Few people have had a greater impact on American food and drinking culture in the last decade than Sam Sifton. In 2014, The New York Times’s former dining critic helped launch NYT Cooking, a product that now counts over a million paying subscribers and has helped fuel a surge in the company’s digital business.
Last year, Sifton was named Assistant Managing Editor for culture and lifestyle, a role in which he oversees the newspaper’s arts, travel, style, real estate, food, books, health and wellness coverage (among many other things).
Sam recently sat down with The New Wine Review for a wide-ranging conversation about his favorite rosé, why he’s intrigued by the culinary scene in Orlando, and quite a bit else in between.
On What’s Changing in American Dining
- I think what we’re seeing right now is a healthier balance between eating out and eating in—not just in New York, but around the country.
- The speed at which eating and drinking habits changed from late 2019 to now is astonishing. From 2012-2020 the story was “whither fine dining, whither the white tablecloth.” Then the pandemic came and upended pretty much everything. People who had never cooked in their lives learned the pleasures of cooking at home.
- I wondered during the pandemic about what’s going to happen to the restaurants on the other end of this? How many people are going to want to return to their neighborhood restaurant and order the same thing they’ve been making at home—as well or better than they can get in the restaurant—but for a third or a quarter of the price?
- Because costs are so high and labor and supply chains are so messed up, restaurants are really frickin’ expensive; people have a different relationship with restaurants than they did before. More are becoming destination experiences rather than regular haunts.
- The tasting menu. I mean, if it’s not dead, it’s not doing well.
- In New York, I know dozens of people who ate out 4-5 times per week and now eat out 1-2 times per week. I think that’s probably a good thing.
- What a great time to be a home cook. The quality of supermarket offerings has really improved over the course of the past 15-20 years. The introduction of online shopping has also helped. You can get saffron or lemongrass at your supermarket in Boise, but you’re also getting elk meat from right next door—what a great thing.
On the Lessons of Running NYT Cooking
- NYT Cooking’s numbers soared and stayed high during the pandemic. A huge number of people learned to cook for themselves. But also, people didn’t just abandon what they did during lockdown. They’ve stuck with it.
- We would never go broke at NYT Cooking if we always had recipes for salmon and chicken. That’s what’s for dinner in America. You see it in our search trends on NYT Cooking, you see it in restaurant menus. They’re the dominant proteins. Increasingly, though, we’re seeing a real, abiding interest in trying out new things.
- One interesting thing I discovered when we got Cooking up and running: the trends I saw as a restaurant critic carried through to home cooking.
- When I first started on the Food desk, we’d get mail from readers who were angry at us for calling for these “exotic” ingredients. “What is this … miso? Gochujang? Lemongrass? How dare you include these!” That doesn’t happen much anymore because those ingredients are so widely available now.
- I get my recipe inspiration from reporting stories—I love developing, testing, asking questions, and if the readers dig it, that’s a total thrill.
- We see weeknight recipes called for over and over by our readers. In the early years of NYT Cooking, we did very well with young people who would drop off in their 30s and then come back to us in their 40s. That drop we saw was where people had kids. They’re not cooking–they’re playing zone defense with a bunch of toddlers. So we’ve made a concerted effort to help those people out. They need things that are easy to find, easy to make. But it’s got to be delicious, and they don’t want it dumbed down.
On Not Being a Weenie About Food
- I wrote a recipe for a peanut butter sandwich with pickles and sriracha and a wisp of soy sauce, and some people’s response was: “gross!” But a lot of people made it! It’s a pretty successful recipe.
- The recipe I wish more people would try is the one for trotter gear from Fergus Henderson, the British chef. You’re cooking pig trotters–pig’s feet—in Madeira until it collapses and becomes a kind of jelly. It’s not quite a condiment, but you add it to other things. It has a lot of umami and a lip-sticking quality that’s fantastic. It’s very labor intensive, and it takes hours, but it lasts a long time. [Sifton notes on NYT Cooking that the recipe is “project cooking at its most exciting and slightly ridiculous.”] I love it, but I get why people don’t.
- I don’t know if there’s much I won’t eat out there. I’m down for anything. It’s a useful quality in a person who has this job. I was served a deep fried half cow brain in St. Louis that was pretty gross, but I’ve had some delicious brains since.
