportunity to get around the city and find stories, because every immigrant has a story.”

So when the previous critic quit in the early 2000s, and the paper went through its first round of layoffs and began to concentrate, Sula jumped at the chance to take on a new challenge in the form of a dedicated food section for the Reader.

“In a way, I kind of saved my job by increasingly becoming a specialist, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Sula said.

Since then, he has covered a wide variety of restaurants all over the city. New places open every week, and Sula admitted that it can be overwhelming to try and keep of track of them all. He keeps a list of possible restaurants to review, and he tries to prioritize based on what’s happening in “the food scene and the food culture in Chicago at large.” That means he looks for important, well-known chefs or interesting concepts to write about – like the Gundis, for example, the first Kurdish restaurant in the city.

Then, Sula decides whether he’s going to write a longer, featured review, which he publishes weekly, or a shorter piece to put up on the Reader’s blog. His longer reviews are based on several anonymous visits to the restaurant, all on the Reader’s dime, but he waits about a month or so to let the restaurant “get into the flow of things” before he goes to visit.

Anonymity is important, Sula said. In addition to keeping his photo off the Internet (his staff photo on the Reader’s website features him wearing a mask that looks like it was made for a Mexican wrestler), he makes reservations under a false name and tries not to attract a lot of attention.

Despite his precautions, sometimes he gets caught.

“Someone took a picture of me while I eating somewhere, and I’m sure it’s hanging in a couple restaurant kitchens,” Sula said. But he said there’s an “unspoken agreement” in the restaurant world that it not be acknowledged. “They know I don’t want special treatment, and it would probably work against them,” Sula said.

Thanks to the growing popularity of food-based social media accounts, Sula doesn’t have to worry about attracting attention when he takes photos of the dishes on his iPhone for reference. Later, a staff photographer from the Reader returns to take beautiful photos of the food to accompany Sula’s article. Generally, Sula doesn’t interview the owners or chefs, but since the Gundis was opened by two Kurdish men from a small village in Turkey, he decided to talk to them and get their story. Sula visited the Gundis three times, twice for dinner and once for brunch, in order to complete his 920-word review of the restaurant. However, because of time and monetary constraints at the Reader, he normally only makes two visits.

“Ideally you should go more than twice, but there isn’t the time or the money to do that. I think Pete Wells at The New York Times goes to a place like three or four times, but we just can’t,” Sula said.

Sula has a regular squadron of friends he brings with him for “ordering power,” but he isn’t always an ideal dining partner.

“I’ll be taking notes on my phone, looking like the texting guy,” Sula said.

What he may lack in table manners, he makes up for in his writing – Sula’s reviews are so rich with mouthwatering detail and vibrant, descriptive imagery, you can almost taste the food he describes. Although, it helps if he liked it.

“People say I’m really mean,” Sula said. “I don’t think I am. People say I’m harsh. I don’t believe that’s true. I think I’m pretty nice.”

There is even a Tumblr account called “Characteristically Unimpressed Mike Sula” that features some of the most biting quotes from Sula’s articles for the Reader. For instance, one of his quotes from a 2014 review of a Logan Square burger place called Parts and Labor reads, “I think I’d rather have a McDouble.”

However, there is something to be said for brutal honesty in the world of restaurant reviews, Sula argued. He’s called a food critic for a reason.

“There is a responsibility to let people that don’t have an eating budget, that can’t go to every single restaurant, to let them know what they should spend their money on,” he said. “And then there’s also the responsibility to not just be critical, but to write criticism in the sense of placing this business, this entity in the context of the city’s culture.”

But no matter if his review is more critical or complimentary, Sula’s writing style is consistently sharp, humorous, and easily readable. An aspiring fiction writer during his college days at Pitt, it’s no wonder Sula has a knack for storytelling.

“Above all, I’m trying not to be boring,” Sula says. “I’m trying to write amusingly. I try not to take it too seriously.” Although he hasn’t written any fiction since college, he still gets to “scratch his creative itches” at the Reader.

One example of Sula’s unique writing style is a recent article he wrote titled “Eat Trump’s immigration ban: Ten Chicago restaurants that wouldn’t exist in a white nationalist America,” which also reflects his desire to feature ethnically diverse cuisine in his work, especially in today’s turbulent political climate. As a columnist, Sula has always been allowed to inject his opinions (including the political ones) into his writing, but he said he went through a bit of an existential crisis trying to process his anger and anxiety after last fall.

“Something happened with the election,” Sula said. “I was literally looking at what I was doing and thinking, ‘Who the fuck cares?’”

