Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Food Critics But Were Too Afraid to Ask
"So many critics. Do any of them have any training?" A question posted by a chef to the Food Media section of the Chowhound forums four years ago.
I found the answer -- $90,000 at the top end? -- laughable (we are certainly paid a good salary, but we are not rich people), but the fact remains that as food becomes an increasingly popular topic of pop culture and conversation, so too do the jobs in its periphery.
While some people entertain great aspirations of becoming the next Ferran Adrià or Thomas Keller, still more are just as fascinated with the how, what and why of becoming a food critic.
"When I tell people that I'm a restaurant critic, everyone immediately thinks I have the world's best job," says Lauren Shockey, food critic for the Village Voice in New York City. It's similar to the way people fantasize about the imagined fabulousness of busting your hump behind the line in a busy kitchen. But Shockey is the first to admit that -- as with any other job -- there are other considerations than simply eating food and writing about it.
"While it is certainly a great job, there are some aspects that people don't often think about."
None of us look like Mr. Creosote, either.
"The misconception that I find most frustrating -- other than the pervasive belief that food writers spend their nights gorging themselves on free food and drink and their days gleefully writing gratuitously nasty reviews -- is that critics can't ever stop reviewing," says Hanna Raskin, former food critic for the Dallas Observer and now at the Seattle Weekly.
"Just as musicians somehow make it through malls where Muzak's playing, critics can enjoy a meal without scrutinizing it."
It's this determination to "leave your work at the office," as it were, that makes the job possible for me as well. When your chief responsibility day in and day out is examining, analyzing and dissecting food, you'll quickly develop a complex about what is -- in the end -- a basic and necessary life function if you can't shut it down.
And that initial misconception that Hanna mentioned -- that we gorge on food and wine, then retreat to our caves to pound out A.A. Gill-style reviews -- wasn't perhaps as pervasive as it was before the dawn of blogging and sites like Yelp, where online "reviewers" have been termed the "Mafia" by such publications as BusinessWeek for their extortion-like demands of free food and drink from hapless restaurants.
Instead, every food critic I know pays for their food at restaurants -- me included -- and is then reimbursed for their meal by their respective paper...but only if you're writing about the meal directly. And this may differ at other, larger publications, but many of us spend our own money and time researching and staying abreast of food trends or new restaurants.
And this is just one way in which food critics wholly and happily devote ourselves to our jobs.
"What no one but my close friends and my partner realize about the job is how thoroughly it controls my social life," says Jonathan Kauffman, food critic at the SF Weekly in San Francisco. "Since I go out for six to ten meals a week on the job (the larger number takes place during top 100 dishes/Best Of season), I do most of my socializing through my work."
Raskin agrees: "I enjoy my job immensely, but I'd hesitate to classify any of my responsibilities as 'easy.'"
Our jobs often mean working days and evenings, rarely seeing family and friends unless we can fit them into our dining schedule. Our jobs also mean cultivating contacts while trying to stay as under-the-radar as possible. Reporting can be difficult for a critic, because people are so often unexpectedly angry at you for a review or a blog post you wrote, meaning that they're unwilling to comment for news stories or even softer, more feature-oriented stories.
One of the most frustrating things about the job is the eternal misconception that advertisers have anything at all to do with our coverage.
In last week's not-so-stellar review of Tan Tan, one commenter accused us over and over of slamming the restaurant because it had apparently cancelled its advertising with us: "I understand Tan Tan recently cancelled advertising in the HP so HP turns around & writes a damning review as retaliation. I've seen this Houston Press tactic in the past. HP never criticizes the businesses paying for advertising space in the paper."
The truth of it is that there is a hard and fast line between editorial and advertising at our paper. And while I'm quite sure that our sales reps would prefer it differently some days, the fact remains that advertising doesn't have any input into our editorial product, and vice versa.
This is how I deal with hate mail now.
And then there's the hate mail.
"It's hard to deal with hate mail, especially when it's sexist and anti-Semitic," says Raskin.
For me, it was difficult to come to terms with being hated solely for expressing your opinion, for doing your job. I made the mistake once, before taking over the position of food critic after Robb Walsh left, of Googling myself. I found an entire forum of complete strangers discussing how much they hated me, what an awful person I am and how they hoped I wouldn't get Walsh's job.
