Born Round by Frank Bruni

[16 September 2009]

By Tan Vinh

The Seattle Times (MCT)

Some eager foodies will flip through Frank Bruni’s memoir to get the dirt on his five-year assignment as The New York Times’ chief restaurant critic. The disguises and the cloak-and-dagger games Bruni played to hide his identity from the restaurants he was reviewing. The waiters who made him. And the restaurant gossips. Always the gossips.

But that’s all empty calories compared with Bruni’s secret: He was an adult bulimic who had recovered from a life of diet pills, purges and binges before taking a most gluttonous job.
How’s that for delicious irony?

Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater is an unflinching account of a restaurant critic whose life revolved around his obsession with food and his inability to shed his fat-boy image. At 18-months-old, Bruni downed two hamburgers, and when his mother wouldn’t allow a third, he threw up in a rage.

Even as a toddler in White Plains, New York, Bruni possessed a voracious appetite and an expanding waistline he couldn’t control with dieting. He tried the Atkins program (at age 8). He tried fasting. He tried every fad diet, eventually turning to diet pills, laxatives and speed.

In college, Bruni stuck two fingers down his throat with such frequency that he knew where all the bathrooms were around the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

A talented storyteller, Bruni possesses a gift for narrative and pacing, interweaving details about his large and loud Italian-American family with his own secret, using funny, lighthearted movements to balance the gloom.

It’s a newsman’s brutally honest account. His weight yo-yoed between pants waist sizes 33 and 42 until he topped off at 268 pounds — about 80 pounds overweight — while he was covering President Bush in the 2000 election.

Exercise and portion control eventually led him to a healthy lifestyle before editors called him back from Rome, where he was a foreign correspondent, to be the food critic.

In this blogosphere age, any foodie can be a critic on Yelp or other Web forums. But there’s still no perch higher than that of restaurant critic at The New York Times.

Bruni could make a restaurant the hottest reservation in the city or ruin a chef’s career with his biting critique and star rating. New York restaurants posted old pictures of him and listed aliases and past phone numbers he used to make reservations.

Famed chef Eric Ripert required a staffer to get TV footage of Bruni during his years covering Washington, D.C., to study his “facial expression and body language.” One restaurant, which identified Bruni in the middle of his meal, swapped out a waitress for a handsome waiter (Bruni is gay).

As critic from 2004 to 2009, Bruni often ate out every night — even hitting two steak houses one night. But this was a different Bruni, a gym rat Bruni who commuted to Washington, D.C., every Wednesday morning to work out with his personal trainer before returning to New York City for dinner the same day.

Bruni asks a lot of readers, who are taken through hundreds of pages about his eating disorder and food obsession. Then his ordeal gets tidied up with his resolve to exercise regularly and eat smaller portions.

But Bruni doesn’t promise his weight problem is behind him, though he seems to have it under control. At the end of the movie Julie & Julia, one of the diners at the dinner table, a slim, dashing man, is Bruni.

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