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May 3, 2007 10:06 PM

So Many Critics...Do any of them have any training?

I am a cook in Toronto. I have worked in kitchens that have received great reviews and equally scathing bollocking. Some of what I have seen in reviews has been plausible, and some accurate (both good and bad). But most of what I have personally experienced has been not more than moronic raving from individuals with no formal culinary training. My issue is the manner in which most food writers pontificate with disdain. It does not matter if the review was positive or negative, they still have to be accurate.

By the same token I love to read reviews of restaurants that I know here in the hound. I love the comments. Keep banging away might get it right one day.

Having said all that, an overcooked anything is not any more enjoyable than bland anything.

Here is an interesting thought: What would a review of your work look like when prepared by the masses? I have no problem being critiqued, but how would you and your professional efforts stack up?

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  1. I don't think it matters.
    It is all about personal tastes and preferences.
    To the new person here, or the very infrequent visitor, one would really have no idea on what weight to give to opinions expressed by some people.
    This being said, those of us that have "lurked" for a long, long time and/or are regular posters, get to know the "personalities" and accuracy of the more prolific "posters" here.
    We come to either trust or have modicum of respect for certain reviewer's opinions.
    Sometimes this is based upon visiting an establishment and agreeing or disagreeing with a persons comments that made a previous review.
    Even those are taken with a grain of salt at times.

    If I eat, I am allowed to give my opinion.

    If someone stays at my hotel, while they may have zero lodging training, they too are entitled to their opinion on the quality and enjoyment of their stay.

    I get judged all the time by people that have no idea of the challenges I am facing at work. I either come off looking like I know what I am doing or a complete screw-up at times.

    What's great is that Toronto and Ontario have a lot of diversity in restaurants, and people, so we get to enjoy a lot of different opinions.

    1. It seems you are suggesting that people with no formal culinary training should not be writing reviews here. You have to keep in mind who the customers at your restaurants are, I doubt every one of them is a cook or chef so you should expect that reviews will be all over the place. Of course there will be bad reviews and glowing ones for a particular restaurant, the truth probably lies somewhere inbetween.

      Here's an interesting thought: if your dishes were reviewed by 20 people trained as chefs/cooks, do you expect they reviews would all be similar? And positive? I'd think not.

      1 Reply
      1. re: foodyDudey

        I agree with you. This venue is excellent for 'anyone' to critique and offer opinions. My point was referencing what could be described as 'ludicrous' comments. For example (and this is not an actual comment I have seen in here)...'my alfredo sauce was too rich'. My harsh words are for the "professional" food writers who's soap box is lofty, and who get it wrong. We can all raise our fists to professional athletes who are paid huge sums and still can't get it together. My goal lies in that theme only using the previous analogy, it would be like a pro-player from another team commenting on the commentator.

        I would direct this response to both posts from above. Again I agree that anyone can comment on thier experiences. As you have said, some can be taken seriously and others not.

        Thank you for chiming in.

      2. There's no formal training available for eating in restaurants. You just have to learn from experience.

        People who own or work in restaurants often can't believe that they served food as bad as described in a review ("rouille that tasted oddly of dishwater"), but that doesn't make the review inaccurate.

        1. As an occasional food writer (it's not my sole profession), I actually solicited the advice of industry people on this very subject: what might a food writer do/study to be more effective? That thread is here:

          Predictably, a lot of food writers, not industry people, chimed in; many seemed to resent the implications of the question; almost all mounted some defense along the lines of, "I can be an art critic without being an accomplished painter", etc.

          I'd still welcome opinions from industry pros on this. Do you think I have to graduate CIA or Wine School of Philadelphia to write properly about food and wine? What else would improve my qualifications? What would you consider a minimum set of skills and experience?

          18 Replies
          1. re: MC Slim JB

            Honestly, when i clicked on this thread, i was thinking about training in writing. I think that the biggest problem I find with restaurant reviews is that many of them are poorly written. I think its helpful to know something about food, but ultimately that seems to me less imporant than being able to communicate ideas clearly. In fact, if the critic were to have professional culinary training, we might end up getting reviews that focused more on the differences between how they would have done things were they in the ktichen rather than the merits of the food on the plate as is and the experience in the restaurant. The only real problem with that is that we might not know the root of the criticism of the food.

