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Pro food critics who know nothing about a cuisine - helpful or harmful?

I'm a little sensitive about reviewers who write about Eastern European food in the SF Bay Area.

There's not that much available and, for the most part, what is here is mediocre at best.

Yet becuase of its exotic nature in the area, the reviews of the few mediocre places usually are enthusiastic. This recent review set me off, primarily because it starts out factually inaccurate. There are four or five Russian restaurants in the area and a Polish Deli across the street. All of those places are better, IMO, than the joint reviewed.

What annoys me is that by writing positively, people might be turned off entirely by a particular cuisine ... if that's the best there is ... we don't like Polish, Russian ...etc cuisine.

I can verify that the cabbage rolls here are bland and the bread was stale. They even had a few moldy loaves on the shelves.

On the other hand, maybe some attention is better than none at all. Also, this might be the way people unfamiliar with the food might react to tasting it.

That's not to say this deli is without merit. They have sausages and cold cuts from Chicago. However, the prepared food isn't the strong point here.

I know I get enthusiastic trying an unfamiliar-to-me cuisine. When I learn a lot more about it, I often cringe and my initial positive posts. However, this is not my job, just an interest. I'm not getting paid. Shouldn't we expect more from a professional?

IMO, at the least if someone is getting paid for a review they should bring along someone with them who knows the cuisine and is qualified to say if it is a good example or not.

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  1. I have found the "professionals" are often lacking in knowledge.

    When reading reviews, I usually don't follow their recommendations, based on my experiences over the years. For a while there was a wine writer and a restaurant reviewer whose tastes were similar to mine, but that was the exception

    I have learned most of the short term media is often wrong, a college instructor told me, the validity of the information is tied to the time the publication lasts (or something similar), meaning radio/tv is the most unreliable, books are the most reliable.

    Have you ever been at something that was covered in the news, I have and would wonder where the media got their information. I didn't see the media there, and their descriptions of what happened were inconsistent with my experiences.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Alan408

      Not to get too geeky here, but you're describing McLuhan's depiction of "hot" and "cool" mediums and his infamous "the medium is the message" theory. In a nutshell, a cool medium is harder to learn from than a hot medium because cool mediums require more participation. Back in the day, TV was considered a hot medium and books without pictures the ultimate in cool. Most base communication courses go over this as if things are always hot or cool, but this is a disservice to the theory that gets into the amount of information presented - in 2D it gets down to characters per square inch (McLuhan would be rolling in his grave at the thought of PowerPoint and would still probably mulling over the impact of HDTV and news channel scrolls). Unfortunately most lecturers boil it down to "hot media is produced quickly and cool media takes time" to simplify.

      To the review - I think while McLuhan was alive, he would have considered the majority of the newspaper "cool" since it was all about the typeset, number of photographs and articles were longer (the comics would have been largely "hot"). In today's USA-today style simple graphics, larger fonts, shorter article requirements and the need for reviews to come down to a graphic (number of stars) would bolster the idea that reviews are diving into "hot" territory and lessening the need for the reader to interact with the article. A 4-part series on an ethnic food type that included photographs would definitely be a "cool" section that would engage more individuals.

      Geek moment over, my apologies to everyone, but I couldn't resist.

      1. re: Stephmo

        The theory Alan408 describes isn't about hot vs. cool, it's about a correlation between accuracy and the length of time a work is intended to last.

        Newspapers and talk radio are "cool," while 24-hour cable TV news is "hot," but they're all disposable.

        Books are "cool" and movies are "hot," but both are often made with the intention that they should last for generations, or forever.

        I think in the USA that's currently secondary to the reality that even media that stick around indefinitely are often produced with little regard to whether the content is accurate and comprehensive.

    2. Factual errors in a professional publication are a problem, but that doesn't have anything to do with food knowledge, rather, that's about being a good journalist (or having a good editor, depending on where the fact checking responsibilities lie).

      Excepting the last paragraph of the review which was poorly written and hyperbolic (ok, same thing), the review didn't gush over the food. The writer recounted the dishes he or she ate and lauded one of them as being quite good (the pelmeny). I didn't see anything in the review that actually purported to know a lot about Russian food, really. It read to me more like someone giving something a try and generally liking it, but not trying to write anything authoritative about it. The statements about Russian food were really more statements about why particular sorts of foods embody Russian cuisine.

      Ultimately, I see where you're coming from as far as a critic being able to say whether something is a good example of a cuisine...but, bringing someone else along doesn't really work; as Tom Sietsma in the Washington Post notes whenever someone asks him about his dining companions' opinions "I'm being paid to give my opinion, not someone else's." Further, it seems good that the writer didn't try to render an opinion they can't have, ie, whether the food was a prime example of authenticity.

      1. I feel like any professional critic these days should have a fairly good knowledge of all the major cuisines, including Asian cuisines, but if there's only a few restaurants of that type in your area, it's not always possible. But it really seems like a question of palate -- couldn't anyone figure out if food was bland or stale whether they know about the cuisine or not?
        It seems like there's two different considerations: Is it authentically and properly prepared, and do you as a diner like the way it tastes. A good critic should be able to address both the majority of the time, I would think.
        I faced this problem when reviewing a Chinese restaurant. I said the chow mein was tough and inedible, impossible to cut with chopsticks, cold and greasy. Numerous commentors snottily told me "it was supposed to be that way." Fine, but it was gross. At least in that case, the restaurant in question has been throroughly raked over the coals by everyone ever since.

        1. Sounds like one qualification for food writers should be, "Must have a UN of acquaintances." The alternative seems to be writing only about cuisines with which you or your friends have an intimate familiarity. I've always felt it helps a food writer to have traveled a bit, but this seems a rather high standard.

