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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 people...you 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: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/347385

          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...it was tuna. They commented on the amazing red pepper coulis...it 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@%!$^

                        2. If formal culinary training is required to be a competent critic, then Jonathan Gold is incompetent.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            Generally speaking, in the last two decades, more and more critics - from art to music to food/restaurant - who have forums in major publications (whether electronic or hard copy) - have some background in the field they review. Sometimes, yes, it is simply long publication experience (think. Ruth Reichl, has a degree in art history. She spent four years as part of a collectively-owned restaurant before she began writing reviews....not a whole heckuva lotta professional training there, folks) - but the assumption is that one learns from experience and from those with whom you work. An experienced and trained journalist is expected to become competent in the field he or she covers. SOMETIMES - sometimes - there's educational or professional background that's a foundation. T'ain't always so. Even today. Nonetheless...if you';re writing criticism professionally, it's your J-O-B to learn enough about the topic to write it. But ya don't hafta get a degree in it (although sometimes it helps!) Let me analogize here...do you expect that the guy who writes the car reviews to have been an engineer or designer with a major auto company???? Likewise, do you expect the guy who writes the television reviews to have a degree in television production or writing?

                            1. re: Alice Letseat

                              Certainly not (to your question). It's not about a degree or some equivalent piece of paper in order to write a review. I can not stress enough the fact that I am speaking to a specific situation. Anyone can write about thier experience or 'take' on a meal. But if one is to declare that something had been done incorrectly then they need to have had some education on point. Having said that, albeit rare every once in a while a natural appears. Someone who needs not to be shown every last final detail in order to 'get-it'. But when someone prepares a review and does not even know the difference between phyllo and puff pastry$%@%^&!!! There are too many of 'them' that need exposing for the frauds that they are. In T.O. there are many food writers. Some are okay, one is quite good, the rest are morons in wannabe outfits. This Pataki chick...she is one of the 'cherries-on-top'.

                              As I have already stated a number of times, any person can write about thier likes and dislikes. But only someone who has been taught how things are to be done to achieve particular characteristics can actually render a judgement of 'write or wrong'.

                              1. re: chefcliff

                                Ummm...in my experience, before you write about it, if you don't know/aren't sure....then you go and ask BEFORE you write it. Or you do enough research so that you DO know about it. So that you don't write something that's just not correct. I've never performed surgery but I've certainly written about it. Correctly, I might add. On the other hand, I couldn't speak for NON professional writers and how they go about their work. If you have a food writer who has no concept of how a food or a dish is prepared...okay. You have a problem.

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  I agree: Knowing whether a dish tastes good is not rocket science. Nor is the ability to discern good service and pleasant/clean surroundings.

                                  1. re: chefcliff

                                    You don't need to go to culinary school to know the difference between phyllo and puff pastry.

                                    Someone who manages to get and keep a gig as a restaurant reviewer while confounding such different things could probably get through culinary school without learning anything there either.

                              2. Chefcliff: "It does not matter if the review was positive or negative, they still have to be accurate." Who could disagree? Yet some printed reviews I see (especially by casual writers in small community papers) raise questions of elementary journalistic competence. In a local case, cooks at a restaurant collected a file of "reviews" all diagnosing the ingredients of a simple house condiment. None was right, but more revealingly, _none even fact-checked._ Pure armchair opinion.

                                I, as avid restaurant customer and sometimes event planner, read many reviews with interest. They are useful to the extent they help forecast the customer experience. ccbweb, above, cites the honesty issue. Reporters who describe their dining experience, and if possible put their own background in honest perspective, are a lot more helpful than those who favor conclusions over evidence, or write as if their opinions were the measure of reality. (Rather than the other way around).

                                1. Good critics have to be aware of their limitations, whatever they are.

                                  I think the real problem the original post is referring to is critics who make uneducated guesses and phrase those guesses as statements of fact.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    I agree -- my main point too. In the case cited, a condiment had three ingredients: Butter, black pepper, and an herb. Half a dozen writers guessed the herb (wrong) and published it as fact. That caused a problem of diner allergy fretting, worsened by the diversity of the guesses. The restaurant dropped the (good) condiment.

                                    The problem wasn't just that these writers didn't know what they were talking about. it was that they didn't bother with the easy and obvious step of checking outside their own notions.

                                    Critics _unaware_ of their limitations are exactly part of the problem. "Blind spots" by their nature tend to be invisible. (How else to explain things I've seen like long online restaurant complaint threads grousing about problems created solely by the diners who posted them, or sweeping characterization of French culinary references posted after a concrete example that discredits it?)

