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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Food Critics: Jonathan Kauffman, Lauren Shockey and Hanna Raskin Weigh In

We don't expect you guys to read every little thing we write. After all, Eating...Our Words publishes at least ten posts per day. But every once in a while, a topic arises on which we've pontificated in the past -- and in those cases, we like to re-run a previous post which we think still addresses the issue with some relevance. Parts of this post were previously published on June 26, 2011.

Last week, the owner and chef of Lucille's took umbrage at our cafe review of his restaurant -- not a glowing one, but also not a complete slam -- and took to the comments section to voice his dissatisfaction.

"This is not journalism, this is an attack done in poor taste," wrote Christopher Williams. " "Since we are unable to satisfy your discerning palate with our 'leathery ice tea,' we invite you to dine else where in the future."

And in a move that restaurant critics everywhere have seen since the day that they first crawled out of the primordial ooze created by the likes of Craig Claiborne, Williams blamed the harsh review on advertising. Or rather, Lucille's lack of interest in advertising with the Press.

"To any restaurant who wants a good review from the Press, and avoid this type of attack," Williams finished, "you had better fucking advertise now!"

None of us look like Mr. Creosote, either.
None of us look like Mr. Creosote, either.

This type of misguided criticism reminded me of one of the last times I'd been accused of shilling for ad dollars after an equally tough review of Tan Tan -- rather, of the second location of a long-time Houston favorite, the original iteration of which I'd often praised in the past. In the comments section of that review from 2011, 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," the anonymous commenter griped. "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 week at The New York Times, restaurant critic Pete Wells answered a series of questions addressed to him from readers who reacted strongly to his review of Guy Fieri's American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square. Wells didn't have to deal with criticisms levied against him about advertiser dollars, but readers did have some excellent questions about the overall process and ethics behind reviewing restaurants for a living.

The questions were similar to those often posed to critics across the nation.

 

"When I tell people that I'm a restaurant critic, everyone immediately thinks I have the world's best job," says Lauren Shockey, former food critic for the Village Voice in New York City and author of culinary memoir Four Kitchens. 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," Shockey says, "there are some aspects that people don't often think about."

"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 his or her food at restaurants -- me included -- and is then reimbursed for the meal by their respective papers..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, former food critic at the SF Weekly and current San Francisco editor of the daily newsletter Tasting Table. "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.

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...
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 185, 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 puppy breath 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 in 2010. 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.

From restaurants:

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.
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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