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Sep 8, 2007 12:01 PM

Should restaurant reviews include interviews?

After eating at the restaurant anonymously, should a restaurant critic call the chef for an interview?

This issue came up in the "Pro food critics who know nothing about a cuisine - helpful or harmful?" topic.

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  1. As a critic (part-time freelance for SF Weekly, not speaking on behalf of that publication), I say absolutely not. I think it's unprofessional in two ways.

    First, I'm reviewing the restaurant from the customer's perspective. People don't go there to listen to the staff, they go there to eat the food. If anything the chef (or manager, or owner) had to say were to change my judgment about what I was served, that would compromise the integrity of the review.

    This is true for any field. If you can't judge a work (food, painting, peformance) without the help of the artist, you're not qualified for the gig.

    Second, speaking with the chef would compromise my anonymity, since anyone I spoke with might recognize my voice.

    If there were some specific fact I needed to check, I might have someone else call the restaurant, but I don't think that's ever happened. If I'm guessing what's in a dish, or how it was made, I just say so.

    Certainly interviews with chefs can sometimes be usefully paired with reviews, but they should be written by different people.

    7 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      A reviewer can never be another customer and that is the problem with reviews in general in terms of being guided by taste.

      As someone who eats out a lot more frequently and ... to boot ... getting free meals, the reviewer has a different perspective than the average customer. I might not think that $$$ dish is so swell if I'm paying for it on my own dime.

      It is naive to think that any reviewer is anonymous these days. If I'm opening up a multi-million dollar restaurant and don't know what the local reviewers look like and alert my staff, then I deserve to fail.

      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        Did you just answer your own question first? Why not just pose the question with your response? Anyway...

        I'm not sure there is a standard for this, but it would be good to hear from the critics. Some writers do interview after the fact, probably to fill out a story (chef's bio, inspiration, etc.). I write about restaurants for various publications, and I've done post interviews with the chef or manager of a restaurant to clarify things. But is that wrong?

        While it's true that a critic should have food knowledge to qualify as a critic, to not check facts before a review goes to print is inexcusable. Whether it's you or an assistant, doesn't matter. If you're "guessing" what's in a dish and reporting it in your review, that's a disservice to your readers. They should know what they're getting if they go to a restaurant, especially if compelled by your review. Calling a chef to find out if it was balsamic vinegar or saba shouldn't change the way you thought about a dish; it's making your review factually correct. Can you imagine: "The SF Weekly said this fish had celery ragout but this is fennel, and I HATE fennel!" Not saying you wouldn't know the difference between celery and fennel, but in theory. How credible is that? I hate reading reviews (often on blogs, and I'm a blogger so I can say this) and the person thinks they taste some ingredient in a dish, but it's painfully obvious they don't really know. Why would I follow that person's opinion if they don't even know what they're eating?

        Per rworange: While I think it's true that many local critics aren't as anonymous as they might think they are, good critics (whether it's a newspaper, magazine, or blog) don't (or shouldn't) rave for raving sake. If a dish is good, they say it's good and why; same if it's bad. If it's pricey, they say whether it was worth the high price tag. Just because an employeer picks up the tab doesn't mean they're dining out for free; they still see the check and know a meal's value. It's their job to relay whether it's worth the reader's time and money. Some do it better than others, but that's how I interpret it.

        Just like reading Chowhound, readers decide which critics (or posters) to trust by seeing who has similar tastes. If you get burned by bad recommendations, simply don't follow that person's word anymore. Most people know if they can pay $120 for a steak before they go to a restaurant, even if their local critic thought it was the most amazing steak in the world.

        1. re: lesleyb

          Ok, I just read your original post that spurred this one... i guess this was all already said.

          1. re: lesleyb

            The essence of a review isn't factual, it's subjective. Uncertainty is occasionally relevant.

            Here's an example (I'd explained what kashk was earlier in the piece): "... lamb's tongue: unctuous, gamy, in a rich, slightly tart sauce of (to hazard a guess) butter and kashk, maybe with a bit of dried Persian lime."