            1. re: MC Slim JB

              I don't think a person should require credentials to publish thier comments. However if you are going to critique the texture and balance of a hollandaise, or grade a demi, then you should have studied the making of such items. You don't need a degree to tell you what tastes good. But if you are going to denegrate a chef you should have a minimum understanding of the fundementals. Perhaps some understanding of the classics.

              1. re: chefcliff

                On this point, I actually disagree (the point about critiquing the texture and balance of a sauce, that is). One needn't actually know, necessarily, how to construct a hollandaise to know that its out of balance, or slightly broken or too thick. If one can know what tastes good, can't one also know what is texturally pleasing?

                Denegrating a chef is a different thing and on a personal level should be avoided in my opinion.

                1. re: ccbweb

                  Knowing if the sauce is broken is important...and should be obvious...leaving a greasy slick on your plate with naked eggs. But how would one know how the thing should be in first place otherwise? I'm not saying that you need a degree for everything. A person's palate can tell them if something tastes burnt, but would they know what to look for to actually grade a fine sauce? Or even a dumpling?

                  1. re: chefcliff

                    By the same token, how would they know not to taste a hollandaise and have the response "i can't believe someone would ever put lemon in egg yolks?" I think the overall thing here is that to legitmately critique a sauce on its merits (that is, to know that one is tasting a hollandaise and rate it against other hollandaise sauces) one would need to know what a hollandaise ought to be, but one need not necessarily be able to construct it. And the same palate that can judge the taste is necessarily going to have to judge the texture and mouth feel and nuance that goes along with a good sauce.

                    1. re: ccbweb

                      I would agree that 'we' are able to taste flavours and textures. Also one can learn what type of characteristics a proper sauce of any variety should have without learning how to do it themselves. But they must at least have been taught what the paradigms are. You are not going to get that simply from eating out a great deal. You would have to be guided.

                      I am not saying that the food writers need to have been professional cooks. Simply that they should be first made to study at the professional level. Then they can really be armchair qb's from a position beyond that of simple opinion.

                      1. re: chefcliff

                        You don't need to go to film school to review movies.

                        Even a hopelessly incompetent cook can learn all a reviewer needs to know about sauces from reading cookbooks.

                        In the past year, I've reviewed Californian, Cal-Italian, BBQ, Korean, Persian, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Mexican, German, Sardinian, muslim Chinese, and Cambodian restaurants. My cooking experience didn't help much with most of those.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          "You don't need to go to film school to review movies" is the classic "civilian" defense, as I think I cited earlier. One important way that restaurant criticism diverges from the criticism of film, painting, sculpture, architecture, and other arts is the lack of a defined tradition in the academy, including a large and growing body of scholarly research around the discipline. Indeed, you don't have to go to film school to review movies, but it is possible and helpful to study film criticism in school, and to have written or directed a film yourself.

                          Food writing mostly has no such academic foundation, and the question is further complicated by the very nature of dining out: every meal is a complex combination of FOH and BOH variables. The dining experience doesn't just repose, to be experienced consistently by each listener / viewer / consumer, the way the works of many other artists/artisans do. I suppose in some respects it is closer to theater, but without the benefit of canonical texts and well-understood traditions of the performance, staging, and direction of a particular piece to draw from.

                          It's not hard for me to understand why industry folks object to, if not downright loathe, the work of restaurant critics writing for big publications. Judged by the standards of other critical disciplines, food writers seem to have far fewer qualifications than their peers whose profession it is to critique other arts or crafts.

                          In other words, if you're going to defend your opinions and credentials as a critic for some mass-market publication using the example of other critical traditions (fine arts, film, theater), you might want to show how your critical art measures up to the great critics in other traditions. Many of those folks had some serious, scholarly background, and often some first-hand experience as artists themselves, to draw from. They didn't just wander into the field because they had some writing skills and happened to love the product, the way so many current food writers (myself included) seem to have done.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            Let me clarify that: even a hopelessly incompetent cook can learn all a reviewer needs to know about sauces from eating in restaurants and reading cookbooks.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              I find that fascinating because when I go to try a new cuisine and someone asks me how it was, I also say "I don't know," whether I personally thought it was good, bad or indifferent.... because if I don't know how a thing is *supposed* to be, I don't know whether that effect was acheived or not. Correctness matters, and if I can't perceive it, then it's not my place to offer anything that isn't a purely a subjective opinion.

