Legendary dining critic Howard Seftel returns to the Valley food scene – this time in front of the camera.

Back for Seconds

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: People Issue: June 2017
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“I was perfectly happy to disappear,” says Howard Seftel. He’s referring to his 2015 retirement, though he could be describing his 23-year career anonymously reviewing restaurants for Phoenix New Times and the Arizona Republic.

One side of Seftel no doubt prefers being invisible: the bashful side that turns down almost every media interview. The side that gets embarrassed when chefs recognize his now-unveiled face and give him special treatment. The side that would rather spend his golden years watching baseball and bonding with his grandkids and beloved wife.

The other side – the one who taught English in revolution-era Iran and a remote Saharan village – isn’t comfortable taking the comfortable path. The other side – and this will probably embarrass him – is an adventure-seeker. That’s the side that said “yes” when Phoenix PR firm MMPR Marketing asked him to host its new web series, Turning the Tables, loosely inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

The bite-size videos offer an inside peek into chefs’ obsessive techniques (like Little Miss BBQ’s 16-hour smoking process) and rocky pasts (like Mark Tarbell’s experience sharing one bathroom with 17 people at culinary school in France). For Seftel, it’s a chance to finally show his face and meet the chefs and restaurateurs he’s long admired. It’s also a reversal of his previously invisible career, a journey outside his comfort zone. Then again, says Seftel’s adventurous side, “You never want to get too comfortable.”

Seftel’s insular childhood was too comfortable, he says over coffee at Hava Java in Phoenix. “I grew up in Brooklyn. But I want to make it clear that I grew up in Brooklyn when Brooklyn was not only not cool, you couldn’t wait to leave. Also, I grew up in the only Brooklyn neighborhood that has gotten worse: Canarsie.”

Young “Howie” Seftel eating pancakes, August 1953
Seftel’s eighth birthday, December 1957

“I grew up in [the] projects,” he says. “[But] I had a great childhood. I shared a room with my sister until I was 16.”

Seemingly aware that those last few sentences are oddly juxtaposed, Seftel elaborates: “I had a million friends.”

He also had New York’s restaurant scene at his doorstep. “I loved food as a kid. I’m gonna tell you a story that will give you an idea.” One Jewish holiday, his mother invited 12 people over for chicken soup with kreplach (dumplings stuffed with meat). She’d ordered 24 kreplach from the deli and told 13-year-old Howie to pick them up.

“I come back, and I’m looking at these 24 gorgeously plump kreplach,” he confesses. “And I go, ‘You know, I think I’m gonna eat my two now’… Then I’m looking at the 22 kreplach left. And I go, ‘Grandma [is] so little. She’s 190 years old. No way she’s eating two kreplach.’ So I eat her kreplach. Then my aunt Harriet, she’s always dieting. You see where this is going… I ate all 24 kreplach.”

He offers no justification, just a bright-eyed explanation. “It was like heroin,” Seftel says. “There was just no hope.”

Despite the kreplach and camaraderie, Seftel couldn’t settle for the predictable life his family all adhered to. “It was not like I was some sort of brave person,” he says. “But I just knew I had to get out of my comfort zone.”

He joined the Peace Corps without telling his parents. They cried for six months. He was sent to teach English in Senegal, where he met “gorgeous and brilliant and fantastic” Peace Corps volunteer Kathleen Ingley, his future wife. When he visited Canarsie after not speaking with his family for two years, no one asked about his experience. “My parents… were not happy with the course of my life.”

Did they ever become happy?

“Eh.”

Seftel and Ingley stayed another year in Senegal, then embarked on the next adventure: teaching English in Iran to the Shah’s military. Two years and 25 pounds later (“Iran has one of the great cuisine cultures on the entire planet,” Seftel says) the couple married. They attended graduate school in Berkeley, where Seftel studied American and Middle Eastern history. He taught at L.A.’s Antioch University before they moved to Phoenix in 1990.

Seftel’s academic career hit a fork in the road when he saw an opening for a restaurant critic at Phoenix New Times. He wrote a review of Cave Creek eatery Yusef’s, waxing knowledgeably about Middle Eastern food. He got the job. In 1999, he jumped ship to the Arizona Republic, where Ingley was a columnist.

Seftel Snubs
The Arizona Republic restaurant critic was famous for his often piquant reviews. To wit:

• “If this brisket tastes like what comes out of your grandma’s roasting pot, it’s time to get a new grandma.”
• “The menu boasts that the tuna steak wasabi is ‘sushi grade.’ Well, someone must have been grading on a curve.”
• “[T]he House [Brasserie] is dark. How dark? Despite an eerie backdrop of flickering candles, even an owl would need a guide dog here.”
• “The combo platter could make you believe that ‘tapas’ is Spanish for ‘punishment.’”
• “The whole scene is profoundly dutiful, charmless and cognitively dissonant. This is what it must be like to eat in a well-stocked government cafeteria in North Korea.”

As a critic, anonymity was crucial to Seftel. He once went on Pat McMahon’s KTAR show wearing shades, a Sam Spade hat and a Thorin Oakenshield beard. Honesty was also paramount, even when that meant brutal honesty (see sidebar). But he agonized over his reviews, knowing they could make or break a restaurant. “I never hit the send button until I read it 50 times and changed words a million times,” he says. “Then I said, ‘Can I go to sleep tonight? Am I going to wake up at 3 a.m. and be going, Holy crap, did I really want to say that?’ … I am not ashamed to admit I was scared to death of screwing up for 25 years.”

That obsession over details is one quality Seftel shares with the chefs on Turning the Tables. Take the subject of the first episode, Little Miss BBQ’s Scott Holmes, a culinary school grad who spent years selling disposable syringes while his soul dried up like microwaved brisket. Holmes was saved when he started entering barbecue competitions and became, as he says, “completely, completely, completely obsessed.”

“As someone who obsessed over his own work for 25 years, seven days a week,” Seftel says, “I really admire that.”

Despite Seftel’s obsessiveness, he’s approaching this endeavor with equanimity. “If it works out, great,” he says. “If it doesn’t, my wife still loves me.” And he knows the person inside him who had the gumption to volunteer with the Peace Corps, work in Iran, apply for a dining critic job he was totally unqualified for, and star in a video series has always led him in the right direction. “I’m grateful to him,” Seftel says.

He glances at the audio recorder. “Have we been talking an hour and five minutes? That’s at least 60 minutes more than I should have been talking. I’m not that interesting.”

Thousands of readers – and now viewers – have a different take.

 

Main photo by Blake Bonillas