'Chicago Tribune' Restaurant Critic Reveals His Identity After 30 Years
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel has taken off his mask. For almost 30 years, he has hidden his face and identity so he could walk into any restaurant and get the service any other patron would have gotten. Well, it turns out it's really hard remaining incognito forever. He unveiled his curly white hair and goatee in the pages of the Chicago Tribune this week. The reason? His secret was no (laughter) longer safe anyway. With us now to talk about this watershed moment in Phil Vettel's career is the man himself. Welcome, Phil.
PHIL VETTEL: Thanks, Ailsa. Thanks for having me.
CHANG: So you could tell restaurant staff were already recognizing you regardless of all the efforts you were going to to try to hide your identity.
VETTEL: Exactly. I've been doing this for close to 29 years now. And at some point after 29 years, if some people haven't figured out who you are, that probably means they don't care. So I guess it's a compliment (laughter)...
VETTEL: ...In a way that they were so desperate to know.
CHANG: How do you think they were finding out?
VETTEL: Well, there's lots of ways. Restaurants have told me that after the review comes out of their restaurant, they then look at their dishes I mentioned. And then they go back through their customer receipts and try to find out who ordered that sequence of dishes. Then they - maybe they figure out which credit card I used. And the next time, they're out for that, or - and some of those staffers move on to another restaurant, and they take that information with them.
I used to say the reason I don't do public events or never have until now is that you go into a place like that, and two people recognize you. And on the way out, now 32 people will recognize you the next time.
CHANG: I guess it doesn't take monumental detective work to figure out what someone looks like who's been doing the same job for almost 30 years.
VETTEL: And these days, some restaurants are so sophisticated in data mining that they can suss people out pretty quickly.
CHANG: Whoa. What do you mean by that, data mining?
VETTEL: I know some restaurants, they look at their reservation book. They look at the names of people coming in that night. And then they go on social media and look for them. Other times, they look for a name and on social media, and it doesn't appear anywhere.
CHANG: You went to pretty great lengths to try to keep your identity secret.
VETTEL: I tried.
CHANG: You had no social media presence. It was impossible to find your photo on Google. But tell me about other tactics you resorted to to try to keep your name and your face secret.
VETTEL: Pretty much that was it. I'd make reservations in name other than my own. I have credit cards in names other than my own.
CHANG: What about disguises?
VETTEL: No. You know, I don't think there's any way for a man to wear disguises without looking like a man wearing a disguise.
VETTEL: And that makes it even sillier when they figure it out.
CHANG: You're not the first restaurant critic who has shown the world what he or she looks like. And I'm just curious, how does that change the game of what you do going forward now?
VETTEL: Ask me in a month. Right now, I am flying blind, as it were. I think it'll be ok. Some of the restaurants that recognize me are going to continue to recognize me. The idea was that there are some - quite a few restaurants that don't have the time or the wherewithal, the expertise to do this sort of sleuthing - online sleuthing that other restaurants can do. And I was inadvertently contributing to an unfair, unlevel playing field.
It has gotten to the point where there are people that know me and can act accordingly. And then there are people who don't and might be judged more harshly because of mistakes the other ones won't make. And I thought, we have to make this fair to all.
CHANG: So are there still tools in your toolbox that you can use despite the fact that basically every restaurant in Chicago knows your name and what you look like now? Are there still things you can - can you surprise them when you come in unannounced?
VETTEL: Right. Well, and that's the thing. It will be unannounced. I'm not making reservations under my name. I'll keep doing that sort of thing. I'm not going to make a point of reminding them it's me on the off chance that they weren't paying attention. I will continue to do that. I continue, as I have, checking the entire room and seeing how things going. If I'm getting wonderful service, but there are three people in the corner frantically waving their napkins like flags trying to get some more wine - that I should notice that.
CHANG: What has been the reaction from your readers?
VETTEL: It has been overwhelmingly positive. I'm quite gratified about that. And somebody said, this is completely different than what I had imagined, and left it at that. So I was almost (laughter) afraid to ask a follow-up question. What sort of - was I...
CHANG: Oh, man. I can relate. We radio people get the same thing.
VETTEL: Right. Were - was - were you expecting way more handsome?
VETTEL: Or am I - or were you assuming I was even more trollish than I am?
VETTEL: I don't know.
CHANG: (Laughter) That's Phil Vettel, food critic for the Chicago Tribune. He has for the first time in nearly 30 years shown readers what he looks like. Thank you very much for joining us.
VETTEL: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.