We turn the tables on our beloved incognito dining critic with an up-close look at the woman behind the words.
I first got to know Ann Christenson as a disembodied voice chiming out from the other side of a fabric-covered cubicle wall. She was and is the senior editor and dining critic at this magazine, and I was a lowly assistant editor. Over that wall, I heard her talk through her not-quite-ready-for-print thoughts on a new restaurant, as she formulated her opinions. I heard her calling chefs to find out what spice gave their chicken dish its zing. And I heard her patiently field complaints from unhappy chefs – maybe their restaurant wasn’t included in a roundup, or Ann had lamented the humdrum pork in a review. She even fielded calls from readers looking for recommendations: “Where should I take my wife for Valentine’s Day? But no seafood, and there had better be parking!”
Not everything I heard was strictly business. There was a period when she talked to her father, whom she took care of in his final years, on a daily basis, offering gentle assurances that everything was all right. And nearly every morning, the noise of her spreading jam on her toast, clinking her butter knife on the jam jar and ceramic plate with vigor marked the start of the day.
I spent five years on the other side of that cubicle wall, and during that time, I came to know Ann personally as well as professionally. Yes, we had a face-to-face relationship too, but what I overheard through my inadvertent eavesdropping had a different, deeper resonance. It was only as I wrote this story that I realized this is how a chef, restaurateur, or Milwaukee Magazine reader knows her, too. There’s no face to the name, no mental picture to pair with a review. Somehow, this native Milwaukeean has maintained her anonymity for the 23 years that she’s been covering Milwaukee’s dining scene, making her the longest-serving anonymous dining critic in this part of the state.
She wasn’t always a critic, though. In 1991, shortly after her graduation from Marquette University and a brief stint as a freelance newspaper writer, Editor-in-Chief David Fryxell hired her to be the magazine’s full-time fact-checker, the lowest carving on the totem pole. Full-time fact-checkers, says then-Senior Editor Jim Romenesko, were rare in those days, but the magazine was lucky to have one.
Fact-checking was Christenson’s life for those first four years, and she brought to it the same fastidiousness that characterizes just about anything she undertakes. The internet hadn’t yet reached the magazine’s Buffalo Street offices, so with her neck cradling the handset for hours, she’d call sources to double-check every fact in every story in every issue of the magazine.
In 1995, Editor-in-Chief John Fennell suggested to Christenson that she take a stab at a small dining review. She started out with cafes and diners, places that Willard Romantini, who was dining critic at the time, wasn’t interested in critiquing. So Christenson took these assignments and threw herself into them. It was a process with a steep learning curve – she’d grown up with what she calls “American convenience foods” like casseroles and bakes, and she’d never worked in a restaurant.
Because of this deficit, Christenson knew she had to become a student of the craft. She took cooking classes, read cookbooks, traveled to cities with exciting dining scenes, and began cooking regularly at home. It was the best way she knew to become an expert in food stories at a time when the other editors at the magazine each had their own writing specialties. Dining could be hers, she figured, with encouragement from Fennell. “I knew she was reliable,” he says. And he needed someone with dedication. After all, dining coverage was especially important to the magazine’s readers – and its bottom line.
The Association of Food Journalists (AFJ), a national group of professional food critics and writers, has ethics guidelines for critics, and Christenson ticks all the marks. Be as anonymous as possible. Use a different name to make a reservation, and pay with cash or a credit card with a different name. Don’t have photos of yourself on the internet. Wait until a restaurant gets its feet wet to review it, and go back multiple times to give it a fair shot. Christenson adds two of her own rules: Don’t use a notebook at the table (an easy tell), and don’t critique the food to dining companions.
Most importantly, declareth the AFJ, critics should strive to act like the average diner – the person that represents what should be the critic’s first priority. “The only person you’re writing for is a reader,” Christenson says.
But that can mean the restaurants she writes about don’t always love what she has to say. Christenson is explaining this to me after I remind her of a call from a restaurateur who was particularly miffed that his restaurant wasn’t listed in a roundup of burger joints. As I recall it, she explained to him her research process – it involved eating at dozens of burger restaurants all over the metro area and considering more than a dozen factors that make up each dining experience – and that her story represented the best of her research. This was not comforting to the owner. “It’s not an easy conversation to have,” she says. “But … I have to be honest and say, well, this is the reason I did that.”
Highlighting a restaurant’s strengths and painting a picture of its atmosphere make up the bulk of her reviews. Her descriptions transport you to her memory bank, where you feel her nostalgia for a fish sandwich, or her glee over a lobster roll. Her criticism, sometimes sandwiched between praise, is matter-of-fact. The chicken may be overcooked, but the succulent potatoes save the dish. The fish might be a bit pedestrian, but at least it isn’t dry. With the help of a food dictionary, she weaves levity into each review. Dining out should be pleasurable, and reading about it should be, too.
Overall, she tries to keep published reviews to places she can recommend. You have to be “tactful when presenting the negative,” she says, and tact should trump cleverness. “In my earlier years of doing this, I would overstep my bounds,” she says. “And you can really hurt somebody.”
To her, restaurants represent the dreams of their owners, and passing a judgment on them isn’t something you do lightly. This point is raised by chef Peggy Magister, who has owned Crazy Water in Walker’s Point since 2002. Restaurant reviews can make or break a business, she says, and it’s hard to not take the criticism personally. Being left out of roundup stories – best pizza parlors, best new restaurants or best fish fries – can have just as much of an impact on business as being included, she says.
Despite this, Magister says, “I’m a little biased because I like Ann,” though she’s never actually met her in person. “I have no idea what she looks like.” So why does she like her? Christenson reaches out even when there’s nothing particularly newsy going on, she says, something other critics in town neglect to do. “I feel like she knows what she’s talking about.”
When I ask her what she’d do if she recognized Christenson, or any other critic, dining at her restaurant, her answer surprises me. Yes, she’d treat them differently if she knew they were reviewing her. “Anyone would!” she says.
But the critic identity game is changing.
Before her days as editor of Gourmet, New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl came out when in 1993 she dined both anonymously and later as herself at one of New York City’s most exorbitant restaurants to see if she’d receive different treatment (she did). The Los Angeles Times’ late Jonathan Gold – the critic Christenson most admires – came out in 2015. And New York Magazine’s Adam Platt came out on the cover of the magazine in 2013, looking as if he still had mixed feelings about it all.
Straying from anonymity, longtime media columnist Romenesko says, has a lot to do with social media and the growth of online review sites likes Yelp. No one with a Facebook profile is really anonymous anymore. (Christenson is on Facebook, but her profile is visible only to friends and family – and even still it is devoid of any photos of her.) Plus, he says, critics are being encouraged to build a sort of brand around themselves, and participate in events that account for an increasing amount of revenue for publishers.
Despite the changing landscape, Christenson says she has no plans to identify herself. Maybe it’s a bit of her stubborn streak (a former editor’s words), or her dedication to those guiding principles laid out by the AFJ. What she does make clear, though, is something she reminds herself of often while performing her job: It’s not actually about her at all.
“I can’t ever forget I’m representing Milwaukee Magazine,” she says, an outlet she thinks has been a “driving force” in the local dining ecosystem since Betty and Harry Quadracci bought it in 1982. It’s where she’s grown up, where she found and honed her craft. After nearly three decades, much of magazine’s authority today is owed to her own. Still, with every phone call she makes, every meal she eats, and every story she writes, she remembers that reviewing restaurants is an “incredible responsibility.”
“I take that very seriously.”