On the last Thursday of September, Anthony Todd had a particularly hectic day.
On top of spending his morning interviewing witnesses at his day job as a Reed Smith associate, Todd had to devote special attention to his side gig as a food writer: That morning saw the announcement of the coveted Michelin Guide star rankings. He conducted interviews in order to write the Chicago magazine article, “Michelin’s 2020 Ranking Shakes Up the List,” for a 2 p.m. deadline.
Most days don’t demand as much attention from Todd’s writing gig. But since graduating from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, he’s balanced his white-collar criminal defense practice with his food writing — the latter actually came first.
Todd started in a Ph. D. program in history at the University of Chicago but abandoned the quest, however, but not before dabbling in food writing as a hobby.
He started writing for free in 2007 and went professional in 2010. He’s written for numerous national publications and his earnings helped him through law school. Todd’s legal career to date has been with Reed Smith, where he started in 2014.
Todd tells us more about balancing both disciplines and his own take on Chicago dining.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Chicago Lawyer: Why did you go to law school instead of pursuing full-time food writing?
Anthony Todd: Not to be cynical, but journalists aren’t paid very well, especially food journalists. They tend to pay us in the lifestyle first. The other reason is that when I started grad school I had a deep interest in law and politics and wanted to be a professor, so the transition to law school made sense. I love practicing law; there’s never been a moment when I thought I’d quit law and become a professional restaurant critic — that’s always been a side job or an extension of a hobby. I’m just one of the few people who was lucky enough to turn my hobby into paying, fulfilling employment.
CL: How do you balance both jobs?
AT: It’s a lot easier than it used to be. When I started at my firm, I was a food editor of a website called Chicagoist. That was a lot harder to balance because I was writing two to three articles a day, editing others and had breaking news coming up all the time.
But I really enjoy multitasking and I would write articles on the train headed to work in the morning. Luckily, I had an editor who was very understanding and supportive if I was in court for meetings or otherwise unavailable.
It led to a lot of early mornings and a lot of late nights because things still had to get written. Chicagoist closed in November 2017 and I almost immediately went to work for Chicago magazine. I now have a weekly column with fixed deadlines, which makes life a lot easier to predict.
There are weird one-off experiences like today [the Michelin Guide release] when there’s a really big news event, but I’m not responsible for writing about things like the restaurant closures or daily news anymore.
CL: Was Reed Smith concerned that your writing would distract you from your practice?
AT: One of the things that drew me to Reed Smith is that it has a really healthy work/life balance. Obviously, we work as hard as any Big Law firm, but there’s no sense that you’re not supposed to have a life or even a side career.
They even tried to entice me, knowing I was a writer: The person who was my mentor had written a book and regularly wrote for publications like The New York Times on various subjects. That was part of one of their pitches to me: “Look, you’ll be able to keep doing what you love as long as you meet your clients’ needs.”
I’m still a relatively junior associate, but the one client I’ve brought in is in the food industry. We litigated on their behalf in industry-related matters and were successful. I think the partners also like knowing they can have restaurant recommendations and help getting reservations whenever they need it. As a young associate, it’s definitely been helpful for my internal network.
CL: Are you often recognized by clients?
AT: All the time. I’m usually not the one retaining the client, but I’ll show up to a meeting and they’ll be giving me a strange look from across the table after they hear my name. Eventually it’ll come out [who I am] and then suddenly they’ll want restaurant recommendations.
It was much more of a problem when I used to do a lot more TV and radio, which I don’t have as much time for anymore. In fact, when I came in to Reed Smith as a summer associate, the first thing the managing partner said was, “Oh, you’re the guy who auditioned to be the host of ‘Check, Please.’” He watched the whole process and knew exactly who I was.
CL: Is there any overlap between practicing law and food writing?
AT: There are two kinds of food writers: Feature writers and restaurant critics. I have been both. Anyone in this industry has connections; they can help people with reservations and recommendations. You want to impress your client, you want to make sure they have a great experience. Usually it’s good for the restaurant too because they’re excited to meet business clients. They’re trying to meet people who might become repeat visitors. It definitely helps with developing the practice as well my internal network.
CL: What’s your favorite Chicago dining experience?
AT: Ask any food writer that question, you’ll get hundreds of different answers. Of course, it depends on what you’re looking for — are you looking for the best steakhouse? The best-tasting menu? Or the best neighborhood restaurant? My current favorite tasting menu is [at] Smyth, a high-end farm-to-table restaurant in the West Loop. They have a casual pub restaurant called The Loyalist in the basement that has what Bon Appetit dubbed the Best Burger in America. I’m lucky that Reed Smith’s office is right on the Chicago River next to the West Loop, because it’s easy to take clients or colleagues to some of my favorite places, such as Sepia, Proxi or Avec. It makes my job as a writer a lot easier that they’re steps from my office.
CL: What culinary experiences would you do away with if you could?
AT: The restaurant scene is diverging in two wildly different directions right now. On one hand, there’s a lot of love for these really small, high-end places with lots of personality. On the other hand, there’s an increasing number of enormous, corporate restaurants filled with big TVs popping up. These places usually have interchangeable food, the service is a mess and it feels like one opens every week.
Ten years ago, this was not the case. But now, especially with the economy in an upswing, they’re just everywhere. In the West Loop alone, there’s Punch Bowl Social and Federales. It’s sad to see in city with so much interesting food that so many dining dollars go toward places that aren’t good and are owned by national chains.
They throw Chicago Bears stuff on the wall and pretend to be a local restaurant. The number of West Loop restaurant owners I’ve talked to say they can’t stand the places because they’re pricing them out of the market. They can’t compete with hordes of after-work drinkers.