Ryan Sutton cares about other people's money. Bloomberg's young, data-happy food critic reviews upmarket New York City restaurants for an audience composed largely of the maligned 'one percent' -- the roughly 300,000 bankers, brokers, investors, and the otherwise financially inclined who pay $1,500 a month for access to Bloomberg's market data and analysis -- but who don't want to overspend on dinner.
"Finance people especially don't want to be ripped off," Sutton said. "Because they've spent their lives making money on the margin. And everyone likes a good deal."
Of course, Sutton's idea of a good deal doesn't involve two-for-one happy hour or all-you-can-eat lunch buffets. He endorsed a $35 demi-pour (yep, that's half a glass) of Ruinart champagne -- for the "budget-minded" -- in a recent review of Le Bernardin. He praised the affordable $115 seasonal tasting menu at Corton (the same place a Bloomberg customer called "shockingly expensive.") He thinks the $34 Vesper Martini at Del Posto is "worth every penny."
Still, Sutton -- who invites his readers to email him for tailored recommendations -- does not equate wealth with extravagance. "I have a pretty high-end clientele, but no one asks me, 'What's the most expensive restaurant in New York and how can I spend more money there?'"
In addition to his weekly Bloomberg column, Sutton operates -- with his employer's blessing -- two service-oriented blog projects devoted to the economics of fine (and not-so-fine) dining: The Bad Deal is primarily concerned with warning potential buyers against beguiling web-based daily deals from the likes of Groupon and Gilt, but will offer praise for a good deal when it sees one. The Price Hike meticulously tracks incremental price increases on noteworthy menus across the U.S., and translates advertised prices to actual dollars spent: For example, what does the $750 New Year's Eve menu at Per Se cost after tax and tip?
Transparency is the name of the game for Sutton -- except when it comes to his identity. Dubbed the "last anonymous critic in New York" by Eater.com, the 32-year-old Columbia grad is as protective of the old guard of food criticism as he is of Wall Street money. He makes reservations under a rotating alias, or books under a guest's name, and he takes pains not to draw attention to himself when dining out. An aggressive online search will yield only one image of Sutton -- a tiny employee ID photo a Bloomberg insider leaked to Eater, which I can confirm looks almost nothing like him. He claims only a small handful of restaurants know who he is and confesses to an even smaller number of desperate occasions when he availed himself of a mysterious, elite concierge service to secure an impossible reservation. With special treatment comes the risk of exposure.
Sutton joined Bloomberg in 2005 as a Multimedia Producer after a brief stint freelancing for Time Out New York. By early the next year, when Sutton was 26, he began writing the Food Buzz column and came under the mentorship of Jeff Weinstein, a former Village Voice food critic who was Bloomberg's Arts and Culture editor at the time.
"Ryan had another full-time job when I was there,"Weinstein said. "So this was a very brave attempt to do what I think of as full-time work on top of full-time work." (Years later, he still holds two positions.)
"He's read traditional reviews, and yet he's in a very different world," Weinstein continued. "The whole job is different now...if you don't have something up the moment the dish is in front of you, you're considered late."
Through The Price Hike and The Bad Deal, Sutton can post timely culinary news and stay relevant to an audience that demands immediate gratification. This affords him room to step back and write formal, more traditional reviews of restaurants both new and established. And so does a generous expense account that lets him visit a given restaurant two or three times before publishing his verdict.
"The job of the food critic is not just to advise people how to spend their extremely scarce disposable income, it is to spend the extremely scarce income of those news organizations themselves," Sutton said.
"Part of that is not being the fat cat," he continued. "Not being the guy who goes out and gets drunk."
"He takes it very seriously as opposed to inviting friends out for luxurious dinners," said Jeff Allen,* a trader and regular dining companion Sutton met on DINE GO, Bloomberg's internal user-generated content system. "I imagine he runs into a lot of people that would love to piggyback on the benefits of his job."
Sutton is selective in choosing guests for review dinners. "Sometimes those friends who aren't the best dining companions become slightly marginalized from my life," he admitted.
He once briefly dated a girl whose eating disorder made it impossible to continue the relationship, and temporarily dropped a friend out of rotation after he became unmanageably drunk at wd-50 -- one of the places where Sutton suspects he is recognized.
"I am to a certain extent a public figure, even though I'm an anonymously public figure, and if I become known as a person who is keeping company with those who can't conduct themselves with sobriety or temperance in restaurants, it speaks poorly not just upon me but upon the organization that pays me to eat really expensive food."
Sutton carefully guards the goodwill between him and his employer. While waiting for a table at Roberta's in November, when Mario Batali's ill-advised comparison of Bloomberg's subscriber base to Hitler and Stalin was the story du jour, one dinner guest attempted to broach what sounded like the topic of Bloomberg's reaction to some comments Sutton had made on the scandal. I can't be sure, because Sutton spoke to him firmly in a foreign language and the subject was swiftly changed.
"I've drunk the company Kool-Aid to some extent," he said during an after-hours interview at Bloomberg headquarters. "I like to think of myself as a chill guy--I say that as I tighten my tie even tighter--but you've got to change your personality a bit sometimes."
Sutton carries himself with a formality that can be off-putting at first, but there is nothing haughty or condescending about it. While he is careful with his choice of words -- insisting that he can't be portrayed as using profanity -- he will gleefully toss around what he calls Chuck Norris-isms at a review dinner (ie. Chuck Norris uses chili oil to wash his contacts out; Chuck Norris likes his Manhattans made with gin or vodka; Chuck Norris doesn't recognize the periodic table of elements because he only recognizes the element of surprise.) He makes generous use of capital letters and third-person self-references in written communication, and frequently uses the word "bangin'" to express his pleasure with a particular dish.
"One thing I like about him is that he's eternally open minded about the next great meal," Allen said. "It doesn't have to be by Boulud or Ripert or Thomas Keller. It just has to be good."
That's true. But while no one could accuse Sutton of being a culinary label whore, he's not without his biases. He has zero tolerance for chicken parmesan (an "ILLEGITIMATE DISH"), cupcakes ("antibiotic-resistant self-mutating culinary avian flu viruses that can't be stopped"), and brunch. He refuses to drink coffee, cross town for pizza, or acknowledge veganism.
He will sometimes bring some of these endearingly brash opinions to his restaurant criticism, but notes that his editors tend to reduce him if a review is a slam. Generally speaking, Sutton is grateful for what he sees as remarkable editorial freedom at Bloomberg, and yes: he really, really likes his job. At least one of them.
"It would be great if Bloomberg could have me work as full-time food critic and reporter, as that's what I do best", he said in an email.
However well-suited he is for the job, Sutton believes his days as a food critic are numbered, and he is planning for the future.
"It's a dying form of journalism. And a very expensive form of journalism," he said. "When news organizations slash budgets, even if they don't close down themselves, what's the big ticket item to go?"
*Name changed to protect privacy