I'll never forget the first time it happened. The manager of a restaurant showed up at our table, looked around at my party of four and smiled. And then he turned to me and said, "Are you Besha Rodell?"
"Besha Rodell?" I asked. "Who's that?"
It was less than a year into my tenure as a restaurant critic, in Atlanta, Georgia, and I'd already been made. That time I got away with it. The manager explained that Besha Rodell was the new critic for the weekly newspaper, and there was a rumour going around that she had an Australian accent.
"South African," I lied. He bought it. I think.
Years later, during my first week at a job in Los Angeles, I got a text message from a friend. "Are you sitting down?" He paused, and then: "Eater just published a photo of you." I clicked on the link and there it was: blurry, from a distance and mortifyingly unflattering, but undeniably me. The photo was taken down within the hour, at the request of the photographer.
A few weeks later, the same website published another photo, this one much clearer, with the headline, "LA Weekly Restaurant Critic Besha Rodell Circa 2005?" It was… not me. The photo was of a woman, 25 years my senior, named Brenda Pollard. I'd taken it as part of a story I'd written for a North Carolina newspaper, and Eater had mistaken the photo credit for a photo caption. I still imagine it hanging in the kitchens of Los Angeles, anxious waiters looking out for Brenda Pollard.
There are lots of ridiculous aspects of being a restaurant critic. But anonymity – the game of concealing my identity for the entirety of my adult professional life – is by far the most complicated and silliest part of my job.
I have never worn a wig, sunglasses or a fat suit. (The results of restaurant criticism are fat suit enough.) But I do have multiple credit cards taken out in various fake names. When my best friend called me to ask if I'd serve as her maid of honour, my first emotion was joy, but my second was a weird mix of anxiety and embarrassment, knowing I'd have to ask her to keep many of her wedding photos off the internet.
If I'm invited to functions or baby showers or brunches, I wonder if I need to ask if my no-photos lifestyle will be a bummer. But bringing it up pre-emptively both presupposes that someone might want to take my picture and also has a distinct whiff of expecting people to be interested in the minutiae of my job. At parties or formal events, you can find me ducking away from roving photographers, apologising sheepishly.
I am not the last anonymous restaurant critic, but I am one of the last. The endangered status of the anonymous subset of my professional species, like so many things, is mainly thanks to social media and selfies and mobile phones. By the time anyone in the present or future chooses a professional path – let alone the very specific and strange path of restaurant critic – their image is likely to have appeared online roughly a gazillion times.
I slipped in just under the wire. I became a critic, for a weekly newspaper in Atlanta, in early 2006. That's two years after the launch of Facebook (I signed up in 2007), an a year before the launch of the iPhone. I simply never had my photo online. Had my career started 18 months later, complete anonymity would likely have been impossible.
Not all critics want or need to be anonymous, of course. Some publications rely on their critics to be visible, to take part in events, to quite literally be the face of their food coverage.
Having worked in the service industry for years, I know the basic possibilities and limitations of both scenarios. A chef knows her best cut of meat; a floor manager knows which waiter is the most charming and capable. I have had vastly different experiences from my more easily recognised fellow critics, mostly at restaurants that have the ability to be amazing but that operate under a kind of customer caste system, whereby your money may not hold the same value if you are un-famous or unimportant.
More interesting is the opposite scenario, the one in which I get incredible service for no apparent reason. I know how to look out of place, to (quite accurately) appear to be the most impoverished customer at the fanciest restaurant. I've had experiences in which staff, assuming this was the one special-occasion meal of my year, have really turned on the charm, with the understanding that a magical dining experience means the most to those who can't really afford it. That is the true mark of a great restaurant.
Even for me, anonymity is a goal, and not one that's entirely achievable. In LA, where I held my last full-time job as a critic, it became harder all the time to go undetected. My son, who at 14 has endured the silliness of this game for most of his life, would catch the staff huddled and whispering across the room behind me, and say casually, "I think you've been made."
Recently, when I was dining at the thin counter set aside for walk-in guests at an impossible-to-reserve LA hotspot, the chef simply walked up to me and said, "Besha? We have a table for you." In those moments I protest, I try to make clear that I want no special treatment, I tell them I'm perfectly fine with where I'm sitting and what I've ordered. But this is the hospitality industry. In the end, it sometimes feels rude and self-important to resist that hospitality.
And one day I may have to give up the game. Now that I'm in Australia, reviewing restaurants for The New York Times, I get to start over. I have a whole country to cover, a whole new community to slip into while trying to remain undetected. But who knows how long it will last? It matters to me, of course, but lots of things that matter go away, eventually.