What It Takes: Restaurant Critic

Photo: Royalty-Free/Corbis

Photo: Royalty-Free/Corbis

Becoming a restaurant critic is another super job you can consider if you love food and love restaurants. Just look at the explosion of online sites devoted to restaurant criticism today. Four million “experts” (and counting) seem to Yelping online while Zagat guides still flourish in print.

The restaurant criticism biz is changing rapidly. As Regina Schrambling wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Restaurant criticism can be divided into two eras: BG and AG. Before Google, reviewers could pretty much move freely about their business. Some might have felt compelled to slap on a wig, and those with integrity would definitely reserve and pay under an assumed name. By all standards of old-media journalism, restaurateurs were not supposed to know when a reviewer with the clout to make or break his investment was anywhere near the kitchen. After Google, the rules are being rewritten by the hour.”

There are many columnists who write restaurant reviews, but I personally think it is essential to have a solid culinary background in order to establish your credentials. Having at least an A.O.S. (Associate in Occupational Studies) degree from a professional cooking school  is a major credential. It puts you are in a much better position to have an educated opinion when you understand the  fundamental techniques of cooking and know how restaurants are operated. This doesn’t mean you have to make allowances when things go wrong, but  it can save you from making  embarrassing mistakes.

Some people have romantic ideas about looking for a job as a restaurant critic. They think it means free dining in fine restaurants and tossing off an opinion after taking a nap.  Sadly this is fantasy, not reality. Most of the top critics acknowledge they spend a minimum of 30 hours a week eating. The rest of the time is spent writing.

If you are starting out, it’s important to abide by the rules. This means remaining anonymous and unless you have an assignment from a publication or an online entity, you will have to pay for your own meals. Established publications reimburse you for your expenses, but many small publications do not, and they pay (usually a pittance) for the article.

Restaurant critics learn to live in an atmosphere where their presence – if detected – is met with groveling and cringing servitude, anxiety embedded with hostile loathing. But being liked is not part of the job. Honesty is.

Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic of The New York Times and now editor-in-chief of Gourmet notes: “The critic’s responsibility is to the public. I don’t care about restaurants,” she said. “I care about readers.”

When critics do go out on a limb, though, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to express an opinion, and there is not much an aggrieved restaurant owner can do about it.

William “Biff” Grimes, former restaurant critic of The New York Times, revealed that by the time he left his position, after serving five years on the job, he calculated he had written 438 reviews and devoured 1,200 meals.

After dining at a monstrously expensive restaurant, Biff was relieved that: “the tab wasn’t coming out of my pocket. Taking pen in hand, I affixed my signature to a bill that totaled nearly $1,500 for four diners dinners, tip not included. In one Olympic motion, I had broken all previous records by several hundred dollars. I felt the kind of mad exhilaration that criminals must feel when they’ve done something terribly, irrevocably wrong.”

He added: “Learning to eat is a kind of education. It rewards the adventurous. It pays double dividends to thrill seekers, who dare to taste a sea urchin; who do not flinch in the face of an andouillette; who, instead of sniffing and picking and probing when something odd turns up on the plate, dive right in, sending off sparks with their forks. We have a name for such people. We call them adults. And when they go out to a restaurant, they are not looking for solace; they’re looking for a good meal.”

One can only hope that there was no connection when critic Grimes moved from the Times dining section to the book review section to a new appointment as one of the paper’s obituary reporters. In essence, he moved from writing about meals to die for to the ‘dead‘ beat!

Bill Rice, esteemed Chicago Tribune food and wine columnist and former chairman of the Restaurant Awards committee for the James Beard Foundation, rightly points out: “A restaurant critic is a consumer advocate. His role is to provide the reader with a second-hand experience before going for a first-hand one,” says Bill. “What the reader wants to know is if he can anticipate receiving a good meal at an appropriate cost. The more the meal costs, the higher will be the expectations of both the critic and the guest.”

He adds: “An essential fact is that critics should like — or, better still, love — the restaurant business and be knowledgeable about every aspect of it. Restaurant reputations are too important to be left to the impressions of the uninformed.”

How are well-thought-out restaurant reviews written? Take it from a master like Alan Richman. In Fork It Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater, Alan chronicles his brilliant career as a wonderfully witty restaurant critic for GQ magazine, and lists five essential qualities a restaurant critic should have. A good critic has to have taste,” says Alan, “That’s number one.” “Number two, experience, because it’s vital that you’ve tasted alot of food. With experience comes confidence. Something that is often missing in food critics today is passion. That’s three. Fourth, critics should have a sense of humor, because so much of dining out today is about entertainment. I hope nobody thinks it’s about sustenance, because when dining out, food is no longer about survival. Finally, we get into writing. Critics have to know how to write.”

These are very good tips!

One thought on “What It Takes: Restaurant Critic

Comments are closed.