Interview w/ Bob Lape

By Robert Bickell

Broadcast Journalist, Writer, Restaurant Reviewer, Food Critic and Husband...

Bob Lape is a talented and well respected restaurant critic in New York. Over his career, he has done some 12,000 restaurant reviews, which most certainly gives him tons of experience and credibility. It helps that he is a total gentlemen in every respect, and on a personal level, it was a pleasure speaking with a restaurant critic that possesses such genuine passion for his profession. He is also the husband in a household that includes an accomplished wife, writer and cookbook author, Joanna Pruess. Joanna has written about food for such publications as the New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Washington Post, Food Arts, Saveur Magazine, Food & Wine, and the Associated Press. As the first director of the Cooking Studio, a cooking school within Kings Super Market in New Jersey, she had more than 15,000 students over five years. Among the many classes she taught were specially created courses for students with visual or hearing impairments and for those with learning disabilities.

She has also published a plethora of outstanding cookbooks, and her recent titles include the likes of “D’Artagnan’s Glorious Game Cookbook”; “Supermarket Confidential: The Secrets of One-Stop Shopping For Delicious Meals”; “Soup For Every Body: Low-Carb, High-Protein, Vegetarian, and More”; “Tea Cuisine: A New Approach to Flavoring Contemporary and Traditional Dishes”; “Fiamma: The Essence of Contemporary Italian Cooking”; and “Seduced by Bacon: Recipes & Lore about America’s Favorite Indulgence”.

This highly respected and powerful culinary duo resides in the Bronx, and individually, and as a couple, they have become significant players in the local and national food and dining scene.

BB: With all that’s going on in your life, you found time to co-author a book with your wife (Joanna Pruess) called “Seduced by Bacon”. Bob: We share a love for bacon. What more can I say? Actually this was a fun thing because we placed bacon in every dish one could think of including popcorn and ice cream. Joanna is a talented writer with a host of books that have been wildly successful. I was in it for the fun and it has been a blast.

BB: In my opinion, there are so few competent restaurant critics, and yet so many are involved in the process. How does a prospective restaurant critic become a competent and respected restaurant critic? Bob: You become competent based on your body of work over an extended period of time, and I will allow others to determine my competency and my level of respect. I have been at it for some 36 years, so at this point, my work speaks for itself. I believe it would be next to impossible to be incompetent in a market like New York over such an extended period of time.

BB: How does one become a restaurant critic in the first place? Bob: Someone anoints you. In my case it happened to be back in 1970 during my days with ABC’s Eyewitness News. I always considered myself a typical news guy covering the proverbial murders, fires and political events. The folks at ABC asked me to do a piece at the end of the Six o’clock news called Eyewitness Gourmet. It was a three- minute segment that became wildly popular, and a food show on ABC Radio was soon to follow. I always wanted to be a broadcaster, but I had no idea that restaurants and food would be the focus. I wrote in my college yearbook that my goal was to ink a broadcasting deal with CBS. It took me 21 years to get there which is great, but back in my Kent State days, I wasn’t thinking about critiquing restaurants.

BB: So you really learned the subject of food simply by jumping into it and basically learning on the run. Bob: That’s precisely it. I didn’t go to culinary school and I had no formal training or background in food. I became a student on the run, and I did my homework. I have never stopped learning, and that’s what makes my life so interesting.

BB: You now work for Crain’s New York Business, and for WCBS Radio. Basically you dine in all kinds of interesting restaurants and write and broadcast reviews. It has to be a great life. Bob: It is indeed, but let’s not forget that I have some thirty deadlines each month, and my work comes with a great deal of personal responsibility to the people I work for; to my audience; and of course, to the restaurants themselves. People often ask me about retirement, but I really love what I do, and I feel blessed to be making a living doing something that’s so much fun.

BB: I’m guessing that it’s not always fun. It is one thing to praise a restaurant and make everybody happy, and it’s an entirely different thing to bash a given establishment. People can deal with praise, while a negative review can possibly cost them their business. Bob: I try hard to be fair, and I don’t do mean-spirited reviews. If I know that a restaurant is truly inferior, I will avoid it altogether. A bad restaurant will go out of business all by itself. I don’t do the kind of reviews that put people out of business, and not all restaurants are happy with even my favorable reviews. They can get angry if they feel the review, or the awarding of stars is not favorable enough. It’s not a process where you can make everyone happy.

BB: Do you select the restaurants that you review, and do you arrive anomalously? Bob: I do select the restaurants on my own, and I do make reservations under another name. I never tell them I’m coming, and it’s interesting to note that I am very rarely recognized. I certainly prefer it this way, and I usually dine with three guests. We share the food and everyone knows to order something different. Most of my reviews involve one visit, but we get to taste some thirty dishes between us, so we have a very good idea of what the kitchen is all about.

BB: Is the food the most important part of your dining experience? Bob: Actually, I believe the service is more important than anything. If you have great service, you will almost always have a wonderful restaurant experience. If the service is lacking, the food won’t make up for it. Of course, I appreciate the ambiance and I realize its importance. I just feel that good service outranks the food and the ambiance.

BB: It has to be just a bit more special doing what you do in New York with so much to choose from. Bob: I don’t think I could do this for 36 years in any other area of the world. This is one city where you never run out of new and exciting restaurants to visit.

BB: I find it interesting that wine percentage mark-ups are always part of your reviews in Crain’s, New York. How viable is this information? Bob: Crain’s is a business oriented publication, and I have always felt that this is an important piece of information in terms of evaluating a restaurant. It’s not easy because it takes a lot of research to obtain an accurate retail price, especially when you are dealing with some obscure wine selections. I believe that restaurant customers have become more knowledgeable about wine and the cost of wine. If a restaurant attaches a ridiculous mark-up on their wine, this becomes something that my audience wants to know, and they appreciate this information.

BB: You do work the four-star system, and I would be interested in knowing the factors involved in awarding a restaurant a given number of stars? Bob: This is a very subjective business, and restaurant critics bring their own subjectivity to the table. There is no absolute formula, but when you review enough restaurants, you know almost instinctively where the overall performance of a given restaurant falls. People will always agree and disagree with my ratings, and in this regard, it’s never going to change. I just try to be as fair as possible, both to my readers and the restaurants. As subjective as it might be, I do take it very seriously.

BB: I don’t wish to belabor the point, but it does bother me that a grown man can actually enjoy himself to this extent. It’s simply not fair that you have created a career simply by dining in New York restaurants. Bob: I feel the same way you do, but I caution you that it’s not as easy as it looks. How many restaurant critics survive in New York (or anywhere else for that matter) for 36 years? I’m either very lucky or very good. Let’s call it lucky, and let me tell you that the concept of retirement is the last thing on my mind. As you suggest, I’m just having too much fun.

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