Chefs Rate America's Food Critics at the Daily Meal; Two Houston Writers Get Ranked

They say that turnabout is fair play, and that's just what The Daily Meal did this week when it polled a group of chefs across the U.S. to see how those chefs rated some of the nation's most preeminent food critics.

Those 20 food critics were chosen by Arthur Bovino, executive editor of The Daily Meal, and editorial director Colman Andrews, who sat down and -- according to Bovino -- "developed a 'wish list' of chefs and restaurateurs who are among the most well-known and revered in the industry." Each of the 20 critics was rated by chefs on four metrics: culinary knowledge, prose style, integrity and likeability (the latter of which is arguably the least important measure of how good a food critic is at his or her job).

Two of Houston's own made the "wish list": Alison Cook -- longtime food critic at the Houston Chronicle -- and Robb Walsh, who was the former food critic here at the Houston Press and has lately been writing independently at

And while Walsh escaped relatively unscathed in the rankings, Cook was near the bottom of the pile: She came in at No. 18 out of 20, beating out the Orange County Register's Brad A. Johnson -- whose own website humbly suggests that he is the "best food critic in America and worldwide" -- and Tim Carman, food critic for The Washington Post and former managing editor here at the Houston Press.

At the very top of the list were Pete Wells of the New York Times at No. 3, Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue at No. 2 and Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times at No. 1.

But exactly what methodology is behind these rankings? And which chefs are responsible for stating of Cook that she "is a critic with limited knowledge in a limited market and at a fading newspaper"?

Bovino was mum on the topic of which chefs said what when I contacted him yesterday afternoon, but was willing to shed some light on how these rankings were compiled.

"Between two and three dozen chefs and restaurateurs agreed to participate anonymously," Bovino stated, "but were quite vociferous with their critiques. As to exactly who they are and where they come from, the answer is across the country."

It doesn't strike me as quite fair that the chefs were allowed to voice their opinions anonymously when professional food critics aren't afforded the same luxury -- this isn't Yelp, after all -- but Bovino stands behind The Daily Meal's brigade of chef critics.

Those chefs ranked Walsh in 12th place overall for both culinary knowledge and integrity, but 15th and 16th place for likeability and prose style respectively. Of his writing, one chef noted that Walsh is "grumpy and smart, a very good combination!" while another praised Walsh as a "good, simple writer."

Cook was ranked dead last for her prose stylings, but slightly higher in other metrics: 18th place in culinary knowledge and integrity, and 17th place in likeability. Whether the low ranking comes as a surprise depends on who you ask: Cook has die-hard fans, but she also has her detractors.

After Cook recently took umbrage with the way that Eater was linking to her weekly posts on 29-95 (the Chronicle's dining, arts and entertainment supplement), Eater Houston editor Eric Sandler called her out on Twitter, saying: "One would think the highly paid food critic with the massive expense account wouldn't be so petty, but that's not our @alisoncook."

What was more surprising than Cook's low ranking, however, was the fact that the group of polled chefs roundly derided Houston when discussing both Cook and Walsh -- something sure to pique what's already been noted as our city's "inherent insecurity."

"It's not her fault if Houston is a mishmash and she's assigned to write about mediocrity," said one chef. Another, when critiquing Walsh, simply noted: "The food scenes in Houston, and in fact Texas are still quite far behind overall."

Cook took to Twitter to defend her ranking, in a way, saying (quite accurately): "If you give out bad reviews, you should be prepared to take them, too. Few critics do it to be liked."

"I am at the bottom of the critic barrel," she elaborated, "in good company with Carman and Knowlton."

Cook also noted that Walsh hasn't been a food critic since retiring from the Press in 2010, stating that The Daily Meal "thinks Robb is still a critic," something which Bovino was quick to acknowledge.

"We most definitely knew that Robb is no longer the critic for the Houston Press," Bovino said, "but unlike former critics like Sam Sifton or Frank Bruni, Robb does still write about food pretty frequently."

Bovino explained further: "Our stance was that several of the nation's most prominent food writers, while not regular critics per se, hold the same power to make or break restaurants by what and how they write."

This turns out to be quite a prescient statement, whether Bovino knows it or not. Because -- sorry, Alison -- Walsh is still a critic. He was recently hired as the food editor of the soon-to-launch Houstonian Magazine, a metropolitan monthly which will print its first issue this spring.

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Katharine Shilcutt