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Food & Dining A restaurant critic answers your questions

July 24, 2018

I have been a professional food writer for over 40 years. I have written for Gourmet and Savuer, published over 30 books and have a slew of James Beard awards. But who am I to tell people if something tastes good or bad or if a restaurant is worth a trip or should be avoided?

People often ask me if I get free meals? Do I wear a wig and fake nose so I will not be recognized? Do the restaurants know I am reviewing them? I have taken the 10 most frequently asked questions and tried to answer them to the best of my ability. Every food critic (and the publications they work for) have their own standards and practices, but these are mine.

Do the restaurants know you are coming to review them?

No, they don’t. I want to be treated and fed just like anyone who walks through the door and orders food. If I feel I am getting special treatment or better food then the guy at the next table, I will not review a place. I do not need trumpets to herald my entrance, although the occasional red carpet would be nice.

Do you pay for your meals?

Yes, I pay for all my meals. In most cases I am reimbursed by the magazine or newspaper after the review runs. For my personal books and website (roadfood.com) I pay out of pocket. I am proud to say that in the many decades doing this job I have never accepted a free anything, yet coincidentally there are a few people roaming about the USA introducing themselves to restaurant owners, saying they are me and expecting a free meal. This is a silly scam but if someone (other then my look-alike Angelina Jolie or Kendell Jenner) says they are me, don’t believe them.

Do you wear a disguise?

This Pink Panther spy-like silliness started when former New York Times critic Ruth Reichl was so taken by her fame she felt she needed to use prosthetic noses and old lady wigs to be anonymous when she dined out. I do not feel the need to go in drag or dress like a chicken to get an unbiased meal. The fallacy with this masquerade approach to reviewing is that even if one is spotted as an important critic does the restaurant have time to buy different supplies and hire a new chef between when you are seated and your meal arrives?

Do you interview the chef and owner?

No, do you? My approach to reviewing is to replicate the dining experience of the average patron. The average patron is not seated at The Chefs Table nor given off the menu tidbits prepared only for them. Frankly, I do not care how many years a chef worked at a four-star Michelin place in France or that a Food Network star mentioned them. I am a reviewer, not a publicist. It all comes down to what’s on the plate.

Have you ever been served a meal so awful you couldn’t review it?

Yes, more times then I can count. Years back when writing, for other publications, I would pen indignant and florid condemnations about lousy meals I ate. Now I just ignore them and don’t bother reviewing them. I simply chalk up these restaurants to a waste of my time and money and not worth the space in print.

Why does something taste good to you and bad to me?

This is the million-dollar question and basically unanswerable. Some of it is physiological (the number and placement of our individual taste buds). Some of it is emotional. Does it match a nostalgic ideal from your past? Something Mama made or what you ate on that great vacation? The answer to this dilemma is the same reason people can look at a paint chip and one sees blue, the other green. We are all wired differently.

Do you have preferences and prejudices that influence your work?

You bet I do, and I am sure so do you. I have a visceral reaction the minute I walk through the door. Does the place have a happy or sad vibe? Are there any servers in sight or someone to welcome you? Are the prices undeservedly astronomical? Is the food really cooked from scratch as the menu boasts or simply defrosted and reheated? If I want pre-made frozen onion rings or a commercially made apple pie, I can go to the supermarket myself.

How do you choose which restaurants to review?

My number-one source is word of mouth. My best tips are from non-professional eaters who are just crazy about a certain place and tell me about it. I do not follow other restaurant reviewers nor am I always on the hunt for a trend. I am pretty good at judging honest suggestions from those sent to me by someone connected to the restaurant. Note to these people: No fan of a restaurant sends a rave email along with the hours of operation and what credit cards they take.

What are your pet peeves?

Why is it that servers come to the table to ask if everything is all right just when your mouth is full of food or you are about to deliver the punchline to a great joke. Who needs that stupid tea light candle in the red glass holder that provides no illumination and is not attractive. What is the deal with having to ask the server for salt and pepper? Is there a spice shortage I have not heard about? Why (even at high end restaurants) does it seem impossible for the waitstaff to remember who ordered what?

I loathe polyester napkins that absorb nothing. I would rather have a roll of paper towels. And my number one pet peeve: arriving at a totally empty restaurant and being led to the smallest table in the back near the toilet.

How can I become a restaurant critic?

These days everyone is a restaurant critic. Look at Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook or any of the other social media outlets that allow all people a platform to rant or rave. It is a very hard time to get a job as a reviewer at a major newspaper or magazine, but that is what blogs are for. Blogs are the ultimate do-it-yourself career launcher and having a beautiful and distinctly unique space can make you “an influencer.” If you can launch yourself to that level of public commitment, you are exactly the person editors and publishers keep an eye out for.

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