With more than 8,000 Twitter followers voraciously consuming her snarky food criticism and bite-sized restaurant reviews, Penny Pollack of Chicago magazine is hardly a newcomer to the world of food journalism.
But try Googling the 68-year-old dining editor’s name, and you won’t find a single picture of her. An image search only churns out photos of food that she’s reviewed. Even her Twitter profile picture is just a drawing of a mug cup with “Penny” written on it. The message is clear: Pollack doesn’t want the world to know what she looks like.
“I have kept my identity anonymous forever,” Pollack says. “You will not find a photo of me anywhere.” As a person whose job is to praise and criticize eateries, anonymity is the absolute lifeblood for Pollack. Apart from a few chefs and restaurateurs she knows personally, the Chicago native reveals her identity to no one in the industry to avoid bias or special treatments.
Still, despite the trouble of staying incognito all the time, Pollack says she believes it’s become a much better world to be a food and dining critic—reviewing has become easier because everybody takes pictures and shares plates in public now.
Twenty-five years ago, a reviewing quest to a restaurant would have resembled an elaborate mission in the vein of 007 movies. Pollack remembers one night in the Ritz Carlton dining room when her partner in crime, with a wire recorder under his jacket, got wine spilled on him by a waiter. He had to fight vigorously to keep the management from taking off his jacket to send it to the dry cleaners.
Now, with over 20 years of editing and countless restaurant reviews under her outstandingly slim belt, Pollack is now a veteran connoisseur whose 1998 feature on Chicago’s pizza culture, “Through Thick and Thin,” was nominated for a James Beard Award and won a gold from the City and Regional Magazine Association.
She even coauthored a book about pizza in 2008. (Pizza is still her favorite food—“It’s just a flavor that you come out of the womb liking,” she says.)
But Pollack didn’t always set out to make a living out of reviewing chophouses and diners and pizzerias. As a math major college dropout, she didn’t even intend to become a journalist until she inadvertently started a part-time job as a fledgling intern at Chicago magazine in her 40s.
“I made a million phone calls, I fact checked, I filed, I went on many reviews, I often transcribed the notes, and I learned,” Pollack says. “I learned by eating and watching and writing and seeing stories that came in from beginning to end, and I guess I absorbed it.”
From there, she slowly moved up to become a part-time assistant to the editor, and eventually the dining editor. “I just stayed and stayed and stayed and stayed,” Pollack says. “And I’m here now.”
While dining out and tasting food seem hardly a chore, Pollack’s eat-outs are no picnic. She never ventures into a joint alone—her colleagues, interns, and even her husband and four children often accompany her.
But no one can order the same thing as anyone else; the table will get either one bottle of wine or one cocktail per person; everyone has to order an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. After each review, Pollack and her staff each type up three-to-four-page notes that deal with everything from making the reservation to the condition of the bathrooms to the actual menu.
Carly Boers, an associate editor who has been working with Pollack for five years, says the professional foodie’s passion for food and her work is visible and infectious. “She lives and breathes the work she does,” Boers says. “She’s always the first one to get the news out, and she’s always finding some new project to work on. I don’t know what else she would do if she weren’t doing this.”
Eight years ago, at age 60, Pollack finally graduated college at DePaul’s night school, with a degree in the study of culture. She feels she’s been truly lucky to have stumbled upon such a prestigious job that she had never even imagined she would do. She’s happy to be working somewhere that maximizes her two talents for cooking and writing.
“I’ve no idea what you learn in journalism school, but the best advice I’ve had over all the years was this: Just write the way you would talk,” Pollack says.
“That’s the way you connect with people. You have to feel it. I feel it.”
Find out more food news: