Just as we were eagerly packing for an incredible gastro-tour of London (yes — Borough Market, the Fat Duck, and St. John included), we were rudely sidetracked by an annoying illness. While our life is unthreatened, our cruel doctors insist on bed rest and plenty of it. Has our liver exploded like a Gascon duck’s? Is it gout from over-rich food? Maybe acute cirrhosis? If only we’d gone out in those particular blazes of glory. No—we’re just mundanely recuperating at home, food porn on the TV, gastro mags in the bed, delicious foods at arm’s reach. It’s a bit dull, but honestly — it’s no Devil’s Island. After some rest, we’ll be back and better than ever.
Which brings us to this week’s EATER. After much consideration, we’ve decided to leave you in the capable hands of distinguished weekly guest bloggers, chosen from among our favorite chefs and restaurateurs. This both gets us out of our deadlines and offers the usually gracious and silent workers in the “hospitality industry” a chance to air their rants and raves. We’ll be avidly reading along from our bed, trying not to drop food onto our keyboard.
This week, we’re lucky to have Chef Peter Kelly—who seems only mildly miffed that we only gave him the top rating in this month’s review of X20 in Westchester Magazine. If you ever wanted to know how restaurateurs feel about critics, read on below. FYI — it’s about the same way critics feel about the writers of nasty letters to the editor.
Enjoy the next few weeks of EATER—we know we will.
See you soon,
What About Those Critics?
By Peter Kelly, of X20 Xaviars
So here I sit, Monday morning, trying to make sense of a topic I am often asked about: Restaurant critics—do they matter? And it’s ironic that I’m thinking about this when my own restaurant, X2O Xaviars on the Hudson, is reviewed in this (the November) issue of Westchester Magazine. (See the article here.)
A week ago, I was asked to be a “guest blogger” while the Eater blogger is on leave. While I was given ideas on what to write, I thought it best to write about critics. After all, Westchester Magazine is a major publication in my own backyard, and each month, it weighs in and gives, by way of stars (one to four), its critical analysis of how my colleagues and I are doing. I write on this topic, however, with trepidation: this may be akin to “biting the hand that feeds you.” Certainly no one wants to upset the person who might be writing about you and/or your restaurant next. (Although X2O was just reviewed by Westchester Magazine, I’ve got three other restaurants that may eventually undergo the magazine’s review.)
Over the years I have been lucky enough to receive my share of praise from the critics, but I have also been the recipient of harsh treatment at the hands of these writers as well. About a year ago, a writer for a major newspaper leveled a critique of one of my restaurants that was, I believed, particularly harsh. That stung. But what stung perhaps even more was that the review ran in several special local sections of the newspaper for which the critic writes. Nine months prior to his review, the restaurant—the very same restaurant—was reviewed and received an “Excellent” in the same newspaper—yet it only appeared in one local section of that newspaper. While I understand that my restaurants, for good or bad, are somewhat “high profile” and “newsworthy,” the running of this particular derogatory critique in multiple sections of the newspaper (less than a year after a sharply diverse opinion had been rendered) seems like “piling on.”
Of course I think the critics who love me are excellent at their jobs and the ones who don’t are “jerks.” But the truth is, critics—when they do their job well—inform their readership with what to expect and, in some cases, what to avoid at an establishment. It’s a service—it might let readers know how to spend their money wisely. So, yes, critics matter—to you, the diner, and to me, the chef/restaurateur.
Which is why many restaurants go to great lengths to discover who these critics are (though most try to maintain their anonymity), so they will be ready for them when they come. I know of many restaurants that post the pictures of the major critics at the reception desk and in the wait stations, and staff members are given bonuses for spotting a critic.
Would I like to know who they are and when they are in my restaurant? You bet. At our restaurants, we have a list of some of the names of the best-known critics with their known aliases and the phone numbers they use. However the reality is a lousy restaurant can’t become a good one overnight, but a good restaurant can make a terrible mistake, like not offering the window table (see the review in this month’s Westchester Magazine; ouch!) or spilling a bowl of soup in the critic’s lap (I have done that too). If we knew when a critic is “in the house,” we would work extra diligently to “get it right.” For example, if I knew a critic was in the dining room and I felt that the fish they ordered was marginally overcooked, I might stop the whole pickup of the table and recook everything. This of course mean that the critic might have to wait too long for his meal. So to compensate—and act as if everything is going along smoothly—I might send out a small middle course to occupy him and his guests while I re-plated their dinner.
But that, alas, is when mistakes happen. Maybe the critic doesn’t like the middle course I sent or maybe he has a time commitment or he’s allergic to the complimentary course.
My own experiences have been that my restaurants have performed better when we had no idea that a writer was in the dining room and the staff went about their normal routine.
Good critics never show their biases, but they have them. I have read many reviews that I felt were slanted by the writer’s likes and dislikes that in fact had nothing to do with whether the restaurant was good or bad. I know of one critic who loves almost anything with foie gras, so if she were in my dining room, I’d start her dinner with her favorite and… already she’d be in a good mood. Conversely I know of another critic who seems to much prefer male waitstaff to female waitstaff. So if the critic is seated in a station with a waitress, you are already at a disadvantage.
If a writer has an aversion to cabbage, can she or he critique the ragout of Brussels sprouts and chanterelle mushrooms that accompany the venison with true objectivity? Or what of the critic who has a propensity to praise the creativity of the bohemian upstart rather than the steady hand of the established yet traditional veteran operator? When reviewers do display their biases, this is when the star systems or numerical rankings get blurred and restaurateurs get, to put it mildly, upset. When a critic is smitten with luxury will he/she give a fair assessment of a simpler operation or give “over the top” praise to the operator that can lavish them with caviar & Champagne?
In the end, critics—no matter how talented, how experienced, how knowledgeable—are just offering their opinions—whether in art, movies, or restaurants. A review is just that: “an opinion.” Readers, should understand that, but, alas, not many do.