                                    1. re: eatzalot

                                      A good critic needs to be keenly aware of the border between fact and opinion.

                                      The journalistic practice of presenting as factual only those things that can be checked leads to increasing awareness of the extent of your own ignorance.

                                  2. I won't go over the ground that has been well covered here so far; suffice it to say that I agree that one need not be a trained chef to write about food.

                                    That said, I do think it is important to have some awareness of how cooking happens in a restaurant, both in terms of mechanics and economics, not so much because a diner needs that information to write about how a risotto tastes, but because restaurant experiences are about more than just the food in front of someone. I think that cultural, historical, and vocational awareness can come many ways: some people get it by training as a chef, some by spending lots of time behind the scenes in restaurants, some by cooking at home, etc.

                                    And of course for most people, it is a combination of many of these that brings them to where they are. We found our way to food writing through doing some wine writing in the UK (where I got my PhD), and through that, into kitchens (doing sociology around the work of chefs), all the while using our own experiences as home cooks to bolster our understanding of what we were eating. So while I'd never claim to have formal culinary training, I feel well equipped to do what I do and wouldn't trade the perspective that my background has given me.

                                    Nosher

                                    NYCnosh* http://nycnosh.com

                                    17 Replies
                                    1. re: Nosher

                                      Except for the theatrical element added by an open kitchen, from the diner's perspective I think all that matters is what arrives at the table. The details of what went on in the kitchen beforehand are per se of no interest.

                                      It's like watching a movie, reading a novel, or listening to music. The details of production, composition, or performance are interesting to some people, but you don't need to know anything about those processes to fully appreciate the work.

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        Agreed, there are many food writers who can and do ply their trade without the benefit of any industry experience. It's obviously not essential, or they wouldn't be working.

                                        Not to rehash my earlier point too much, but the film criticism analogy is a useful one. While it's possible for a consumer to enjoy a film blissfully unaware of production techniques, I don't think most critics can get away with that. There's a whole academic tradition of film study and criticism that is absolutely informed by a sophisticated understanding of every aspect of film production. Most film writers -- even the ones that publish in general-interest publications rather than scholarly journals -- get into specifics of direction, editing, production design, costuming, screenplay structure, acting, etc. Not every film critic has gone to film school or worked in Hollywood, but many of the most prominent ones have, and most have done some serious study of film criticism.

                                        You could say essentially the same thing about music criticism: there are plenty of music reviewers that offer their opinions without being musicians and/or students of music theory or history, but if you want to write for a musically sophisticated audience (say, hardcore jazz fans), you'll be taken a lot more seriously if you are.

                                        Sure, you can write about food without any industry experience. I think what the industry folks here are contending is that having some experience might improve the depth of your perspective, understanding, and appreciation of the food on the plate, the service experience, etc. And I can totally understand where they are coming from.

                                        1. re: MC Slim JB

                                          How specifically do you think industry experience could improve a review? I've taken professionals on review dinners and can't recall them having any relevant special insight.

                                          Out of six of the best critics I've read, Patricia Unterman, Jonathan Kaufman, and Ruth Reichl have industry experience, Jonathan Gold, Stan Sesser, and Frank Bruni don't. I can't identify anything the first group's work has in common that the second group's lacks.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            Since I'm not in the industry, it might be useful to have some other actual industry folks here respond to your question of specifics. But it seems like you're just not buying it, regardless of how many different angles people bring to the question.

                                            Is it really so hard to appreciate how some experience *might* help you? Even a little bit? Do you completely reject the notion that some scholarly or practical background helps critics in other disciplines? Your anecdotal experience of taking some industry professionals to dinner doesn't seem to address this question.

                                            We don't all have the talent of a Jonathan Gold. I quite admire Frank Bruni's writing, but he's not universally beloved: there are some interesting lines of discussion that were spawned by that whole ugly Jeffrey Chodorow business a couple of months back (see http://oad.typepad.com/oa/2007/02/geo... for an example). Chowhound chefcliff is hardly the first to raise this question.

                                            I would think at a minimum as a professional writer you might exhibit a little intellectual curiosity about what goes on behind the scenes, rather than dismissing it as utterly inconsequential to what you do. How can you know what you don't know?

