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Disguises, aliases cloak Washington food critic in secrecy

[WASHINGTON] Mum is the word on the multiple disguises and maneuvers that Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post's chief food critic, uses in his undercover visits to restaurants in the US capital.

Mr Sietsema, who has been covering the food scene for the newspaper since 2000, fiercely protects his anonymity to avoid getting favourable treatment that could bias his reviews.

"It's a little bit like the CIA, it's a little cat-and-mouse game that we play" with restaurants, he told AFP in an interview.

"I never, ever make a reservation under my own name," Mr Sietsema said.

"I have different credit cards that I use, I have different (telephone) numbers that I use, friends let me use their numbers," he explained.

Elegantly dressed in a suit on a weekday before lunch, the food critic politely asked not to be photographed or videotaped, and for his age to remain secret.

The savvy journalist knows that in a small city like Washington, with a population of about 650,000, "after 17 years, people find out, (chefs) move around, waiters move around." "I'm told there are pictures in kitchens, but I go out of my way not to be photographed ever. Even at holiday parties, I would step out of the pictures," he said.

An online photo search for Mr Sietsema reveals a few, with him wearing sunglasses, hats or holding a plate in front of his face.

When the Minnesota native launched into a degree in international studies at Georgetown University in Washington, he thought he would land a job in the State Department.

But his life's path took a sharp turn in the early 1980s when he applied for an entry level job at The Washington Post.

Mr Sietsema relishes recalling that he interviewed for a job as a personal assistant to Bob Woodward, the legendary investigative reporter who with Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

Mr Woodward wasn't interested, but the newspaper's food critic hired him.

As an assistant, "I realised that with food, food is fantasy, food is politics, food is economics, food is comfort, and it's endlessly fascinating," he said.

When he sees Mr Woodward now, he said, chuckling, "I say Bob, thanks for not hiring me." For nearly 17 years, Mr Sietsema says he has eaten in restaurants a dozen times a week.

"I spend 40 hours a week at the table," said this fairly svelte man.

And that's not always a good thing: "I eat more bad food than people realise in the course of the year." To do a full review of a restaurant, Mr Sietsema eats there at least three times. He generally goes twice to a new restaurant to give an initial critique.

In 2015, the Post sent him across the United States for two months to find the best food cities. His 11-part series on the top 10 cities won a prestigious award from the James Beard Foundation this year.

At The Washington Post, "we take restaurants as seriously as we take government politics," he quipped.