                              Whether I personally enjoyed it is pretty much beside the fact. I personally dislike Ethiopian food - that doesn't mean a given restaurant is lousy! I wouldn't know if an Ethipian place is Food Nirvana or McDonald's.

                              Having said all that... I do think it would be a damn shame, and have huge class implications, if food review because "professionalized" with formal training, credentials, yadda yadda yadda. That there is no uniform requirement to becoming a food writer is a strength of the field, IMO, with lots of different backgrounds that inform readers lots of different ways. If food writing goes the way of journalism school, we loose the Julia Childs, the MFK Fishers, and I can't think how many fresh, original, brilliant contributors to the field, alsong with their quirks, insight and experience.

                              1. re: Mawrter

                                While you might not feel qualified to judge the restaurant on its merits for authenticity, you could still say "I didn't like the food because I didn't think the heat and flavors balanced well," or something similar. That is, you could offer up your subjective opinion of the food and give reasons why. Someone else could then decide whether those things sounded liked a problem for them. The joke I have with my wife when I read restaurant reviews (whether professional or on sites like this or others) is that I often find restaurants I want to eat in based on what the person intends to be a "bad" review.

                                I think the important thing is to make mention of your knowledge level when assesing a cuisine or dish based on "authenticity" or "correctness." If you say "i've never eaten this sort of cuisine before, but here's what I thought" then intelligent people can take what they wish from your thoughts.

                                1. re: ccbweb

                                  True, true, true. Q.E.D.

                                  Now what I would love to see is a web site or blog at least that would shine the brightest light possible on the reviewers. After all why should they not be held to a standard and under scrutiny? They make so many damn errors both in positive and negative form.

                                  A few years back I had the honour of working with a fantastik chef in a marquise venue. We had several outlets which varied in service level. We recieved four stars for our food in the top end joint. They remarked on "how increadibly red the salmon sashimi" was tuna. They commented on the amazing red pepper was carrot. COME ON! What good is that? Who are they? And what did they s-ck on to get there? If we screw up, say so but perhaps without sounding like we just ruined the rest of your natural life. And for g-d sakes be accurate. If we succeed and exceed then be accurate so when your audience arrives they are not dissapointed by not having what was described to them.

                                  Again this is about professional writers. A-P I loathe you. You are public enemy no. 1 for me and many others. Not because you are tough but because you fail and fail again. There is another that is in close league with you...I will call her C. Borell. She has no clue about food but she rants and raves with the conviction of an executioner. If I have my way, there will be a cyber-spot for professional chefs to comment on reviews both good and bad. Idealy the beacon would provide the chef with at least an equivalent pulpit from which to address the public regarding the reviewer. My money says that most of them would not pass muster!

                            2. re: chefcliff

                              I see your point but I think we just disagree a bit on what one can get from eating out a lot. Ultimately, restaurant reviews are, at bottom, comparative. In our current example, a hollandaise isn't going to be comapred to an Platonic ideal of hollandaise, but to other hollandaise sauces that one has eaten. Thus, even if one had an idea about what a hollandaise "ought" to be, he could be pleasantly suprised by one that had cayenne, or more lemon or was a bit thinner which worked well with the particular fish. So, regardless of what one knows about techniques, the review is going to be about the product on the plate. Or at least, it should be about the product on the plate and the service that brought the plate to the diner.

                              Having been a successful cook (professionally) and being virtually entirely self-taught, I don't think it unreasonable to think that a dedicated person could learn a tremendous amount about food from eating out and paying attention.

                              1. re: chefcliff

                                By this line of thinking, virtually no one is qualified then to critique any restaurant engaging in molecular gastronomy. They can't judge based on what something "ought" to be.

                                It also gets into the argument about authenticity. Anyone who hasn't been to Hanoi can't judge a bowl of Pho, for example.