                                            1. re: MC Slim JB

                                              I'm neither incurious nor ignorant. I worked in a couple of restaurant kitchens for a few weeks (long enough to know it took the fun out of cooking for me). I've read lots of behind-the-scenes books and magazine articles. I've heard many stories from friends who work in restaurants. I've sat at the bar and watched what goes on in open kitchens.

                                              I just can't recall an instance where that knowledge has been useful to me when writing restaurant reviews.

                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                There is the example of Bruni's working as a waiter for a week at Boston's East Coast Grill. I think he called it a very humbling and enlightening experience.

                                                I'm surprised you didn't cite your industry experience before. I'd love to hear more about this: what kind of place was it? What was your role?

                                                I'll go out on a limb and suggest that some industry pros are going to say a few weeks as a prep cook or garde manger isn't quite what they were talking about. But again, I shouldn't speak for them.

                                                1. re: MC Slim JB

                                                  Bruni's article was interesting, but I don't think it affected his reviews. He surely came away from that week with more respect and sympathy for waiters, but that doesn't mean that as a critic he cuts them any more slack.

                                                  http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/25/din...

                                                  I worked for a week as a dishwasher at some mediocre bar and grill, and a month (?) as a commis at Balabosta, a decent Berkeley place that specialized in quiche back when most people didn't know what it was.

                                                2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                  With all due respect sir...If that is the case then you have simply demonstrated that you have not attained a level of understanding of cuisine and the very structures which provide the very lattitude required to execute magic on a daily basis. I don't care how many books you read or how many restaurants meals you have had...if you don't learn the benchmarks then you have no frame of reference.

                                                  1. re: chefcliff

                                                    I guess the big issue here is how does one know what a benchmark is? You can't say that just because you cooked a dish in a certain way in a certain restaurant that that would be the benchmark. If one trained at a poor restaurant that did not subscribe those standards, it might be just as bad as not having a frame of reference. In other words, one has to find out what the benchmark dish is and which restaurant makes it. Would it be impossible to obtain that information in a book? How did you first learn that a genoise is supposed to have a fine crumb? And how did you know that that was the standard?

                                                    On the other hand, if you did the right reearch, wouldn't it be possible to identify and eat at a restaurant that has a benchmark dish to figure out what the benchmark is? If you've eaten the Dragonwell shrimp at Lou2 wai4 lou2, wouldn't you be in a position to compare other versions with it?

                                                    The hard part here may be finding out what the benchmark dish in a benchmark restaurant might be, but it may not necessary require having cooked in a restaurant. If one had trained or worked in a restaurant that wasn't making the benchmark version, how would one know what the benchmark was? At a certain level it becomes a chicken and egg story, although perhaps one could break out of that loop if there was a tradition to go by.

                                                    1. re: chefcliff

                                                      "execute magic on a daily basis..." Sheesh. I cook. Well. Very well. Run restaurants, had my own catering and private chef business and have always had all of the work I've wanted. I know I'm good at it. But, "execute magic on a daily basis?" come on. Its not magic and its not rocket science. If you're aiming high end with your food, then you're trying to make food for people who either can't or don't want to make it for themselves but you're not fixing global warming or curing cancer. You invite critique on all levels. The average person who walks in may or may not like your food or restaurant for any of a thousand reasons we can all think of and probably any of hundreds we can't.

                                                      It requires no special training of any sort to know that a sauce was too salty, a piece of fish too dry or a piece of duck so succulent and delicious that you think about it for days afterwards. Further, it requires, as we'd discussed earlier, no training to know that a hollandaise seemed too thick. The key is not that a reviewer have a full body of culinary knowledge (which is neither reasonable, nor practical) but, rather, that they have a full body of journalistic knowledge and know not to write "the hollandaise was poorly prepared and was too think" but, rather, something like "the hollandaise sauce seemed a bit too thick for the fish." Drawing conclusions based on what is on the plate, not some idea about what may have happened in the kitchen. Because, ultimately, it doesn't matter how much culinary knowledge one has, that doesn't mean they know anything about what you're doing in your kitchen. I'd think that, according to your proposed requirements for knowledge of the "magic" happening in a kitchen that there would be virtually no one who could review, say, Alinea.

                                                      You've chosen a field that invites criticism in very unique ways. Everyone who has eaten has a frame of reference from which to critique food. They can compare it to other meals. Reviewers who have good journalistic training will confine their critique to what is on the plate, what happened in the restaurant during service and their experiences the multiple times they visited the restaurant.

                                                      1. re: ccbweb

                                                        While anyone can tell when they are eating something that is too salty, not everyone can knows what is overdone and not. I know too many people who use 'mom's' cooking as the benchmark..."oh I like my steak cooked!" That sort of ignorance proves that very point.