On Being a Better Home Cook
- You want to be a better cook? Read the recipe. Then read it again. So many people don’t do it.
- Another common mistake is not setting up a mise en place. This is standard in restaurants for a reason. It’s much easier to cook if everything is there. You’re minimizing the number of movements you need to make.
- Not to be a jerk, but to the extent you can, clean as you go. Home cooks who leave the kitchen looking as if a bomb went off may make delicious food, but they’re probably creating problems for themselves or someone else. Professionals say “keep your station clean.” I really advise doing that.
On What Makes a Restaurant Great
- One, a great restaurant doesn’t necessarily have excellent food; just as a restaurant that has excellent food can be terrible. Food is a factor, not the only one.
- Two, atmospheric factors really matter—the smell, the lighting, the general comfort of the architecture and seating.
- Three, service plays an outsized role. I don’t think you can talk about it enough. The ability for a staff to tell the story of a restaurant is really important. To make the customer feel welcome and at home.
- Will Guidera, the famous restaurateur who worked at Eleven Madison Park, wrote a book called Unreasonable Hospitality. When you experience unreasonable hospitality, it does a lot to make an evening or restaurant feel special.
- There’s no chef or restaurateur who always gets it right. They all make mistakes. It would offend the heavens if someone was perfect. Everyone’s capable of screwing up. That’s what makes the high wire act of restaurants—and their success—all the more exciting to write about.
On Good Places to Eat
- Portland, Maine, is a very good eating city. And it’s a cliché, but Charleston is a great eating city, too. Houston, particularly for Vietnamese food, is incredible. Portland [Oregon] and Seattle both support very good restaurant scenes.
- But I’ll tell you: a city I don’t know very much about, but am interested to check out, is Orlando. It’s the number one tourist destination for Americans. People go for the theme parks, sure, but they’re also doing things outside of the parks. I want to know where they’re going. It’s also close to a big Puerto Rican community. I sense there’s something interesting going on in Orlando.
- As far as a favorite restaurant goes, I can’t really give you one. But up in Maine, in the town my brother lives in, there’s a little deli called Big Top. Everyone there is really nice. They make perfect sandwiches. The system by which you order, and receive them is perfect. Everything works perfectly. They’re playing in their lane exactly as they should. That’s remarkable. Things like that should be celebrated.
On What He Wants to Eat
- I spent a lot of the pandemic perfecting this Neapolitan-style pizza, but now my interest is more firmly in this Sicilian-style grandma pie you can make in a home oven.
- I’m going to eat a lot of clams this summer. That I know.
- Right now I’m pretty obsessed with hot pot. It’s this communal experience post-pandemic; we can all dip meat and vegetables into a steaming pot together. That’s great to me.
- One thing I remember from my time as restaurant critic: if you spend a lot of time consuming really elegant cuisines and wines over and over, it can feel a little like death by massage.
- Often, if I’ve had a string of elegant meals, I find myself craving well-done buffalo chicken wings. Really well-done–extra fried, crispy, not flabby. And a mountain of celery with some blue cheese and ranch. And a yellow beer that’s so cold there are little flecks of ice in it. I don’t know if that’s for sure my last meal, but you could put me on a diet of smoothies for the next year and I’d be okay if I got to have that before.
- I once ran into a great brewmaster, Garrett Oliver, at a party. He was drinking a Bud or Bud Light—a commodity beer of some kind—and I asked him “What are you doing?” He said, “You know, it doesn’t matter where or when you buy this, it’s always the same and it’s always good. Can you imagine what goes into that? What has to happen for that to be the case? That’s amazing.” Now maybe he just got busted drinking a Bud Light and had a good answer, but still, he makes a very good point. I feel that way about a Popeye’s chicken sandwich.
On His Advice for Wine Drinkers
- The rules of thumb are so stupid, but even so, they mostly hold up. I’m probably going to drink a white wine with chicken and seafood. Probably not with steak. I’m not going to drink red wine with fish. Unless I do.
- Outside of restaurants, people serve their reds too warm and whites too cold.
- My advice is get advice! You don’t want to fall out of love with the romance of wine. What you need is a magician, who will take the form of a sommelier or a good wine store owner. Get the recommendation. See how it works. Come back and talk about it. Developing a relationship with that person where you begin to understand each other’s tastes can be revelatory.
