Minimum requirements you want in a food critic?
- ipsedixit May 8, 2008 09:29 AM
Not talking about bloggers, but food critics in newspapers.
And specifically, what you WANT a food critic to have (not what an editor necessarily requires).
Besides an ability to write (and perhaps even write well), what minimum things should a food critic bring to the table (pun intended) in your opinion?
Background in restaurants?
Background in cooking?
Background in restaurant management?
Strong local connection to the community?
Not too young?
Not too old?
Certain type of ethnicity (e.g. WASPs shouldn't be reviewing Malay food and maybe vice versa)?
Ditto that! I'm not so interested in their background as I am their ability to communicate clearly enough basic information for me to know if a resto might interest me. That is, can I read a review and quickly know where, ambiance (so I know if I need to dress up or not, is it more romantic, more kid-friendly, etc.), price range I can expect to find there, what dishes really shine there (obviously just the critic's opinion but it gives me an idea of whether the place is for me), and anything pertinent that might be helpful to know (there was construction going on next door, what's the parking situation, that sort of thing). A bad review won't necessarily put me off a place but I want less rhapsodizing and editorializing and more information sharing if that makes sense.
And if it's not a review then good writing will suffice. I don't give a fig where they went to school. If they can write and they love food, I'll probably enjoy reading it.
A good appetite, an open mind, an abundant enthusiasm for all kinds of food, and a nose for sniffing out places the rest of us have missed.
Several orders of magnitude more interest in the food on the plate than in the service, china, flatware, linens, furniture, drapes, or the resumes of the chef, designer, or owner.
One thing I really hate is when critics are part of the restaurant "scene" and fail to give rightful criticism to friends. There's a group of guys in Seattle who own several (bad) restaurants - generally disliked by the Chowhound community which keep getting glowing reviews by the critics who should know better, but are friends with them. It's irritating to no end.
re: Sam Fujisaka
A few overly idealistic but desirable attributes for the critic of the future, just off the top of my head:
Enough self-discipline to never, EVER, include the phrase "to die for" in a restaurant review.
Some travel experience to places where food is not cheap and abundant--to the locals, that is.
A thick skin, and no friends whatsoever in any aspect of the food business, except maybe home canning.
The sense and the nerve to step back from it all at least now and then and say, "Hey, who could possibly afford that, and why should they?" Likewise, "Should we really be eating lettuce when it's 20 degrees outside?"
The ability to read the Chinese on the daily specials board.
1) The ability to write well. At this point, I'll settle for the ability to write a grammatically correct, declarative sentence.
2) A focus on food.
3) Consistency: both in their palate and in what they're judging/criticizing.
i think an ability to write well and a willingness to try anything. despite loving food i'm probably too picky about what i won't eat to ever be a good critic.
The critic must be a good writer, otherwise the professional credibility gets blown.
S/he should be able to describe not just the food but also the experience of eating at the subject place.
Self-referentialism is a real turn-off. There are too many practitioners of the I-I-I me-me-me, it's all about me style.
I don't really require them to have any specialist backgound and actually hope they don't have a catering background.
I do require them to be able to write in an entertaining way; to give me a feel for the restaurant and its food. I do require that, if they write for a national newspaper, that they get out from the capital from time to time and eat where the rest of us eat. I do require that, if they write for a regional newspaper, they get out and eat as much variety as possible (and get to the new restaurants before there are to many posts from folk like me on review websites)
The etiquette for most reviewers is to wait two months after a restaurant opens before reviewing it, so that they have time to work out the kinks. By that time, if the place is good, there are lots of reports on Chowhound etc. For example, Frank Bruni just reviewed Momofuku Ko this week, on May 7; the first Chowhound report appeared on March 15, a few days after it opened.
Of the 30+ places I've reviewed in the past two years, I think only one or two got in print before anyone posted a Chowhound report. And there's no way a professional can scoop Yelpers--they review places before they've eaten there, sometimes even before the places open.
