Retired critic offers food for thought in online dining series

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Well-known food critic Howard Seftel

By M.V. Moorhead

Many Valley restaurants have fed Howard Seftel without knowing it, at first. The owners and staff would learn that he had dined there a few weeks later, when his review would run in the pages of the Phoenix New Times or, later in his career, The Arizona Republic.

Sometimes, when they were the recipient of Seftel’s barbed disapproval, they might wish he had never walked through their doors.

Like many food critics, he took pains back then to conceal his identity when he went to an eatery, to get as authentic a customer experience as he could. I knew Howie well when we were both at New Times in the ‘90s — I even went to dinner with him sometimes when he needed additional mouths to sample the cuisine — and I recall the lengths to which preserving his identity were taken.

One ad campaign for the paper, for instance, featured photos of the faces of some of the staff writers on the side of city buses, but Howie’s photo showed him getting a pie splattered in his mug.

All that has changed, however.

Now anyone who can access the internet can see what Howie looks like.

Having retired from The Republic in 2015, after a decade and a half, Howie is now hosting his own web-video food series, Turning the Tables with Howie Seftel (turningthetables.tv). Produced by MMPR marketing, the tightly edited mini-episodes feature Howie visiting notable Valley restaurants, getting the stories of the chefs and behind-the-scenes glimpses into their kitchens, to see their methods for crafting their culinary masterpieces.

“I was approached by the folks at MMPR,” says Howie. Inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, the firm had been, he says, “intrigued by the idea of somebody in the business talking to somebody else in the business, and showing the audience behind the scenes.”

The first episode, directed by James Beard Award-nominated food and travel filmmaker Andrew Gooi, chronicles Howie’s visit to Little Miss BBQ, a brisket-and-sausage emporium on University Drive in Phoenix that launched in February 2014. We see Howie arrive at the place; we see chef Scott Holmes show him the process by which he smokes and cooks his meat; and then the two sit down for a chat about the chef’s career trajectory.

We also get Howie’s pronouncement that Little Miss BBQ is a “game-changer” when it comes to the BBQ scene here in the Valley, a locale that has previously not been especially renowned, or so he says, for excellence in the style.

His admiration for the chef will be an ongoing characteristic of the show, he says:

“I’m not going to be interviewing a chef I don’t respect, and would have to sit there pretending he was a master.”

The episode was shot in one day. “I’m sure it took much, much longer to put together than it did to shoot,” says Howie. It all clocks in at just under six minutes, at the end of which you’re likely to really be in the mood for some of the place’s tender, mouth-watering brisket.

Howie also insists that the side dishes at the place—like jalapeño grits—are so good that even vegetarians might find it worthwhile.

But for all the show’s strong production values, and for all its “food porn” appeal, no small measure of the charm of Turning the Tables derives simply from its host.

Onscreen, Howie is relaxed, personable and engaging, with a pleasant and unforced style as an interviewer. He wouldn’t be at all out of place as the host of, say, his very own Food Network series.

He probably should have shown his face long ago.

How much of an adjustment was it, I wondered, to step into the limelight?

“No adjustment at all,” says Howie, “because just as when I wrote, I wrote as me; on camera I’m just me. Whatever virtues and vices and warts, this is who I am.

“You can’t go through life being somebody you’re not, at least not happily. So if it works, great; if not, my wife still loves me.

“But I’m not a good enough performer to put on an act.”

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