This led him to write his more politically-charged piece, and to share his articles on social media with bitingly sarcastic political commentary – even if it had nothing to do with the restaurant itself. For example, one of his tweets accompanying a standard review of Publican Anker in Wicker Park read: “We’re all waiting for our chance to punch a Nazi in the head. In the meantime, why not read a restaurant review?”

Sula may have been left reeling after the election, but he knows that his work as a food critic is meaningful nonetheless.

“I was feeling a little burnt out and useless, and when I did that piece, it brought something alive in me. [Food writing] doesn’t have to be pointless,” Sula said. “It actually is super important and relatable.”

He called food writing “one of the best jobs in journalism, even if it doesn’t pay very well.”

However, after 20 years of experience in the field, Sula acknowledged that food writing isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, especially with the ever-present deadlines and quotas looming over his head. Although the job seems glamorous on paper, Sula gave an inside glimpse into some of the downsides to being a food critic. For example, not everything he tries tastes good. It’s no fun to review an average restaurant, or worse, a bad one. Sula said that a diet of straight restaurant reviews can get boring – and repetitive.

In his classic colloquial, blunt style that appears in his writing as well, Sula rattled off some of what he thinks are the most overdone restaurant concepts in Chicago.

“Steakhouses are a huge thing right now – totally sick of steakhouses. But there’s this new wave of people trying to reinvent the steakhouse. Super boring. Italian was super huge in the last couple years …That’s also super boring,” he said.

It can be easy to fall into a reviewing rut, especially since Sula doesn’t often get the chance to vary his coverage and write longer features, like his 2012 James Beard award-winning piece on the viability of eating city squirrels, titled “Chicken of the Trees.”

“I would much prefer to write features at this point,” Sula said. “The problem is that it’s hard to find them. It’s hard to find a really good story that you want to stick with, especially when you have an obligation to turn something in on deadline every week.”

Sula’s schedule hasn’t always been so strict ­– when he was hired as a staff writer in the early 2000s, the Reader was a lot different. He said writers had no space limits or deadlines in his early days at the publication.

“It was really kind of a paradise for young journalists because we just had this ultimate freedom,” Sula said.

The paper has continued to change ownership and shrink over the years, and things have become much more structured. During Sula’s time at the Reader, he has worked under four different owners. According to Sula, the original “hippie” owners had some legal issues around the same time when journalism began to struggle financially, and the next owner actually went bankrupt. By the time Wrapports (the same company that owns the Chicago Sun-Times) bought the Reader in 2012, the paper had gone through several rounds of lay-offs and had shrunk considerably. In addition to being part of a much smaller editorial staff, Sula said he doesn’t communicate nearly as much as he used to with other writers and editors, likely because he works from home and rarely comes into the newsroom. In fact, he communicates with his editor-in-chief almost exclusively over e-mail.

Although he may have less supervision at home, Sula said he no longer has the same freedom he had when he first started at the Reader. Now, he spends less time on stories, writes fewer features, and adheres to a weekly deadline.

Sula said the Reader has also taken a variety of steps to keep up with the rapidly changing world of digital journalism, including mandating Twitter accounts, promoting articles on social media, and writing shorter content. Thanks to the Internet, it has become much easier for readers to let the Reader know their opinions, especially through comment sections on the paper’s website. Sula’s bold writing style, exemplified by his Trump story, can bring out “some real freaks,” but it doesn’t bother him. He just makes fun of them.

“I love even the really shitty, angry, obnoxious, racist comments that I get,” Sula said. “I mean, it’s validating in some way. If you’re pissing people off, you’re doing something right.”

But above all, the paper has adapted by laying people off.

“I don’t know if you’ve gotten the subtext, but I’m feeling pretty grim about the future,” Sula said. “If for some reason the paper folded, or I’m in the next round of layoffs, I honestly don’t know what I would do.”

On the side, Sula makes extra money by writing articles for niche magazines like Plate, a trend-focused publication geared towards chefs. He says that while it may be easy, formulaic writing, it’s nonetheless “interesting to talk to so many different chefs around the country because chefs are always entertaining, colorful people.” However, freelancing wouldn’t be enough to keep him afloat if things went south at the Reader.

When I asked him what he thought about the future of journalism in general, Sula responded: “I mean, I don’t know man. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to call you man.” He said it’s a question nobody can seem to answer, including himself.

But even as the world of journalism continues to change, Sula’s obvious passion for food isn’t going anywhere, and food will always remain an integral part of our society. After all, the two of us were able to bond that evening at the Gundis over our mutual love of food.

“That’s how you build and sustain intimacy with people ­– you eat with them, and you learn about them,” Sula said. “Eating is just a universal and intimate act.”

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