          Obviously it's preferable to have the writer bring some in-depth knowledge of a cuisine, but I also believe it's possible to write a creditable, useful review without it -- as long as you don't pretend to expertise you don't have.

          Isn't there some value in bringing some academic homework to the party, an inquiring palate, and a broad range of dining experiences -- even those not directly related to the subject cuisine? Clearly that's no substitute for first-hand knowledge as a native, or child of immigrants, or even a tourist, but at least the writer can relate the experience of discovering the cuisine, and share with readers what s/he found exciting about it. I'd hate to have to shy away from reviewing Afghan restaurants because I'm not personally acquainted with any Afghanis, nor have spent any time in Afghanistan.

          As someone who was a Chowhound first and a semi-pro food writer second, I sincerely hope that a sense of adventure and joy (and maybe some writing chops) compensates occasionally for a culinary education that is geographically diverse but often shallow and admittedly riddled with holes. Damn my parents for not being wealthy State Department lifers!

          4 Replies
          1. re: MC Slim JB

            I am assuming you are not getting paid for writing about restaurants.

            I have no problem with Chowhounds or any food forum posters talking about their experiences.

            However, when anyone accepts that check for writing a review, it is my assumption they have done some homework and have some knowledge. Otherwise why should I read them?

            One of the best food writers I have ever read, Jonathan Kaufmann, often wasn't familiar with a cuisine but he was up front with that info and also spent some time doing research.

            When someone passes themselves off as a professional, there should be a different standard. I can deal with a mistake or two .. we're all human. But when I read error after error, why should I waste my time reading something that the writer hasn't taken their time to research.

            In this case, the simplest google would have turned up a number of area Russian restaurants. Heck, keying "russian" and San Jose, Ca in Yelp would have turned up a number of Russian restaurants. That is sloppy and inexcusable.

            Doing a quick search of food forums would have given the writer an idea of what the good dishes might be.

            I haven't tried it yet, but based on my visit the Pelmini, might be the thing to order here as they are made locally. A quick trip to the other nearby restaurant, Renata, would have revealed tastier versions of every other dish this joint sells. Renata doens't sel Pelmini, but another restaurant that is close by does ... and has superior borscht.

            1. re: rworange

              (I actually do occasionally get paid to write restaurant reviews. It's an avocation, not how I make my living. I never thought to do it; local editors reached out to me after reading my posts on Chowhound.)

              On factual matters, I absolutely agree: anyone who gets paid to write about restaurants needs to adhere to journalistic standards, and be as factually accurate as possible. It's particularly galling in the Internet age when a writer gets basic facts wrong.

              But that's a different standard than the one I thought your original post suggested, which I read as, "If you're not already an expert in the cuisine, or can't bring an expert along with you, don't bother writing about the place." This implies a qualification for writing about restaurants that I really hope is not true.

              1. re: MC Slim JB

                Nope. Didn't mean that at all ... only if you are a pro. Delicious is delicous whether authentic or not. That's sort of why I wonder the value of someone who is a pro writing about an unfamiliar cuisine. That writer might just represent the ordinary joe encountering the cuisine for the first time.

                The Contra County TImes, a local paper, drives me nuts with their reviews which are ... well, awful. However, they cater to a suburan audiance who probably would have the same reaction as the reviewer to the food sampled. That isn't as food snobby as it might sound ... I worked for years in the area, did a lot of business lunches with coworkers and getting people away from Applebee's was a challenge.

                But I still think it is valuable to educate people as well. If you bring along someone who is familiar with the cuisine, you can say if this is a good representation or not.

                On Chowhound, often I read why someone thinks something is delicious. I have never tried chicken feet. However, reading reports on the SF board, I know how to eat them, what to expect and why they are delicious to some people.

                If ordinary people who don't get paid to write can do that, I would expect no less from a professional ... especially given the wealth of easy knowledge available on the web.

                This restuarant serves sucky Russian food and it is too bad that people reading that review might think that's what Russian food is all about ...especially since there are oher better opitons nearby.

                1. re: rworange

                  This is an interesting distinction about professionals vs. amateurs.

                  Among pros, I think there's a continuum at work, with the poles being Joe Whose Favorite Restaurant Is Burger King, and Javier Who Grew Up in Peru and Professionally Cheffed There Before Moving to the States. One clearly has more to bring to a review of Peruvian restaurants than the other.

                  But what about the guy who maybe has spent a little time in Peru, traveled around South America, and eaten in a bunch more Peruvian restaurants in the States? Might that writer's perspectives still be of interest/value to readers, if not quite as expert as Javier's? That's arguably a thin level of expertise, maybe even enough to give readers some impressions of Peruvian food that a native might scoff at. But would that lack of depth utterly disqualify that writer?

                  I offer the extreme case of Jonathan Gold, who started his professional career as a journalist, but not a food writer. To what do we attribute that Pulitzer? I think it's many things, but I doubt he started out with his very broad knowledge of, for instance, Asian cuisines.

                  Were his early restaurant reviews worthless? Did he get much better as he went along? I don't know -- I haven't read his early stuff -- but I suspect his intangibles (writing talent, gusto, curiosity, bravery, insatiability, relentlessness) have counted for more over time than what he knew about Korean food when he started out.

          2. I don't think it's a deal breaker one way or another; as chowhounds, we're here more for the chowtips than for an authoritative treatise.

            But it would be good if food critics did their fact checking thoroughly -- while not an everyday occurrence, it's not surprising to find factual errors in the some of the reviews when critics talk about the cuisine. I think that's just good journalism; I expect that from the foreign correspondents, so why not the food column?