That's a hard thing for a standard, non-celebrity, civilian with a non-journalism background to take. On the other hand, you quickly come to realize that if you aren't irritating at least a few people, you're not doing your job correctly. Criticism, after all, is the product of honesty.
Last but not least -- although this is not true of other publications -- it's difficult to stay on top of all the news in your city's dining community and produce coherent, thoughtful, well-reported pieces in the modern atmosphere of a 24-hour news cycle. Many of us are expected to write 15 posts a week, a restaurant review, maintain a daily Twitter and Facebook presence and also -- of course -- find time to eat.
And then there are the same questions every single time we introduce ourselves to someone: "How did you get that job?" "Do you eat for free?" "Do restaurants know that you're coming in?" "How do you not weigh 300 pounds?"
Shockey, Raskin and Kauffman admitted they get the very same questions all the time. Their most frequently asked questions are on the next page.
Everyone's a critic...
While these are the most frequently asked questions of the food critics I polled, the answers are all mine:
Do you eat out every night? No. Would you want to work every night of the week?
Does the paper pay for everything you eat? No. Just the meals that I'm reviewing or specifically writing about (as with our 100 Favorite Dishes list).
Do you get to take people along? Yes, although I'm careful about my dining companions. I don't like to make small talk when I'm trying to work; my regular dining companions are those with whom I'm most comfortable or -- on the other end of the spectrum -- those who are deeply knowledgeable about the cuisine we're eating, so that I may pick their brains.
Do you take notes in the restaurant? See above. It's hard to take notes and not be conspicuous about it, so I try to record everything in my head as I go, which is why it's important for distractions to be kept to a minimum. I typically do a "data dump" immediately after the meal, where I record all of my thoughts, impressions and follow-up questions in my recorder for later digestion and consideration.
Who chooses which restaurants you review? I do. And, no, it's not based on advertising -- at least not at our newspaper.
Why do you not weigh 1,000 pounds? I weigh 200, and have gained quite a bit of that while working here. Keeping the weight off is not easy, unless you're a fantastic cyclist like Hanna Raskin or come up with a diet that incorporates your work, like Leslie Brenner did in Dallas.
Do restaurants know you're coming? No. At least, they shouldn't. Sometimes your cover gets blown -- anonymous or not -- and there's nothing you can do about it.
What happens if you hate a place? Do you still write about it? Yes. Otherwise, what would be the point if all of your coverage was fluff and unicorn sparkles? No one would take your work (or your palate) seriously if you like everything.
How did you get your job? Many food critics started out as journalists and worked their way toward food, either by choice or by accident. Many others started out in the restaurant industry, like Jason Sheehan, and discovered a dual talent for writing. As for me, I was working in a different field entirely but wrote a popular food blog -- she eats. -- that was noticed by the Houston Press. I was hired as a freelance blogger in 2008, then later as web editor for the paper -- a full-time job that took me out of human resources and into journalism. I was still doing consistent writing for the food blog, however, and was hired as Robb Walsh's replacement last year. I'm still pinching myself.
Are you a trained chef? No, but neither are film critics directors nor are art critics sculptors. Again, like most critics, they are journalists first and foremost, who develop an appreciation for and deep, abiding interest in the field they cover.
What's your favorite restaurant? The answer to this question changes by the minute.
Can you come in and eat on us? No. That's the food critic version of Payola. However, our bloggers do accept media tasting dinners when a restaurant first opens or when it unveils a new chef or menu. These are always noted in the write-up, and although I no longer attend media tasting dinners, there was certainly a time when I did.
Thanks for writing about us. Next time you come in, won't you say hi? We'd love to feed you. That's very nice, but if you didn't recognize me the first three or four times I came in to your restaurant, I'd like to keep it that way. And see above, re: Payola.
What does it take to get a review? Ah, the eternal question. The short answer as to what I look for in a restaurant: Is it new or noteworthy in some way? Then it will eventually get a review. We only have 52 slots a year, so not every restaurant that I'd like to review makes it in. But we always have the blog...
There's no crying in food criticism.
Last but not least, Lauren Shockey did a poll of her own recently in response to a question we get asked nearly every day: "Is there any food you don't like?"
My answer: I hate licorice. But I love my job.
And if I ever start feeling even remotely sorry for myself, I always remember what Jimmie Dugan told Dottie Hansen about baseball in A League of Their Own: "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard...is what makes it great."
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