how do food-writers do it?
- sj Aug 4, 2000 02:30 AM
A logistical question for food writers or anyone with insight:
whenever I read a restaurant review it seems amazing the amount of food-per-meal that is covered. Since reviews have deadlines and writers have to come up with material and get a good overview of the subject, my logical assumption is that a writer is forced to play "Jewish Ping-Pong" with his companions, snatching samples or his companions' food. Can anyone eat four apps, three entrees, several desserts, salads, etc. in one meal?!
Is so, does that mean the opinions formed on dishes are done using mere samples?
Or, if a food critic/writer has to go to a restaurant two or three times in a week to experience enough of the food, doesn't that make anonymity an impractical task?
or do all food-writer have elastic stomachs and metabloism the speed of light?
I visit the restaurant at least 3 times, preferably on different days of the week, over a 2-3 week period (and sometimes longer depending on how much the editor is bugging me to finish the review).
I try to take notes discreetly, and I've pretended to be interviewing my wife (and usual dining partner) if I've been caught by the waiter scribbling onto a 3X5 card.
Portland's a small town, so it can be hard to stay anonymous, but it's also more laid-back so the pressure for a good review isn't as intense. (In fact, there's an amazing amount of cooperation among different restaurant owners and chefs.) I've been writing reviews for almost 20 years, and I've never been recognized in a restaurant or onthe street (maybe I need a PR flack).
My paper (Willamette Week, the local "alternative" weekly that's actually gotten to be pretty mainstream) gives me budget of about $200 for expenses, usually enough for most places here, altho' we're seeing quite a bit of menu price inflation. Dinner for two at any of the upscale spots can easily hit 3 figures without wine.
Food and wine journalism can be a bit smarmy...you're tempted with freebies, and not everyone is able to maintain their "journalistic integrity" (and lots of people think that's an oxymoron, anyway). I'm constantly hearing about food writers demanding special treatment, running tabs they never pay, and other horror stories, so if you decide to try it yourself, the best thing you can do is to never accept anything free.
Most of us wouldn't visit a restaurant two or three times in one week, but rather space it out over a couple or several weeks, making it much easier to get lost in the crowd. However, it should be mentioned that only the deepest pocketed publications--The Times, Daily News, NY Post, major daily papers of other cities, New York magazine, Gourmet, Vogue, New Yorker, NY Observer (I'm guessing based on the quality of the reviews) pay for their critics to visit a restaurant with three guests several times. (Imagine what it costs a publication to pay for dinner for four three times--at a typical New York restaurant, that would be $900.) Most other publications pick up a tab for one visit or even none at all, leaving the critic to pay for himself or herself or even--gasp--asking for an invitation. It happens, believe me. I know of entire guidebooks that were written that way.
When I review a place, I am often forced to make judgements by tasting my companions' food, which you're right to point out, is difficult. That's why I only bring close friends who don't mind if we wind up switching plates halfway through, etc. At the risk of opening up a can of worms (though I guess that's the point here, no?) I'd add that it helps greatly to know how to cook. I think it's much easier to judge something from a few bites that way.
I especially curious to learn about note-taking as well. Might that compromise anonymity? Does one take notes covertly? Or not at all, then run out to the parking lot and scribble feverishly?
Sure, if I am in the lunch rush at a neighborhood joint, probably nobody notices or cares that I am writing. But wouldn't it stick out like a sore thumb when having dinner in more serious circumstances?
Not to mention that the more complex the dining, multiplied by tasting companions' food...the more I'd need to take notes, at least to write a review.
I am just very curious to know how folks handle this and preserve anonymity.
re: bill pisarra, jr.
Yes, note-scribbling does compromise anonymity. So does talking into a tape recorder. But food writers go about their work in different ways. I opt for a version of your run-into-the-parking-lot-and scribble-notes technique. If I need to scribble right away and can do so covertly at the table, I jot a few words in a tiny notebook out of view, in my lap. Or I might disappear to the ladies room between courses and make some notes. In the subway on the way home I usually start writing furiously--I have a very good short term memory, though often stuff evaporates quickly if I don't write it down.