Washington’s Most Unexpected Incognito

Among rows of cubicles filled with writers working for one of the country’s most respected newspapers sits Tom Sietsema’s personal office, with its own door and shelf full of cookbooks. The impeccably dressed man nods his head and says hello to his colleagues at The Washington Post as he maneuvers through the cubicles to his office, a personal space stocked with unique chocolate candies only a food critic would possess.  Tom Sietsema kindly asks that any description of his physical appearance, including his age be withheld, as his profession requires anonymity.  He’s rumored to have credit cards registered in as many as six different names.  He sits down in his computer chair and folds his hands gently on the tabletop.

“The great thing about food is it’s political, it’s fantasy, health, and economics,” says Sietsema, who hosts an online chat every morning at eleven a.m., writes a weekly restaurant news column for the Food section of The Washington Post, a weekly dining column for the Washington Post Sunday Magazine, a monthly report on dining in various cities for the Travel section and two annual dining guides, with no belly to show for it.

On the surface, his job seems to entail very little hard “work”, and a lot of socializing and eating. There’s the added perk of eating nearly 12 meals a week at various restaurants.  Various individuals belonging to a brigade of nearly 40 “frequent diners,” as he calls them, accompany him on his culinary travels. So far, Sietsema has managed to escape the small farming town he grew up in and has developed the cosmopolitan gravitas his fun, yet deceptively serious job requires. “The good thing about growing up in a small town was that I knew I wanted to get out.”

The phone rings and he politely excuses himself, but waves his hand at the phone saying he can call them back later.  “So, anyway, as I was saying, this job is as much as an eating job as it is a writing job, so you really have to love it,” says Tom Sietsema. And love it he does.

On paper, his job as a food critic may sound better than an average day job, but the reality is, his job requires a huge time commitment. To eat out 12 times a week means traveling to 12 meals a week. And although the Post pays for every meal, he has to deceive almost everyone in the restaurant in order to give a fair, unbiased review. “My review starts with the way I’m treated on the phone and at the valet,” he says, his face twisting to reveal a deceptive, spy-like demeanor. “Sometimes I’ll have my friends show up first and then I’ll just casually slip in because at that point, there’s nothing anyone could do even if they did recognize me. Other times we’ll all order different plates and sneakily try to pass all the plates around so I can get to try everything.” To observe and establish the minute nuances of a restaurant, he explains just how many aspects he must pay attention to, throwing up his hands and exclaiming, “Sometimes it’s exhausting!”

Not only is writing the reviews for a restaurant exhausting, but keeping up with his jet-setting family is as well. Sietsema juggles a relationship with his partner of four years who works for the postal service and seeing his family. Him and his partner have been together for nearly four years as Sietsema explains their schedules are both crazy and hectic. “He will usually make it to about 3 or 4 meals a week with me,” says Sietsema, a small smile unraveling when he talks of the man who he considers his best friend. The two of them enjoy burger joints on the weekends and visiting family as much as possible. For Sietsema, it’s not always so easy to pop in on any of his family members, as his older sister is now a flight attendant for Delta, and his brother a member of the state department stationed in Bosnia.  “We’re kind of all over the place, but we try very hard to get together during the holidays. Just last Christmas we all went to Sarajevo, it was a great time.”

When Sietsema’s not out dining or making time for his family, he’s usually up at 6:30am, listening to jazz and writing his reviews at his apartment just outside of D.C. “I do a lot of my work in the morning, unlike other people,” Sietsema adds. “That way, I can come into work around 9 or 10 and already have a lot of work done.”

Sietsema is not a city born and bred man like many of his readers may believe. Born in a small farm town of only 10,000 people in Minneapolis, he grew up in a family with three children, with one younger brother and one older sister.  He recalls his home as being one where all the neighborhood kids would congregate for the snacks his mother would whip up regularly, “She was kind of a June Cleaver type, she always had snacks after school, some sort of jam and crackers” he recalls with a quick smile as he thinks of his mother. “My mom and my grandmother were both really good cooks. They didn’t have all the fancy ingredients, but my mom was a really big from scratch cook.”

Having been intensely involved in academics and sports, Sietsema describes how his competitive demeanor developed early, and he always believed he was cut out for a demanding job like this. After graduating from The School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in 1983, he began “slinging pizzas” at Pizzeria Uno in D.C. Soon, after a friend of a friend notified him of a position at The Washington Post, he began “sorting mail with a bunch of over-educated college students,” as he puts it, laughing. “We were grateful for any opportunity at the time.”

His time in the sorting room paid off as the food critic of almost 24 years, Phyllis Richman, hired him as her assistant in the late fall of 1983. “I thought I’d work under Phyllis for a few years, writing for the Food Section, then work my way up to Metro, then to National and then wear a trench coat and eventually get to Foreign,” he chuckles, “But, everything happens for a reason and I quickly fell in love with food.”

After realizing his true passion led him to food, he began to use the opportunity at the Post to really develop his skills as a food writer. He probably could have remained at The Washington Post working under Richman for many years, but he decided he needed to get more experience. “The funny thing is, when you’re young, you don’t know what you don’t know. When I was working for her [Richman] I thought to myself, ‘yeah I could do that’, but the truth was, I didn’t know how much about food I didn’t know,” says Sietsema. “I left Washington, DC and became the food editor of The Milwaukee Journal. Then, in 1990, I moved to the west coast to work at The San Francisco Chronicle and became a food writer and restaurant reviewer.”  His time away from Washington, DC allowed him to gain the experience and confidence to accept a monumental offer from his old boss, Phyllis Richman. She was about to announce her retirement after 24 years as the Post’s food critic and told him to prepare his resume. “He had worked at the Post and knew the Food section and knew Washington well. I knew he had enough experience and would be great for the job,” says Richman of her former assistant

Although his job grants many obvious benefits, not the least of which are the numerous free meals, he has had the opportunity to interview some of the food world’s true moguls. “I have a story about one of those,” he says, pointing to the voice recorder on the table with a regretful smile. “The first time I used a voice recorder was when I interviewed Julia Childs on the release of what was to be her last cookbook she ever wrote. I placed the recorder on the table and proceeded with my interview as if everything was okay. When I got back to my office to replay the interview, you could only hear the clinking of glasses and muffled sounds. Of course, I’d hear an occasional warble and knew it was her but I couldn’t understand anything. I was so embarrassed when I had to call her back and ask her almost every question again.” His eyes widen when he mentions the late legendary chef, saying the world is really missing those “grande dames.”

Tom Sietsema is now sitting at his desk with a large glass window behind him, but he is always on the move, staking out the best new spots and bringing attention to the region’s classic eateries. To look at one side of this multifaceted man would be a huge discredit to his determination and character. “I never get tired of it, I’m getting paid to do my hobby basically,” he says. Close friend and one of the lucky “frequent diners”, Ken Estes refers to Tom as having “an incredible passion for what he does,” stating that “He works very hard at it,” “ I am very fortunate to be one of the many people he dines with. It’s an absolute thrill. Even though I don’t have a refined palette he still asks for my opinion and listens.” Evidently, Tom Sietsema is a man who respects the ideas of others, and allows these opinions to help him create the best work for his readers.

“I’m currently working on the new Spring Dining Guide, which is 50 restaurants to check out this spring, you know, some old and some new.” Maintaining the respect of his audience is a responsibility he holds in very high regards, saying, “You’re only as good as your last review,” as the silver ring on his ring finger catches the sun from outside.

Victoria Belinsky