Cooking Dirty: Fourteen days and counting

And who, you may ask, is the handsome devil right there?  That's me, folks. No bullshit. No disguises.  The anonymous restaurant critic in the flesh and en clair.

On Monday, June 15, at around 4 p.m. local time, my cover was finally, permanently blown.  That picture is the jacket photo from my book, Cooking Dirty, which was pulled and made public by fellow food critic Laura Reiley from the St. Petersburg Times -- run alongside a piece she wrote about the book (which she liked) and my enduring, occasionally hyperbolic loathing of the entire state of Florida (of which she made apt and ample sport). It was a nice bit of writing on her part. I even liked the line where she called me a caveman. And honestly, I don't think she even knew she was the first one to make my picture public -- a minor claim to infamy in which I hope she now takes a certain amount of pride.

Still, it's weird being able to see myself sitting there, smirking like King Dork, all out in the open. 

For the better part of ten years, I have been an anonymous man. I have worked invisibly (or close to it). No pictures of me have surfaced on the internet. None have hung in the restaurant critic's lieu d'honneur (right beside the service door or at the end of the hot line) in any kitchens that I know of. Sure, some guys in town have claimed to have a picture, but they've been wrong. Some have said they spotted me in dining rooms or cavorting disreputably at bars, demanding free food or free drinks or trying to have my way with their staff. They've all been wrong, too. And some have even gone to great lengths to get photos (staking out my known haunts, talking to private investigators), but, with one possible exception, they've all failed.

Sure, I've fucked the game up on occasion. I've blown my own cover a few times while on duty -- sometimes deliberately, mostly not. But for seven years now, I have passed almost entirely unnoticed and unscathed through some of the hottest rooms in town.  I've worked close to the ground.  I've been as careful as has been required.  And like any good spy, I have reveled in the freedom of being, for a time, someone else.

Mike Walsh, wine importer from Manhattan, complete with business cards and tuxedo.  Walsh met a lot of Denver's best chefs during my first years on this gig. He shook a lot of hands, laughed at a lot of dirty jokes and bought quite a few drinks before I retired him. 

Michael Sheehan, bewildered guy who just happened to have the same last name as a somewhat notorious local food writer.

Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago.

Jason Serdikoff, just some average schmoo. Abe Vigoda, Paul Tsongas, Steve McQueen, George Smiley and Tim Philby (I'd never pass as a Kim) and Toby Esterhase and Peter Guillam.  We had a lot of fun, my alternate personalities and me.

But now all that is done.


On Monday afternoon, about an hour after the photo was made public, I did what I thought was the right and necessary thing: I went to my boss, made her buy me a drink or three, and then asked her if she wanted me to resign.  Nothing more useless than a blown restaurant critic, I said.  We're gonna catch a lot of shit if I stick around.

Her response?  "No one's going to recognize you from that glam shot." And then, "This town has had plenty of non-anonymous restaurant critics. Let's just wait and see what happens."

Which is really all I can do. I'm not going to start a debate here over the value of critical anonymity. I have some strong opinions on the subject and that fight'll come, I'm sure, but not today.

Besides, right now, there's a part of me that wants to go full-bore, primadonna bonkers -- rolling around town with a posse, stepping out in a stained linen suit, ascot, top hat and monocle, demanding bottles of champers on the house everywhere I go and, with the gold-tipped ferule of my walking stick, laying prissily into any waiter who dares look me in the eye. There's another part of me that wants to invest in a dozen ridiculous wigs and cheap facial prosthetics. Another that wants to continue doing the job entirely in the guise of my alter-ego, the masked Mexican wrestler Eduardo el Magnifico.  Another that wants to simply chuck it all, slip away sur de la Frontera, and spend the next six or seven years drinking pissy lager in the sun and searching for the perfect fish taco.

One thing I do know for sure, things are only gonna get weirder from here. In fourteen days, Cooking Dirty will be on the shelves and my picture will be in every single copy. In fourteen days, I will be venturing out in public for the first time as myself, throwing a big-ass party at Katie Mullen's celebrating the launch of the book, signing copies and drinking whiskey and meeting people, all as myself.  Even now, way out in Manhattan, Matt, my publicist, is waiting to hear back from both Oprah's magazine and Rachel Ray's -- waiting to hear whether or not my un-lovely mug and un-pretty words will be gracing their glossy pages. A couple of days ago, Kirkus Reviews had its say about my book, claiming, among other things, that Cooking Dirty "reads like a veteran's chronicle of a war that won't stop haunting him." -- a fact that I mention only so that the Denver Post's Bill Husted (who recently accused me of being too chicken to write about my own reviews) won't dampen his jammies crying foul over my not noting it.  And I spent all of yesterday morning talking (through intermediaries) with a New York Times editor about doing a piece on the book-- though not for the Books section or the Food section, but rather the Home & Garden section because someone at that paper is under the terrible misapprehension that the cluttered kitchen of my rental townhouse in southeast Aurora (all full of cereal boxes and candy and stacked take-out containers) would make an interesting photographic subject. It's my Charlotte-York-from-Sex-and-the-City moment, only so much darker, stranger and more poverty-stricken.  And more manly, too.  Like way, way more manly.

And so, with all of this, maybe seeing my photo online for the first time in a decade isn't so weird after all, right?

Nah...  It's still pretty fucking weird. But who knows?  Maybe whatever comes next will be more fun than a sack full of monkeys and liquor.  Maybe everything will turn out just fine.

But in the meantime, let me just say: Hi.  My name is Jason Sheehan.  And it's a pleasure to finally meet you.

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