On the Evolution of His Wine Palate
- As I look back on decades of cooking and writing about food, I’m interested in how much my relationship with wine has changed over the years. The fads I’ve taken part in or experienced. Wine is part of the full experience of our lives.
- I’m a big Thanksgiving guy. I wrote a book about it. I think about it a lot. And I think back to a Thanksgiving of mine when I was just out of college, in a period that coincided with a big marketing push for Beaujolais Nouveau by Georges Duboeuf. It felt extremely important to have Beaujolais Nouveau on the table. Fishing a bottle off the porch and feeling the cool New England air. Thinking about how the wine goes with the turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce. I thought I was a model of sophistication for that. I look back now and laugh a bit—I was mostly a young kid being successfully marketed to—but still to this day, I like that feeling.
- Back in the day, I was spending a lot of time in these big, muscular, rah rah restaurants frequented by the hedge fund crowd, and I fell for the big West Coast zinfandels—the jam sandwich wines. I thought I liked them. And I did like them in that moment. They were great.
On His Favorite Wines
- There’s a rosé from a small vineyard on the North Fork of Long Island called Croteaux. And for whatever reason their rosé, for me, is the purest example of the reality of terroir—it just tastes of the North Fork. I spend a lot of time on the water out there fishing and eating food from local farms. That wine ties it all together beautifully.
- The best wine I’ve ever had was a Lafite-Rothschild. I had the opportunity to do a vertical tasting of Lafite-Rothschild, and I thought to myself, “Oh–I get it. Wow.” I think that’s what I said out loud. “Oh–I get it. Wow.”
- If I could just be transported to one wine region anywhere in the world, it’d be Liguria—those stepped vineyards over the gulf are pretty magical.
On Wine Trends
- Young people aren’t drinking as much? I don’t know. We’re always looking for these stories, as journalists. The same places that say this also say young people aren’t having sex as much. Or whatever. It doesn’t seem to me that wine is going anywhere. I’m generally a little skeptical of trend reporting—I call a little B.S. on it. Vaping was supposed to kill cigarettes. Then kids got tired of vaping, and guess what they did? They smoked cigarettes. These things are cyclical; they go in waves.
- How much bigger is this natural wine thing going to get? I don’t know. We’re already seeing people out there trying to make natural wine that tastes better. They’re trying to take the positive principles of natural wine—the relationship with the vines and earth, the lack of manipulation and chemicals—and go in a direction where the wine maybe tastes a bit more mainstream. That makes sense to me.
- There are delicious natural wines, don’t get me wrong. But it’s as much a trend as those big California zins were. It naturally has to go toward the middle at some point.
On Wine Connoisseurship
- In order to describe the flavor or behavior of a wine, we need to apply adjectival language to what is, in essence, artistic science. “Hints of vanilla, rose, leather, scent of a scared schoolboy.” All of this incredible descriptive power is used, and when that’s well done, when someone can take a mouthful of wine and emerge with a description of a unit of liquid and get it right, that’s really a “wow.” That’s something worth remembering and comparing.
- It makes sense that wine rewards connoisseurship. When a group of like-palated or like-minded people can get together and get excited about what they’re tasting—and then be correct about it, and share that kind of accurate understanding—that practically demands connoisseurship.
- As a rank amateur on the outside, I benefit from that connoisseurship. But I lack the extra discernment that would encourage me to be a connoisseur.
- I never became an expert in wine–I wanted to speak for the everyman. But I’ve loved my conversations with sommeliers that weren’t just us bickering over which vintage is the correct one. I prefer to have a conversation about the list as interpreted by the sommelier, to hear what he or she has to tell me.
- I think because so much wine journalism gets extra nerdy extra fast (our own Eric Asimov is an exception), and the barrier to entry is so high, it turns a lot of people into one-and-dones. Because you need to know a lot of terminology, geography, the subtleties of this versus that varietal. It’s like, maybe I watch the Kentucky Derby, and it gets me interested in the beauty and excitement of horse racing. But most wine journalism is the racing form! And now the majesty, the thrill of watching horse racing is gone because I’m reading stats and language I don’t understand, and it’s off-putting. It’s nerds talking to nerds. So I get why people put the racing form away.