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Mike Sutter Unmasked

27 August 2011 2,249 views 5 Comments

When I heard the news that Austin American-Statesman food critic Mike Sutter was taking a buyout and retiring from the paper, I felt a pang of sadness.

Everyone had their own opinion of his reviews, but to me, they were smart, funny, and always well-researched. I knew that if I read a review by Mike, that it would mean he had visited the restaurant at least three times, taken pains to ensure he wasn’t recognized, and did his best to give the restaurant staff the respect and care they deserved.

He understood that a bad review could lead to a restaurant closing its doors and people losing their jobs, but he also knew that his readers deserved a fair review — and never published a fluff piece.

I met Mike in person a couple years ago, when I participated in a bagel tasting at the Statesman. He asked me not to take any pictures of him, and I already knew that he carefully guarded his anonymity. When I invited him to join me on my weekly food segment on KGSR, he joked that he might need to wear a mask. I was only slightly shocked when he walked in the door wearing this Lucha Libre style mask.

Mike Sutter at the KGSR studios in Nov. 2009

Mike Sutter at the KGSR studios in Nov. 2009

A couple months later, Mike asked Adam and me to join him on a restaurant visit. We were both so excited to see a restaurant critic at work. Before we met him for dinner at Bess, Mike asked that we basically be cool and avoid drawing attention to ourselves. It felt kind of like we were undercover agents. The kind of undercover agents who order almost half the menu, covertly take pictures of the food (to help with recall when writing the review), and avoid talking about the reason we are at the restaurant while we are there.

Mike sent over some other “rules of engagement” via email:

  1. None of us can order the same dish.
  2. I’ll have to taste everything we order. I promise to be neat and use a clean fork.
  3. I’ll pay for food and tip. We’ll have to pay for drinks on our own, unfortunately. (The paper doesn’t reimburse for alcohol. Really.)

Rules one and two basically apply to every meal I ever eat, although I’ve never actually set the ground rules before via e-mail. What I generally will do is wait until everyone else has ordered, and then I’ll order something that interests me that no one else is getting.

So the meal (my first and only at Bess) was pretty forgettable, but the company and conversation was wonderful, and Adam and I have kept in touch with Mike ever since. After dinner, the three of us walked to the Tiniest Bar in Texas for a beer, and when the night was coming to a close, Mike decided to walk back to the Statesman, a little over a mile away.

And while a mile doesn’t seem like a lot, no one really walks much in Texas unless they are wearing exercise clothes, so it seemed kind of quirky and cool to us. It was that evening that Mike told us that he tells people he writes a blog called “Fed Man Walking” if they ask him why he’s taking pictures in their restaurant.

And when he started up his own website, I wasn’t surprised to see that he went with FedManWalking.com as his url. I was so excited and thrilled to see him writing and reviewing again. And the amazing thing is that he has kept the same quality in his reviews and writing, and his level of integrity is staying the same, even while he is no longer part of the old-media establishment. The best part? He has taken off the mask.

Here is Mike at a recent meal at the new Moonie’s on Burnet, in all of his long, silver-haired glory:

Mike Sutter at Moonie's Burger House

Mike Sutter at Moonie's Burger House

As Sutter says in his video and on his website introduction, he will never accept free food or special treatment, the same way that he never did when he was at the Statesman.

I had to ask him how he can afford to post almost every day, eat out for multiple meals a day, and still take care of his family after leaving the Statesman. Before he decided to accept the Statesman buyout, a company hired him to write reviews on his own website full time and reimburse him for the cost of the meals he eats in preparation for reviews and stories. Essentially, Sutter is living every food blogger’s dream.

But don’t call Fed Man Walking a blog.

“If you have a blog and you’re comfortable with that word, I respect that,” Sutter writes. “But ‘blog’ always sounded like a gag reflex to me.”

Mike and I have discussed his feelings about the term, since I proudly identify myself as a blogger. And I can understand Sutter’s distaste with the word. After all, he is payed a salary for writing about food. I do it for fun. It’s my hobby, not my career, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable presenting it as anything else. Saying I’m a “food critic” or “journalist” just doesn’t feel authentic to me. And blogger fits me just right. What about you? Do you consider yourself a food writer, a journalist, a blogger, a critic? I’d love to hear what you do and what you call yourself, what terms you feel comfortable or uncomfortable with, and why.

In the meantime, I’m just happy that Mike is continuing to share his stories, reviews, photography, and unique world view. If you haven’t checked out Fed Man Walking yet, I strongly suggest you do. His dedication quickly becomes obvious in reading through his 50 burgers, 50 days series, or his detailed tour of the food of Airport Boulevard (part 1 part 2).

Sutter is no occasional blogger; he is a professional food writing machine.

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  • Rebeccammendations

    Love this interview-type feature and love the mysterious smirk on his face! So cool to learn about Mike behind-the-scenes and now out in the open!

  • http://twitter.com/ATXGastronomist Kathryn Hutchison

    So I really, really love the Fed Man Walking website. There are great pictures, great stories (of course) and a great layout, too. The only thing that bugs me is the lack of comments. I think the site really suffers because there's nowhere for community to flourish, or even for readers to disagree or agree with Mike. Still, I've been reading it semi-regularly and I'm glad that Mike is continuing his service to foodies everywhere.

  • jodibart

    Thanks so much for the notes, Rebecca and Kathryn. Kathryn — I agree with you that commmenting is difficult on Fed Man Walking. I know Mike has added the ability to comment on some, but not all of the posts. However, I couldn't figure out how to drop by and write something. I know he's working out the kinks though so maybe it will be easier to comment in the future.

  • jodibart

    Thanks so much for the notes, Rebecca and Kathryn. Kathryn — I agree with you that commmenting is difficult on Fed Man Walking. I know Mike has added the ability to comment on some, but not all of the posts. However, I couldn't figure out how to drop by and write something. I know he's working out the kinks though so maybe it will be easier to comment in the future.

  • jodibart

    Thanks so much for the notes, Rebecca and Kathryn. Kathryn — I agree with you that commmenting is difficult on Fed Man Walking. I know Mike has added the ability to comment on some, but not all of the posts. However, I couldn't figure out how to drop by and write something. I know he's working out the kinks though so maybe it will be easier to comment in the future.