If you asked a bright six year-old her opinion of restaurateur Alan Ducasse‘s watercress-sauce coated frog’s legs and cream-sauce bathed chicken wings atop a poultry gelée and pearl vegetables you could be reasonably sure she would express her thoughts in a single four-letter word that sounds like “Yuck!” Of course you wouldn’t expect her to have an informed opinion.
“As long as restaurants have been in existence, wrote Andrew Dornenburg in his book, Dining Out, Americans have been debating their merits with increasing passion. While food was once simply one of the necessities of life, like shelter, clothing or oxygen, it has moved from the realm of sustenance into a more complex component. Food has become our national obsession.”
We expect a restaurant review to be an unbiased judgement rendered by an expert. The owner of a steak house would be justifiably outraged if the critic who panned his restaurant was a vegetarian activist. Yet, unfortunately, these two scenarios are uncomfortably similar to chefs angrily denouncing the life work of scientists while scientists loftily dismissing the core beliefs of chefs, though if you look beneath the surface, they have a lot in common.
It is interesting to observe that the most accomplished cooks and scientists — and musicians, pilots, athletes, astronomers and architects and engineers and ballerinas and dozens of other occupations — are extraordinarily precise.
They measure carefully in order to achieve predictable results that can be replicated precisely over and over again. A mathematician can add a row of figures and come up with the same answer as his colleagues every time. Scientists conduct experiments that are accepted only after they have been peer reviewed.
Chefs may not hold a stop watch or a thermometer in their hand, but training and experience teaches them to know to within a few seconds when the halibut is steamed to perfection and when the steak is rare, not medium rare.
It follows then, that a professional restaurant critic must arrive at an opinion based on knowledge and experience. I vote with Chicago restaurant critic Bill Rice, who proposed that reviewers must at least have a credential of a culinary school education and understand how recipes are composed.
What do you think?