            It's unrealistic to expect any food critic to be familiar with every single regional cuisine out there, but full disclosure about what they know and what they don't would be a service to their readers. It would also be nice if at least we had an idea of roughly how a place stacks up to other places in the same area serving the same cuisine.

            Because we all have different food histories, a naive palate and perspective can be refreshing, but it shouldn't be at the expense of the background of the cuisine or dish. To illustrate with a hypothetical example that is trivial and extreme, someone who complains that a beef tartare dish was undercooked is probably not doing a good job.

            At the end of the day, all I want to know from a review is that a place exists, serves X cuisine (and I assume that woun't be too hard to get right). I'm happy to try it for myself.

            1. Writing anonymously...professional restaurant reviewer here...

              It's important a reviewer have a rather thorough knowledge of the world's cuisines, and especially know the specifics of classic preparations.

              If I see cassoulet on the menu, I want to be able to compare the cassoulet in front of me with the classic version of the dish. If the restaurant attempts the classic and falls short, I need to know how. If the dish is a riff on cassoulet, I need to determine whether or not the riff works. If this dish isn't a classic version, I check to see if the word "cassoulet" is in quotes on the menu, indicating it's a derivation from the original.

              And on and on for all the world's classic dishes.

              When I attended journalism school, the Nixon Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War were the big issues, and ethics were drummed into us. I worked as a writer for twenty years before attending culinary school with the goal of being an informed food writer.

              In culinary school, I learned a lot of technique (is something properly executed?), a fair amount of food history (to which I've added to greatly) and a good base knowledge of the regional cuisines and history of Italy, Spain, France, China, and the US, etc. (which I've augmented with a good deal of world travel abd reading).

              The studying never ends -- I read voraciously to keep up with the world's cuisines, trends and people.

              In regards to the Russian restaurant:
              Before visiting, I'd probably brush up on the cuisine and talk to those culinary folks with an expertise in this cuisine, perhaps inviting them to come along to give me more insight.
              I want their opinion. If the dishes fall short, as rworange indicates they did, then it's incumbent upon me to tell the readers why and how, and to possibly recommend a different more authentic, more enjoyable restaurant for that cuisine.

              My pet peeve is inaccuracies in describing dishes: listing ingredients or techniques that were not used, when a simple post-dining phone call to the chef/cook would have netted an accurate description and provided good background info.

              Rules: Dine at the restaurant at least 3 times, always anonymously, pay cash, use different name for reservations, wait 3 months after a restaurant's opening, never go on a Friday, Saturday or Monday night (the first two are too busy, Monday is usually the chef's day off.)

              Apologies for belting this out so quickly...just wanted to throw in my 2 cents...

              32 Replies
              1. re: justalittlemoreplease

                Thanks for the great post. It is exactly what I expect from a good food writer and why, IMO, they continue to be viable despite all the easy info availble in food forums and blogs. There is knowledge and expertise that most casual diners don't have. My tastes may or may not match a specific food writer, but I usually get info I won't get elsewhere.

                With the linked review, I know it is not a top-notch review source and expect less. Yet the quality of information was no better than a casual diner dropping and posting about it. As I said in the OP that does a disservice to the majority of diners who will use it as a measure for what is good Russian food and, having tried this dreck, decide they don't like Russian food.

                1. re: rworange

                  I'd expect nothing less from a pro-writer than what the above posted. But I think there is a certain responsibility for accuracy that anyone who writes about food has, including bloggers. There are new media to which people go looking for information about food. We don't just go to Gourmet or are local paper. We go to eGullet, blogs, and if you're like me, to CH.

                  CH happens to be one of my favorite sites for chowchat because I trust the knowledge of most posters who love food enough to educate themselves but am frequently dismayed to look through reviews only to find over-eager dilettantes writing effusive reviews about cuisines they know nothing about. There are more than a few whose dribble can really get under my skin with their "OMGs" and "the BEST evers" and especially their claims of authenticity. I understand if you like a certain restaurant, but don't claim that the gumbo pizza is just like what you get in Liguori and that it's the perfect place for quiet dates, loud parties, wedding and funeral receptions and tailgaiting. Sorry to rant, but it upsets me to see posters mislead and possibly turn people away from certain cuisines and restaurants when we have this great forum to share our knowledge and open doors to new experiences. They're like dentists who offer medical advice.

                  1. re: JungMann

                    With Chowhound though it is hard to fake it. Print a false review and a ton of people will chime in with opposing points of view, so it keeps it honest. There is the curve ... sometimes everybody loves a place or hates it. That eventually gets corrected with people who feel differently. Eventually there's a balanced view.

                2. re: justalittlemoreplease

                  Those rules from Justalittlemoreplease (which I believe are similar to the Association of Food Journalists) are very good ones which we should all aspire to.) Howevever, the game has changed a bit, and both bloggers and newspapers now routinely write about restaurants virtually the day they open and with only one visit. These days, if you wait three months, you're way behind the curve. But I think there is a useful proviso on the Food Journalists site about characterizing those visits as a "First Impression." I imagine that Frank Bruni makes three visits and waits a reasonable amount of time after a restaurant has opened for the main NY Times review, but in the meantime he's blogging about it and so is everyone else. And there aren't very many papers that can even achieve that level of professionalism...

                  1. re: justalittlemoreplease

                    "It's important a reviewer have a rather thorough knowledge of the world's cuisines, and especially know the specifics of classic preparations."

                    There's no way any one person could have such expertise in more than a handful of cuisines.

