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EIU 360

Critical Success

For more than two decades, Phil Vettel has served as the Chicago Tribune's head food critic.

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Phil Vettel did just that and ended up as the head food critic for The Chicago Tribune instead.

Vettel, a 1979 alumnus of EIU's Department of Journalism, said during his time in Charleston, there were no sit-down restaurants, so he drove to Champaign on the weekends to work at restaurants and soon learned the ins and outs of the business.

As soon as he graduated from Eastern, he was offered a job as a general assignment reporter at the Suburban Tribune, which, for cost-cutting measures, eventually merged into its parent publication, The Chicago Tribune, in 1981.

There, he continued his job as a reporter, but the at-the-time head food critic would sporadically throw restaurant reviews his way because of Vettel’s experience in the food industry.

Around the 10th anniversary of his time with The Chicago Tribune, Vettel was offered the position as head food critic. Now, he says it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.

The job isn’t the same as it was more than 20 years ago. To prepare for his reviews, Vettel has always researched the restaurants’ menus ahead of time, but he said it’s much easier these days than it was before because most places offer their menus online.

News value always drives his reviews first and foremost. Vettel said aside from reviewing emerging locations, he “keeps several balls in the air” when it comes time to decide which restaurant is next on his list. He takes different ethnicities, geography and the price of food into consideration.

Vettel then visits each restaurant a minimum of two times, oftentimes making three trips to get the full scope of the view he is reviewing. Usually these trips are with a group, not just so he can share entrees and appetizers and try more foods, but also as to not draw too much attention to himself.

“Alone it’s hard to do it without looking like you’re packing it away,” he said. “(Eating in a group) seems more natural.”

When Vettel is reviewing a new restaurant, he assumes the staff is on the lookout for him.

He said he even knows some places that have an algorithm for around the fourth or fifth week of their openings as a way to estimate when he’ll come in.

Still, he tries as hard as possible to go incognito; he’ll change his name for reservations -- or sometimes not make reservations at all. He doesn’t attend openings or big events, and he definitely doesn’t publicize any photographs of himself; his Tribune profile doesn’t have a mugshot like most other Tribune writers, but instead a picture of Anton Ego from “Ratatouille.” Other site searches for his name turn up visuals like this:

“It’s very much like being a spy,” he said.

Still, he has had people in the past blow his cover while he is dining out. Vettel accepts it, though.

“Doing it for 24 years, it would be terrifying if no one recognized me,” he said.

Even if places do out his identity, it doesn’t change what really matters: giving quality restaurants, whether big or small, the recognition they deserve.

“I can shine my little spotlight on them,” he said. “That’s very rewarding, to find excellence in places you’re not looking.”

His high praise isn’t handed out easily though. The restaurants only get his coveted four-star ratings if they actually deserve it.

Taste is the most important factor for one of Vettel’s reviews, and the atmosphere of the restaurant comes second, although now that seems to have disappeared almost entirely.

Vettel said restaurants used to invest in the trappings to draw in customers, even going as far to throw away old plates and tablecloths and get new ones to become more aesthetically pleasing. Now, he said people come in just for the food.

One of Vettel’s favorite restaurants he has reviewed, Fat Rice in Logan Square, proves this point; he said the glitz-free restaurant is off the beaten track, and customers are shoulder-to-shoulder in the 24 seats available. Still, he said the dishes are fantastic, which is exactly what draws in customers now: not the frills, but the food.

“The stuff that used to make people scream is now what people want to go to,” he said.

The job isn’t as easy as just casually deciding what tastes good, but even though the job is not a walk in the park, Vettel admits he has it made.

“The downside about my job is no one wants to hear about the downside,” he said. “You are getting paid to eat.”

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