                                                        I am not suggesting that the average individual requires any culinary training to write anything. You may suggest that my description of the person qualified to publish thier mighty opinion in a large publication is rediculous. I think you are suggesting that most food writers have integrity and word thier comments apporpriately. Anyone who has had a proper training and actually has any culinary talent knows that to be a farse.

                                                        You do not need to be preparing haute cuisine in order to produce magic. That is rediculous. If you can't see the magic in making an increadible burger then I don't want to eat in your restaurant. The overwhelming majority of professional food writers do not have proper journalistic training. Also journalistic training does not qualify an individual to be a food writer. That is bogus. Using the earlier example you can read all you want and you will not be able to distinguish a sauce hollandaise that has slightly too much lemon from one that has slightly too much wine. I am not speaking of simple seasoning. Again the village idiot should be able to tell when something is too salty. We are talking about the ability to tell if the eggs were cooked enough. Was the torchon poached slightly too high in temp.? The difference between sweetbread that has been pressed vs. not. We are talking about wether or not the fries were sufficiently washed or not. And was the steak turned twice or four times.

                                                        If you are going to stand on high and attempt to guide the masses then you had better be appropriately qualified. Journalistic training does not provide that alone, although I agree it is necessary. When you compose your piece and refer to a chef with disdain, you had better be correct. The same goes for praise. We are not speaking about 'anyone's' opinion. We are speaking about 'the man'. The person female or male who climbs the bench and sits as judge. We are not speaking about personal preference, anyone is entitled to that.

                                                        Let us be clear on this, you can not learn everything you need to know from reading a book. But if what you say is true, that you can learn by eating in good establishments, how do you know when you have figured out how anything 'should' taste? What/who tells you that you have dined enough to know write from wrong?

                                                        1. re: chefcliff

                                                          I understand where you're coming from as regards "correct" preparation, but that's a very specifically French prejudice.

                                                          There's more than one way to make good fries. I've enjoyed dry and crunchy shoestrings, Belgian-style crisp outside with tender middles, and thick, soft British "chips" equally well in different meals.

                                                          There are even times when fries that would be bad on their own make an essential contribution to a tasty rustic dish (e.g. poutine, Cleveland-style chili, Peruvian chifa lomo saltado).

                                                          If I get a torchon that's grainy, dry, livery, or rubbery, I can just say that. Whether I know what went wrong in the kitchen (and often I'm pretty sure I do) is beside the point: I'm reviewing the dish, not the cook.

                                                          As a practical matter, I have yet to review anyplace that serves torchon. I have reviewed a stew of sweetbreads, boned ducks' tongues, blood sausage, and cockscombs; lamb's testicles with leek flower sauce; and lamb's head braised with cinnamon, saffron, and (if I had to guess, which I didn't in print) kashk. I can't imagine where I'd find benchmarks for those, but I don't need benchmarks to know they tasted great.

                                                          "If you are going to stand on high and attempt to guide the masses ..."

                                                          My goal is to steer readers to food I think is delicious. They can figure out from experience whether they share my taste. If they want to know whether food is "correct," they can read somebody else.

                                                  2. re: MC Slim JB

                                                    "How can you know what you don't know?" Touché, MC Slim JB.

                                                    (In a future thread we might explore the separate phenomenon of how dining at every possible restaurant with Michelin stars apparently makes a food expert nowadays ...)

                                              2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                Yes, but you need to know, understand and appreciate the production,composition and execution of food to be able to rate and critique it...

                                                1. re: nyfoodjoe

                                                  No you don't; that's the point Robert has been making. The first time I had a slice of fois gras terrine in France, I had no idea what it would look or taste like. I didn't know how it was prepared. The first bite told me that the guy in the kitchen had his stuff down pat. If you can't recognize superb food when you're served it, you're probably not going to be drawn to a career as a restaurant reviewer in the first place -- it just wouldn't be any fun. I believe the problem arises when certain reviewers develop an "attitude." This can happen with film, movie, and book critics, as well. You can recognize the tone of these bozos straight off: They read like a bad caricature of an English butler. Why anyone would choose to read or rely on reviewers such as these, I don't know. Then there are writers like Frank Bruni who seem to get carried away by their own flowing prose. There are plenty of no-nonsense restaurant critics out there who offer their honest and well-informed opinion. Seek them out and leave the idiots to read each other.