                    Also, in most cases there is no "classic" preparation, rather there are scores of local variations of a dish, and thousands of individual cooks' versions of it. Cassoulet's a perfect example:

                    "Cassoulet is one of those dishes over which there is endless drama. ... it seemed a simple matter to travel to each of these towns, discover where the best cassoulets were served, taste them, and decide which one I liked the best. What I did not count on was that these regional distinctions have been completely blurred and that cassoulet is not as simple as it seems."--Paula Wolfert, "The Cooking of Southwest France"

                    What matters to me is not how a dish compares with some imaginary ideal, but how it fits into my concrete personal experience. If a dish is the best version I've had, or close to it, I'll just say so. For example, "To beat these cannoli, you'll need a ticket to Sicily."

                    Lots of people go out to eat only on Fridays or Saturdays. Avoiding those nights seems like lowering the bar.

                    I agree that stating guesses as fact is bad form. On the other hand, if the bouillabaisse tastes like dishwater, there's no need to call the chef to confirm the ingredient list.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      On the other hand, in the US a lot of "ethnic" restaurants have menus that combine "traditional" (I hate the word "authentic") dishes from their cuisine, with Americanized versions and also with dishes from related cuisines that they know are going to be familiar and appealing to diners who are not familiar with the cuisine. At the very least, I expect a reviewer to be able to identify which dishes on the menu fall into each of these categories, and to be able to recognize the "benchmark" dishes for the cuisine.

                      I agree it's not necessary to be familiar with cooking techniques specific to various cuisines, but one can always ask "is this usually prepared this way?" or "this is an interesting dish, how did you achieve Feature X?" I've also been known to ask "how am I supposed to eat this?" (as in, am I supposed to add condiments (like pho), or assemble components into a wrapper like a leaf or tortilla).

                      Finally, you can do research after the fact, based on what you were served. Was their version of cassoulet representative of a certain region and/or style? With the internet, that kind of targeted research is ridiculously easy.

                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        As a critic, I'm sharing a hedonistic personal experience. The factual reporting is secondary. I think I serve my readers better by eating as adventurously as possible rather than sticking within the comfort zone of my past experience.

                        Research isn't always easy. Internet sources are often amateurish and wrong. It's common for me to find that several seemingly authoritative books on a particular cuisine will contradict each other on important matters. Paula Wolfert found that the regional variations on cassoulet were theoretical and that the dish varied widely from cook to cook regardless of region.

                        Judging traditional vs. Americanized can be challenging, especially with cuisines with a strong tradition of crosscultural fusion and invention. Korean food is spicier in Korea, but the lower average level of heat in Korean food in the U.S. does not result from pandering to non-Korean palates; it's simply a diversion in tastes between the two communities. Peruvian cooks are madly inventing variations on tiraditos both here and in Peru. Dim sum restaurants are adopting Western techniques and ingredients both here and in Hong Kong. Etc. etc.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          A good critic needs to be able to recognize just those distinctions. Is it traditional? A reflection of modern trends within the cuisine? A dumbed-down/American version? A regional variation? etc. One that doesn't is just going to end up sounding stupid.

                          The fact that some, many or even all people in Toulouse don't make "Toulouse" style cassoulet, and that cassoulet can have many variations as there are people who make it, doesn't mean the "Toulouse style" hasn't acquired meaning as a description of a certain style/category of cassoulet. The term can be used descriptively without being used prescriptively or literally. In fact, if you google "Toulouse cassoulet" one of the top hits is a recipe called "Toulouse-style cassoulet" by .... Paula Wolfort. And to go back to what I said above, a critic who hadn't bothered to do even the most basic research into the complexities of cassoulet would sound pretty stupid if they critcized the cassoulet they were served as not being authentic simply because it wasn't made in a specific style they were familiar with.

                          This whole discussion is actually rather amusing coming from someone who has repeatedly made the distinction that a well-known Italian restaurant in San Francisco isn't truly Italian, but is "French" (or "Frenchified") Italian.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            Factual reporting is important to me when I read a review. If a review says that the dish was made with a particular ingredient or cooked in a certain way when it was not, that's very poor journalism. Ditto with other facts like opening hours, price range.

                            To me, factual background, e.g. what this cuisine is all about, is less essential in that the reviewer doesn't have to mention it, but I'd expect that those facts are straight if the review does go into that territory. Using the cassoulet example, if a reviewer wishes to compare a given cassoulet with the ones in France, then it's a reasonable expectation that they convey the range of variation and say where the dish they tasted falls into. If they're unable or unwilling to do that kind of research, then they shouldn't be making those comparisons.

                        2. re: Robert Lauriston

                          "There's no way any one person could have such expertise in more than a handful of cuisines."

                          Sure there is.

                          It requires being a dedicated student of gastronomy, and a great deal of continual study...but the gathering and gaining of knowledge is in itself a joy, at least for me.

                          I realize that you may not believe this, Robert, but it is the standard to which I hold myself. Your philosophy of "What matters to me is not how a dish compares with some imaginary ideal, but how it fits into my concrete personal experience" may work for you -- it's just that I take a different tack. (I'm aware you write for a SF Bay Area paper.)

                          Re: Cassoulet...yes, in southern France, there are variations on a theme, but there is an overall theme...with standard ingredients and prep that define the classic version of the dish.

                          Bouillabaisse has a similar classic structure and prep, even though the fish used may differ from day to day, as it did originally when it was a simple fisherman's stew.

                          So I disagree that there are no "classic" preparations -- of course there are.

                          Re: bouillabaisse that tastes like dishwater...If I have decided to write a review
                          of this restaurant in spite of its poor execution of bouillabaisse, then I would
                          have occasion to interview the chef -- and I would ask what the chef was trying to
                          achieve with that dish -- not only to have an answer to that question, but to also ferret out how the chef thinks in general. If the restaurant has many other dishes about which I can write favorably, then my negative impression of the bouillabaisse would simply be woven into the other positive comments.