In addition to what a lot of people said already, one who does the proper research. A writer may not have experience in Sichuan cuisine but would know from doing research that it's supposed to be oily. I would hate to see a reviewer bash a "Chinese" (you know they're all the same) restaurant because the food was too greasy.
re: Miss Needle
Yup, I don't want the critic to say "I don't know" in review. If you don't know how something is suppose to taste/look/smell like do some research. If they aren't use to a certain ethnic food try a couple different places before writing the review (so they at least have something to compare it to).
Be knowledgeable about food, including various traditions and characteristics of ethnic or specialty foods (eg. don't describe kimchee as "foul", oysters as "slimy" - if you don't like it don't review Korean restaurants or oyster bars).
Be low profile, don't print your picture everywhere so people wonder if your glowing reviews of extremely mediocre places was based on preferential treatment.
I don't think a background in the business is necessary, just a background in eating well and being open minded about food.
Background in restaurants? Yes, not saying they should have owned one or have been a four-star chef but they should do some research and also experience how a restaurant is run - from a fast food joint all the way up to the most upscale of restautants.
Background in cooking? Some - but like I said - doesn't have to have been a four star chef. The critic should have a solid understanding of what goes into a dish and be able to prepare most dishes without the assistance of a "pro" and without a "meltdown".
Background in restaurant management? Have an understanding - whether it is through personal experience or thorough research.
Strong local connection to the community? No. Not at all. But maybe associate with someone who does.
Not too young? Age doesn't matter.
Not too old? " "
Certain type of ethnicity (e.g. WASPs shouldn't be reviewing Malay food and maybe vice versa)? Nope. Just having done research and exprience of other ethnic cuisines and also associate (and dine) with someone who is of that ethnicity and has experience in that ethnic cuisine.
Other? Be honest and truthful, have an open mind - and don't ever approach a meal, restaurant or restaurant personnel with a condescending, snotty, chip-on-the-shoulder attitude.
Restaurant critics write from the customer's perspective. We need to know how to order, evaluate the food on the plate and other elements of the service, and compare the food (and, to a lesser extent, service and atmosphere) with what you could get at a competing restaurant.
Knowing how kitchens are run and restaurants are managed is irrelevant. For example, I've eaten at restaurants where service was inconsistent because there were 200 seats and no middle managers, and at restaurants where I could tell which station in the kitchen was manned by an incompetent or inexperienced cook.
I wouldn't put that stuff into a review since what matters to the potential customer is the end result, not how it was achieved. Who cares whether a dish tasted bad because it was badly conceived or poorly executed?
I remarked to a local food critic (although she tehcnically calls herself a blogger) from a Westchester Newspaper that I was a little upset with her review of a new restaurant, because she ordered the roasted chicken and gave this glowing review based on that. Not for nothing, but Roast chicken? Then she commented that her husband had the burger, and she raved about the fries. They could have ordered Skate, Duck confit, pork porterhouse chops, lam with morrocan spices, pasta with foie gras and clams. Even her appetizer was somewhat boring - Mussels w/fennel, lemon, and belgian ale. Why only one appetizer?
I want a food critic who goes out with a crowd, samples everything that their group orders, and gives a review based on many items. I want the review written in a way that is descriptive, so that we can almost taste the food while we are reading. I want to know about the decor, the tables, the atmoshpere, the comfort level, and how konowledgable the staff is. I want to feel like I'm there when I'm reading it.
re: Robert Lauriston
That's fine, but if you can have different things ranging from $10-25, don't pay $20 for a roasted chicken. And if you are a freelance writer, I'm sure they are willing to pay you more than $50 for the review. My whole point is, if this is what you have chosen to do, even if it's a blog and you don't get paid; do it right.
I do agree with you that it is irrelevant to know the ins and outs of the restaurant business. I actually think that might make someone more forgiving of a poor meal, if it was a busy night and they knew the ins and outs.
I also like when a critic mentions everything that they ordered, but makes a conscious effort to see what others are eating, and watching their reactions. Without being rude, maybe even asking their opinion, if the timing is right. The more info about the food, the better the review.