            My goal with that phrase was to describe my hedonistic enjoyment of the dish as accurately as possible. That experience included an educated guess. Including it in the piece discloses the limitations of my knowledge of the cuisine.

            Re the question and answer posts, I keep opening posts short since they don't collapse.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Now that I read the other string from top to bottom, I can say this is fascinating especially since it invited so many people who obviously write about and enjoy food both as individuals and professionals.

              On that note: All good reviews can and should be both factual AND subjective. Why should they be exclusive of one another?

              You're getting paid to write a review for the public; there are guidelines to adhere to. I appreciate your "hazard a guess" explanation above, but do you make a habit of that? I think people would want to know you KNOW what you're talking about as much as you enjoy eating it. And more importantly, if you don't enjoy it. It's worthless to have someone say how horrible a dish is without knowing what it is, made of, or supposed to be.

              Educated guesses are great, but I don't think following with what the ingredients really were would make your experience and review any less hedonistic. You went for it, you ventured a guess, and here's the reality. Why is that bad, especially for the reader. That's who the review is for, right?

              1. re: lesleyb

                It's not a cookbook; it's a review. And in terms of conveying an impression of what the experience of a particular dish may be, the passage is sufficient, perhaps even a little too precise. (If the tongue, for example, turned out to have been flavored with yogurt instead of khask, the reader will hardly have been misled; the taste is pretty close.)

                1. re: lesleyb

                  The reality I'm writing about is my experience.

                  Since I'm writing for publication, I've got strictly limited space. In that review I described around 20 dishes, plus the atmosphere, wine list, and so on. One 28-word sentence was enough to describe how the tongue tasted to me.

                  Most of my reviews have no guesses. Persian cuisine is so complex that I thought the uncertainty was a fundamental part of the experience. For example, here's the ingredient list for one of Najmieh Batmanglij's soup recipes:

                  3 tablespoons olive oil
                  4 onions, 3 peeled and thinly sliced, 1 peeled and grated
                  3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
                  1/2 cup yellow split peas
                  10-12 cups water
                  1 1/4 teaspoons salt
                  1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
                  1 teaspoon turmeric
                  2 cups chopped fresh parsley or 1/2 cup dried
                  2 cups chopped fresh coriander leaves or 1/2 cup dried
                  1 cup chopped fresh mint or 1/4 cup dried
                  1 beet, peeled and chopped
                  2 cups chopped fresh chives or scallions or 1/4 cup dried
                  1 pound ground beef, veal or lamb
                  1 cup rice
                  8 cup pomegranate paste diluted in 2 cups water, or 4 cups pomegranate juice, or 4 cups fresh pomegranate seeds
                  1/3 cup sugar
                  2 tablespoons angelica seeds or powder (gol-par)

          2. I'm also a food critic and I feel that interviews should never be part of reviews. If there is to be a printed interview, it should be done by another writer. That said, it's a good idea to call and confirm information and clear up any menu questions or confusions. I always make a follow up fact check phone call and also, ask if there are any changes in menu, staff, hours, location etc. This brief phone call, saves me printing misinfomation, almost every time.

            9 Replies
            1. re: scottso

              In the other thread, I mentioned I always do a post-dining question-and-answer with the's not a formal interview -- just confirming info, menu questions, fact-checking, background information, as you refer to scottso.

              You might call this an interview, but it's not a printed Q & A that appears as part of the review.

              1. re: justalittlemoreplease

                From your description in the other topic, since the magazine has a policy against negative reviews, the pieces you're writing are really closer to feature articles than reviews. Since it's a foregone conclusion that the review will be positive, you don't have to worry so much that discussing it with the chef might affect your judgment.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Yes, precisely. By the time I speak with anyone associated with the restaurant,
                  I'm quite sure of my impressions.

                  1. re: justalittlemoreplease

                    I think interviewing is crucial - but not to discuss the food per se. I actually will try to fact-check ingredients or menu items with someone else or verify briefly with the chef/owner.

