The Mirror

WaPo Restaurant Critic Spends $9.5K On A Story

Betsy Rothstein Gossip blogger
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The Washington Post really may be getting a spring in its step under billionaire Jeff Bezos. I mean, when was the last time you got to spend $9,500 on food?

The newspaper’s famed restaurant critic Tom Sietsema recently got to invite eight caterers to his home to feed him and chosen dinner guests that turned up in the photo spread and included WaPo reporters J. Freedom du Lac, and fashion writer Robin Givhan.

The nearly $10K result ended up as last weekend’s cover story for WaPo Magazine.

Sietsema pulled out the machetes for this one, but arguably also included positive qualities about each one. Without telling the catering companies his real name or that he was a food critic for The Washington Post, he dished pointedly about each catering experience. The reviews came complete with “Oops,” “Praise” and “Would I use them again?” categories. He gave each company letter grades and concluded that he would definitely invite three caterers back again and would give a fourth another try.

The other four?



“Does Popeyes deliver, hon?”

And, “Sure, — if my top picks were busy.”

Had they known they were going under the knife of a food critic, would they have voluntarily served Sietsema? Would they have spit in his food? The Mirror reached out to the catering victims to find out.

“Yes, any opportunity to serve is an opportunity we’d take,” Stacy Carroll of Design Cuisine told The Mirror in a phone conversation about the story. Design Cuisine received the grade of “B” with Sietsema saying he’d invite them back only if his top picks were busy.

Carroll seemed to welcome his critiques.

“I’d love a second chance to perform even better again,” she said. “We definitely appreciate that we were selected as one of the top caterers for D.C. Honestly, we give him a lot of credit for the insight he put into the story.”

But others were less than pleased.

As reported by Washington D.C. Eater, two catering companies sent in letters to WaPo food and dining editor Joe Yonan to protest Sietsema’s ways. Occasions CEO Mark Michaels, whose company received a “C” grade, said Sietsema played favorites with his “personal” caterers. “It is impossible for me or any of my colleagues or competitors to believe Mr. Sietsema’s personal caterers weren’t aware of a dinner party in his home,” he wrote. “Impossible. He’s Tom Sietsema.” Michaels says the critic should’ve disclosed any “personal preferences.”

Except isn’t that what he did in the expansive review?

Windows Catering Company CEO Andrew Gerstel was also not ecstatic about the story. One can’t help but think he wouldn’t have written the letter had his grade, a C-, been higher. Still, he had strong points — such as that in 2011, Sietsema, in an online chat, favorably mentioned Susan Gage and Federal City — the companies that rolled in with the first and second highest scores. Like Michaels, he believes Sietsema’s use of these caterers for previous personal events should’ve been disclosed.

Sietsema rejected a lot of what the complainers had to say.

“I do not have ‘personal’ caterers,” he told Washington D.C. Eater. “While I’ve used Federal City and Susan Gage before, the events I hired them for took place years and years ago and in a home other than where I now live or another venue. My phone number has changed since then, too. Bottom line: I’m pretty sure no one knew they were coming to my house on the night of the event.”

On a technical note, Gerstel also corrected the critic on what the vegetarian option was. “We did not serve a cheese stuffed pasta roulade with tomato fondue as he states,” he complained in his letter to WaPo. “The vegetarian item served as actually a Stuffed Portobello Mushroom filled with sweet pea risotto topped with crispy Tobago onion strings with sautéed broccolini and roasted red pepper, wild mushroom sauce [sic].”

Despite all that, he says he’ll live with his grade and hopes to improve.

So far, has such a pricy story created any new business? “It’s hard to judge that,” said Carroll of Design Cuisine. “We definitely heard form our clients. Over all, I feel we were rated well and we don’t have anything to complain about. I think the assessment he gave was fair. We had several meetings about it and I think learned more than were scorned.”