                          On the other hand, if the execution of the bouillabaisse reflects an overall sloppiness in
                          the kitchen and an indifference or inattention to flavor development -- meaning, many dishes are poorly executed, then I simply won't review the restaurant.

                          We each have own philosophies in reviewing, Robert. Yours probably serves you well,
                          as does mine. We don't have be similar for each of us to provide a service to our readers.

                          1. re: justalittlemoreplease

                            There are lots of approaches to writing reviews, yes.

                            I can see interviewing the chef if I were reviewing the business from the perspective of a buyer, or reviewing the chef from the perspective of a potential employer.

                            But I'm reviewing the food on the table from the perspective of a customer. What the chef has to say is on the plate: the food speaks for itself. Any thoughts the chef has that aren't embodied in that food ... I can't see how they'd be relevant to the review.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              You interview the chef to be accurate in your description of ingredients and prep,
                              as well as to get background info on the chef -- where they worked before, their food philosophy, their heritage, etc.

                              1. re: justalittlemoreplease

                                You should be able to write a review based solely on your experiences in the restaurant. Anything else - apart, I suppose, from the occasional fact-checking call - is just spin. Music critics don't interrogate the conductor, movie critics don't talk to the director and art critics don't ask the curator her opinion. There is a reason why most good papers have a firewall between the critic and the person who writes the features.

                                1. re: condiment

                                  I feel the same way. If interviewing the chef or owner affected my review, that would compromise its integrity. And their hearing my voice would compromise my anonymity.

                                  If the chef says something I didn't taste was in a dish, then what? How would I know whether somebody made a mistake on that particular order, my palate was off, or the chef was bullshitting me? Why would any of that be of interest to my readers?

                                  "Kid, it's their job to sell you a line of bullshit. It's your job not to buy it."--Ralph Gleason

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    IMO, that just reduces the food writer to another eater with no more value than any other eater which would make me agree in that case with LStaff that gives the food writer less influence ... just another opinion with a slightly louder microphone. Why have music, art, movie critics going with that line of thinking. Why should I care what one person thinks?

                                    It is just as pertinant as ordering steak and mushrooms and not getting mushrooms. If ingredients are left out or not detectable it indicates a sloppy kitchen.

                                    Just as sloppy writing by a critic no matter how small the detail makes me discount the whole review. It is important to me that the reviewer was snowing me and the readers by not knowing this was not the only Russian food in the area. I can get better info than that in a food forum.

                                    And yes, the writer can do that. I just won't waste my time reading them.

                                    1. re: rworange

                                      You've responded to a different concept than the one Robert was writing about in his most recent post. On the one hand is fact checking whether other restaurants in the area are serving similar cuisine; this is clearly a problem and one any journalist should be able to avoid by doing their job well.

                                      The other, and the one Robert was writing about, is the idea of a food critic interviewing the chef for their review. I completely agree with Robert that this sort of thing doesn't have any place in a restaurant review. It would and should have a place in a feature article about the restaurant, say, but not in a straightforward review of the food served at said restaurant.

                                      1. re: ccbweb

                                        No, I was responding to Robert's comment about interviewing the chef and the general flow of this branch.

                                        I'm more in the justonemoreplease school of thought. Talking to the chef is of value not only for fact-checking but maybe to gain insight on what is trying to be accomplished.

                                        A number of times a local critic has been creamed on the board because he incorrectly identified this or that in a dish. If for nothing but journalistic integrity, if not certain, ask.

                                        Access to the chef and the reasoning behind the food is one of the very reasons I read a pro review. That is not info I'll get from most casual diners. I'm certainly not in the kitchen asking those questions.

                                        However, for those occasions that I do get to talk to the owner/chef there is usually a wealth of information that either, as mentioned, helps me determine if the kitchen is just sloppy and I don't want to waste my time, money or calories here again.

                                        Also, as mentioned, there might be other dishes I should explore as a result. So a reviewer getting steered to those dishes and cluing in the readers seems very pertinant.

                                        Is good, good? Sure. Does only taste matter. Sure.

                                        But sometimes when you understand something better, you can appreciate things that were never noticed. What is wrong with that?

                                        There's lots of food I've learned to appreciate from reading Chowhounds descriptions of why it was good and what was trying to be accomplished. Why should that be any different for a pro.

                                        The other comment about accuracy was just a response to a comment somewhere up in the thread that it was irrelevant getting a fact like the writer didn't know there were other Russian restaurants in the area.

                                        1. re: rworange

                                          "The other comment about accuracy was just a response to a comment somewhere up in the thread that it was irrelevant getting a fact like the writer didn't know there were other Russian restaurants in the area."

                                          I don't understand what you're saying there.

                                          I think this interview question deserves its own topic.

                                      2. re: rworange

                                        I care what one critic thinks when they consistently lead me to experiences or provide insights I didn't / wouldn't have come up with on my own.

                                        I don't care whether they get paid for it. Good critics are always passionate amateurs first and foremost.

                                        1. re: rworange

                                          "IMO, that just reduces the food writer to another eater...."

                                          But a food writer is just another eater; that's why we have boards like chowhound in the first place -- to encourage people to think and eat for themselves and to be able to share information effectively about places to try on a much larger scale, with more datapoints.

                                          But that doesn't mean one disregards food writers, in the same way we don't disregard individual posters on the board. Instead, one weighs their opinion in a more balanced and proportionate way.

                                          1. re: limster

                                            A great food critic is no more ``just another eater'' than James Woods is just another reader or Pauline Kael was just another chick who liked movies. A good critic will bring the knowledge gained from not just thousands of meals but thousands of meals examined to bear on what she happens to be describing, will understand and illuminate cultural context, and will bring passion and insight to her reviews. She will help you understand how a restaurant's food shapes, or has the potential of shaping, the world in which you live.