                                I agree that one should not extrapolate from an individual personal preference to a universal "correct" way that things should be. But culinary training of any sort isn't a guard against that, in fact, journalistic training is more likely to help one remain objective in their reviews (and that's what we're talking about, really, objectivity in reviewing the product).

                                1. re: chefcliff

                                  It seems to me that it would be possible for a person to tell whether a genoise has a fine crumb or not by eating one, even without knowing how to make a genoise. In the same vein, wouldn't it be possible for someone to learn what is the traditional correct yardstick for different dishes without going to cooking school?

                                  Also, not all professional kitchens and cooking schools are created equal, nor are all cookbooks and restaurants. To take an extreme example, I don't think someone who has flipped burgers at McDonald's is necessarily more competent to review a burger place than someone who hasn't. One would need to be able to choose the proper information source.

                                  I consider that on the ground eating experience and serious fact checking is very important (no, wikipedia doesn't count). I've encountered a number of rather egregious errors from the printed pages, describing the food as from region X when there is no such thing as region X or generalizing Y cuisine as a combination of A and B cuisines, when there are a lot more subtleties involved.

                                  But at the end of the day, the reason why I come to chowhound is that I don't think that restaurant reviews are sufficient. It's not because food critics are doing a bad job, it's just that 3 or 4 visits over a few weeks or months from 2 years ago isn't an ideal information source when menus change and the quality of a restaurant can vary even if the chef and management stay the same.

                      2. re: MC Slim JB

                        I don't think a person should require credentials to publish thier comments. However if you are going to critique the texture and balance of a hollandaise, or grade a demi, then you should have studied the making of such items. You don't need a degree to tell you what tastes good. But if you are going to denegrate a chef you should have a minimum understanding of the fundementals. Perhaps some understanding of the classics

                        1. re: chefcliff

                          I agree with you, to a certain extent. If you are a professional reviewer, you should have more than a passing familiarity with general culinary topics, dining standards in your particular area, and some knowledge of the dominant culinary traditions of your region. If a reviewer is completely ignorant of these things, I can't imagine a "real" newspaper keeping such a critic for very long.

                          But allow me to add to your beef: my pet peeve is chefs who go to culinary school who have terrible palates! Let's face it: it's easy to get into culinary school, and proficiency at the technical skills is what it takes to graduate. Too often, young culi grads just-don't-know-how-to-eat. To really enjoy foods, both high and low. Often they're more focused on the appearance of the dish, or enamored with the provenance of ingredients, or the level of technical manipulation involved in its creation, rather than the TASTE of the end results.

                          1. re: Hungry Celeste

                            Agree & agree! I am happy to count myself in on the 'other side' of that fence. Your point is accurate on so many levels. Believe me when I say that I get it on all of those levels.

                            Thanks for the post.

                      3. I haven't picked up a musical instrument in my adult life. Can't I still comment that the quality of MTV has gone downhill?

                        My problem with most professional food writers is that they don't seem like they love what they do. How many of them would be chowhounders, who do nothing all day but pontificate about food. In Los Angeles, we're lucky to have had someone like Jonathan Gold share in our experience all these years (and still does!), but he's the only critic I've ever read that I would invite along when I go out to eat.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: SauceSupreme

                          I think chefcliff's point is not about the freedom of individuals like you and me to comment on food, or music, or painting, or whatever. The web is full of bulletin boards like Chowhound where all comers are welcome (within certain fairly generous posting guidelines), no credentials required. A big part of Chowhound's reason for being is the notion that amateurs can often be more helpful than so-called pros.

                          His question, I believe, is that if you have a big soapbox like a weekly review in a mass-market daily newspaper, shouldn't you have more than just an opinion? Shouldn't your criticism be underpinned by some relevant education, expertise or experience? I get the sense in his case that he means "some level of training or experience in actual cooking at the professional level".

                          I'm always curious as to what other industry folks would like to see from professional food writers on this score.

                          1. re: MC Slim JB

                            ...And there it is...Bravo. Chowhounders go to town! My beef is not with the masses deciding what they like and not. Although as I mentioned, some of the comments are 'underpinned' by what mom served them growing up. If I used my father's rib steak as a paradigm you would all laugh yourself into a fit. But when someone publishes a comment using my name wether good or bad and is wrong...Q@%!$^