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Tips for novice food writer

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Quina Quen Mar 17, 2011 06:06 PM

I'm a student at the University of Utah and I just got a job as the school newspaper's food writer. If there are any professional food critics or writers out there, would you mind passing on some knowledge about your experiences? How to review restaurants, the procedures, the do's and don't's etc...
Thanks so much in advance

  1. s
    SherBel Mar 17, 2011 08:23 PM

    The best advice that I can give you is to read, read, read. Read the critics, read the essays, and let your style develop. I don't think there's a manual on how to write restaurant reviews, but you can learn about the format by reading existing reviews.

    You might want to avoid using A.A. Gill as a style consultant:)

    1. pdxgastro Mar 17, 2011 10:14 PM

      Start critiquing every single meal you're eating..in your mind.

      1. h
        HillJ Mar 18, 2011 08:30 AM

        http://www.epicurious.com/tools/foodd...

        There are a number of food dictionary's online; a wonderful writing resource for food writers. Just Google, food dictionary. I use the Epi version above sometimes but dozens exist and you'll know what you need by searching on your own.

        And, good luck to you!

        1. b
          Buckethead Mar 18, 2011 10:19 AM

          Don't ever say to yourself "I won't eat that". No (self-imposed) dietary restrictions.

          Don't ever use your real name when making a reservation.

          Don't do anything while at the restaurant to make yourself memorable to the staff. Act normal.

          Do avoid being photographed.

          Do start criticizing everything you eat.

          Do start writing restaurant reviews. You can start now, just think back to the last time you went out to eat and write it up.

          1. BobB Mar 18, 2011 11:17 AM

            Be specific. Don't just say something is tasty or delicious, tell your readers exactly what it is about the flavors, textures, and presentation of a dish that make it what it is. Help them to taste it through your words.

            2 Replies
            1. re: BobB
              g
              gmonkey Mar 18, 2011 02:35 PM

              THIS. "Delicious" is an empty word, as are "goodness," "delight," etc. While these words heap a lot of praise, they tell the reader nothing about what makes it so good.

              Learn a little bit about proper and classic cooking techniques (French and otherwise), and what all the mother sauces are supposed to taste like. If you learn what a proper hollandaise is supposed to taste like, when a restaurant serves you a "cajun hollandaise" you can pinpoint what makes (or doesn't make) it "cajun."

              The bottom line of any dish is: does it taste good? It might look like sh*t on a shingle, or be a completely out of the water deconstruction of chicken and waffles, but when you take a bite of it, does it please you?

              Eat everything. And if you're bringing a dining companion, make sure they like to eat everything too.

              And it was stated above, but it bears repeating: read, read, read to help develop your voice.

              1. re: gmonkey
                cowboyardee Mar 18, 2011 11:41 PM

                "Learn a little bit about proper and classic cooking techniques (French and otherwise), and what all the mother sauces are supposed to taste like. If you learn what a proper hollandaise is supposed to taste like, when a restaurant serves you a "cajun hollandaise" you can pinpoint what makes (or doesn't make) it "cajun."'
                ________
                Good advice. Reading a food reviewer who doesn't know anything about cooking technique is like reading a tone-deaf music reviewer. I'm sure there might be an exception or two out there, but any food reviewer who I've found worthwhile struck me as probably being damn good cook in their own right.

                On the flip side of that coin, know that there are more cooking styles and techniques out there than you could ever personally learn - it's important to keep an open mind and not be the type of reviewer who disparages something ONLY because you'd have cooked it another way.

            2. s
              smelamed Mar 19, 2011 03:26 AM

              Don't forget to write responsibly. A restaurant is a business and people depend on it for their livelihood. On my own blog I decided not to write negative reviews, especially if I visited the restaurant only once. That said the comments here and a quick search on the web will give you a better idea about proper restaurant review guidelines.
              Also, I am usually bored by restaurant reviews that focus solely on the food. Atmosphere, in my opinion, is just as important. Is the place lively or romantic? What kind of people frequent the establishment? Does it have quirky décor? How is the service?

              2 Replies
              1. re: smelamed
                BostonZest Mar 19, 2011 06:05 AM

                Food writing goes beyond restaurants. I write a column called Fresh & Local for a chain of newspapers in the Greater Boston area. One week I'll tell my readers about farmers markets, the next local cheese, and then about soup exchanges. Food writing is also about being a reporter, teacher and a tour guide to the world of food.

                And, I'll recommend two books– Will write for Food and the Recipe Writers Handbook.

                Read great food writers, classic ones like MKF Fisher, R.W. Apple, and current ones like Jr. John F. Mariani, Clifford wright, Harold McGee, and Jonathan Gold.

