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Burner Apps and No Selfies When Reviewing Restaurants

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Tejal Rao, the California restaurant critic based in Los Angeles, discussed the tech she’s using.

What are your most important tech tools for doing your work as our first California restaurant critic?

My phone is such a big part of my daily reporting. I use it to make reservations, to take a quick note during dinner, to document menus and dishes and to record a snippet of audio here and there.

I also need to totally disconnect from my phone when I’m writing or I don’t get anything done. I use an app called Forest to help me manage the precious hours I spend sitting at my desk and typing. Forest plants a little tree on a timer, and then for the amount of time you’ve picked, it reminds you not to check Twitter or whatever tends to distract you. It doesn’t lock you out; it just reminds you very gently to go away, put your phone down and let the tree grow. It shouldn’t work so well, but I love my dumb digital trees. Forest, combined with the white noise of Rainy Mood on my headphones, is the only way I get any writing done.

What are some of your favorite tech uses by restaurants? And what are your least favorite?

I think tech works best in restaurants when, as a diner, you’re mostly unaware of its presence and it’s not an obstacle in between you and the servers or the kitchen.

Obvious tech uses, like an iPad menu, generally end up feeling cold, and a little goofy, as if the restaurant is really stretching itself to feel modern. Apps that track data from diners can be really amazing for personalizing an experience, but work only if the staff knows how to use the data and kind of interpret it in a meaningful and professional way.

When restaurants get it wrong, being overly personal, it can be creepy.

ImageCreditCoral Von Zumwalt for The New York Times

Two words: Yelp reviews. How do you feel about them?

I know restaurant critics are supposed to trivialize Yelp, but I do refer to Yelp as a resource sometimes. It’s a great way to see older editions of the menu that people photographed, and the space, or to see poorly lit photos of dishes that might not be around anymore. I’d never use the reviews to inform my opinion — there are too many posted by representatives and friends of the restaurants, and by people who haven’t eaten there — but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t scroll through.

You have to keep your identity disguised so that restaurants don’t treat you favorably. That seems impossible in the digital age. How do you do it?

It is impossible. But I keep trying because when I’ve been recognized, I’ve had a different experience from when I haven’t been recognized.

Yes, there are things a restaurant can’t adapt at the last second if they recognize a critic, but the sad truth is that so many restaurants are truly great only if you’re a V.I.P., and it’s a completely different experience for regular folks. And if restaurant is great only for its V.I.P.s, is it really great? (No, it’s not.)

So I don’t post selfies on social media. I make reservations in other names or have other people make them for me, then show up as their guest. I sometimes use a burner app to switch out phone numbers. If The Times gave me a makeup and wig budget, I probably wouldn’t join the Ruth Reichl school of costumes, but I completely understand why she went to such extremes sometimes.

Outside of work, what tech product are you obsessed with?

A friend in Los Angeles recently introduce me to iNaturalist, which is a really cool app for keeping track of all the flowers and trees that I don’t yet recognize. I walk a lot in Los Angeles, and around other parts of California, both for work and for fun. I’m obsessed with not just recording what I see but learning how to identify it.

I’m also living for TikTok cooking videos and memes — cooking in rivers, walking in intricately cut banana peels, all of it.

ImageCreditCoral Von Zumwalt for The New York TimesImageCreditCoral Von Zumwalt for The New York Times

What do you do when you’re taking a break from going to restaurants? Do you open a delivery app?

I sometimes treat myself to delivery from one of my favorite places in the city and time it so that it gets to my place right as I’m getting home from the gym.

But I’m a former restaurant cook, and in addition to filing reviews, I write a monthly recipe column for The New York Times Magazine, so that means if I have any free time outside of restaurants, I’m in my kitchen at home, cooking for friends. I read a lot of cookbooks and bookmark pages of things to try, and sometimes I develop a recipe out of a dish I liked at a restaurant.

What tools do you love using in the kitchen?

I believe in the metric system, and I love a digital scale. I do have a multipurpose electric pressure cooker, an off-brand Instant Pot, but unfortunately it has become a single-use tool for lentils and dried beans.

I also love my kitchen’s most low-tech tools: a big stone mortar and pestle for quickly peeling garlic and crushing spices and curry pastes, as well as my narrow, plastic Benriner mandoline for slicing anything evenly, in bulk.


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