                    The interviews I conduct are usually more about details of the restaurant - like, why this location, why this cuisine, why now, why here, what's next, what drives you, what are your biggest challenges, etc.

                    Most of my interview (these occur by phone, after all visits have been conducted) material never makes it into the article at all - it's really just background for me to write an educated, factually accurate article (or at least try).

                    I write for a community paper and the restaurant pieces are designed to allow the community to become aware of local gems, new places, old favorites, etc., so the background and story is typically very important. We also don't do negative reviews, so that does impact the process.

                    Just my perspective...

                    1. re: HomeCookKirsten

                      In re-reading my post, I think it is fair to say I am writing restaurant features, which is not the same as reviews.

                    2. re: justalittlemoreplease

                      Just wanted to add that even though my review may be positive overall, I don't shy away from the few negatives that may exist. I hit them squarely. I don't write sunshine-y, white-picket-fence reviews. The reviews are direct, hopefully entertaining, and a very small portion of the review covers the chef, his/her history, the decor, the neighborhood. Not much, though. I may say a comment about the origins of a dish, but its usually a parenthetical phrase in a sentence.

                      1. re: justalittlemoreplease

                        I read that Jonathan Gold doesn't usually write negative reviews and those that he does write are usually the darlings of critics which really aren't good. He said when you write a bad review, you are affecting a small business. They are not evil and they don’t deserve to starve.

                        IMO, that's a good policy. There are so many good places that unless it is a pricy place it is a waste of valuable print space. I think most people are more interested in looking for tips for good places to eat rather than places to avoid. If a place is just mediocre or bad, not giving it press ... well, out of site, out of mind.

                        1. re: rworange

                          It is a good policy in an area where there are so many restaurants that there are always new good ones to be discovered. Ideally I'd review only restaurants that are worth a detour or a special trip.

                          If a place is relatively obscure and the food's not great, a negative review would be of value only to those few readers who were thinking of eating there. And my dining companions and I would have to eat three or four bad meals. Lose-lose situation.

                          The main exception is when a place the publication has previously reviewed positively goes downhill. That was the case with the one negative review I've written. The Fourth Street Grill was for years one of the best restaurants in Berkeley. It declined gradually after Mark Miller left, and in 1992 was sold to the Elephant & Castle chain, which kept the name but served dreadful food. It was an unpleasant duty to research and write a review to inform our readers of the bad news.

                  2. re: justalittlemoreplease

                    I'd call it an interview, but I wouldn't call what you're writing a restaurant review; which isn't a bad thing. It sounds like the pieces you write could and would be quite helpful in navigating the restaurant scene in your town. It's just not that traditional, anonymous (I know, many reject the idea that they are) critique.

                2. In an actual restaurant review, no the critic shouldn't interview anyone associated with the restaurant. The critic should present their thoughts and experiences and that's it.

                  If it is a story about the restaurant (a feature, that is) rather than a restaurant review, then by all means interview whomever the author feels would be helpful to talk to, gather whatever information through whatever reasonable means there are and write the best most complete story possible.

                  1. I don't suggest anyone give a laundry list of ingredients, I just think clarifying any items that you might not know or be able to place is valuable. I also don't think a full Q&A with the chef should appear in a review.

                    But I guess that's the the difference between straight criticism and feature writing. I think my work sits somewhere in between, which then by default makes it more feature. I certainly don't think either way is wrong. But I stick behind fact checking, whether it's an ingredient, a spelling, business info, or what have you. If you've already made your anonymous visits, and you're impressions are already on the page, then it shouldn't mar a review, but only make it more valuable to the reader.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: lesleyb

                      If I have questions, I ask the server, like any customer.

                      Restaurant reviews are a form of consumer reporting. I think it's misleading to provide any information that would not be available to any other customer.

                      I don't need to ask a chef how to spell anything. Lots of the menus I see could use some copy-editing. Sometimes they're amusing enough that I quote them verbatim.

