Chefs' revenge? New York's top restaurant critic laid low by gout

... but Frank Bruni says that while condition impairs his work, it has improved his health

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The Independent US

There are perils to holding the position of restaurant critic at one of the world's most famous newspapers. You are bound to make enemies of people who would much rather you had not been so unkind about their culinary endeavours. And with all that ingestion of tasty morsels there is a risk your body will turn against you also.

The latter has become the fate of Frank Bruni, who for five years offered plaudits and rotten tomatoes to eateries across Manhattan and beyond for The New York Times. He was recently diagnosed with gout, no less.

Mr Bruni revealed his condition – "a cruel joke" caused by his consumption of red meat, alcohol and foie gras – in a blog last week that did not stint on the pain that comes with the so-called "disease of kings", which, though often associated with Victorian times, still afflicts six million people in the United States. Flare-ups, of course, can be triggered by fatty things such as red meat, prawns, salmon and, of course, alcohol.

Mr Bruni describes himself as "a person to whom meat, glorious meat, wasn't just one of the food groups (in collaboration with dairy) but the grand emperor of them all, more commanding, more regal, more deserving of half of my caloric intake on a normal day... two-thirds on a special one... When we sit down to a big breakfast, we go through strips of bacon as if they were so many shoestring fries".

He writes now: "When gout pays a visit to one of my feet, I can't stand on it or put a sock on it or even place a thin sheet over it; pretty much all I can do is stare at it, swear at it and bang my fist on the nearest hard surface while waiting for the industrial-strength anti-inflammatories my doctor has prescribed to kick in."

Some might unkindly see poetic justice in his suffering rather as they did when Paula Deen, an American TV chef and cookbook writer famous for encouraging oven-served gluttony, recently told fans she had type-2 diabetes. Among those smiling inside may be the restaurateurs and chefs stabbed by the sometimes sharp Bruni pen. Establishments that received his zero-star treatment include Ago at the Robert De Niro-owned Greenwich Hotel.

"This restaurant isn't in the hospitality business," Bruni said of Ago in 2008. (It closed shortly thereafter.) "It's in the attitude business, projecting an aloofness that permeated all of my meals there, nights of wine and poses for swingers on the make, cougars on the prowl and anyone else who values a sort of facile fabulousness over competent service or a breaded veal milanese with any discernible meat."

But in his blog, Bruni in fact denied succour to those may have greeted his illness with a vengeful smile. Rather, he insists that diagnosis and the agony that descends from time to time have forced him to change his dietary habits in a way that he has learned to relish as much he used to fatty lamb and heavy Burgundy.

"There are times, crazily, when I'm almost happy about the gout," he said. "It provided a dietary shove where the gentle pushes of a vague desire for self-improvement hadn't sufficed. I always sort-of meant to kind-of get around to paring down the meat in my meals, and I always sort-of meant to kind-of get around to decreasing my drinking."

In dispensing honesty about restaurants that weren't quite what they were meant to be, Mr Bruni possibly did some of them a favour. And gout, it seems, is doing him one now too.