                                            The consumer aspect of criticism - where should I eat this Saturday night? - may be the most immediately apparent facet, but is also the least interesting.

                                            1. re: condiment

                                              "The consumer aspect of criticism - where should I eat this Saturday night? - may be the most immediately apparent facet, but is also the least interesting."

                                              I think this is where we have very different priorities. I'm just out to eat something delicious.

                                              I agree about what a good critic brings to the table in terms of insight and knowledge, but there are so many non-critics that bring that same level that I don't find it special coming from a critic. If anything, I've learnt more from reading these boards than I have from newspaper food columns. It's not that critics are bad or dumb, but that the average level of savvy out there is higher than one might think, and while the total knowledge of a non-critic might be less, the depth of specialized knowledge can often be higher.

                                              1. re: limster

                                                I disagree that a restaurant reviewer is just another eater. A good restaurant reviewer has cooking experience and better fluency in the components of a dish, as well as as keener sense of observation (tastewise and in the ambience and decor) than your average eater. Chowhound just happens to have more people who have some of those abilities.

                                                There's also the writing aspect: A good food reviewer can bring a dish alive on the page, and make it an entertaining read, to boot.

                                                1. re: wittlejosh

                                                  It depends on what you consider the average eater and the types of cuisine involved. I'm thinking more of a global average, since many of my friends and people that I eat with are from all over the world. For example, I think it's fair to say that compared to most critics in this country, when it comes to a number of Northern Indian cuisines, my Kashmiri friends have way more cooking experience and better fluency in the components of a dish, as well as a much keener sense of observation in the taste of the dish. Similar point for my pals from other parts of the world.

                                                  But that's not to say that people can only be experts in their own culture. For example, a Persian pal of mine is amazingly savvy with Brazilian food.

                                                  Writing is a separate and important issue, but I mostly read reviews for information, so to me the entertainment factor isn't as important. But that's a priority that will vary from person to person.

                                              2. re: condiment

                                                I pretty much agree with limster. The most interesting aspect of a review for me is being steered to a great meal, or better yet a new-to-me cuisine.

                                                For cultural context and so on, other kinds of food writing are more useful, notably cookbooks, especially those in the Paula Wolfert style, and features in magazines like Saveur. And of course actual travel.

                                              3. re: limster

                                                Maybe because of Chowhound that is why the role of a food writer has been redefined to me. In terms of what that writer thinks of a particular dish, not so relevant.

                                                A good food writer to me helps do just what Chowhound did ... they get people to broaden their food horizons. Not to beat the theme into the ground, that was what made Jonathan Kaufman so great ... or any of his kind ... Gold, or that guy in NJ Jim mentioned on his Chowtour that gets people so excited about trying the hidden gems in their area.

                                                They generate an enthusiasm so that they start getting tips from readers about all the other great places that might go unnoticed. Just like Chowhound did.

                                                I'm not saying this correctly, but I just so disagree that food writers are one of the crowd or just another eater ... at least the good ones aren't.

                                              4. re: rworange

                                                If the dish that arrives is not as described on the menu, yes, the critic should report that. Depending on the nature of the discrepancy, maybe also send it back and report on the response.

                                                But there's no need to interview the chef about it. "My steak came out without the mushrooms listed on the menu. What were you trying to achieve by that omission?"

                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                  I think the part about the interviews was more about ingredients not listed in the dish description rather than something that obvious, e.g. "Was that cumin I tasted in dish X?"

                                            2. re: condiment

                                              I always interview the chef…here’s why:

                                              My reviews appear in a monthly magazine, and I only review restaurants that have consistently provided a quality experience – meaning, I never write negative reviews. This is the philosophy of the magazine and one I must adhere to– we direct our readers only to positive experiences -- but I also agree with it.

                                              If a restaurant has provided uneven meals, with inconsistencies or errors, it’s not reviewed. Another restaurant will take its place in the review. The process each month is that I start with five possible restaurants to review, then pick three for the article.

                                              And by the way, if a restaurant has provided a less than positive experience, I don’t interview the chef.

                                              It’s also the nature of the magazine, and one I agree with, to inject a little of the personality, perhaps as it is revealed through the food, or background of the chef. That’s another reason why I interview. If the chef uses an unusual ingredient or preparation method, or has an interesting background, I want to talk briefly about it. It helps paint an overall picture of the restaurant. The chef never meets with me in person, and I am not worried about my voice being recognized. The chef knows, at this point, that the magazine is talking about his restaurant and he or she is usually cooperative.

                                              Another reason beyond gleaning information to speak with the chef: to arrange photographs of the food and restaurant.

                                              Responding to jfood’s comments…the choreography of the restaurant,
                                              the dance of servers and runners on the floor, the communication of the front of the house with the back of the house, timing between courses, overall welcoming feel, ambience, comfort level, willingness to accommodate special requests and more…all have a bearing on the dining experience along with the food.

                                              1. re: justalittlemoreplease

                                                You find three restaurants every month with no inconsistencies? I'd like to visit that town.

                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                  No gross inconsistencies and few minor ones.
                                                  Yes, nice town.
                                                  You live in a very nice one yourself.
                                                  Good luck with the writing and eating.

                                  2. The factual inaccuracy "the South Bay's only outpost of Russian cooking" has nothing to do with his knowledge of the cuisine, he just didn't do his homework--a serious failing for a critic. (Nevsky has closed, by the way.)

                                    His readers generally won't know any more about Russian food than he does, he was frank about his inexperience, and didn't go overboard about the food. The tomato sauce on the cabbage rolls he had might have been herbier than when you had that dish, and he preferred other dishes. The bread wasn't necessarily stale or moldy when he was there.