                    2. There's no such thing as a dumb question, particularly if you don't know. Beyond fact checking or verification sometimes you need more info/insight that simple facts can't convey. This info helps the general public, the restaurant and the cuisine. If the review has been written and you keep your journalistic position -- I see it as a fair practice..

                      If you need an example, I know there was more then just an anonymous visit to many new places, in particular places like Aziza, Burma Superstar, etc., i.e., emerging cuisines that people tend not to have a lot of info on. There was a conversation at a certain point...but it might have been done by someone else, although not always.

                      I think it's a matter of how and when you ask the question...and sometimes the answers will change your review, and that's why there's often 2-3 visits. Of course if you're freelance and don't have a huge staff...a phone call or email seems pretty reasonable (just use a phone w/o caller ID and an email address that can handle bad news).

                      Any way - more information is a good thing.

                      22 Replies
                      1. re: ML8000

                        I recently reviewed a Burmese restaurant. I got more background information than could fit from reading two cookbooks and talking with a Burmese friend.

                        Aziza's food speaks for itself. Michael Bauer's reviews obviously included information gleaned from interviews, which he probably did himself. People I know in the business say he often speaks with chefs or managers, which is one reason he's often recognized.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          I see your point about being recognized. I guess you could go back to what an Eng lit teacher or any teacher for that matter -- if it adds to the story and fills things out, go for it. Only you as the writer can tell if it adds. I'd personally like to read in depth stuff from a Persian chef.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            While I understand your point of view, even a customer can get information that is beyond just tasting and it seems a shame not to share that and educate the diner.

                            Does Aziza's food speak for itself. Well, yes, but on my first visit I learned that the cous cous is made daily and it is a labor-intensive eight hour process. That is why it is as good as it is. That is why it is worth the price. Yet I've seen people post that it is no better than boxed. So in a sense, a writer talking to the restaurant about details is no different than an enthusiastic diner learning more about food.

                            I recently took a tour of Charles Chocolates, some of which I like well enough. However, hearing Charles Siegal talk about what he was trying to achieve made me take another look at those confections and gain a deeper appreciation of the company. Doing some follow-up and reading reviews about Charles Chocolates not only changed how I looked at that specific product but chocolate in general.

                            One of the reasons I would read your reviews in the SF Weekly is because I know you have a certain expertise beyond the average diner. The insight you provide about a lot of restaurants on Chowhound and the behind the scenes detail ... the chef getting such and such degree ... a specific technique or oven being used ... how that food is an authentic representation of a certain cuisine ... that gives me a clue why this might actually be a carefully crafted dish and not ... well, a soggy piece of pizza.

                            And that goes beyond what is available to the casual diner.

                            1. re: rworange

                              I also think the chef's insight is also valuable for another reason. Food critics are typically a product of the times... they are typically judging a restaurant based on their baseline of other contemporary restaurants. But some chefs or restauranteurs are visionaries... they are cooking what we will like tomorrow... and sometimes it takes a dive into the intangible aspects of food to come to appreciate things you don't really take to immediately.

                              Anyone who wants to limit dining to the purely sensoral elements is lying to themselves because no one (well maybe some Tibetan monks) can really seperate their biases & preconceptions from the pure sensoral elements. Think about all the things you might eat today & appreciate (Duck tongues, Chicken Feet, Blood Sausages etc.,) and think about how attitudes & perceptions would bias a critic.. if you think eating those things is the most backward 4th world thing you could do vs. thinking about sustainability, world hunger, anthropoligical coolness etc.,

                              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                If a dish is incomprehensible, and neither the server nor the menu explains it, I don't care whether the chef has some futurist theory.

                                I've eaten blood and duck tongues at places I've reviewed. I don't get your point.

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Well if you want to be closed minded thats fine... but just think about all the dishes you didn't like... then something happened to alter your perception (not the execuation of that dish) and then you liked afterwords. If you say this has never happened to you... then you are just flat out lying to yourself.

                                  1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                    With only a few exceptions, a good critic will always be several steps ahead of a chef. It is the nature of the business that chefs don't get out all that much. And a critic should learn of the existence of Danish smoked salt or piment d'esplette or ripe Persian mulberries either before or concurrently with whatever chef she happens to be writing.