                Penny
                http://www.bostonzest.com/

                1. re: smelamed
                  BobB Mar 19, 2011 06:07 AM

                  "...I decided not to write negative reviews, especially if I visited the restaurant only once. "

                  Good point. Most professional restaurant reviewers visit an establishment multiple times before writing a review, to ensure that their experience (good or bad) is typical of what the place can offer and not some kind of one-off fluke. They also usually bring with them several friends so they can order a good sampling of what's on the menu, not just one or two dishes.

                2. h
                  HillJ Mar 19, 2011 06:24 AM

                  Quina Quen, since your job is at the SCHOOL newspaper, I'm thinking some of this very valid, spirited advice is a bit more than you asked for. I am a firm believer that you can learn from others BUT you should find your own voice and master your own writing style. Research, accuracy, fun spirit, the top five things your readers will need/want to know based on your articles trumps anything else. If your food writing will be read by people beyond your school community that would be worth noting. Also, how do you feel about a comment section or email access directly to you by your readers? Both of these contact areas have influenced the way food writers are received. Something to think about.

                  Best @ school!

                  1. q
                    Quina Quen Mar 19, 2011 07:55 AM

                    Wow, thank you all so much for the invaluable advice. I've written down a lot of what you've said. I had no idea so many professionals hang out on Chowhound. I'll definitely try and implement the things I've learned here.
                    SherBel - Noted. I already read quite a bit, I'm a big fan of Bourdain and Pollan (is that a good thing?) to name a few. I'm currently reading Heat, almost done, that's been fun. Any other interesting books that you've enjoyed?
                    BostonZest - Yes, I frequent the local farmer's market here in SLC almost weekly during it's duration. Can't wait for it to start and have a new purpose in going.
                    HillJ - You're right, a lot of the advice here has been a bit over my position. But hopefully it will come in handy later on in my career if that's what this turns into.
                    Buckethead - I don't think I have to worry about going out to eat incognito or avoiding the paparazzo for a while ;)

                    Again, thanks for all the advice. Keep it coming if you think of something!

                    My first review is due the 30th of this month. Look for it on dailyutahchronicle.com

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Quina Quen
                      b
                      Buckethead Mar 19, 2011 08:58 AM

                      Buckethead - I don't think I have to worry about going out to eat incognito or avoiding the paparazzo for a while ;)

                      Probably not, but with the internet any picture of you will hang around basically forever.

                      I heartily agree with learning to cook. Knowing how hard it is to cook an egg perfectly over-easy really makes me appreciate it when it's done correctly at a restaurant.

                      I disagree that you shouldn't write negative reviews, but I do agree that if you go to a place once and it's bad, you should probably go back a few days or weeks later and give it another try. If it's still bad, go ahead and write your experience. "A restaurant is a business and people depend on it for their livelihood." is true, but you should be on the diner's side, not the restaurant's. A restaurant (or any other business) doesn't have some kind of innate right to exist. If people would be better off spending their money elsewhere, say so. A lot of people can't afford to go out very often and you don't want them to go to a place you went easy on in your review and have them be disappointed.

                      1. re: Buckethead
                        s
                        smelamed Mar 19, 2011 09:27 AM

                        I have no problem with restaurant reviews as long as it is done ethically. It wouldn't be fair, as was mentioned, to write a bad review after one visit. Another question I ask myself is "who might like the restaurant? a family with young children, a couple on a first date, a large group of friends, a business worker on lunch break....
                        Why not invest in wigs, hats and sunglasses. Perhaps practice speaking in a foreign accent, you never know.

                    2. MGZ Mar 19, 2011 09:28 AM

                      I'm not a professional food writer, but I've been paid to write and have published. From that point of view, I'd offer the following advice. Regardless of the subject matter, good writing is good writing. Pay attention to the basic rules of writing, grammar, etc. Know your audience. Write, edit, rewrite. At bottom, the best food writers are good writers.

                      Other than that, there's a great deal of good advice already in this thread.

                      ETA - I should have mentioned that I'm also an unrepentant food geek.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: MGZ
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                        escondido123 Mar 19, 2011 10:47 AM

                        I too am a writer for magazines and marketing. MGZ is so right, especially about the editing. We tend to fall in love with our words and have a hard time cutting them or throwing them away and starting over. Also, whenever possible, don't just finish a piece on your computer, print out your "final" review and set it aside for a day. When you come back to it with "fresh" eyes you're not only likely to see errors, but may well see a way to make it better.

                        Since you're writing for the school paper, you might want to give people an idea of whether this is a place to take a date, your buddies or your parents when they're paying. Have fun.

                        1. re: escondido123
                          girloftheworld Mar 19, 2011 11:24 AM

                          My pet peeve? Is reading a review based on special services such as Mothers day or Valentines day. Because lets face it these are not cases of when a restaurant is at its norm.

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