                                    In the SF area, I think every critic's going to be a novice in some cases. In the past year, I've reviewed (for the SF Weekly) barbecue, Burmese, Californian, Cambodian, Cantonese, Cuban, German, Italian, Korean, Malaysian, Mexican, muslim Chinese, Persian, Peruvian, Sardinian, sushi, Vietnamese, and Yucatecan restaurants. Some I knew a lot about, some I had to do homework.

                                    I often take experts with me if I know any. They sometimes provide useful insights ("you're supposed to squeeze lime juice on this"), but I don't really care about their esoteric criticisms and enthusiasms, which usually come down to whether Mom made it that way.

                                    9 Replies
                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      Hear, hear. I'm right with Robert Lauriston on this one.

                                      Also: Nothing is less useful to me---or more annoying---than to read an entire review that accomplishes nothing but a blow-by-blow comparison between the food put out by the restaurant-at-hand and Ür-Restaurant in Standardbearer City, France. Frankly, I'm not sure ANY readers are served by such a taxonomic approach to eating: It often comes across more as an attempt by the critic to underscore his or her expertise, as opposed to giving readers a useful tour of the restaurant. Especially given that, as alluded to above, few dishes in any cuisine have enough rules and traditions that any two renditions will end up the same---especially when there are creative cooks involved. With Bouillabaisse or Pizza Margherita or Kitfo... sure, maybe a few explanatory remarks about how it's traditionally constructed. But there are so many cross-influences in modern cooking, that a tunnel-vision focus on authenticity can end up tediously academic. And completely unconnected to how food is prepared in real life.

                                      That said, all forms of criticism (I write food criticism and visual-art criticism) demand at least a baseline of knowledge of the cuisine/art movement/etc. under consideration, but not necessarily expertise. I'm an expert on turn-of-the-century modern French painting, but I have enough basic art-historical knowledge that I can weigh in, usefully, on most exhibitions, be they Pre-Colombian artifacts or Italian Baroque sculpture. With a little homework. I can't write a book on the subjects, but I can give a general readership plenty of insight into them. In fact, it's even harder for me to write about a Matisse show because I have to filter out the tiny details that interest me and only me. Same goes for food, IMO.

                                      1. re: wittlejosh

                                        "Frankly, I'm not sure ANY readers are served by such a taxonomic approach to eating: It often comes across more as an attempt by the critic to underscore his or her expertise, as opposed to giving readers a useful tour of the restaurant."

                                        Any writing that turns off readers en masse is not acceptable...to the publication and editor, especially. And ultimately, it shouldn't be acceptable to the writer, either.

                                        There's a big difference between what you refer to above -- an academic, ponderous review -- and a phrase in a sentence that compares the restaurant's version to the classic prep...as you say "a few explanatory remarks about how it's traditionally constructed."

                                        Whenever ego enters the writing -- e.g., to show off knowledge -- the writer is not being of service...which is key.

                                        1. re: justalittlemoreplease

                                          Can you give a few specific examples of comparing a dish to a "classic prep"?

                                          I'll occasionally say things like "the green sauce didn't have much of the usual tomatillo flavor," but that doesn't posit a "classic" version, just an element common to most variations I've encountered.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            “ ‘the green sauce didn't have much of the usual tomatillo flavor,’ but that doesn't posit a ‘classic’ version, just an element common to most variations I've encountered.”

                                            You’ve given a good example yourself, though not in the usual sense of “classic.”

                                            By saying “usual tomatillo flavor” you’ve established there is a norm. When you encountered a variation from that norm, it caused you to take notice.

                                            Were that to happen to me, I’d ask myself a few questions in the brain-whirring way of thinking that I have. I wouldn’t share all my thinking with the reader, but I’d still go through the process, below:

                                            Did the green sauce still taste good? (First.)
                                            Was it different from what I was expecting?
                                            Was I disappointed in the flavor of the sauce because I expected something different?
                                            Is the difference due to the use of green chilies, cilantro and other herbs and few or no tomatillos?
                                            Since there is a norm, where does that norm exist?
                                            Is it an American thing…do Americans expect tomatillo flavor in their green sauce? [I do, but I admit my knowledge of Mexican cuisine is not extensive.]
                                            What is the traditional (Mexican) preparation of green sauce? Is it usually tomatillo-dominant? Does the sauce come from a particular region? If so, is this preparation a regional variation?
                                            Should there have been an explanatory description on the menu of how this particular green sauce was prepared if it varied widely from what most people expect? -- to avoid disappointing diners?
                                            Last, does this sauce reflect a pattern at the restaurant? That the chef always puts a twist on sauces or dishes? Is it a theme in the cooking – to add a twist to dishes? If so, that reveals a bit about the chef and his/her personality and overall concept of food. On the other hand, does this sauce reveal a pattern to make a “less flavorful” version of standards, perhaps to save money or time in the kitchen?

                                            Now, I realize this is just a green sauce…and a lot of questions to ask, but it’s a learning process for me as I gather the answers, most of which I don’t share with my readers. Through the process I may learn learned about the origin and possible history of green sauce, regional variations (if they exist), some sort of umbrella philosophy of the chef and perhaps the restaurant, among other things.

                                            I don’t ask other reviewers to go through this process. But it works for me and the type of monthly magazine reviews I write.

                                            1. re: justalittlemoreplease

                                              It wasn't that complicated.

                                              I wrote a brief (260 words) review of an Mexican place, not a destination but one of the few good inexpensive dinner options in its neighborhood. Wrote five sentences about four dishes. The first three were good. The fourth: "A chile verde burrito, flagged as a house specialty, was disappointing: The pork was good, but the green chili sauce didn't have much of the usual tomatillo flavor." Any locals who like chile verde should know what I mean.