                                    1. re: condiment

                                      You are just talking about ingredients... let's just assume your assumption is correct... how about flavor combinations, concepts & cutting edge techniques? By definition some chef has to lead a new trend... critics don't create very much (if anything) via their critiques.

                                    2. re: Eat_Nopal

                                      "... think about all the dishes you didn't like... then something happened to alter your perception (not the execuation ..."

                                      I'm open-minded and like anything if it's done well. I think in the past 30-odd years the only properly prepared dish I disliked was a bowl of ice-cold natto. I thought I didn't care for spleen but it turned out I just hadn't had good spleen. Had stinky tofu for the first time recently and got to eat the whole order as the other three people at the table were grossed out.

                                      Most trends are just rediscoveries and should be recognized as such by a good critic. Very few chefs invent anything genuinely new of any lasting significance. I think sous vide is the only significant new technique invented in my lifetime.

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        "Most trends are just rediscoveries and should be recognized as such by a good critic."

                                        The culinary world is far too extensive for any critic to know more than an intro to all cuisines, much less the personal style of a particular chef... that is why its relevant to try to understand what the chef is expressing.

                                        For example, I remember recently someone was trying to tell me that using strawberries & other fruits in salsas was somekind of new, fusiony trend. I was amused because I remembered that in the Pueblan Mixteca its very common to use stone fruits in salsas (because they always have a glut during harvest)... around the town of Irapuato, Guanajuato... strawberry salsas are very common (for the same reason).... and throughout the rest of Mexico.. using sweet fruits in salsas is done, not often & considered a desperate measure only taken when Tomatillos, Tomatoes or Xoconostles are nowhere to be found.

                                        Like Bayless said... he could spend his entire life trying to learn about the cuisine and he would never cover it all.... and that is just one country's cuisine in a planet of 200+ nations.

                                        1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                          From my perspective, whether as a customer or a reviewer, so long as the dish is good, I don't care what the chef had in mind.

                                          And if the dish isn't good, why would a customer care whether the chef had a good idea but didn't execute it properly, or just had a bad idea? That's something for the owner or manager to worry about.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            " long as the dish is good, I don't care what the chef had in mind."

                                            This is where I have to say that I appreciate critics who have a history of working in restaurant kitchens. If you can't appreciate the thought and work involved you are losing out as an informed critic - you must understand that end.

                                            Did you ever take art appreciation or music appreciation classes in school?

                                            1. re: kare_raisu

                                              I'm an art collector and musician. In the early 80s I reviewed music, art, movies, theater, and dance for local magazines, but I found it got in the way of appreciating the work, so I stopped.

                                              I feel the same way about paintings and music I do about food in restaurants. If someone as experienced as I am can't make sense of a work without the help of the artist, that's a fatal flaw.

                                              Experimental work is sometimes another story, but that's not something a restaurant should serve to paying customers. That's why Ferran Adria closes El Bulli for half the year, so he has time to turn his experiments into polished dishes.

                                            2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                              I don't think you have grasped my point. For the rest of us mere mortals we will repeatedly find some dish to be not delicious (for whatever intangible, but human reasons)... but then something will change in our perception... and we grow a new found appreciation of it.

                                              In my case... it was insects & invertebrates in Mexican cooking. As a teenager... I tasted them with openness while traveling around Mexico... I wasn't too keen about ordering them... not that I thought that Salsas made from Grubs or Ants tasted bad... its just I didn't understand why I would order them again. But then years later after much learning about a variety of things from Anthropology, History to Planetary Sustainability... I approached them in a different light & it made all the difference in the world.

                                              Special thanks to Chef Fortino Rosas of Mexico City's Don Chon for illuminating me & setting me on the correct path.

                                              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                I understand your point, I just have a different personality. I got rid of all my food hangups many years ago. The first time I had grubs, ant eggs, etc. was at a really good Oaxacan place in Guadalajara and I loved them.

