Posted: Sep 05, 2018
The pros reveal what it really takes to become a restaurant critic
If you have an Internet connection and an opinion, you'll find myriad ways to be an amateur food critic—Yelp, Medium, even Instagram. But what does it take to be a professional reviewer, the kind who actually gets paid to pass judgment on what they're eating?
Restaurant criticism is a constant education, and it requires you to think analytically about food, 24/7. Robert Sietsema, who has been doing the job for 25 years and is currently a food critic at Eater, says this is the weirdest thing about the job: "being focused on food literally all of the time."
I was a full-time food critic for Denver's alternative weekly newspaper, Westword, from 2010 to 2012, and despite the glamour around the job, I found it to be multifaceted: part professional eater, part academic researcher into the context of every meal I was consuming and part storyteller. Mostly storyteller, in fact.
Despite the dwindling number of full-time professional critics, there are still several different kinds of reviewers out there. Some, like the Village Voice's Zach Feldman or Westword's Gretchen Kurtz, write weekly or biweekly full-length reviews, which blend specific observations into the thread of a narrative. Others, like Sietsema, dash off a mix of reviews, filing longer stories, industry commentary and guides to exploring one dish or cuisine. Some reviewers, like Scarlett Lindeman, specialize in just one topic like cuisine; Lindeman has contributed critical writing about Mexican food to a number of publications including Saveur and Serious Eats. And then there are the critics for luxury restaurant guides like Michelin, who may scuttle the written review entirely, focusing instead on a checklist of requirements that points toward a star rating.
Each type of reviewing requires its own base of knowledge, and some reviewers acquire that through schooling: Lindeman has long been academically focused on Mexican food—she is working on a PhD in sociology that focuses on the cuisine—in addition to working in Mexican kitchens. Lauren Shockey, who was a food critic at the Village Voice five years ago, has a master's degree in food studies and a culinary arts degree from what was then the French Culinary Institute (now International Culinary Center). The latter, she says, was more useful: "It taught me about flavor profiles and proper seasoning, and what makes food interesting and tasty." She also worked in kitchens around the world researching her book, Four Kitchens, which provides broad exposure to technique and diverse cuisines.
Other critics say experiential learning is far more important. Kurtz took classes at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education) but says the best preparation for reviewing was living and dining in Paris: "I'd use Patricia Wells's Food Lover's Guide to Paris to map out places and spend my weekends walking and eating my way around the city."
Sietsema, New York's most prominent arbiter of global cuisine, says, "When I moved to New York . . . I'd never had an eggplant." Curiosity about food he didn't grow up with, he adds, is what drove him, not formal training.
I worked in restaurants before I became a critic, including one fine dining establishment, which gave me the toehold of practical knowledge I needed to do the job. Curiosity, an unquenchable thirst for new experiences and an academic predilection took care of the rest—I travel frequently, and I like doing the research on what I'm eating. Over time, I gained expertise in areas where I'd lacked.
Aside from the depth of knowledge on the subject matter, there's the writing component, which is underplayed in stereotypes about the role. Lori Midson, who's been a critic in Denver and nationally for 17 years, emphasizes this in her advice to would-be critics: "For the love of god, learn how to write and report! Train. Take a writing course." In fact, the common thread tying together all the critics I talked to for this story was near-constant writing, professional and otherwise, before becoming a reviewer: Sietsema self-published a restaurant fanzine; Shockey, Feldman and Lindeman all freelanced; Midson started as a critic at an upstart website; and Kurtz says she took any writing job she could get to build her résumé.
Here again, different types of reviews have different types of writing requirements: "A full-length review would ideally tell a larger, overarching story, using the restaurant and its cuisine to shape the narrative," Shockey says. "It would also provide an in-depth look at the menu offerings. A capsule review would maybe highlight a handful of dishes and focus more on pithy, brief facts." And, as Sietsema points out, "Both [long-form reviews and capsules] require language that makes the reader want to keep reading."
Then, of course, there's the question of anonymity, historically part and parcel with the role, but less of a given these days: "To each their own," says Feldman, who tries to remain anonymous but doesn't bother with disguises beyond pseudonyms.
"Anonymity is a state of mind, an approach to the food based on modesty, passion and intellectual interest," Sietsema says. "Most reviewers who are not anonymous want to be recognized. Being recognized makes it much more difficult to operate as a critic. Restaurants keep giving you free stuff, and politeness prompts you to say you like it when they ask you, like a trained monkey. Thankfully, I have been able to remain, for the most part, anonymous."
"I think anonymity is critical," Kurtz says. "Case in point: I get so much bad service, and do you think servers would treat me the same way if they knew I was writing a review? Hardly, yet that's how they'd treat our readers."
But Shockey points out this is sometimes impractical: "It's very hard to remain anonymous in this day and age, particularly when there's a need for writers to self-promote. I couldn't be anonymous, because I had written the book and my photo was already out on the Internet."
Midson agrees, "In the beginning, I did my best to stay incognito, but after 17 years as a critic, it became virtually impossible to maintain that shield. . . . That said, I absolutely believe in the practice of anonymity: making reservations under a different name, paying with cash or using a credit card that isn't your own, maintaining a low profile and keeping your distance from restaurant openings and events."
Anonymity leads to the oddest part of the job for most critics: "It's REALLY weird when you're at a restaurant that you've reviewed, and the table next to you is discussing that review with their dining companions, or someone actually has the hard copy review in their hands and everyone is dissecting it—and you," Midson says.
So what can you do to earn your spot on the roster of critics found plastered in the back of most restaurants?
"Start a website and focus on one topic, like sandwiches or Chinese food," Sietsema says.
"Chart unchartered territory—create something new where you can carve out a niche," Midson agrees.
After all, there are benefits, not all of them edible: "Getting paid (even peanuts) to write is a wonderful thing," Lindeman says.
By Laura Shunk
November 16, 2017
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