The real skinny on critics: How we do what we do and why
by Anne Garber
Food writers and restaurant critics like me (and my evalu8.org colleagues) are frequently asked how we weigh the merits of the places we review.
Restaurant reviewers need experience with food, which doesn't mean they must be trained chefs or bakers. What it really takes is an open mind -- being receptive to new food experiences, while developing an educated palate. And what that translates to in the real world is not consuming large amounts of food, but learning to be selective in terms of tastes and flavours, learning to discern the components of a dish, savouring the various elements and spices and approving (or otherwise) of the complementary "tones" of those elements, and how the chef has chosen to blend them. (For example, bringing figs and garlic together might please some tastebuds and offend others.)
Those of us who have won a following among local diners are judged on every review we write; if diners follow our advice and have an experience very different from the one we had, believe me, they will let us know. So, like movie critics, our readers, listeners, viewers and users tend to compare their own taste to ours, in order to decide if they'll take our advice again, or ignore it. And sometimes a critic's tastebuds (or observations about film) run so consistently contrary to our own, that that's a good bellwether, too. After all, if you always disagree with a critic, you can pretty much do the opposite of whatever they suggest! Consistently divergent opinions aren't necessarily a bad thing.
The need to have an experience very much like the one our readers will have is the reason that most credible reviewers choose to dine anonymously. True, the long-time, seasoned critics may have become known to a city's restaurateurs and chefs to the point where it's pretty hard to dine in their establishments without being recognized. But as my husband John is fond of pointing out, a restaurant can change the level of service to impress a visiting critic, but it can't really change the food itself (or the preparation) during the time that the critic is in the place!
Anyway, smart restaurateurs will pretend they haven't recognized the critic. If the tables all around us are getting second-rate service, while the staff fawns on us, we can be pretty sure we're receiving service that differs from that accorded the average patron. An honest critic will mark down the restaurant accordingly, or jettison the entire review.
That brings me to another contentious point: the "freebie." True, many professional foodies are treated to periodic feasts when upscale restaurants announce a new seasonal menu, or particularly when the easily biased "awards" are imminent, but virtually all of us pay our own way in order to avoid feeling beholden to the owner of the hand that feeds us, as it were. We never ask for free meals; I can't speak for every publication, but I can guarantee that anyone claiming to be reviewing for TELUS, who also asks for a free meal, is an imposter.
So, what do the pros look for in a restaurant? The food, the wine, the service and the ambience -- in that order.
Certainly, it's important from the get-go how we are greeted and seated. Is the staff in the front of the house warm and welcoming (but not obsequious)? Is the room comfortable? Is the place adequately heated or cooled, as appropriate to the season? (Nothing can be worse than was our experience in a pretentious French-cuisine place than to have a bitter cold draft whistling over our feet throughout the meal.)
Ah yes. Is the place filled with smokers? Whenever we visit Europe or Asia (especially in France, where they are justifiably proud of their food), we are appalled by the proximity of smokers to food. How can they be so precise about the perfect balance and freshness of their food and wine and then dull their senses (and those of everyone nearby) with a pall of thick cigarette and cigar smoke? Lest I get into a rant, I'll just say this: Food and smoking do not mix! Low marks for ill-defined smoking/non-smoking sections, where smoking is even allowed in restaurants.
Most important, though, are the food and wine. We like our food served reasonably promptly, and hot from the kitchen (as opposed to kept warm under heat lamps, or nuked in a microwave oven). We like efficient, systematic service (as compared to the "Hello, I'm Brad, I'm an Aries, I'll be your server" school of fake chumminess). And we like a thorough wine list, with lots of variety in country of origin, price-point and interest. And it helps if someone on staff is trained in the art of the sommelier, able to suggest wines without making us feel we're fledglings who have never before ventured beyond the garden gate.
I was surprised to find I was quoted in a book about critics and criticism: The debate over what makes critics qualified stems from how they view their job and their responsibility to their readers. According to William Zinsser, journalist, author and Yale professor, there are two distinct camps: those who are critics and those who are reviewers. In his book, On Writing Well, Zinsser explains that the reviewer's job "is more to report than to make an aesthetic judgement." People like Griffin, Coulbourn and Anne Garber, food critic at the Vancouver Province, subscribe to this point of view. They try to describe the play, film or restaurant the way they would to a friend. Their job is not to write formal dissertations, says Coulbourn, but to tell people how to spend their money. "Most people don't care about how the food is technically prepared," adds Garber. "They just want to go somewhere where the food tastes good and where they feel comfortable."
Criticism, on the other hand, is "a serious intellectual act," writes Zinsser. "A critic sees himself as a scholar, and what interests him is the play of ideas in his field." People like Conlogue and Wells view their role in this larger, perhaps loftier, context. They try to rate the experience in terms of its significance within the medium. According to Wells, "If you don't argue for some position about the function of the artist in question within society, then it's reduced to 'I like this and I don't like that.' You become nothing more than a consumer advocate." Conlogue agrees, dismissing the idea of reviewing from the viewpoint of the masses as "complete and utter bullshit. It's people making excuses for not mastering their field, an excuse for mediocrity. If you don't know more about the theatre than the people going to it, why should they read you? They should write the review and you should be reading it."