                                  2. re: rworange

                                    I'm not familar with the particular restaurant you are talking about but if I felt that it tasted the same as boxed or whatever, then it wouldn't matter to me the effort that went into it or whatever other tidbit there was. If I don't enjoy the food, I don't enjoy the food.

                                  3. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    You can always talk to the chef and manager by phone.

                                    I don't think an interview is appropriate in a review, but I don't have a problem with asking a few questions.

                                    Robert keeps talking about his focus on the "hedonistic" experience of eating in a particular restaurant, but as a consumer, I want to know a little more than that the food tasted good. The food at a lot of restaurants tastes good. I want to know whether it's worth my time and limited dining out dollars to choose that restaurant over another restaurant. Why should (or shouldn't) I choose Incanto over Quince or Perbacco. Since the menus change at those restaurants frequently, I can't count on having the same dish the reviewer raved about, so I need to know more about the general style or philosophy behind the food, which should be constant, even if the dishes themselves change. Maybe you can ascertain that simply from sitting down and eating the food, without asking any questions or doing any background research, but I'd be surprised if you actually do. For that matter, at most restaurants if you just walk in off the street, sit down and eat and walk out, you won't even know the name of the chef.

                                    Considering that Robert is extremely knowledgeable about both food and the local dining scene, I find it odd that he seems to be arguing that none of that vast body of knowledge is actually pertinent to writing a good review. Somehow, I don't think his employers agree with him, or they wouldn't have hired him over some eager young journalism school grad.

                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      My own knowledge is highly pertinent (and I presume was one of the things that led the editor to choose me over 100 or so others who responded to the Craig's List ad). I just don't need the chefs' help to write my reviews.

                                      Taste varies among critics just as among customers. I'm very food-focused compared with, say, Michael Bauer, who cares a lot more about decor, service, presentation, and personalities. People whose taste is closer to mine will presumably find my reviews more useful than his, and vice-versa.

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        I recall an argument/discussion about film criticism that centered on many of these same areas. I was a restaurant critic for an area paper for about 8 years ageo and decided that the function that i should serve is to inform, as best I could, not only what I ate, and whether I liked it, but to explain why, so theat the reader/ potential diner could make an informed decision about whether he/she would like it themselves. Obviously, anyone who holds themselves out as a critic, must be knowlegeable about their subject. But they must also have good communication skills as well. In fact, I believe that the writing skills can be more important to the consumer than an extremely high level of subject knowlege. being able to explain clearly why something did or didn't work enables the reader to decide whether they are likely to agree and like or dislike a particular dish. There are a number of movie reviewers that I read. One, with whom I frequently disagree about many films(as to whether they are good films) is the most reliable and useful to me, because the reviews are written clearly with expalnations of the bases for the ultimate judgement made that lets me know whether I'm likely to enjoy it. I find her reviews more helpful in deciding whether to see a film than the review of a critic whose ultimate decision I agree with more frequently, because I can evaluate the experience better based on the clear and cogent analysis presented by the first one. Interviews with chefs are interesting & informative, but IMO, not a part of a review. If info is needed to make certain about accuracy, that can be obtained without destroying annonymity. But restaurant reviewers who are known by the restaurants cannot be reliable in evaluating the experience for the ordinary diner as their experience is not the same. I do not think it the job of the critic to be a "tastemaker" or trendsetter. He/she should be knowledgeable enough to educate his/her readers so that they make make their own informaed judgements.

                                    2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      “If I have questions, I ask the server, like any customer.
                                      Restaurant reviews are a form of consumer reporting. I think it's misleading to provide any information that would not be available to
                                      any other customer.”

                                      On five or six occasions I have called chefs for information. They have always taken my call or called back. In each case I was just a customer

                                      1. re: wew

                                        Servers should be able to answer any question about the food. If they can't, they should check with the kitchen, and if no one in the kitchen can answer, that's a problem.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          My point was customers have easy acess to chefs. In a far far better world servers would be able to answer all questions as would the asker would be able to frame the question on the spot not like me days later.