Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Most of the snark directed at the New York Times op-ed page today is aimed at David Brooks for his column on how young people can attain the rarefied status of "thought leader." The column is facetious (it's as if Brooks just now realized that he used to have a sense of humor), and it's been pointed out that Brooks wrote a very similar column for The Weekly Standard in 1995, when he was much less pompous and self-righteous. Because I think he was trying to get in touch with his younger, less gaseous self, I'll give him a pass on this one.

I'm ready to forgive Brooks in part because there's a far worse column on the Times op-ed page today. It's Frank Bruni's column, which is about ... the Umami Burger restaurant chain. Yes, maybe the last few years have drastically lowered your expectations for how insightful the commentary in the Times opinion pages will be, but I'm sure you still expect that the columns will focus on politics, or at least on noteworthy aspects of the cultural landscape. Maybe every column won't deliver the goods, but even the worst will try to offer inight into how the country and the world are run, or about The Way We Live Now.

Bruni doesn't even try. The column is just a food-section puff piece that seems to have gotten lost and wandered over to the op-ed page. Bruni tries, halfheartedly, to make it About Something, but the best he can do is bad self-help:
Just five years ago, Adam Fleischman was in a two-bedroom rental with his wife and their year-old son, fumbling around for a career that might stick. Screenwriting hadn't worked out. Same for finance. He was 38 and, he told me, "It was do or die."

Today he owns two houses here, one with six bedrooms and a makeshift vineyard out back. He said that he's toying with the idea of a third in London. He has stakes in multiple businesses and plans for more.

All because of a burger.
This is an op-ed lede? No. This is the lede for an article from an in-flight magazine.

Bruni looks for life lessons here, but the best he can come up with are lessons in niche marketing (and not particularly useful lessons at that):
... what of the enterprise? What secrets does it yield?

Most attention to the inventive stars of the ceaselessly expanding culinary world focuses on what they've done in the kitchen, not on their shrewdness as businesspeople. I turned to Fleischman for the lessons beyond the bun.

With Umami Burger, he demonstrated that a seemingly saturated market sometimes harbors unoccupied niches, unmet needs. While you could get venerated burgers in plenty of fast-food joints and in many upscale restaurants that did fancy riffs, it wasn't as easy to find a carefully made, determinedly original burger at a casual place with prices and a style of service between those poles.

And few casual places devoted themselves as wholeheartedly to burgers as he decided to.

... During his initial expansion, he didn't have the budget to give the different Umami Burgers a consistent design. So he let each look entirely unlike the others, thus communicating that Umami wasn't any old chain. It had a more elevated, independent spirit.
It's like ... PUNK ROCK, maaan! No -- Bruni doesn't even say it's like punk rock. Or like Apple vs. Microsoft, or like some other corporate or cultural David doing battle with Goliath. I don't know what Bruni's point is. If he could make a case that there's some special spark that tapped into the zeitgeist and made Umami Burger successful, I'd say he was writing a column that passes muster, if barely, as a state-of-the-zeitgeist op-ed. If he could find a way to explain how Umami took advantage of new technology, or a world that's flat, or a multicultural America, he'd be writing an insufferable Tom Friedman column. But at least there'd be a point to it. This has no point.

(He does tell us that the burgers are put together in a way that makes them visually appealing, and thus suitable to be photographed for social media. How that distinguishes these burgers from, well, pretty much everything else made by foodie chefs these days, I don't know.)

When Bruni tries to sum up what it all means, the column turns into a Reagan-era Hollywood movie about Holding On To Your Dreams:
... But when I asked [Fleischman] for the most important takeaway from his story, he mentioned something else -- passion -- and the fact the he had finally embraced an endeavor fully reflective of his most profound obsession, which was flavor.

"Do a business that you can't live without, that you're not going to be able to sleep at night if you don't do," he said.

He meant that as a practical matter. Passion gave him the energy for the 18-hour days that were necessary during that first, whirlwind year.

And without passion in the creation of a business, he said, there's not likely to be passion in the reception of it....
Yeah, my high school guidance counselor told me that, too. Sorry, but this is ridiculous -- there are a hell of a lot of people out there with a work ethic and passion for their work who put in 18-hour days but just don't get the breaks, or just get beaten down by circumstance. People who succeed always think they know what worked for them, oblivious to the fact that what worked for them didn't work for other people.

I don't know why Umami Burger succeeded. Maybe the notion of a burger with umami -- the pungent flavor found in foods as diverse as Parmesan cheese and Asian fish sauce, both of which are worked into Umami's patties -- just caught on with The Kids. Maybe Fleischman spent more time marketing the concept than most restaurateurs, and did it successfully. Who knows? Bruni doesn't. He has nothing profound to say about Umami Burger, so he palmed off this fluff as an op-ed.

Frank Rich, the columnist Bruni replaced, came to the op-ed page from outside politics -- but he knew politics, cared about politics, had interesting things to say about politics. He's still saying interesting things about politics at New York magazine. Frank Bruni has been a reporter on the campaign beat and at the Vatican, but he has nothing interesting to say about politics or American culture. He's lost on the op-ed page. The Times should show him some mercy and pull the plug on his sorry column.


Victor said...

"...there are a hell of a lot of people out there with a work ethic and passion for their work who put in 28-hour days..."

28-hour days?
Jayzoos, Steve, don't give our "Job Creators" any ideas!

Yeah, Bruni sucks.
I was hoping the first openly gay columnist would bring a lot to the table, but he's even more insipid than Bobo and Bobo's Mini-me, Douthat - and THAT'S saying something!!!
At least you can ridicule the two of them.

Steve M. said...

28-hour days

Damn. Fixed now.

Dark Avenger said...

It's 26 hour-days if you're living on Bajor.

BKT said...

Not sure I follow the "Apple vs. Macintosh" example of a David vs. Goliath matchup. Is it supposed to read "Apple vs. Microsoft?"

Steve M. said...

Yup. I'm fixing it.

I hope that's the last error, though I doubt it.

marieburns said...

Before Bruni was the Gay Columnist, he was the chief restaurant critic for the Times. Also, he wrote a book about being a fat kid. And another one about George W. Bush, whom he admired because when he covered the 2000 campaign for the Times, Bush nicknamed him "Panchito."

Eric Alterman wrote the definitive piece on Bruni in 2011, when the Times plucked Bruni from its food section:


This is scarcely Bruni's first op-ed column that's all about restaurants & nothing about politics or policy. In Bruni's defense, he writes about what he cares about: food, gay rights & -- occasionally -- women's issues. Possibly in that order.

Marie Burns

Kathy said...

It's 26 hour-days if you're living on Bajor.

Dark Avenger FTW!

People who succeed always think they know what worked for them, oblivious to the fact that what worked for them didn't work for other people.

Spot on, Steve. It's akin to the Bill O'Reilly "I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, why can't you?" mentality.