Food Critics. A Short.

Judging food.

Feast. An appetite for conversation. Or food?

I had a conversation the other day about the perceptions of a meal, and perhaps how actual food critics judge food. I have yet to meet a food critic, but from analogous experiences, I have gleaned a general picture of what these critics go through, and it’s definitely not pretty. This of course, is all research.

Simply put, the idealized life of a food critic is that they get to eat at various restaurants of prestige that may or may not comp their meal. The critic then proceeds to write about his or her experience and then subsequently gets paid for doing so.

I think the mistake usually made is that the ideal image of food critics is subject to the same image of the the “freelance writer,” where the assumption is freelancers, on a day to day basis, write from sunrise to sunset in a café with their laptop, sipping their cacao-cinnamon espressos and watching the inspiration roll right in. This, of course, is usually not the case, as eight of the ten working hours could be spent in the land of writer’s block, freelancing usually means spotty, inconsistent pay, and sitting in a café wearing posh clothing and undergoing bouts of writers block doesn’t necessarily mean time is utilized wisely.

The same example can be given for laboratory science. The idealized answer is unveiled when one asks, “Hey…so what do you do?”

“Oh, I work on improving traumatic brain injury outcomes using mass spectrometry to measure cortisol levels in cerebral spinal fluid.”

“Oh shit, that sounds super interesting.”

Yes it does, at the onset, until one realizes that any kind of utilized result is only obtained after about five months of repeating the same experiment on a machine that basically does the work. When the analysis arrives, the curated data and subsequent conclusion that can potentially be deduced is perhaps relatively useful (at least peripherally), and seeing the results of one’s work is rewarding (sometimes), but the effect is severely dampened. Don’t get me wrong. Data is cool. Science is cool. Washing glassware and long experimental wait times are not cool. (But it does build character).

Let’s do each other an favor and not get caught up in the same thing when it comes food critics. They can taste and write about food, but at the base level, they also have to put up with food as well.

We all know that these sort of “hidden” lifestyles have their own dynamic about them, as tasting and writing about food is usually not about the food itself. Over the past three years since I’ve gotten very involved in all things food, I’ve had my fair share of food adventures. I have yet to encounter a place that was so terrible that I would never step foot in it again, but I usually try not to put myself in those types of situations. Yet, the caliber of food that I’ve encountered rarely “blows my mind,” or even “awes” me. Most of time, it’s just “pretty damn good.” There are far more descriptive adjectives for “pretty damn good,” but in all fairness, the degrees of food can generally be skewed by the environment of where it is experienced.

Below are some quotes that I obtained from various articles that I looked up. “Confessions of a food critic,” was what I typed. Quotes and commentary below.

“I look at things like location, space, noise, fellow diners, quality and appropriateness of cutlery, napery, lighting, the pacing of the meal, the value, and the perceived commitment by owners and staff…The two questions I always ask myself are: ‘What is it they are trying to achieve here?’ and: ‘How well are they doing it?’“

Right off the bat, the interpretation of “food critic” gets a complete makeover, as it’s not only the food that’s being judged, but the environment and the peripherals of food. The question being asked in this case is fairly inclusive of all these elements. This is just to prove the point that its always so much more about experience than just taste alone. Taste is a component of experience. Experience embodies much more.

“Making friends with chefs and restaurateurs is tricky, because you cannot let the relationship affect your judgement.”

I’ve had this happen to me, and in some cases, I don’t even meet the owner. I find that if I understand the culture and history behind a particular restaurant or dish, or the reason why an establishment is an establishment, I’m more inclined to “feel” that the food is somehow better, regardless of whether or not it actually is. It’s a difficult variable to separate, because an augmented mission and sense of purpose in the creation of a concept menu may drive a chef to use particularly sourced ingredients. Their mission becomes the self-explanatory reason why their food tastes good. My knowledge of their reasoning is more information that I have to work off of. In all actuality, the more I know about the history and meaning behind a dish, the more the chef has to lose. By providing me with descriptive terms: “backyard arugula, heritage pork, 21-day dry-aged beef, hand-selected scallops” the chef sets the expectation that much higher; now they’ve got something really live up to.

“All the while, you have to guard your identity, making reservations under made-up names, carrying insane amounts of cash to avoid paying with a credit card, and suffering through all manner of bad service to keep a low profile.”

This does not sound fun. It does bring a semi-hilarious light to the little things that food critics have to sit through. I was not aware of the need to hide one’s identity extensively, or bring large amounts of cash, seeing as one pays at the end of a meal; should the unveiling of the identity actually matter? Not sure.

“All too often, that internal critic refuses to pipe down and simply enjoy a friend’s birthday dinner, instead getting het up about the small (but still consequential) things.”

I’ve experienced this. Unless the plating or concept is entirely remarkable, I have learned to let it go, and enjoy the moment. Photo apparati, away.

“A few years ago, I was working on a television show with Prue Leith, founder of Leiths School of Food and Wine in west London and one of the doyennes of the British culinary scene. She said that whenever she eats something that she knows isn’t particularly healthy, she asks herself if it’s worth the calories.”

Agreed. Is it good enough to warrant a second bite? A third bite? Fourth? The rest? Are you willing to pay your dues/gluttony with a spare tire? Food critics already eat for a living. Might as well make it good.

It was fun to respond to snippets from posts; been busy with work. Sort of back from a writing hiatus. More Taiwan to come.