                                              (Thank the copy editor for that "chili.")

                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                260 words sure doesn't leave you much room to talk about the sauce or dish or much about the restaurant. Each word had to work so hard.

                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                  Questions -- don't know the answer...please help...

                                                  Is chile verde the simmered stew with pork and green chiles?
                                                  Is salsa verde (green sauce) the sauce that is primarily made with tomatillos?

                                                  If so...and I don't know...the first wouldn't be made with tomatillos at all, which would explain the lack of tomatillo flavor.

                                                  1. re: justalittlemoreplease

                                                    Chile verde can mean various things depending on the context, but in Mexican restaurants in Northern California, it's a stew of pork, tomatillos, onions, green chiles, and other seasonings.

                                                    1. re: justalittlemoreplease

                                                      Since you don't know what chile verde is, I would guess you live in New York and not California. As a reader and eater I don't care to read a historical perspective or even a comparison or one restaurant's food with others in a food review. If it were a chapter in a book by Jeffery Steingarten or MFK Fisher then I would probably enjoy all of the extra research.

                                        2. like all journalism there is a balancing act between perspective and reality. Likewise a single point review should never be published.

                                          jfood is interested in the food, the service, the atmosphere, the noise level, all of the inputs to jfood's senses for that particular evening. If he really wants to know how the curried squab relates to that served in 1528 then he'll do research over the succeeding days after eating it. can;'t tell you how many reviews jfood has stop reading because the critic was trying to impress the reader with his google-powers.

                                          What jfood wants to know is first how was the food. did it wow the critic, did it meet, exceed, fail expectations. Then he wants a little more granularity. how was each dish prepared and served. was the "Russian Stuffed Cabbage" tomato based, did it have raisins, was it one big klop or were there several smaller versions. was the dish too salty, did it have background of allspice and was it cooked properly. all the things people talk about when they tell others how great a dish was.

                                          To perform this task, jfood would expect some level of knowledge. jfood is not looking for PhD knowledge of regional cooking, but the critic should have a general understanding so that if the critic is reviewing The Warsaw Diner and s/he is served General Tsao Chicken, a red flag should go up.

                                          Then jfood wants to know about the service. was the food delivered properly and at the correct temperature. was the food all served simultaneously. did it appear that the food was kept under lights for extended periods of time. was it plated and served as described on the menu. how was the server, professional?

                                          next is decor and noise level. a brief description of the environment, maybe 1-2 sentences. jfood does not want an interior decorator's description of the furniture, the wall paer, etc. Likewise if the resto is very noisy, the tables too close together, and more importantly it was a wonderful atmosphere for a relaxing meal with a loved one.

                                          Lastly jfood expects honesty. If you send back several dishes, have dishes presented differently than on the menu, missing items, please do not rate this an excellent. And if you are receiving compensation from the resto, the chef, a friend, whomever, be upfront about it so the rumor-mill does not lable you a paid-off critic.

                                          jfood is pretty basic, tell him the good and the needs improvement to first help him decide if he wants to go and second to manage expectations. If you give a glowing review when it was not deserved the word of mouth reviews will destroy the resto and the opinion of the critic.

                                          1. There are no professional food critics, just eaters with opinions. That's the beauty and power of the internet, anyone can be a critic and be heard. These days, the traditional critic has less and less influence, and the people who eat at restaurants every day are becoming more influential. The voice of one based on one or two visits is just anecdotal evidence due to too many variables that can take place- the voice of many over time actually means something to me and comes closer to reality.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: LStaff

                                              True ... and also false.

                                              I think you underestimate the value and necessity of a guide. The voice of many keeps McDonalds and Olive Garden in business.

                                              1. re: rworange

                                                The Internet hasn't changed the function of public criticism as much as some would have you think.

                                                The more crap one reads in the blogosphere, the more one realizes that genuinely knowledgeable criticism is still as valuable as it ever was. This is true of food, movies, books, the arts, music... everything. A mass of ignorant commentary adds up to nothing at all. That's not to say that all blogs are crap, just that when there are more blogs, there is more crap.

                                                The value of a long term and committed critic is that you get to know what this person knows and where they are coming from. It's not that you agree with every word written - what you find disagreeable is equally as important. You've been able to assess their knowledge of fundamentals, styles, techniques and history - and you feel comfortable knowing which areas they seem to have some expertise.

                                                That's exactly what we do here. The constant give and take allows us to get to know who knows what foods, who thinks like we do, thinks opposite from how we do. We know who to listen to, and who to ignore. If we do listen to someone new, we follow that experience up with a notch in the mental diary - well, he seems to know what he's talking about, or just what the heck was he trying to pull over our eyes?! The collective that makes this work isn't the blogosphere - spew forth what ye may - but the deeper understanding of each other that we come to over time.

                                                Critics, professional or unprofessional, local or NY Times, Blog or whatever, all get the same treatment. First you criticize the critic - then, over time, you decide how to handle their criticism.

                                            2. I feel there is room for reviews written by less knowlegable people, but they have to admit it up front. I have occaisionally considered writing a restaurant review for non-foodies with my fiance. Neither of us are trained in anyway and there are a lot of cuisines we know little about, we are just a couple of Regular Janes. The idea would be to write an "accessible" review for "average" people. She would rather read that kind of review than one from someone who concentrates on every nuance. I think one could write a review saying, "I know nothing about Russian food, but I enjoyed what I had." A follow-up could be done if we went back with someone who knew Russian food.

                                              Again, the point is, if they aren't knowlegable, they need to admit it up front.